From the Archives posts
Tuesday July 31, 2012
My Q&A with Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
Gore Vidal, one of the great American essayists, and one of the great traitors of the wealthy classes, died today from pneumonia. He was 86.
I met him once. In November 1999, on the heels of the publication of “The Smithsonian Institution,” a novel that in many ways oddly prefigures the Ben Stiller movie “Night at the Museum,” he visited Town Hall in Seattle to discuss his life and work. I talked with him briefly at the reception beforehand. I remember being surprised at how tall he was.
As the Vidal expert at The Seattle Times (freelance division), I got to interview him ... but on his terms. We did it by fax, me at my apartment in Seattle and he in his home on the Almafi coast in Italy. This set-up, unfortunately, precluded follow-ups. As a result, I tried to pack as much as I could into each question. Sometimes I obviously packed too much. Sometimes he misinterpreted what I'd packed. The last question, for example, was meant to be a compliment but I can see how it doesn't read as one. My favorite answer was to question No. 9.
We ran a profile rather than a straight Q&A but I like the straight Q&A better.
Vidal now joins his contemporaries: Capote, Baldwin, Updike, Mailer, Salinger. Doctorow and Roth live.
Here's the Q&A.
1. How often have you visited the Smithsonian Institute? Any memorable moments there?
As a schoolboy I--we--were often taken to the Smithsonian and I used to daydream that the life-like exhibits would come alive at night. My most memorable visit was a few years ago when The Discovery Channel was doing a piece on the early days of aviation which included newsreel footage of me at ten flying a Rammond “Flivver” plane. We found the plane in a line-up of old aircraft and I discussed my flight to the TV camera.
2) What made you begin The Smithsonian Institution? How did the novel--and your ideas for the novel--change during the course of the writing?
When I work on what I think of as my inventions (as opposed to meditations on history like Lincoln) I never know what is going to happen next in my invented universe whose laws must be carefully kept or the whole structure collapses. I also gave myself a crash course in quantum physics.
3) Was this a fun novel to write? It seems so. You get to turn Douglas MacArthur into a traitor, obliterate the entire Woodrow Wilson presidency, and send Henry Luce to jail. Did you laugh to yourself while writing such scenes? What other historical characters were you thinking about playing with? Do you think the world would have been a better place without the Wilson presidency?
The US would never have gone into WWI had it not been for Wilson. He was a compulsive interventionist; prior to the world war, he sent troops to Mexico, Haiti, Dominican republic. An unreconstructed southerner, he made Jim Crow law in Washington.
4) Is this version of Lincoln, bullet-stunned, Sandburg-quoting, who winds up as a waxwork in Disneyland (cf. “First Note on Abraham Lincoln”), your final thumb-nose at your Lincoln detractors in Academia?
Academe is always far from my thoughts. But I suppose, unconsciously, I was trying to be as inventive as they are but when it comes to fiction, history teachers are always in the vanguard.
5) Why does Grover Cleveland come out so well here? He seems down-to-earth and likeable compared to the pomposity of the other Presidents.
Cleveland was a wise and serious man. Unfortunately, he came during the lull between Lincoln and T. Roosevelt and so was lost.
6) How relevant is the gossip of history (McKinley as morphine-addict)? Does it help humanize those we’ve mythologized?
It is the essence of biography as everyone from Suetonius and Plutarch on has known. History can do without it--see Braudel and the annalistes.
7) Why “T.”?
T is the symbol for Time. The boy is a time traveller.
8) In Palimpsest you talk briefly about the themes of doubleness and duplicity in your work, and they obviously return in The Smithsonian Institution. Is T. some combination of yourself and Jimmie Trimble?
Perhaps. There is a possibility that the two are one. One resconstructs the one after death, which is a function of art if not yet of science.
9) You were part of the “America First” movement back in 1939-40 and in The Smithsonian Institution you prevent the European half of WW II from occurring. You saw your other half in Jimmie Trimble and in The Smithsonian Institution you prevent his death on Iwo Jima (which allowed him to marry happily and become a professional baseball player). Question: for all its knowledge of history, how much of The Smithsonian Institution is your ultimate adolescent wish?
Surely the wish is adult not adolescent.
10) How does it feel to have some of your views (the dangers of foreign adventures--in particular WW II) parroted back by Pat Buchanan in his book “A Republic, Not an Empire”?
