‘Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.’
- Mariel Hemingway, the final scene in ‘Manhattan’


I need your advice.

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 02, 2015
Category: Beyond Classification

READING IN NEW YORK: On Thursday, September 10, from 6 PM to 7:30, I’ll be reading from my book at The Corner Bookstore, Madison Avenue at 93rd Street. It’s not necessary to RSVP, but it would be a help to know if you plan to attend. As ever, I’m at HeadButlerNYC@AOL.com.
THIS WEEKEND IN THE HAMPTONS: On Saturday, between 2-5 PM (Rain Date: Sunday, same times), a plane will pull a banner that says MARRIED SEX EXISTS IT’S A BOOK GET IT over the beaches from Westhampton to Montauk. If you’re on the beach — or know someone who will be — would you take a photo and send it to me at HeadButlerNYC@AOL.com. Feel free to explain to the curious what the banner means. And thanks.

I read a lot, but only a little sticks with me. The story below — “I Had A Baby and Cancer When I Worked at Amazon” — has haunted me for more than a week. And it’s forced me to ask myself a question I have long avoided: What should I do about my relationship with Amazon?

You may have asked yourself the same question.

You love your local book store, but it’s cheaper to buy books at Amazon, so you one-click — and feel guilty.

Three reams of typing paper weigh 15 pounds — you really want to haul that home?

And on and on: Amazon is our default choice for everything.

Amazon is my business model. It’s how I pay for the newsletter and the web hosting and whatever. If you click on an Amazon link on this site, I get 7-8% commission on everything you buy — everything you buy in that session, not just the book or CD or DVD. It’s pennies per item, but they add up. Not to profit. To solvency.

After 11 years of this business model, it occurs to me that maybe HeadButler.com ought to operate less like a service and more like a business.

One way is to get you to spend more money on Amazon. I don’t know what I’d have to offer to make that happen or how those of you who come here regularly would like that change.

One way is to turn this into a part free, part subscriber site. The Wall Street Journal does this. The FT does this. Andrew Sullivan used to do this.

One way is simply to ask you, every six months or so, to pay me whatever you want. Many sites do this. They call it the Tip Jar. PayPal makes it easy, but checks work just fine.

I don’t know what to do here. Or if I should even do anything. When in doubt, ask for advice. So…. if you would, please send an email to HeadButlerNYC@AOL.com and answer the following questions:

l) Should Jesse change the site so he can make more money from Amazon?

2) Should Jesse charge for some of his writing — and if so, how much would you be willing to pay each month?

3) If Jesse periodically asked for donations, would you contribute to HeadButler.com — and how much a year would you be willing to give?

4) Are 4 editions of HeadButler.com a week too many for you? What’s the right number?

5) Is this Jesse’s problem, not yours, to solve?

And now, so you can see what started me thinking, is Julia Cheiffetz’s piece:

Last Saturday, I read the 6,000-word New York Times piece, “Inside Amazon,” in the car on my way to the beach. I sat quietly in the front seat, glued to my phone while my husband flapped his hand gesturing for help with Google maps. My two-year-old danced to the sounds of Raffi in the back. When we got to the beach, we set up our spot, complete with dinosaur sand toys. My husband and daughter made a beeline for the water. I put on my Coolibar SPF 50 jacket to cover my skin from the sun. Then I sat down in my chair and wept.

Until July of 2014, I worked for Amazon. As a relatively successful young book editor, I’d been hired by the company in 2011 to help launch its New York City-based book publishing outpost created to commission original content by name writers. The media landscape was continuing to evolve; everyone was in everyone else’s lane. It was a big opportunity, one many people inside the publishing industry told me privately I would be crazy not to take. I was drawn to Amazon’s spirit of innovation, its agility, and its culture of excellence. I was about to start Columbia’s Executive MBA program when the offer came in. Why not, as the saying goes, “earn to learn,” I thought. I took the job.

I was dazzled by the people I met in different pockets of the company those first few months. They were all smart. They were all lightning-fast. And, I quickly noted, when it came to leadership positions, they were almost all men. “So, who’s our Sheryl Sandberg?” I asked a VP. He cited General Counsel Michelle Wilson, the sole woman on Jeff Bezos’s executive team. The next year, in 2012, Wilson left the company to take maternity leave. She never returned.

