Thought Catalog

Seattle’s Finest: Jon Fine Is Leaving Amazon

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Amazon's Jon Fine, left, in a town hall panel at Frankfurt Book Fair's 2013 CONTEC Conference, with the author Hugh Howey and literary agents Kristin Nelson and Jonny Geller. | Photo: Bernd Hartung
Amazon’s Jon Fine, left, in a town hall panel at Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2013 CONTEC Conference, with the author Hugh Howey and literary agents Kristin Nelson and Jonny Geller. | Photo: Bernd Hartung

The Face Of The Company’s Publishing Platforms To Thousands

After almost nine years at Amazon, I am sorry to announce that Jon Fine has decided to leave the company at the end of the year.

When he wrote the internal memo that told the Amazon workforce of Jon Fine’s impending departure, Charles Kronbach, may have had the same difficulty many of us are having in trying to capture adequately just what it is that Jon Fine has been doing — and meaning — to so many in his important tenure with Seattle.

Tireless on the conference and trade-show circuit, unfailingly generous with his time, Fine has built a reputation as being the ranking Amazonian you can talk to. That’s by no means meant as an unkind comment about any of his very able colleagues. Many of them, in fact, are terrific conversationalists and fun to be around. But Fine — a First Amendment attorney by background — simply has a gift for making you feel that he’s being fully forthcoming with you, holding nothing back, eager to share what he knows to make things work for all.

Jon Fine
Jon Fine

Technically, this kind of skill couldn’t have been vested in a better choice: Fine is — until the end of the year — Amazon’s Director of Author and Publisher Relations. And those can be exceedingly tricky relations, just say “Amazon,” “Hachette,” “Doug Preston,” and “Hugh Howey” around publishing people — and stand well back.

Informally? — Fine has become the friendly face in a frequently unfriendly scenario. He’s the talkative executive among many who seem always muted. Unfailingly personable, his wry sense of humor has helped him be able to understand what we — on the outside — might see when we look at this rising superpower in retail and books.

He’s always been the company’s man. But he’s never been a company man.

For example? Fine can bring precision Borscht Belt timing to his delivery of a pet joke in panel discussions about Jeff Bezos’ delight in the mobile promise of Whispersync.

He sets up the crowd like a pro, talking about Bezos’ pleasure in how you can use apps on any device, not just a Kindle, to buy, download, and start reading a new book — “all while standing in a supermarket line.”

Beat, beat, beat, Fine: “Of course, what I find even more amazing than that technology, is the idea of Jeff Bezos standing in a supermarket line.” Never fails to get a burst of loud laughter from his audience — which often is a tense crowd of needy, worried, would-be writers.

Fine’s secret lies in his ability to appear to demystify the fortress. And his cleverness has always been appreciated by the crowd.

At Boston’s 2013 The Muse and the Marketplace, an attendee at an “Amazon for Authors” session innocently asked Fine how many ebooks were sold last year. This is a huge point of contention in the industry, because Amazon won’t share such sales data and thus is badly crippling the establishment’s ability to assess the size of the self-publishing market. Nobody has been more insistent on the need for this data than I have.

And Fine didn’t miss a beat: “Porter?” he called me out. “Why don’t you tell us just how many ebooks were sold last year? I can’t remember the number. Don’t you have that?”

“What I find even more amazing than that technology, is the idea of Jeff Bezos standing in a supermarket line.” Jon Fine

Fine is the guy who has always told writers’ conference audiences  both what they wanted to hear, and what they needed to hear. Time after time, I’ve live-texted him saying:

The good news is that today, thanks to digital, everybody can publish a book.
The bad news is that today, thanks to digital, everybody can publish a book.

That candor — turning to dewy-eyed aspiring authors, throwing up his hands and saying, “You’re up against a tsunami of content!” — has earned him abiding, adamant respect from writers, publishers, editors, agents, and maybe particularly from journalists. We’re the ones who know what he won’t say, know it’s impossible to trip him up, and yet love the fact that he’ll actually say, “You know I’m not going to say that, try again.”

There’s a way to be honest about difficult circumstances without a trace of arrogance or evasion. Fine has it down.

