When Sara Nelson was laid off as editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly in 2009, The New York Observer called the news “astonishing” and wrote this:
“Over the course of her four years at Publishers Weekly, Ms. Nelson has come to serve as something of a den mother for an industry that, on its worst days, seems to be crumbling.”
The den mother, also described in the article as “one of publishing’s most visible cheerleaders,” soon landed on her feet as book editor at Oprah’s O Magazine. But four years later came another astonishing story, when Nelson accepted a position as Editorial Director at Amazon.com books.
Melville House co-publisher Dennis Johnson, a fierce and relentless Amazon critic, wrote that Nelson’s new job “was another one of those stories that take the wind out of your sails: A beloved book industry champion was going to work for the company doing so much damage to the industry and book culture at large.”
As Editorial Director at Amazon, Nelson led a team completely separate from the people tasked with business decisions such as how to negotiate new contracts with the Big 5 publishers. Nelson’s merry band of booklovers was responsible only for helping Amazon customers to find great books to read through features such as Best Books of the Month and a lively online book review, Omnivoracious.
This summer, four years after she joined Amazon, Nelson made another astonishing move, announced on June 28 by HarperCollins. She left Amazon to become Vice President, Executive Editor and Special Advisor to the HarperCollins Publisher, Jonathan Burnham.
Nelson talked about her move from Amazon to a Big 5 publisher on this week’s Kindle Chronicles podcast. I spoke with her by phone on August 9th, three weeks after she started work at HarperCollins.
“It’s the one piece of the publishing puzzle that I haven’t yet done in my career, so it seemed like it was time to do it,” she told me.
When I asked how people at HarperCollins have reacted to her arrival from Amazon, Nelson laughed and said, “People are curious. I mean, nobody has sat me down and tried to deprogram me or something. I think that people think that I know something about publishing and bookselling from having been at Amazon for four years.”
What’s the most valuable lesson she learned while working at Amazon?
“I think that’s probably a better question to ask me a year from now,” Nelson replied. “When you’re in the middle of something you just do it. You don’t stop to quantify, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that six months ago’ or ‘This is what I learned this week.’ It’s usually more amorphous than that.”
She did say working at Amazon gave her insight “about what goes on behind the scenes about how books get to readers” and “how sales go—what causes a bump, what doesn’t cause a bump.”
Nelson’s work at HarperCollins puts her at the front end of the book pipeline, where decisions are made to accept a manuscript for publication, whereas at Amazon she and her team were concerned with how to highlight books arriving for sale and distribution to readers.
“I work on both of them on the same principle,” she said, “which is I don’t want to miss anything.
“When I get a manuscript in, I want to be sure I give it fair attention before I decide I’m not going to bid on it, and at Amazon I was just afraid that we’d come up with our 10 best books of the month and I’d miss Gone Girl or something. I hated missing things, and I think I’m going to hate missing things here.”
Nelson said what she already misses the most from Amazon are the people she worked with.
“There are a lot of very serious readers at Amazon,” she said. “Honestly, I think that’s something that’s not understood.”
In addition to the five members of her editorial team, she drew on other employees who were passionate about reading and read a lot.
“There were some really wonderful readers and reviewers that we cherry-picked from around the company,” she said. “Book love is very much alive at Amazon.”
I’m glad I had a chance to hear Sara Nelson’s optimistic voice again during this week’s interview. She continues to be a cheerleader and den mother for an industry under considerable stress. Each time she moves on to a new position, she broadens her grasp of what readers want and how to get it to them.
And let’s conclude with this: She doesn’t miss much.