September 23, 2014
The first rule of Jeff Bezos’s writers retreat is don’t talk about Jeff Bezos’s writers retreat
by Alex Shephard
The second rule is no fighting.
Back in 2011, we were among the first to note that Jeff Bezos holds an annual, all-expenses-paid writers retreat called Amazon Campfire in New Mexico. As we noted then, Bezos apparently names everything he does after fire (and it’s only gotten worse since then, though Amazon’s most famous fire is currently fizzling at 99 cents); that year, the guests included Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Alice Walker, Neil Gaiman, and Khaled Hosseini and, according to Publishers Lunch, Bezos reportedly also flew in Jeff Tweedy and Werner Herzog for entertainment. There was one catch, however. You couldn’t tell anyone about the experience.
The New York Times David Streitfeld has more about the lavish experience, and the code of silence—let’s call it omerta—that hangs over it:
Every fall, Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, hosts Campfire, a literary weekend in Santa Fe, N.M. Dozens of well-known novelists have attended, but they do not talk about the abundance of high-end clothing and other gifts, the lavish meals, the discussion under the desert stars by Neil Armstrong or the private planes that ferried some home.
Writers loved it. There was no hard sell of Amazon, or soft sell, either. The man who sells half the books in America seemed to want nothing more each year than for everyone to have a good time. All he asked in return was silence.
In years past, that was a pretty good deal for writers (though, admittedly, the biggest names that attended Campfire™ probably didn’t arrive carrying bindles): get some free clothes and some presents, listen to some tunes, talk to some spacemen, and hang out with aspiring spaceman Uncle Jeff. But this year, according to Streitfeld, things are a bit different.
Amazon has always had an uneasy relationship with the publishing industry, and the ongoing dispute with Hachette seems to have destroyed whatever shred of goodwill was left. Authors United, which includes a number of the bestselling authors that Bezos courted in the past (including Michael Chabon, who had attended Campfire™ in the past with his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman), has accused the company, and Bezos in particular, of not properly valuing books or literary culture. James Patterson, who has emerged as a leading anti-Amazon voice, had attended a previous Campfire™ session, but told Streitfeld he not only been invited back, but that he wouldn’t have gone even if he had been invited.
Others were less keen to speak to Streitfeld about Campfire™:
Some writers, when contacted about their past attendance and asked whether they were going this year, reacted with something akin to terror. One writer begged not to be mentioned in any way, insisting that it was a private, off-the-record event and should remain so, lest Mr. Bezos be offended.
The Amazon mogul does not make attendees sign nondisclosure forms. His team just cautions them that the weekend is off the record. Even those who like to share their every thought on Twitter and Facebook have kept it that way.
The fact that so few writers are willing to go on-the-record about the situation is a bit surprising, considering the vitriol that pervades the Amazon-Hachette dispute. But it’s possible that that’s just the retreat paying off: while some, like Patterson, seem able to keep the business and the personal separate, for others, it seems, the relationship is slightly more convoluted.
One conflicted writer is Neil Gaiman, who has attended the conference on multiple occasions with his wife, the musician and writer Amanda Palmer. Palmer is, interestingly, a Hachette author; her book, as Streitfeld notes in a follow-up post, is currently not available for pre-order. Despite this fact, Gaiman and Palmer were attending the conference. Gaiman told Streitfeld that, “The many Hachette authors here this year, like my wife, have enjoyed having a chance to have a full and frank exchange of opinions with the Amazon folk.” That’s possible—though Gaiman has been disappointingly ambivalent about the dispute, which he’s treated with a characteristic safe distance—but it’s also interesting. Palmer may be a Hachette author, but she and Gaiman did not sign the Authors United letter. No one, it seems, who signed the letter was invited.
Maybe Gaiman’s right, though; maybe he’ll get Uncle Jeff’s ear for a minute or two to gab about contractual differences and pricing models. But that seems doubtful. Campfire may be fun for writers, but for Bezos—himself not much of a reader—it seems like it’s all about business. Give some gifts and a good time and get silence in return? Seems like a pretty good deal to me.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.