In 2013, during my second year at Amazon, I had a baby of my own. Six weeks after my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was given detailed instructions by my oncologist’s staff on how to “pump and dump” my breast milk for 24 hours to prevent my daughter from ingesting radioactive matter. There I was, soothing my infant, unsure of whether or not I would be around to see her first birthday.

After my surgery, while I was still on maternity leave, I received a form letter saying that the health insurance provided by my employer had been terminated. Dozens of panicked emails and phone calls later, the whole thing was, I was told, a glitch in the system. After a week of back and forth, I was offered COBRA coverage, by which point I had already switched to my husband’s insurance, where I remained for the duration of my care. I chalked it up to a horrendous administrative error but remain disappointed that a company of Amazon’s size didn’t have better mechanisms in place to prevent something like that from happening during an employee’s maternity leave.

After a five-month leave, I was nervous and excited to return to work, and I showed up that first day back with a big smile and a phone full of baby pictures to share. I figured I’d catch up with folks and get a high-level update on how the business was doing, since the strategy had evolved from the time I was hired. Here’s what happened instead: I was taken to lunch by a woman I barely knew. Over Cobb salad she calmly explained that all but one of my direct reports — the people I had hired — were now reporting to her. In the months that followed, I was placed on a dubious performance improvement plan, or PIP, a signal at Amazon that your employment is at risk. Not long after that I resigned.

The truth is, I’ve moved on. I’m healthy. I have a great job doing work I love. There’s no question Amazon is an incredible company. I met some of the strongest, most brilliant women of my career there. Unfortunately, many of those women have left. And the voices commenting on the New York Times piece so far have been predominantly male leaders of male-dominated teams.

Jeff: You asked for direct feedback. Women power your retail engine. They buy diapers. They buy books. They buy socks for their husbands on Prime. On behalf of all the people who want to speak up but can’t: Please, make Amazon a more hospitable place for women and parents. Reevaluate your parental leave policies. You can’t claim to be a data-driven company and not release more specific numbers on how many women and people of color apply, get hired and promoted, and stay on as employees. In the absence of meaningful public data — especially retention data — all we have are stories. This is mine.

Short takes

“Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury”

I haven’t seen most of my college friends in 47 years. When I think of them, I see them as they were — as we were — in 1968. Elise Rosenhaupt and her boyfriend Tom: off they go, bright and shining, headed for New Mexico. So when Elise recently sent me her new book, “Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury,” the title was like a blow to my brain. It begins like this: “The last time I saw our son before his injury, my husband and I were walking toward Harvard Square.” And you sink with her: getting the news that Martin, a Harvard sophomore, had been struck by a car that launched him 100 feet in the air. He’d landed on his head. He was in Neurological Intensive Care at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are many books that chronicle disaster and recovery. This one’s not like them. There are doctors and nurses, of course, and friends in the waiting room, and Harvard faculty showing up unexpectedly, but Elise Rosenhaupt has worked as a poetry editor, and she knows when to weave in the story of her marriage, her family, her parents and their brain disorders. The prose is taut: “There is nothing in my world but wanting Martin to live.” And you think, this is how recovery is done when it’s done right, when you marvel at the frailty of our bodies and the resilience of our spirits. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Elaine Kaufman: “Yeah, I’m an icon…”

One night I was to have dinner at Elio’s with a famous painter who was, in her mid-40s, 8 months pregnant. When I made the reservation, I told Elio that the painter had to be seated promptly. This didn’t happen. After 40 minutes, we walked a few blocks north. Elaine knew without asking that something had gone wrong elsewhere, gave us a great table, stopped by to chat. That’s my Elaine’s story: a tough-talking mountain of a woman who could be kindness incarnate to anyone who created. Okay, you have to create at a high level. You had to be known. Pass those tests, and you weren’t in a restaurant — you were in the club. In the 134 pages of “Elaine’s: The Rise of One of New York’s Most Legendary Restaurants from Those Who Were There,” Amy Phillips Penn collects stories from the regulars and shows them at play, often loaded, in photos by Jessica Burstein. It’s not being there. But it doesn’t suck. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Josh Ritter: “If you want to see a miracle, watch me get down.”

New song. New CD coming. Counting the days.