Very peculiar. The same thing happened 8 years ago when Jerry Brown started giving my We the People speeches. Since I approved of Brown, I gave him more speeches to give. If B hadn't taken his stand for the foetus and the flag and against the Jew and the fag, he might be a useful formidable populist candidate. Our people are always anti-war unlike the bankers. Also, we have not had a major presidential candidate since Bryan. There is not one to represent the majority.
11) Is Squaw based on anyone?
12) Over the years you’ve proven yourself to be a not poor prognosticator. Any predictions for the 2000 presidential race? You going to vote for your cousin? Are you close to Vice-President Gore?
Albert and I have carefully avoided one another. I did like his father personally. Since all the candidates now on offer represent the 1% that owns most of the country's wealth I wouldn't dream of voting for any of them. The system has broken down. I suspect a Pentagon committee in the offing.
13) You’ve implied that you’ve spent your life trying to escape the American aristocracy. So why do you always write about them?
Very few of the presidents that I write about are aristocrats. Our rulers, until recently, bought presidents and Congresses but did not themselves go into politics. Nelson Rockefeller broke the mould. Possibly because he was dyslexic.
Finally, you write about what you know.
14) I’ve often joked that I wish I could be as sure about one thing in life as Gore Vidal is about everything. Here’s your chance: what are you unsure of?
That is an old line always applied by right wingers to anyone who would like to change the system that they do well by. I am definitely unsure of our weird economy and how much longer over-priced equities can continue before someone wakes up to the fact that the Dow Jones is the latest avatar of the Wizard of Oz. Look up the word “avatar”. Good word that everyone misuses.
Gore Vidal: 1925-2012
Thursday May 05, 2011
From the Archives: My 1996 Interview with Jeff Bezos - Part II
In October 1996, 15 months into his run as founder and CEO of amazon.com, I interviewed Jeff Bezos for The Seattle Times. It was all new to me: both the Internet and interviewing people. I was actually singularly wrong for the role. I went in ready to talk about literature, about which, it turns out, Bezos didn’t know much, and we wound up talking about technology and business issues, about which I knew even less. The resulting Q&A still feels valuable from an historical perspective. Part I can be read here.
How do you get your list of books together?
We get the bulk of our data from book wholesalers who have computerized inventory data bases of their own, which they use to manage their warehouse operations. We get data from the Library of Congress. And we get data directly from publishers. Any publisher can come to our website and one of the links at the bottom of the home page—there is one that says “Is there an author in the house?” and there's another one that says “Calling all publishers.” A tiny fraction of the data we actually enter by hand.
Which books are the big sellers?
We sell everything, but we are probably disproportionately strong in literary fiction, science fiction, and computer books, Internet books, things you would expect. But we also sell a huge amount of romance novels. We sell a disproportionately small number of romance novels, but romance is such a huge category. It's a small piece of a huge pie.
Do you have a favorite book?
It used to be Dune. I'm sort of a techno-geek, propeller-head, science-fiction type, but my wife got me to read Remains of the Day and I liked that a lot. I also like the Penguin edition of Sir Richard Francis Burton's biography
Bugs in the system?
There aren't any bugs per se but there are things we want to do better; and there are whole new things that we want to do.
We want to increase the amount of customer-to-customer interaction that we have, and increase the amount of customer-to-author interaction. We want to set the store up so we can redecorate the store for each individual who walks in; so you can set up a series of preferences and say, “I never read romance; don't ever show me any romances.”
What do you mean?
The whole page would be personally designed for you. So if you said, “I really love literary fiction”...etc., well, here's a great science ficton novel that we actually think you'd like based on your preferences in literary fiction. Stuff like that. In case you want to broaden out.
It would all be done automatically. It would have to be. The way it might work is you might come in and we present you with a list of 100 books that are in a particular genre, like literary fiction, let's say, and you would rate the ones you liked the most and disliked the most, and based on what you liked and disliked the computer would be able to form a profile of your particular tastes, and it might try to match you up with people of similar tastes. You call that your affinity group. What are things you haven't read that people in your affinity group love? And then it would recommend those things to you.
Are there other on-line booksellers?
