Amazon, Dissonance, and the Influence of Others

Colbert is "mad prime" about Amazon's tactics.

Colbert is “mad prime” about Amazon’s tactics.

I unliked Jeff Bezos before I liked him.

The reason I disliked Bezos and his company, Amazon, is pretty simple. My friends disliked them first. I realize that makes me sound like a lemming, but let’s be honest. Our friends have a lot of sway over how we feel about things. They influence our politics, our ambition, and our musical preferences. They help determine our buying behavior. I don’t drink Starbucks, shop at Wal-Mart, or buy Nike products, at least in some part due to the influence of my friends. And generally speaking, my friends don’t approve of Amazon. In this case, when I say friends, I mean a particular subset of my friends and acquaintances. I mean writers.

In the taxonomy of my Facebook friends, the categories, in descending order, are writers, former students, Peace Corps volunteers, people I knew in college or high school, and colleagues. Notice writers right there at the top? They are the people who most influence my mental space, insofar as that space exists on social media.

The writers I know are diverse and brilliant, and they are generally progressive – they, and I, tend to support the ACA and the DREAM act. They want to see assault weapons banned. They were down on DOMA before it was cool. They have equal signs stuck on their bike fenders and tattooed on their ankles. They’re also largely traditional in the way they pursue publication. They tend to take the slow road to getting published, sending the results of their long hours in front of laptops in coffee shops to editors, who the writers hope will find merit in the carefully crafted pages. Of course, it’s subjective. Of course, the writers are rejected. The rejection slips come, and the writers save them, delete them, maybe even frame them. They revise. They send the work out again. Onward.

Alternatively, they can take the fast lane to publication. It’s so easy! Just set up an account on Amazon and find the link that says “Independently publish with us.” Upload. Click. Done. Published. Right?

Few of the writers I know seem to engage in self-publishing beyond personal or shared blogs, like this one. Perhaps it’s because we distrust a system that has no checks and balances – if no editor is approving your work, who’s to say, other than you, that it’s any good? Perhaps it’s indicative of writerly technophobia. We love our paper books. We don’t want the system to change.

But some do.

I brought up the topic of Amazon at a recent meetup of local writers that I’d discovered online. In sharing my writing on this issue, I listed the reasons I understood to be those that demonstrated why Amazon is a bad thing for writers. And I didn’t just cite the opinions of my online friends as evidence.

According to the Guardian., Amazon’s tactics are the equivalent of assisted suicide for the publishing industry. The L.A. Times argues that Amazon is bullying Hatchette, itself a huge corporation, and one of the U.S.’s top five publishers. And in his February 2014 New Yorker essay “Cheap Words,” George Packer argues that Bezos is going after publishing “like a cheetah after a wounded gazelle.” Even Stephen Colbert chimed in recently, noting that he’s not just mad about Amazon’s tactics; he’s “mad prime.” The consensus seems to be: Bezos is bad for books.

And arguably, he’s also bad for people.

Amazon dominates the 3PL system, or third-party logistics. Under Bezos, Amazon figured out how to get a roll of paper towels, a dildo, a five-pound bag of sugar-free gummy bears (don’t!), and any number of other things from the click of an index finger on a home office laptop through a massive warehousing system, onto a truck, and to any front door within hours, where the owner of said home office laptop and index finger undoubtedly stands, speechless, grateful.

Amazing? Yes. But it would be an understatement to say that this system is flawed.

In 2012, the Seattle Times ran a multi-issue story about serious problems faced by workers in Amazon’s fulfillment centers across the country. The articles described workers struggling to fill orders at the pace demanded by the electronic inventory list counting down to the moment when workers become inadequately fast, in ten . . . nine . . . eight . . ..

According to the Times, a dozen daily miles on concrete floors put at least one worker off her feet for months, while others regularly succumbed to extreme temperatures in the poorly regulated environments of the fulfillment centers. Worse, the Times revealed that managers sought to minimize the medical treatment in response to injuries brought on by poor working conditions in order to avoid having to report the injury as a “federally recordable incident.” Gross.

The host of the writing group, a woman in her thirties who was also working on a blog post that day, interrupted. “I just have to say something,” she said. She went on to say a lot of things about the many points that, in her view, Amazon’s detractors were missing when they disparaged the online giant. She urged me to look up the “consumption rate” in the era of Amazon – more people, she argued, were reading more books because of Amazon. She encouraged me to look up someone named Hugh Howie and consider his success. What’s more, she insisted, Amazon’s corporate giving practices were to be praised! It was a shame how little good press Jeff Bezos received, she complained. And would someone please consider how Amazon had democratized the whole industry?

The other writers were pretty silent, mostly looking at their screens or empty cups. I defended myself. I wasn’t trying to have the last word on Amazon, I explained. I clapped my hands together as I said the word “last,” which must have made me sound more vehement than I meant to.

I didn’t bother to counter that the number one reason I supposed writers I knew were anti-Amazon, other than some complicated issue relating to author pay that I didn’t pretend to understand the nuances of, was exactly her last point: Amazon has democratized the world of publishing. But is anybody in charge of quality control?

It was my first meeting, and here I was in a pseudo-argument with the leader of the group. I looked her up later, and found that she had good reason to be on Amazon’s side. She has a well-developed and frequently updated blog of her own, and she’s self-published a few story collections on Amazon. Her self-promotion led her to an agent, who contacted her after reading her Kickstarter campaign for a book idea, her blog, and then her self-published work on Amazon. Now she has a book deal, and she’s hosting a webinar series about how to build an author “platform,” in order to enable others to follow her path to success.

