Amazon offers a peek at its softer side as it lifts the cover on literary donation program

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Neal Thompson, an author and the chief of Amazon’s Literary Partnership, which gives cash to literary nonprofits. He’s in the Amazon Doppler building library. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Amazon’s long-running literary donations have become a major source of financial support for several literary-arts organizations. It is opening up about the 10-year-old program as the company’s philanthropic efforts mature.

Amazon, arch-nemesis of the bookstore, the behemoth that battled with New York’s publishing houses and transformed the publishing industry, has a softer side.

Its face is Neal Thompson, a 53-year-old author of five books who spends much of his time cutting checks that help underwrite stalls at the Brooklyn Book Festival, cottages at the Hedgebrook writing retreat on Whidbey Island, and a range of authors’ groups, small presses and journals.

Now in its tenth year, the Amazon Literary Partnership, which is administered by Thompson, has dispensed $10 million. On Friday, Amazon for the first time announced a complete list of awardees of this year’s $1 million.

The effort, small by the standards of big corporate donors, is notable for two reasons: Amazon, now the second-largest U.S. company by market capitalization, has a reputation for rarely donating cash as part of its philanthropy efforts, particularly in comparison to its Seattle corporate neighbors. And when it does give, Amazon has historically avoided the spotlight.

That’s changing, for Thompson’s work, and for Amazon, as some inside the company push it to do more, or speak up about work already underway. A corporate reorganization last year moved the literary grant program and some other Amazon groups, which had been independently pursuing philanthropic work, to a centralized team.

“As this company matures, we are continuing to figure out where we fit in that space and how we talk about it,” Thompson said in an interview.

Amazon’s long-running literary donations, meanwhile, have become a major source of financial support for several literary-arts organizations, another sign of how the Seattle company has made itself indispensable in the first industry it upended.

The origin story

The story of Amazon’s longest-running philanthropic initiative begins in March 2009, when Slate published an article about Amazon under the headline “The New Scrooge.”

Amazon, then best known as an online bookseller, was rapidly expanding into new areas of retail and technology. As it grew, the company largely took a pass on the U.S. corporate practice of donating some of its profits to charity.

The article wasn’t the first to highlight Amazon’s tight grip on its corporate purse. Publishers Weekly and The Stranger had already noted the company’s stinginess, and The Seattle Times would weigh in years later.

Slate’s critique, though, drew the attention of Amazon’s top brass. According to an account of the episode in The New Yorker, Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, known as a big thinker with a tendency to micromanage, scrawled “fix this” on a printed copy of Slate’s article. The recipient of that order, and a $1 million budget to carry it out, was Jon Fine.

Amazon and Fine say that didn’t happen. Fine tells a different origin story.

Then an executive in Amazon’s book unit who worked to build relationships with publishers and authors, Fine read the article after returning to Seattle from a round of meetings in New York. Industry peers there were wary of Amazon as it broadened its stake in books with new initiatives like in-house publishing and Kindle e-readers.

“I saw the article, and it was juxtaposed with coming back from New York and hearing this clear wariness,” he said. “We started talking, and I suggested, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can address this in some way.’ ”

Fine wrote a memo recommending Amazon demonstrate its goodwill and commitment to the industry. Approval was swift.

“They let me run with it, essentially,” he said.

Finding common ground

Fine, an in-house lawyer at publisher Alfred A. Knopf before joining Amazon, started reaching out to industry contacts.

“Look, we may be disruptive, and you may not agree with everything that we’re doing,” he said, describing the pitch. “But certainly there’s common ground around the idea that creating new works, and the work of new authors, is essential to us continuing the literary tradition here.”

Amy Wheeler, executive director of Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island, heard from Fine through an alumna of the program. “It was kind of out of the blue,” she said.

The two met for coffee at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., chatting about Hedgebrook’s aims and Amazon’s.

Fine got back in touch shortly after to offer Hedgebrook $25,000. For the retreat, which maintains a 48-acre campus, the gift was the biggest contribution from an organization in its history. Amazon has donated every year since.

Amazon’s program quickly became well known in literary circles, but the company stopped short of promoting it to the general public, a decision that mirrored Amazon’s silence on many issues at the time. When a reporter writing for Salon stumbled upon the scope of the grant program in 2012, Fine and Amazon declined to discuss it.

Fine, who left the company in 2015, said the silence was part humility. Organizations were free to use the grant to publicize their work, if they wanted. But touting a relatively small sum coming from such a large company would have “seemed a little disingenuous,” he said.

Some grant recipients, meanwhile, speculate that the company was trying to keep its distance out of deference to the grantees, lest Amazon, a lightning rod for criticism, trigger some negative attention. (Fine says that didn’t figure into Amazon’s thinking).

“At the time, there was a concern about, would it be like selling out to be in alignment with Amazon?” Wheeler said of the industry’s view.

“I didn’t hold that concern,” she added. “I felt like, if there’s an impetus to do good, that’s always a good thing.”

Nobody refused the checks, either.

“When this appeared, it was extremely welcome,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of Small Press Distribution, which has received grants from Amazon.

Fine, who today works at digital media publisher Open Road Integrated Media, is on the board of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, an organization Lependorf also runs.

