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Amazon's Hit Man

A tale of books, betrayal, and the (alleged) secret plot to destroy literature

In November 1997, on a night of pounding rain in midtown Manhattan, Rupert Murdoch threw a party for Jane Friedman, the new chief executive officer of News Corp.’s HarperCollins book division. The luminaries of the publishing business, such as Random House’s then-CEO Alberto Vitale and literary agent Lynn Nesbit, crowded into the Monkey Bar on 54th Street, with its red-leather booths and hand-painted murals of gamboling chimps. Trudging six blocks through the downpour from the Time & Life Building, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, then the powerful head of Time Warner Book Group, brought a guest: a young online bookseller named Jeffrey P. Bezos, whose ambitions would eventually end up affecting the lives of everybody at the party. “It was one of those moments in your life where you remember everything,” Kirshbaum says. “In fact, I think Bezos still owes me an umbrella.”

How times have changed. Physical book sales have been flat for a decade and are starting to get eclipsed by e-books. Friedman left News Corp. in 2008. And Jeff Bezos, who once courted the publishing aristocracy of New York, now competes against them. Last May, Amazon hired Kirshbaum, 67, to run Amazon Publishing, a fledgling New York-based imprint whose lofty goal is to publish bestselling books by big-name authors—the bread and butter of New York’s book industry. In the high-rise offices of the big publishers, with their crowded bookshelves and resplendent views, the reaction to Amazon’s move is analogous to the screech of a small woodland creature being pursued by a jungle predator.