Book of the week: Amazon Unbound

Brad Stone explores everything Jeff Bezos has done ‘that has made him the richest man in history’

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos speaks with Amazon employees after making a surprise appearance during an Amazon Veteran’s Day celebration
(Image credit: Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

This book has the wrong title, said John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. It isn’t really about Amazon; its focus is squarely on Jeff Bezos, and “everything the company’s founder has done that has made him the richest man in history”, worth some $190bn.

Having charted Amazon’s rise in an earlier book (2013’s The Everything Store), Brad Stone here compellingly describes Bezos’s proliferating interests over the past decade, from his growing obsession with space travel (which he sees as the solution to the Earth’s environmental crisis) to his conquest of cloud computing.

Some of the details are “astonishing”. We get the lowdown on Bezos’s $40bn divorce from his wife MacKenzie in 2019, and his subsequent battle with the National Enquirer over the magazine’s threat to publish his “dick pix”. It all adds up to a “fantastic portrait”, even if some readers will feel that it “skates too quickly over Amazon’s failings”.

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There’s no doubt that Bezos is a “brilliant and visionary entrepreneur”, said James Bloodworth in The Times. But his takeover of online retailing has come at a heavy price. As a result of Amazon’s rise, “a lot of people have been crushed” – from the independent booksellers killed off in its early years to the third-party retailers allowed onto its platform, only to find themselves facing ruin when Amazon launched versions of their products.

If Bezos is ruthless in his dealings with competitors, he isn’t “much kinder to those he employs”. Amazon executives may be used to their boss’s “blasts of annoyance”, but less excusable are the notoriously hard working conditions at the company’s “fulfilment centres”. One US study of 23 Amazon warehouses “found that serious injuries were reported at a rate of more than double the national average for the warehousing industry”.

Stone might have seriously investigated such issues, had he not been so in awe of his subject’s wealth-creating powers, said Simon English in the London Evening Standard. While he praises Bezos’s “enormous biceps”, he ducks out of answering a question he himself poses: “Is the world better off with Amazon in it?”

Actually, Stone gets the balance broadly right, said Andrew Hill in the Financial Times. He draws attention to Bezos’s “Bond villain” qualities and his legendary “intensity”, while also giving plenty of examples of his management techniques – such as his “insistence on two-pizza teams (small enough to be fed by two pizzas)”. This book provides “plenty of fuel” for those seeking to emulate Amazon’s success, “even on a small scale”.

Simon & Schuster 496pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Amazon Unbound

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