Amazon seemed to be working for this writer and countless others like her. I wasn’t convinced that Amazon was the best thing to happen to publishing since the printing press, but our perspectives did overlap in one place.

In April of 2014, the Seattle Times reported that Jeff Bezos had gifted the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center the greatest individual gift in the organization’s history: twenty million dollars. This money, these exact dollars, might very well lead to increased survival for my partner and fiancé, Jaylan, who has brain cancer.

Previous multi-million dollar gifts from the Bezos family to Fred Hutch, as it’s affectionately known around Seattle, have allowed for increased research, as well as the startup of a new lab focused on immunotherapy. What makes this latest gift – again, $20 million – even more special is that it’s not tied to a single line of scientific investigation.

Larry Corey, the president and director of Fred Hutch explains that “philanthropic gifts [like Bezos’] allow more innovation.” And this kind of innovation, Corey continues, is more and more necessary in order “to take novel and inventive ideas and actually bring them to fruition.”

Imagine you’re homeless, and Sam Walton personally gives you the money to build a house. Would it change your mind about Wal-Mart? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the news of this gift changed the way I feel about Jeff Bezos. Some part of me, the part that wants Jaylan to live, which is all of me, is now on Bezos’, and by definition, Amazon’s, side.

I was right when I said I’m not the right person to have the last word on Bezos, and Amazon, and the relative good or bad work they’re doing for the world of publishing. In truth, what I know about the publishing industry would fit in a very small box. I would need a much bigger box to fit everything I know about cancer, all of it gathered in the last eighteen months, as Jaylan and then, six months later, my mother were diagnosed with and treated for brain and rectal cancer, respectively.

Mom’s doing well. Her cancer was always 99% curable. After some radiation and chemotherapy, followed by a just bearable experience with an ostomy bag, she’s almost back to 100%, and there is zero trace of cancer in her body. Jaylan’s experience has been so different from Mom’s that at times it’s been challenging to understand how we could use the same word – cancer – to describe both situations. Unlike colorectal cancer, brain cancer is nearly always a death sentence.

The doctors gave Jaylan – us – a prognosis of twelve to fourteen months. That was on February 13, 2013. I’m happy to say that today, Jaylan is not only alive, but thriving. Others with his diagnosis are not so lucky. We see it regularly on the support boards, in the social media threads, in the waiting rooms. There are outliers, and we are hoping that he continues to be one. But in the last thirty years, there has been little to no progress in the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme, or stage four brain cancer. Like ALS, of recent “ice bucket challenge” fame, GBM is considered an “orphan disease,” one that affects a small percentage of the population—a percentage so small, it’s often argued, that pharmaceutical companies aren’t motivated to find a cure for those affected by this usually fast killer of a disease.

But Fred Hutch, thanks to Jeff Bezos, seems to be making progress. The latest $20 million gift will go to answering these three questions:

– “How do we define proteins or receptors on the outside of a cancer cell specific to each cancer that the immune system will see, and that will allow it to selectively kill just the cancer cells?
– How do we overcome the shields that cancer puts up to block the immune system?
– How do we engineer the immune T Cells so they not only penetrate those shields and latch onto a cancer cell, but also effectively and quickly kill it?” (Ostrom, “Bezos Family Donates”).

If the answers to these questions can be found, then the chances that Jaylan is an outlier who will survive this disease increase dramatically.

In the past eighteen months, we’ve been aggressive, locating new treatments and persuading our treatment team to seek authorization through the insurance company for them. Our treatment team has been aggressive, combining chemotherapies, rather than following the more minimalistic standard of care. Jaylan has been aggressive, refusing to let his diagnosis defeat him. But we are – I am – always afraid.

Immunotherapy is on the horizon. Two vaccines specifically formulated for GBM hit the market in 2015, and you can bet we’ll be first in line to find out whether Jaylan qualifies – whether his tumor has the required genetic mutation in order for the vaccine to be effective, whether insurance – Medicaid, now – will allow it. We know we are on the cusp of better treatment, and we count ourselves lucky to be on this cusp, when so many have died waiting for progress.

They say there are no atheists in a foxhole, and at times, dealing with brain cancer has felt like war, but this, Bezos’ gift, was better than religion. In other immunotherapy research by Fred Hutch, “Literally pounds of tumor in patients with stage four lymphoma melted away,” according to the article.

Reading this, a small, hard piece of fear inside me also melted away, though not without leaving behind some cognitive dissonance. I was rooting for Bezos now. Wait, was I really rooting for Bezos? This feeling, I thought, is what it means to be an adult.

When I was young, I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. I grew up beside the ocean, in Alaska. On our twice yearly trips to the city of Anchorage, my brother and I would watch from the back seat of the old Blazer as beluga whales porpoised through the cold waters of Cook Inlet. This was before the whales in Cook Inlet were largely fished out. It was before stress. It was before I had a sense of personal ethics, before I’d read Barbara Ehrenreich, before I had money to make choices with, and before I knew that cancer existed. Cancer, and its attendant stress, has made dissonance the soundtrack of my life. Decisions that once seemed easy – Don’t buy from Amazon! – now seem much more complex. For example: should Jaylan and I get married, or should he get Medicaid? We may have to choose. When choices like these are on the table, almost all other decisions become small.

Amazon’s motto is “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” It’s clear that everyone who works for Amazon is working hard. Few, if any, seem to be having fun. But Bezos, and Amazon, are surely making history. As I watch Jaylan go through cancer treatment – as I go through it beside him – I certainly hope they do.


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