Citizen Bezos

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos; drawing by Pancho

In the mid-1990s, when Amazon emerged as an online bookseller, publishers welcomed the company as a “savior” that could provide an alternative to the stifling market power of that era’s dominant chain stores, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Book publishers with exceptional foresight may have understood that they “had to view Amazon as both an empowering retail partner and a dangerous competitor,” as Brad Stone puts it in The Everything Store, his deeply reported, fiercely independent-minded account of Amazon’s rise.

Yet at first, Amazon seemed innovative and supportive. The company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, a Princeton- educated computer scientist and former Wall Street hedge fund strategist, had married a novelist; he often expressed a passionate devotion to books, particularly science fiction and management guides. In its early days of creative chaos, Amazon seemed to want to use the Internet to expand the potential of readers and publishers alike. Bezos hired writers and editors who supplied critical advice about books and tried to emulate on Amazon’s website “the trustworthy atmosphere of a quirky independent bookstore with refined literary tastes,” as Stone puts it.

Among the management books Bezos read devotedly were ones by and about Walmart executives. He became inspired by Walmart’s example of delivering low prices to customers and profits to shareholders by wringing every dime possible out of suppliers. By 2004, Amazon had acquired significant market power. It then began to squeeze publishers for more favorable financial terms. If a book publisher did not capitulate to Amazon, it would modify its algorithms to reduce the visibility of the offending publisher’s books; within a month, “the publisher’s sales usually fell by as much as 40 percent,” Stone reports, and the chastened victim typically returned to the negotiating table.

“Bezos kept pushing for more” and suggested that Amazon should negotiate with small publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” This remark—a joke, one of Bezos’s lieutenants insisted—yielded a negotiating program that Amazon executives referred to as “the Gazelle Project,” under which the company pressured the most vulnerable publishers for concessions. Amazon’s lawyers, presumably nervous that such a direct name might attract an antitrust complaint, insisted that it be recast as the Small Publisher Negotiation Program.

Around this time, Amazon also jettisoned its in-house writers and editors and replaced them with an algorithm, Amabot, that relied on customer data rather than editorial judgment to recommend books. The spread of aggression and automation within Amazon as the company grew larger and larger echoed classics of the science fiction genre to which Bezos was devoted. An anonymous employee bought an ad in a Seattle newspaper to protest the change. “DEAREST AMABOT,” the ad began. “If you only had a heart to absorb our hatred… Thanks for nothing, you jury-rigged rust bucket. The gorgeous messiness of flesh and blood will prevail!”

Will it, though? Over the last decade, Amazon’s growing market share and persistent bullying, particularly…


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