There are more than a thousand on-line booksellers. We are by far the largest and best-known and the one doing the best job of customer service. There’s Book Stacks Unlimited in Ohio--they only offer about 400,000 titles. We discount our prices and they don't. We discount the top 300,000 bestsellers from 10 percent to 30 percent. Again, that's almost twice as many titles as the largest physical bookstores even carry.
We can afford to do that because we have such a lower cost structure. Our desks are made of doors. We spend money on things that matter to customers. We have the world's best servers—we use digital alpha servers—64-byte machines with a gigabyte of RAM and all this stuff. We hire only the most talented computer programmers.
How will all of this affect physical bookstores?
I think you'll see a continuation of the trend that's already in place, which is that physical bookstores are going to compete by becoming better places to be. They'll have better lattes, better sofas, all this stuff. More comfortable environments. I still buy about half of my books from physical bookstores and one of the big reasons is I like being in bookstores. It's just like TV didn't put the movies out of business—people still like to go to the movie theater, they like to mingle with their fellow humans—and that's going to continue to be the case. Good physical bookstores are like the community centers of the late 20th century. Good physical bookstores have great authors come in and you can meet them and shake their hands, and that's a different thing. You can't duplicate that on-line.
Now there's a whole series of stuff that we're going to do on-line that you could never do in a physical bookstore; and we're doing some of that now. Any customer, any browser, anyone in the world, can come to amazon.com and review any book on our bookshelves; you can't do that in a physical bookstore. What are you going to do--put yellow 3M post-its on the spine?
How do you police that?
On a daily basis we have people who read through all the submissions and weed out the ones that are frivilous; but it's an incredibly small number of people who actually do that. We had God review the Bible. We had J.D. Salinger review Catcher in the Rye. It was very funny. The person who did that one actually had a terrific sense of humor. But we just get rid of it.
But if you want to trash a book, that's fine with us. If you want to come in and say “I thought this was John Grisham's worst book ever; he should be embarrassed by foisting this on us. It's not as good as Time to a Kill, blah blah blah,” that helps people make purchasing decisions; and that's fine with us.
Our whole editorial department gets together the third Tuesday of every month--or something like that--at one of their houses, and they sit and read through all of these and make the decisions. [There are] eight people in the department.
Why call it “amazon”?
The amazon is the earth's biggest river and we’re the earth's biggest bookstore.
How many employees do you have now?
Just over 100. We opened the store almost fifteen months ago, July 16th, 1995, and we've been growing at 34 percent a month, which is basically unheard of. That annualizes to more than 3000 percent a year. We've been in four different offices in the last fourteen months, always moving because we don't have enough space—both in terms of our staff and our warehouse space. We're about to move our warehouse again. We've shipped books now to over 95 different countries.
Anything new on the horizon?
We've made it possible for any website on the entire Internet to have their own bookstore in association with amazon.com. No matter how small or big your website, you can add a bookstore to it. And we pay you 8 percent of revenues for any order you send us through your bookstore. It costs nothing up front. All you have to do is come to our homepage and fill out an on-line application form; we give you a special ID number and you encode in the URL that you use to point to the books in our catalogue. That special ID number allows us to track where the books came from.
We've had this open now for just over two months. It’s called the Associates Program, and we already have over a thousand websites. There's one Associate who has a website that sells meteorites. This guy knows everything about meteorites but you could never set up in the physical world a store that just sold books on meteorites. It would never make any money.
I came up with the idea by trying to figure out "How can amazon.com become experts on all 300,000 Library of Congress narrow niche subject categories?” There's just no way. But there are such experts out there. And they already have websites. Let them do it.
Wednesday May 04, 2011
From the Archives: My 1996 Interview with Jeff Bezos - Part I
In October 1996, 15 months into his run as founder and CEO of amazon.com, I interviewed Jeff Bezos for The Seattle Times. It was all new to me: both the Internet and interviewing people. I was actually singularly wrong for the role. I went in ready to talk about literature, about which, it turns out, Bezos didn’t know much, and we wound up talking about technology and business issues, about which I knew even less. The resulting Q&A still feels valuable from an historical perspective ...
So how did you come up with the idea for this company?
In the spring of '94 I came across this guy named Quartermain. At that time he was collecting statistics on Internet growth. He had a web page where he did this.