A force of nature

Grant recipients say Amazon also has a clear business case for spreading some cash to literary groups. The company has more than a dozen publishing imprints, and a self-publishing platform tied to the Kindle readers, placing it in competition for authors’ works.

Amazon’s rival publishers dispense grants of their own, typically through their marketing groups. Each of the “big five” English-language book publishers donated last year to the National Book Foundation, for example.

“There’s no way it’s 100 percent philanthropy,” Lependorf said of Amazon. “And it doesn’t need to be.”

Thompson, who took over Amazon Literary Partnership after Fine’s departure, also replaced his predecessor as Amazon’s most prominent face on the literary conference circuit. He said there is an “outreach and relationship-building component” to the program.

“I can bring some of that information back to Amazon,” he says. “Here’s what’s happening in the world, here’s how we address that.”

Many of Amazon’s grantees are organizations that help authors who previously might have been shut out by traditional publishing gatekeepers or otherwise marginalized. Recipients this year include the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and the Lambda Literary Foundation, which supports LGBT writers. Thompson said he hopes to sharpen that focus.

Conversations with authors are nothing new for Thompson. He started his career as a journalist before leaving the Baltimore Sun to pursue book writing.

“It was hard then, it’s hard now,” he said. “It’s always been hard to make a living as a writer.”

By the time he joined Amazon in 2011 for a job on the company’s book reviews and editorial content group, the company has grown from upstart to force of nature in the book industry. Bookstore chain Borders declared bankruptcy that year, felled, in part, by its slow response to online sales. Amazon, an essential sales channel for publishers of all sizes, was then in the midst of bitter fights with big publishers over book pricing.

The company’s business teams continue to pressure publishers to offer Amazon ever better deals on pricing, shipping, and other terms.

“It’s routine,” said Lependorf, whose Small Press Distribution is a wholesaler of books for independent presses. “Every year, there are new requirements that cost us more,” he said. “We’re not in a position to bargain.”

Controversy aside, Amazon has made itself a crucial donor.

Funding for literary organizations, Lependorf said, dried up during the recessions of the 2000s, leaving the federal National Endowment for the Arts and a handful of state and regional foundations as the only consistent major funders.

Amazon’s roughly 50 grants per year, which average about $20,000, are generous in that universe, and can go a long way toward keeping the lights on at outfits typically staffed by volunteers or part-timers.

“The literary sector is often just a teeny fraction of arts funding,” said Ruth Dickey, executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures, which received $25,000 from Amazon this year. “For us, that’s huge, and a really important investment in our work.”

New umbrella organization

Corporate philanthropy has its share of critics. Some accuse companies of scattering token sums to buy goodwill and political favors. Others, from a capitalist bent, suggest businesses should spend their cash instead on their core business, or hand it over to shareholders.

Nevertheless, Seattle-area corporate giants such as Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks, have long made a habit of dispensing millions of dollars annually.

Amazon, founded in Bellevue in 1994, didn’t. Occasionally, executives and spokespeople bristled at the suggestion that Amazon should be expected to donate at all. The company’s most important contribution to the world, they said, was the effect its work has on the marketplace and customers, a view that mirrors Bezos’ reportedly libertarian political leanings.

Several Amazon business groups, which operate with a large degree of independence, took matters into their own hands.

Amazon’s literary grant program for most of its lifetime was housed in Amazon’s books and publishing unit.

In 2016, amid Seattle’s worsening homelessness crisis, Amazon offered Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that provides shelter for women and families, space on its campus, an arrangement managed by the company’s real-estate czar.

Amazon last year hired Alice Shobe, a veteran of Seattle nonprofit and government groups, to centralize those programs, among others like disaster-relief funding and some education grants.

Amazon has contributed or pledged at least $35 million to charities in the last three years, a tally based on notable programs the company has discussed publicly, and a spokeswoman says it expects to spend $40 million to meet commitments it has made to Mary’s Place and FareStart, another Seattle nonprofit. The AmazonSmile program, which lets customers earmark a portion of their purchases from the company for charitable causes, has raised a cumulative $80 million since its creation in 2013.

The company, which doesn’t publish regular corporate social-responsibility reports typical of giant companies, declined to disclose how much it had contributed last year, or make Shobe available for an interview for this article. Her new organization, called Amazon in the Community, remains a work in progress.

“We’ve been doing these things in different areas for years, and now we’re putting it together under this umbrella organization,” Thompson said. “I think that we’re going to be doing more.”

Amazon’s literary-grant recipients hope that translates into more support for their work. Amazon’s donations remained at about $1 million annually during a decade in which the company’s revenue jumped by more than 8 times.

“As companies mature they begin to think about their place in communities and their legacy,” said one grant recipient, who requested anonymity. “We are all watching for that shift at Amazon.”

Clarification: Information in this article, originally published Aug 10, 2018, was clarified the same day. A previous version of this story said that Jon Fine didn’t dispute the specifics of The New Yorker account of Jeff Bezos’ response to the Slate critique. In a subsequent interview after publication, Fine said the episode never happened.

Matt Day: 206-464-2420 or mday@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mattmday