Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone

This book has the wrong title. It should be called Bezos Unbound because it’s not about Amazon. Rather, it describes everything the company’s founder has done that has made him the richest man in history (worth $190 billion) since Stone wrote Bezos’s original biography, The Everything Store, in 2013. That book — Amazon rating 4.5/5 — gained Stone the trust of many in the usually secretive trillion-dollar Seattle-based giant, and he milks those contacts here to create a fantastic portrait.

The details are stunning and the writing so good you feel you are in the room. One day during development of the Alexa voice-controlled digital “butler”, Bezos gets so frustrated that a prototype cannot understand his queries that he orders “her” to “go shoot yourself in the head”. History does not record her answer, but Stone reports what Bezos did to solve the problem.

He rented apartments in dozens of cities across the US, installed muted Alexa units that were disguised as Xbox consoles or TVs. Then he paid thousands of contract workers to visit them and read scripts from an iPad out loud in a room for eight-hour stretches. The “mushroom cloud” of data catapulted Amazon’s voice recognition ahead of Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant. That’s typical Bezos — stubborn, relentless and prepared to burn tens of billions of dollars a year on research if he believes an idea will work. Amazon has sold more than 100 million Alexas since its launch in 2014.

Alexa, Keep a Secret …

Bezos is wildly secretive. He gives staff working on research projects credit cards with no links to the company and untraceable burner phones of the kind used by drug dealers and terrorists. The boss can be brutal. His motto is: “If I have to choose between agreement and conflict, I’ll take conflict. It always yields a better result.” He’s ruthless. He instructs the executive developing the Kindle e-reader to “proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job”. He drives some staff so hard one complains: “Dude, we are working in a labor camp.”

He can also be amazingly understanding and forgiving, though. After the Fire smartphone flopped in 2014 at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, he told the executive in charge: “You can’t feel bad. Promise me you won’t lose a minute of sleep.”

In chapter after chapter you get the most detailed account you’ll ever need of how Bezos conquered cloud computing and advertising; expanded sales massively, by admitting third party vendors of varying quality and reliability onto Amazon’s platform; took a chunk out of Hollywood with the creation of Amazon Studios and TV with Prime Video; swallowed the US supermarket chain Whole Foods whole; bought The Washington Post and revived it, earning the ire of Donald Trump, whom the paper often criticized; opened cashierless supermarkets; and took on the National Enquirer after it published details of his affair with Lauren Sanchez that prompted his $40 billion divorce from his wife, MacKenzie.

“Dude, we are working in a labor camp.”

The details of the National Enquirer story are astonishing. Stone reveals in thriller movie style how Sanchez’s brother, Michael, a Hollywood agent, sells text messages and photographs that expose the affair to the gossip magazine for $200,000. Lauren had, oddly, forwarded the messages and photos to Michael.

When Lauren gets wind of the magazine’s investigation, Michael offers to use his Hollywood connections to contact the magazine to try to help to squelch a story he leaked. Lauren pays him $25,000 a month for his pains. Bezos then orders a no-expenses-spared investigation that uncovers Michael’s perfidy and also suggests that his — Bezos’s — phone may have been illegally hacked. When the magazine tries to prevent Bezos taking action against it — by promising not to publish “dick pix” that it is rumored to have if he backs off — Bezos publicly accuses its publisher, David Pecker, of extortion. The inevitable headline in the New York Post that day read “Bezos exposes Pecker”.

It’s great stuff, but as you read you get a nagging feeling that all the juicy detail is part of an unspoken “deal” between Bezos and Stone. Stone will get fantastic source material, provided he does not criticize the firm too much. Many readers will feel he skates too quickly over Amazon’s failings. There are just a few pages devoted to some astonishing evidence that, far from forbidding its staff to study its vast trove of sales data to find out what products customers like and then produce cheaper own-brand versions, that is exactly what Amazon does or did. Staff even had a name for it: “Going over the fence.”

It’s great stuff, but as you read you get a nagging feeling that all the juicy detail is part of an unspoken “deal” between Bezos and Stone.

Well-documented evidence of poor treatment of warehouse pickers and packers gets scant mention, nor is it contrasted with Bezos’s almost unimaginable wealth. He’s personally worth more than Hungary. On corporation tax avoidance Stone writes that Amazon’s tax structures are legal, but does not consider whether they pass the sniff test.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, Stone cops out of the answer to the question that everyone who uses Amazon asks: is it good for the world? “It simply no longer makes sense to ask,” he writes. “The company is now woven inextricably into our lives.”

Bezos’s sprawling interests and empire can leave the book feeling disjointed. The chapters could be arranged in a different order and you wouldn’t really notice because each is about something very different — Alexa, retail, entertainment, space exploration, The Washington Post, Trump. My advice? Read the ones that interest you and skip the rest.