Nobody knew, nobody had a clue, how many people were on-line. What you could measure, and what Quartermain was measuring, was the rate of Internet growth. He set up ... sniffers so he could measure, at certain key points going past on the Internet, these packets of data and see what protocol they were in; and if they were in http protocol he knew they were web packets. So because he wasn't measuring the whole Internet, just these choke points, he didn't even know what the base usage of the Web was. But he could measure very accurately the rate of growth; and the rate of growth was 2300 percent a year. I had never seen anything grow at 2300 percent a year.
At the time I was working for a very specialized investment bank in New York City called D.E. Shaw and Co. It is, unarguably, the largest quantative hedgefund in the world. What they did was they made lots and lots of tiny little trades—computers decided all the trades—and all the trades were made based on inefficiencies in the equity and bond markets. Totally technologycentric. Very similar to amazon.com in that sense. In other words, amazon.com is not a technology company per se but we're a completely technologycentric company—we live and die by the computer programs we write—and D.E. Shaw was the same way but in the realm of finance.
I was one of four senior people [at D.E. Shaw] who helped to run that company, ran a couple of the firm's profit centers; but this startling growth statistic of 2300 percent a year sort of pried me out of there. I said “This is interesting. What kind of businesses can you do on the Web that would actually make sense?” It had to be a business where the value proposition to the customer was incredibly high, because this Web technology was completely in its infancy. It's immature. There are lots of inconveniences associated with using it: your modem line hangs up on you, your call-waiting clicks in and everything goes crazy, there are so many points on the Internet where things don't work right. Images take a long time to download. So if you're going to get people to use your service on-line, whatever it is, you have to be offering something with an incredibly strong value-proposition to make them willing to put up with that large level of inconvenience.
I looked at several different areas and finally decided that one of the most promising ones is interactive retailing. Then I made a list of 20 products, and force-ranked them, looking for the first-best product to sell on-line.
In the top five were things like magazine subscriptions, computer hardware, computer software, and music. The reason books really stood out is because there are so many books. Books are totally unusual in that respect—to have so many items in a particular category. There are one and a half million English-language books, different titles, active and in-print at any given time. There are three million titles active and in-print worldwide in all languages. If you look at the number two category in that respect, it's music, and there are only about 200 thousand active music CDs. Now when you have a huge number of items that's where computers start to shine because of their sorting and searching and organizing capabilities. Also, it's back to this idea that you have to have an incredibly strong value proposition. With that many items, you can build a store on-line that literally could not exist in any other way. It would be impossible to have a physical bookstore with 1.5 million titles. The largest physical bookstores in the world only have about 175,000 titles. It would also be impossible to print the amazon.com catalogue and make it into a paper catalogue. If you were to print the amazon.com catalogue it would be the size of seven New York City phone books.
So here we're offering a service that literally can't be done in any other way, and, because of that, people are willing to put up with this infant technology.
That's actually one of the huge cost advantages we have over physical bookstores: We don't have to inventory all the books. Even the ones we do inventory we don't have to inventory in expensive retail real estate; we inventory in very inexpensive warehouse space.
If you look on our website, every book has its own web page, and one of the things that's on each book's web page, is what we call the availability status. So we're telling our customers what the availability is on each individual title. There are five different availability categories: There are things that are usually shipped within 24 hours; things that are usually shipped within 2-3 days; thngs that are usually shipped within one to two weeks; things that are usually shipped within four to six weeks; and there's a fifth category, not yet published, shipped when available.
So the books that we actually inventory in our warehouse are the ones that are marked “shipped within 24 hours.” Those are the best-selling books.
Then there are about 400,000 titles—keep in mind that's more than twice as many titles as you'd find in the largest of the superstores—that we can ship within 2-3 days. Those we get from wholesalers, like Pacific Pipeline, or Ingram, the world's largest book warehouse is in Roseberg, Oregon, another reason why we're located in Seattle. They have more titles than in any single warehouse in the country. We use a network of about a dozen different wholesalers to provide us with rapid access to the 400,000 best-selling titles.
Then the next 500,000 titles are either one to two week titles or four to six week titles. Those we get directly from 20,000 different publishers, and, depending upon the publisher, either one-to-two weeks or four-to-six weeks. Then there are these books that are not yet published.
Tomorrow, part II: Bezos' favorite books, why choose “amazon,” the two-month-old Associates Program, and that futuristic concept of “redecorating the store for each customer”...
