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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.

By Valerie Easton

January 03, 2013.

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.

What do you read for your own personal enjoyment?

This is a hard one because there’s so little separation between my work and my life. It’s not as if, at Amazon, I have to read science textbooks or something. The great thing about this job is that my team and I get to praise and promote stuff we really love. 

What were your most cherished books when you were a child? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

Pippi Longstocking. Does anybody read that anymore? And then, when I was 13, my mother gave me two books. One was "Them," by Joyce Carol Oates. The other was Erica Jong’s "Fear of Flying." My mother was very progressive. 

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

I think often of a line in one of Jamaica Kincaid’s early novels — "Lucy" or "Annie John," I think —  about how when a woman’s relationship with one of her best friends starts to sour that’s when they pledge to room together, or otherwise pretend they’re still close.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?

Don’t laugh, but I read Herman Wouk’s "Marjorie Morningstar" a lot. And once I read "Anna Karenina," finally, for "So Many Books, So Little Time," I return to it often. Can’t wait to see the movie!

Do you have any favorite mysteries? Or favorites in another genre?

I like Laura Lippman’s books, and Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.

Do you read poetry? Any favorite poets?

I used to translate poetry from the Spanish, so I’ve read a whole lot more Octavio Paz than John Keats.   

What do you see as the future of books?

It seems to me that people talk about books more and more, not less and less. So it feels to me that the future of the book is very bright. And I don’t really have any patience with people who make a distinction between books and e-books: The fact is, if the story is good and the experience is seamless, how you read doesn’t matter. And honestly, I felt that way before I came to Amazon.

What Val’s Reading This Week:

She’s re-reading Carl Jung’s autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections," and loving how attuned Jung’s deep musings are to these short, dark days, and the transition between one year and the next.

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, including The New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.

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Printed on July 24, 2014