Amazon's Jeff Bezos as 'Businessperson of the Year': Can the book world learn from him?

Fortune Magazine awarded Bezos the title of 'business mind of 2012.'

Gus Ruelas/Reuters
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says his inspiration for one of Amazon's new products, Kindle Serials, was author Charles Dickens, and he applies Dickens to his business, too. 'He would take notice of the criticism of the prior installments and use it to his advantage,' says Bezos. 'We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards.'

By and large, the book industry today is a beleaguered one, dogged by stagnant sales, bankruptcy, and failure to adapt to changing technology like self-publishing and digital books.

And yet there’s at least one shining success in the industry, a $100 billion empire built in the last couple of decades – on books. It’s an anomaly all in the book industry would do well to study, if they weren’t so busy dissing it. 

That’s right, we’re talking about Amazon – and we’re not the only ones. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was just named Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year, and the book, tech, and business worlds are buzzing.

In its profile, Fortune calls Bezos “the ultimate disruptor: He has upended the book industry and displaced electronics merchants…. He’s willing to take risks and lose money, yet investors have embraced him, pushing Amazon’s stock up 30 percent so far this year. And even as Amazon expands and experiments, Bezos remains zealous about delivering a good customer experience. For all these reasons and more, Fortune has named Bezos its 2012 Businessperson of the Year.”

The profile goes on to describe the strange mix of qualities that have made Bezos so successful: “clear thinking,” “cohesive vision,” “manic” competitiveness, famous frugality, shrewd ruthlessness, pragmatism, and reverence for invention and exploration.

“He’s a pro-customer, tightfisted risk-taker who is conditioning Wall Street to embrace his erratic earnings. If you’re running a business with high margins – watch out.”

What’s impressive about this honor is that the man at the helm of a $100 billion empire built on books edged out a slew of technology and telecommunications executives whose companies are well positioned in healthy, thriving industries.

And Bezos isn’t shy about his love of books and the role they play in his expansive empire. According to the profile, meetings with senior executives begin with “participants quietly absorbing the written word” as they “consume six-page printed memos,” called narratives, “in total silence for as long as 30 minutes.”

He’s also a sci-fi buff who most recently finished “The Hydrogen Sonata” by Iain Banks. “Read it on both Paperwhite and Fire HD, with Whispersync keeping my place between the two,” he told Fortune.

His inspiration for a new e-book product called Kindle Serials, delivered digitally to your Kindle in weekly installments? None other than Charles Dickens, whose novels were often published in installments in newspapers before they were published in book form. Bezos uses this decidedly literary inspiration to inform his business decisions, too: “Even in Dickens’s day, he would take notice of the criticism of the prior installments and use it to his advantage,” Bezos says. “We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.”

He emphasizes that customer-centric focus, as opposed to other businesses, which he says focus more besting one another.

“When they're in the shower in the morning, they're thinking about how they're going to get ahead of one of their top competitors. Here in the shower, we're thinking about how we are going to invent something on behalf of a customer.” 

He went on, “I’m very motivated by people counting on me. I like to be counted on. I like to have a bunch of customers who count on us. I like being part of a team. We’re all counting on each other…. I find that very motivating.”

We’re hoping something in the article motivates folks in the book industry, too. Sure, he’s the person folks in the industry love to hate, but if the books biz knows what’s good for it, it would do well to study Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year.

As Chinese warrior and philosopher Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

As the industry fights for its survival, we hope it learns a thing or two from Amazon and Bezos.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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