Amazon and the Nerd Factor

Philip Roth isn’t happy with Jeff Bezos. A lot of other authors aren’t either. Going out on a limb here, but my guess is that Bezos is thrilled that such an important novelist as Roth is pissed.

Bezos has always been a courageous, bright guy. From relatively humble beginnings he went to Princeton, became a dot-com superstar fairly quickly and is now worth something like $32 billion, give or take.

He plays life as though adversity and danger don’t faze him much. He was in a helicopter crash that almost killed him, and reportedly thought, ‘This is a dumb way to die.’ In accounts of the fear-fatal accident that I’ve read, he never talks much about fear.

This bothers me.

As member of the bunch of Uber-Nerds who are pretty much running things now, Bezos is no doubt a super-achiever, but a human factor is missing. The question for me is: Can you be driven, directed, focused on world domination, and also be compassionate and feeling?

Amazon is a great platform for authors. It’s remaking the publishing industry and in doing so, lots of titans are falling. Barriers to entry for authors are also falling. People are reading more books, too. The overall upside for Amazon is good. The change it is creating in publishing, I acknowledge, is painful.

Amazon’s war with Hachette is going poorly for readers. If you want to catch up on it, read David Streitfeld’s excellent coverage in the New York Times. If you’re an author published by Hachette, Amazon is prepared to slow shipping on your book or not offer discounts. This is a way to punish Hachette, which is in a war with Amazon over the price of e-books.

The group of authors joining a coalition against Amazon now includes Ursula K. Le Guin, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipul and Milan Kundera. Heros of mine.

I picture Bezos reading about the authors’ protests and being unfazed. ‘Great, now I have their attention!’ As a tech nerd he’s happy because he’s being taken seriously. As an entrepreneur, he’s happy, because his company is being a bully and wielding power effectively. As a human, it’s cold.

Perhaps it’s telling that when Bezos was forming Amazon he and his co-founder met often in a Barnes & Noble, a company he has vanquished. I’ve met Rupert Murdoch, had dealings with Jack Welch. I saw drive, a fierce intelligence in both, but little compassion. Sorry, no answers for you in this blog. Just a question. Does being a powerful entrepreneur require that you filter out the factors that make you human?