ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, New Press, 38 Greene St., New York, NY 10013.
CAREER: Writer and translator. Amazon.com, senior editor, 1996-2001.
(Translator) Goffredo Parise Abecedary, Marlboro Press (Marlboro, VT), 1990.
Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut, New Press (New York, NY), 2004.
(Translator) Tullio Kezich and Alessandra Levantesi Dino: The Life and Films of Dino di Laurentiis, Miramax Books/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Writer James Marcus left the world of freelancing in 1996 to become employee number fifty-five of Amazon.com, hired by founder and future billionaire Jeff Bezos. His wife quit her job in Portland, Oregon, and they moved with their young son to Seattle, Washington to join the Internet startup, where Marcus remained until 2001. Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut is his memoir of that period in his life.
The company was in its infancy, the first of the Internet bookstores, and Marcus churned out thousands of reviews and author interviews. The number of employees swelled to 8,000, and suddenly, everyone was an editor. Marcus was put in charge of the home page, and continued to write his reviews.
Marcus was caught up in the enthusiasm that propelled the young company, worked long hours, packed books in the warehouse during the holidays, and pitched in where needed, as all employees did to get the company off the ground. The company continued to operate at a huge loss, however, and the decision was made to cut back on content. Customer reviews replaced professional reviews, content was generated by data-mining programs, and Amazon became a very different company. In 2001, fifteen percent of the employees, Marcus among them, were laid off. As Catherine Taylor—arts editor at Amazon from 1998 to 2002—commented in the Manchester Guardian, Marcus's work "is wry, gently despairing, littered with philosophical musings and passages from Emerson, with a salient if quaint reminder that the earliest Internet pioneers were once part of utopian communities."
Jonathan Yardley noted in his review for the Washington Post Book World that "Marcus is right to say that 'as the Internet becomes more and more of a mainstream phenomenon, it's easy to forget just how much utopian baggage it used to carry.' The Internet has a 'transcendental capacity to shrink time and distance' and 'has ushered entire communities into being, and given a literal twist to the notion of kindred spirits,' and it was out of such notions that Amazon was born. Bezos seems to have had imperial designs right from the beginning, but there was also an idealism, even a naivete, to the company's origins."
Like other Amazon employees, Marcus had accepted stock options in lieu of a higher salary, and at the peak of the boom, his were worth $9 million. When the stock tumbled in 2000, it lost much of its value, leaving Marcus to cash out and move back to New York to resume his career as a freelance journalist. Amazon, which rebounded in 2002, acquired Joyo.com in 2004. Joyo.com is China's largest retailer, with a potential of eighty million customers. Amazon generated $16 million in sales in 1996, and their revenues in 2003 topped $5 billion.
San Francisco Chronicle reviewer David Kipen called Marcus's skills "the book critic's stock in trade: close reading, an ear-plugged trust in the pertinence of one's own responses, plus what he calls, referring to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's fondness for high SAT scores, 'intellectual candlepower.'" Kipen added that Amazonia "brims with fascinating Amazoniana."
Elizabeth Corcoran wrote in the Boston Globe that Marcus "is a graceful writer with an eye for detail. This is not a kiss-and-tell story. He liked his colleagues, he liked the company. It is a reflective muse about life inside a tornado."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 2004, David Siegfried, review of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot. com Juggernaut, p. 1680.
Boston Globe, June 27, 2004, Elizabeth Corcoran, review of Amazonia, p. E2.
Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2004, Henry Alford, review of Amazonia, p. 7.
Guardian (Manchester, England), October 2, 2004, Catherine Taylor, review of Amazonia, p. 11.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2004, review of Amazonia, p. 378.
Library Journal, March 15, 2004, Kim Holston, review of Dino: The Life and Films of Dino De Laurentiis, p. 78; May 1, 2004, Carol J. Elsen, review of Amazonia, p. 122.
Publishers Weekly, October 26, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Abecedary, p. 55; February 16, 2004, review of Dino, p. 166; April 5, 2004, Mark Rotella, review of Amazonia, p. 49.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 2004, David Kipen, review of Amazonia, p. E14.
Washington Post Book World, July 4, 2004, Jonathan Yardley, review of Amazonia, p. T2.*