Thursday April 14, 2011
From the Archives: The Movie Game
From my sister Karen:
Erik, thought of you when visiting the Karps and playing the movie game, Jordan's latest obsession. (Name an actor, movie they're in, another actor in that movie, etc.) It was everyone against Josh, and he still killed us.
From my friend Josh Karp:
as for jordy, he got me with one kubrick film i'd never heard of (eric told me about how he'd wanted to be kubrick for the school biography event and had to settle for hitchcock.). then he tried “the killing,” which i've never seen, but for some reason i knew that sterling hayden was in it. neither he nor karen believed me so i brought it up on my phone. i think both were unable to recover. but jordy will no doubt kick my ass before long. maybe by this summer.
From me, 13 years ago, originally published in Seattle Weekly:
Six Degrees of Boredom
At one o'clock my friend Mike travels up the ramp that separates the warehouse receiving area (his morning detail) from the textbook marking department (where he spends his afternoons). He hangs up his jacket, unpacks a box or two of textbooks, and before the boredom of the routine set in, and with a small smile lifting the ends of his mustache, he glances at his watch. “Hmm?” he asks.
This is his way of signaling for yet another round of the movie game.
The movie game should not be confused with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The purpose there is to begin with an actor, travel through shared movies, and wind up at Kevin Bacon before your allotted six turns are up. Humphrey Bogart, in other words, leads to Angels with Dirty Faces, which starred James Cagney, who was in Mr. Roberts with Jack Lemmon, a bit player in JFK, which also featured...ta da!...Kevin Bacon. Easy right?
C'mon guys! Play my game!
Too easy. There has to be competition to make it worth our while. You've got to understand: Our work is not only repetitive but seemingly without purpose. Mike prices textbooks; I receive them and wheel them in large metal tubs down to the textbook department; Jeff, around the middle of the term, collects these same textbooks and brings them back upstairs, where he and Rich remove the prices and return the books to their publishers. Now somewhere in-between my activity and Jeff's there are apparently student purchases, and learning, and the continuation of culture; but these are mere rumors to us. Since we don't know how much of the books actually get absorbed into students' minds, our jobs often seem the bibliographic equivalent of digging holes only to fill them. We receive textbooks only to return them again.
And what to talk about when we're metaphorically wielding or leaning on our shovels? The mornings are usually reserved for politics (local, national and office), sports, music, personal matters. Such talk peters out after a couple of hours, and, in the gathering monotony, we retreat, one by one, into the buzz of our respective walkmans. It is the appearance of Mike that brings us out of these electronic shells.
The format of the movie game is similar to “Six Degrees” except that Kevin Bacon holds no more power than any other actor. A non-participant tosses up the ball, as it were, by naming any actor (Actor A). From there we proceed by predetermined order. Mike names a movie Actor A was in; Jeff then picks a different actor from the same movie; Rich mentions another film with Actor B. Etcetera.
Essentially you try to name an actor or movie that will stump the others but which--important proviso--you can get out of yourself. Presented with Wallace Shawn, it does no good to mention My Dinner with Andre unless you also know something of the screen career of Andre Gregory; otherwise you're grinding the game to a halt. If you pass or guess wrongly, you're given a letter: M, to start. Spell M-O-V-I-E-S and you're toast.
Strategies abound. Since I know something of older Hollywood, I try to wind the game in that direction by choosing an actor's earliest film or a film's eldest actor. Mike, at the other side of this temporal tug-of-war, tries to pull us toward the litany of modern character actors--Tracey Walter, Kurtwood Smith, William Sadler--that he stores in his pockets like so many nickels and dimes. Jeff, meanwhile, wants to trick us all into the swamp of the schlock/horror genre that he rules like some in-bred Alabaman.
Some plots, especially when the field narrows to two, are positively Byzantine. If, from Charles Grodin, I say Midnight Run, Mike will mention Robert DeNiro, to which I can go New York, New York, forcing him into Liza Minnelli, which will lead to That's Entertainment!, causing him to fumble for Gene Kelly. Now he's dead. Of course you can be so intent on your own strategy you don't see your opponent's. Once I had Jeff mired in 1930s musicals when I mentioned Fred Astaire; it shot us all the way to 1981 and the horror film Ghost Story. In a flash we went from my strength to Jeff's, and I, anticipating a pin, wound up flat on my back. It is this kind of drama which leads Rich to suspect that the movie game could make it big on cable access.
