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Book City: A chat with Amazon's Kindle and books editorial director

Amazon exec Sara Nelson also used to work with Oprah Winfrey. She dishes about the start of Oprah's book club, a job that's the most fun in the world and how she tries to keep organized about what she reads.
Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson

The Kindle family.

The Kindle family. Amazon.com

Sara Nelson may be the ultimate book world insider. Since June 2012, she’s been the editorial director of books and Kindle for Amazon.com. From 2005-2009 she was editor-in-chief for Publishers Weekly. She was book editor for O, the Oprah Magazine and helped launch Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because Nelson is the author of  the best-selling memoir/reading guide "So Many Books, So Little Time."

Val Easton: You were book editor for Oprah’s magazine… could you share an Oprah story with us?

Sara Nelson: Oprah is a real reader; when she loves something, she’ll call you up and babble on about a scene or a character or a line in a book. That happened a few times when I was working for her and she came upon a book she loved. It happened with "Wild" (by Cheryl Strayed), which is the book we launched the club with.

What book(s) are open on your nightstand right now?

I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s forthcoming "Life After Life," which is ... fantastic.  But I feel a little guilty reading that because there are so many things I’m supposed to be reading, books that are coming out in January that we’re considering for Amazon Books of the Month.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you or changed how you look at the world?

A novel I love, and this was really exciting because I came upon it with no prior knowledge of the author, is "The Middlesteins," by Jami Attenberg.  I’m not sure it changed the way I look at the world; it’s more that it confirmed for me that some of the thoughts and experiences I’ve had aren’t completely weird, that there are other people (the characters in this book) who are somewhat like me. 

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I absolutely loved "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich — even before it won the National Book Award for fiction. 

Do you have one or two books you recommend as gifts?

Out of respect for Philip Roth’s announcement that he is not going to write fiction anymore, I think everybody should go out and read his very best book (among many great books) "American Pastoral." At the same time, I’d say you really can’t go wrong with John Grisham’s latest, "The Racketeer."

As author of "So Many Books, So Little Time," do you have a system of figuring out what books are worth your time and attention?

I have so many systems I lose track of what they are! I have piles all over my house and my office, I dip in and out of things. I used to think I had to finish every book I picked up, but now I try to read 30-40 pages before I make a decision to continue or quit. But a new thing I’m doing is reading an opening scene and then jumping ahead to something else that catches my eye, so I get a little bit of a sense of where the book might be going. But once I’ve decided I’m going to read the whole thing, I start back at the beginning.

Any well-reviewed or popular book you didn’t feel lived up to the hype?

Well, this is tricky. Yes, there are some, of course, but I’m not sure it’s the books’ fault. I mean, sometimes NO book could live up to the hype it gets.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The books, of course! Honestly, it’s Christmas all the time around here. I still get so excited when the mailman drops a box of books at my door.

What does it mean, day-to-day, to be editorial director of books at Amazon?

I think of myself as “curator-in-chief.” I work with a team of five full-time people and lots of helpers … we write trend pieces, share reviewing, choose the best books of the month and the year. We meet and talk about what we’re reading and sometimes we yell back and forth. It’s the most fun in the world.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

What, exactly, is the point of this interview? While I find the literary interests of Ms. Nelson mildly interesting, given her position, this article sheds absolutely no light on one of the most powerful, yet opaque companies in Seattle. The writer's one attempt at a real question, the one about books that didn't live up to the hype, was casually dodged by Nelson, probably to avoid offending any of Amazon's publishing partners. I'd like to know just how Nelson views her company's overwhelming power in the book marketplace, and whether Amazon is a force for good or evil in the evolving media landscape.

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry you were only mildly interested in what Sara is reading....she must be one of the most well-read women in the world. Her whole job is reading and discussing current books...who better to recommend titles, comment on the future of the book, and give us a look at what it would be like to be paid to read all day?

The point of this interview, and of every "Book City"column is to learn what politicians, artists, authors, civic activists and people in the book industry read as kids, what books they love best, which titles have most influenced them.....through that conversation light may well be shed on their personalities, their backgrounds, their professions. And the rest of us learn about books we might enjoy reading ourselves. My library queue has lengthened considerably since I started writing "Book City".

I'd like to know, too, whether Amazon is a force for good or evil in the evolving media landscape...but you can be sure their new Editorial Director wasn't going there. Some friendly book chats are more revelatory than others....as you said, Amazon is opaque and no doubt intends to remains so.
Valerie Easton

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 7:39 p.m. Inappropriate

As someone who reads for pleasure and to relieve stress, I read books cover to cover. But that's me, the sentence that leaps out at me is the idea of reading Marjorie Morningstar over and over. That is the one book I was never able to finish and after the third time trying, I just gave up forever.

Amaliada

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