And one more thing: it’s Fine who founded and has administered Amazon’s Author Grant Program. With minimal fanfare, he has facilitated significant grants — totaling more than $5 million — for more than 100 non-profit and author organizations from the PEN American Center and Words Without Borders to the 92nd Street Y, Write Girl, Children’s Book Week, the NaNoWriMo program, Lambda Literary Foundation, Girls Write Now, the Harlem-based Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Jon Fine speaks with the author Boyd Morrison at Writer's Digest Conference West in Los Angeles, 2013 | Photo: Porter Anderson
Jon Fine speaks with the author Boyd Morrison at Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles, 2013 | Photo: Porter Anderson

“To Top It All Off, I’ve Got Jury Duty Next Week”

Jon Fine already was a books man before he reached Amazon. His partner is the author and Soho Press Publisher Bronwen Hruska, whose novel Accelerated is from Pegasus Books.

Schooled at Cornell and University of Virginia’s School of Law, Fine directed legal affairs for Random House’s A.A. Knopf.

Before that, he’d served as Media Counsel at NBC, taking care of content and related matters for NBC News, Saturday Night Live, and other divisions; worked as King World Production counsel  for Inside Edition; was a litigation associate at Debevoise & Plimpton — focused on copyright, libel, and Internet/media.

As Kronbach, Amazon’s Director of Independent Publishing,  wrote to the staff, Fine’s time at Amazon started in 2006:

Jon joined our legal department as director of copyright and media law in 2006 before moving to Grand Haven to help shepherd Brilliance Audio following its acquisition. Since returning to Seattle in 2008, Jon has worked with virtually all of our author-facing programs in his role as Director of Author and Publisher Relations, serving as an advocate for author interests both internally and externally….Over the last seven years, he has represented Amazon at hundreds of publishing and author events around the world, helping to raise awareness about the myriad opportunities Amazon offers to the storytelling community. More to come on transition as we move towards Jon’s departure at year’s end.

Gracious as ever — and maybe a bit moved, even when he and I spoke — Fine hints at a fondness for authors as a basis for his advocacy in the brief note that he has written to the staff.He writes, in part:

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the smartest, hardest-working people I’ve ever known over the last few years here at Amazon…Jeff Belle probably put it best when he described my focus as “making the world a safer place for authors.”

What you get in those words is the guileless pleasure that Fine has found in helping authors understand what Amazon might do for them.

Jon Fine speaks at BookExpo American's inaugural Author Hub, May 2014 | Photo: Porter Anderson Jon Fine speaks at BookExpo American's inaugural Author Hub, May 2014 | Photo: Porter Anderson
Jon Fine speaks at BookExpo American’s inaugural Author Hub, May 2014 | Photo: Porter Anderson

However controversial and divisive some authors’ views of Seattle have become in recent months — amid standoffs between the Authors United group and the independent camp’s support of the company — Fine loves to hunker down on the boost that the “Look Inside” function on listings might offer because when an author or publisher uses that tool on a book’s sales-page, the book’s entire text is scanned. The whole book is, effectively, rendered as key words that can help surface the title for a reader doing a search at Amazon.com.

Arriving at workshops and seminars with an endlessly expanding PowerPoint, Fine has always stressed the severe importance of quality writing and preparation.

“In a tsunami of content like this one,” he told one conference session in Los Angeles, “you’ve got to write your best book. Let me say that again: Nothing but your best writing has a chance.”

Fine has more appearances at industry and author events before his departure from Amazon in December.

Later this month, for example, he’ll be with us at Novelists, Inc’s (NINC) 25th-anniversary conference at St. Pete Beach, Florida, where he’ll be part of a full day of town-hall panels for more than 300 writers, along with Sourcebooks’ Dominque Raccah; agents Kristin Nelson and Steven Axelrod; Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre; Welman Digital’s Carolyn Pittis; Writer’s Digest’s Phil Sexton; the authors Howey, Liliana Hart, Jasinda Wilder, Lou Aronica, and Colleen Gleason; Amazon colleagues David Symonds and Daniel Slater; and other speakers.

And with his customary hangdog, grab-that-carry-on sigh, he runs over his intinerary for the next few weeks and adds, “And to top it all off, I’ve got jury duty next week.”

You can’t get a postponement on that for Frankfurt Book Fair, I ask him?

“I tried. They told me I’m really pushing it.”

Fine has been “really pushing it,” in all the best ways, through the formative years of Amazon’s development of digitally enabled author services and independent publishing. A lot of folks in the industry! the industry! will find it hard to imagine the big events of the year without him — and that inevitable, convivial drink afterward.

Not everybody knows to wear entertainingly bright, striped socks on publishing panels.

“Hey, they won’t get it if we don’t keep them awake,” he keeps telling me at these functions.

And as usual, Fine is right. TC mark

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