We've tried other games to occupy our minds. There was “Questions”, from Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where everything said has to be in the form of a question. No statements; no non-sequiturs; nothing rhetorical. But you can only have so many conversations like this:
“How are you?”
“Are you asking?”
“Are you suspicious?”
“Should I be?”
The One-Syllable Game was good for a day. The-point-was-to-make-all-words-just-one-note. Kind-of-stilt...ing.
Attempts to transplant other art forms into the movie game's pre-existing structure have failed miserably. Writing is too solitary an occupation to allow for the necessary cross-connections between artist and product, while musicians, in a more group-conscious field, are less whorish than actors, tending to work with the same people for long periods rather than flitting from co-star to co-star. The movie game stays.
But how much longer? Already certain avenues have worn so smooth we practically slide through them. Tom Hanks to Bachelor Party to Adrien Zmed to Grease II to blah blah blah. Hey, let's talk about girls for a change.
--originally published in Seattle Weekly, October 1998
Sunday April 10, 2011
From the Archives: 1996 Book Review of Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
A dozen pages into Making Movies I sent a copy to a friend for graduation. I assumed the rest of the book would be good enough for such an occasion. I wasn't wrong.
At the time of the writing, Sidney Lumet had directed 39 movies, starting in 1957 with 12 Angry Men, peaking in the 1970s with classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, then gradually losing steam until, by the early '90s, he was directing vehicles for Melanie Griffith (A Stranger Among Us) and Don Johnson (Guilty as Sin). But this is not a book about one man's rise and fall. Lumet doesn't even see his career as following this trajectory. Who does? If anything, he sees the movie industry suffering in this manner. The last chapter includes diatribes against the National Research Group and their audience surveys, and the fact that certain studios won't green-light pictures until a major star is involved. He writes:
This has two immediate effects. First, the stars' salaries skyrocket... The second effect is that the agencies that represent the stars are automatically in a more powerful position.
Don’t forget script girls. Because certain scenes may require many takes, and because a portion of take two may be spliced with a portion of take 11, a script girl is employed to ensure that actors perform the same actions at the same moments. Making 12 Angry Men, for example, the script girl mentioned that an actor had taken a puff of his cigarette on Line A yesterday while today he did it on Line B. Henry Fonda disagreed; he said the actor did it on Line B yesterday. So two takes were made. It turned out Fonda was right. This anecdote is told to demonstrate Fonda's incredible movie memory but it also helps reveal movie making’s incredible complexity.
Add artistic considerations if you are artistically considered. It's not about lighting actors well; it's about lighting them in ways that relates to character and theme. Ditto camera shots and camera angles. There is no camera shot of the sky in Prince of the City until the lead character is contemplating suicide. Sky implies freedom, Lumet writes, and the lead character is finding himself more and more trapped as the movie progresses. Since he starts out the movie self-assured, too, and then slowly loses control, Lumet lights the movie to follow this pattern:
In the first third of the movie, we tried to have the light on the background brighter than on the actors in the foreground. For the second third, the foreground light and the background light were more or less balanced. For the last third, we cut the light off the background.
What camera angle? Which lens? How should character A be edited against character B?
With the director needing to answer each question, you might think Lumet would be a proponent of the auteur theory. Nope. In fact, he uses the favorite auteur of the auteur theory, Alfred Hitchcock, to fault it:
He always essentially made the same picture. His stories weren't the same, but the genre was: a melodrama, layered with light comedy, played by the most glamorous actors he could find...photographed often by the same cameraman, with music composed by the same composer... His how to do it was the same because what he was doing was the same.
“Movie directors do not work alone,” Lumet writes. “There will be a visual difference if we work with Cameraman A or Cameraman B, Production Designer C or Production Designer D.” Then he writes about those he works with. He gives credit to cameramen Peter McDonald and Andrzej Bartkowiak and Boris Kaufman; production designers like Tony Walton; editors like Margaret Booth; and stars like Paul Newman and Sean Connery, who wear their fame lightly; who travel without entourages.
He answers questions I’ve long had about the movies. How can the Academy give awards for Best Editing unless you know what they edited in the first place? “In my view,” he writes, “only three people know how good or bad the editing was: the editor, the director, and the cameraman.” He includes tantrums against the uselessness of the teamsters and love taps for Paddy Chayevsky, the screenwriter of Network. His love for the movies is apparent in every sentence, as well as his intolerance for the parasites that high-profile industries like film-making attract. Making Movies is that rare movie book that is as interesting discussing camera lenses as it is discussing Paul Newman. I’ve now got a new book to give to friends.
--May 24, 1996
“Paul leads one of the most generous and honorable lives of anyone I've ever known.”
Saturday March 26, 2011
From the Archives: Amazon.com Ushers in New Era (1996)
I wrote the following for the now-defunct Downtown Source, a Seattle Times publication, in October 1996...
Amazon.com Ushers in New Era
by Erik Lundegaard
Jeff Bezos, the founder and president of Amazon.Com, the Seattle-based on-line bookseller, wants to quiet the fears of traditional booksellers.
“I still buy about half of my books from physical bookstores,” he admits, “and one of the big reasons is I like being in bookstores. TV didn't put the movies out of business, because people still like to go to the movie theater, they like to mingle with their fellow humans; and that's going to continue to be the case. Good physical bookstores are like the community centers of the late 20th century. They have great authors come in, and you can meet them and shake their hands. You do booksignings and hear readings. You can't duplicate that on-line.”
Bezos has a reason to soothe the competition. His company has moved to progressively bigger offices four times since its inception in July 1995. His staff has ballooned from 33 to over 100 in just four months. And, though he won't disclose monthly sales figures, Bezos says that Amazon.Com is growing at the rate of 34 percent a month. “That annualizes to more than 3000 percent a year,” he adds.
It was a similar figure—the 2300 percent Internet growth rate—that drove Mr. Bezos, 32, from a senior position at D.E. Shaw & Co., an investment bank in New York City, and onto the Web. But what to sell there? It wasn't a love of literature that led him to choose books; it was the volume of literature: one and a half million English-language titles in print at any given time; three million titles worldwide.
“When you have a huge number of items,” Bezos says, “that's where computers start to shine, because of their sorting and searching and organizing capabilities.”
Amazon.Com's claim to being “Earth's Biggest Bookstore” is a bit misleading, however. Though they offer 1.1 million titles—in comparison to, say, Elliott Bay's 140,000—the only thing you'll find in their warehouse south of the Kingdome is bestsellers. Other titles come from wholesalers or directly from the publisher—services that traditional bookstores offer as well.
Even so, Amazon.Com's list of books, culled from the Library of Congress, and various publishers and wholesalers, is spectacular. An author search of “Mailer, Norman” brought up three unheard-of titles (special orders for $70 each), while “Salinger, J.D.” elicited not only the familiar titles but Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella that appeared in The New Yorker in 1965—the last published sighting of the reclusive author—and never released in book form. Until now, that is. According to Amazon, a small outfit in Virginia is issuing Hapworth next January.
Amazon's Web site, for all its choking information, is as quirkily fun as its originator, with on-line shopping baskets, author self-interviews, and free giftwrapping. (One can choose between Holstein, Flowers, and “Fish of the Amazon.”) Readers are encouraged to write their own reviews, and each month Amazon's eight-person editorial staff selects a winner. Obscene reviews are deleted. “But if you want to trash a book,” Bezos adds enthusiastically, “that's fine with us. If you want to come in and say 'I thought this was John Grisham's worst book ever; he should be embarrassed for foisting this on us. It's not as good as Time to a Kill. Blah blah blah.' Fine. Because that helps people make purchasing decisions.”
Services are continually added. The two month-old Associates program allows anyone with a Web site to start their own bookstore in conjunction with Amazon.Com. Bezos was simply trying to figure out how Amazon.Com could act as an expert on all 300,000 Library of Congress narrow-niche subject categories. “There's just no way,” Bezos says. “But there are such experts out there, and they already have Web sites, so let them do it; then we will share the revenues with them.”
The effect of all this is already apparent on traditional bookstores. Mr. Bezos predicts that “Physical bookstores are going to compete by becoming better places to be. They'll have better lattes, better sofas, more comfortable environments.” And, he might have added, more Web sites. There are already over one thousand on-line booksellers. They include such traditional booksellers as Powell's, The University Bookstore, and Elliott Bay Book Company.
What the website looked like circa 1996...