— Within the highly automated folds of Amazon’s
online bookstore, there’s a small team of literary
types whose main job is rather old school.
read books, write about them and rank the works
according to their qualities, helping readers sift
through thousands of offerings while also planting the
tech juggernaut’s flag in the world of literary
an engineer-driven company ruled by algorithms and
metrics, the Amazon book editors are rare birds. Once in
a while, they’re misunderstood by authors and
publishers who retain a deep suspicion of Amazon.com
after years of clashes over the book industry’s
editors produce Amazon Book Review, an online offering
similar to literary supplements newspapers have been
putting out for more than a century. They also put
together frequent lists of recommendations prominently
displayed on Amazon’s bookstore.
current team was assembled by Sara Nelson, a renowned
publishing veteran who was Amazon’s editorial director
until recently ending her four-year stint to become
executive editor and vice president at HarperCollins,
one of the big New York publishers.
with Nelson’s departure, though, evidence is clear
that Amazon intends to leave its mark in book culture as
much as it wants to sell books.
month, after four intense meetings and a lot of hallway
discussions, the team of editors picked "Lab
Girl," Hope Jahren’s memoir on becoming a plant
biologist, as the best book of the year so far, an honor
that some publishing experts said could help boost
recognition and sales.
in an interview before her departure was announced, said
the editorial team’s scope is broader than that of
highbrow literary journals. The ultimate aim, after all,
is to sell books.
not choosing books that are going to be in the
canon," Nelson said. "We’re choosing books
that we think are going to connect with our
be sure, the Amazon editors’ output is still far from
having the impact of, say, The New York Times Book
really don’t know much about it," said Tina
Weiner, director of the Yale Publishing Course, who
added that skepticism about Amazon’s neutrality is
hard to dispel because the tech and retail giant is
regarded by some "to be only out to make a
it comes at a time when many hard-up newspapers are
whittling down their literary supplements, and getting a
freshly minted book noticed amid a torrent of
information is harder. "There’s probably a need
for other sources" of serious criticism that will
allow good work to surface, Weiner said.
in the publishing world have an unequivocally positive
view of the Amazon book editors.
program is "extremely, widely and warmly
admired," said a prominent New York literary agent
who spoke on condition of anonymity. And not because
they are the "biggest account in the
business," but because they read seriously and
influence readers, the agent said.
existence of this unusual group of book editors
highlights the experimental strategy that underlies most
of Amazon’s efforts.
book editors’ curated approach coexists with automated
recommendations based on a reader’s purchasing history
and with thousands of customers’ reviews that readers
post on Amazon’s site. It also overlaps with Goodreads,
a website owned by Amazon that also has posted reviews
and allows readers to see what books their friends are
there’s the Daily Deal that Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO
of publishing consultancy Codex Group, said generates
"by far" the "biggest online discovery
within the Amazon world."
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interesting to note how much the book-editor team
focuses on traditional publishing versus the fire hose
of self-published Kindle works Amazon has enabled.
of it is the nature of the traditional review process,
which is based on receiving galley copies in advance of
publication so the editors have time to form an opinion
and write it up, especially when they prepare monthly
recommendations. Self-published books tend to head out
of the gate without much notice, and there are so many
it’s hard to pick which ones are relevant.
team members say that as they develop twice-annual and
annual recommendations they look for opportunities to
surface self-published titles that might have made an
a former editor-in-chief of Publisher’s Weekly and
book editor at Oprah’s O magazine, joined Amazon in
the summer of 2012.
came onboard to inject some life into the existing
Amazon book review, then mainly known as "Omnivoracious."
The blog, Nelson said, "needed a face-lift."
cobbled together the current team of five editors, from
all corners of the book world, including people already
doing book reviews at Amazon and at New York publishing
houses. Nelson ran the shop from her office in New York,
close to the traditional publishing world, but her team’s
book-filled cubicles are on the 11th floor of an Amazon
building in Seattle, where the company is headquartered.
most literary reviews, which rely on freelancers, Amazon
Book Review depends on content mostly churned out by the
Amazon bookworms at the tune of a couple of posts a day.
That includes about 10 book reviews per month.
means a regimen of intensive reading. Adrian Liang, one
of the editors and also an independent romance-novel
author, said she likes to focus on sci-fi, fantasy and
romance. Seira Wilson, who before joining Amazon in 2009
was a sales representative for HarperCollins,
specializes in young-adult literature, as well as kids
books and cookbooks.
Foro, an 18-year Amazon veteran who was once a bookstore
manager, likes to read narrative nonfiction and,
according to his website profile, books about bears.
Foro acknowledges the uniqueness of the group among
Amazon’s legions of engineers and MBAs.
anomalous," he said.
recognition of the huge diversity of readers that shop
at Amazon, book editors must be catholic in how they
spend their reading time. They not only go for the big
books likely to earn critical acclaim: they also aim for
reading works that will entertain or otherwise be
interesting to Amazon clients. In addition, genrereaders
who buy on Amazon help inform what book editors are
going to review.
read for different reasons," said team member Chris
Schluep, a former senior editor at Random House, one of
the so-called Big Five book publishers.
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book editors also help bring literary culture to other
Amazonians by moderating so-called "fishbowls"
with visiting authors. (There are also fishbowls with
famous people from the worlds of film and music, Amazon
June, in a room packed with more than 200 captivated
Amazonians, Schluep interviewed Angela Duckworth, author
of "Grit," a New York Times best-seller about
the benefits of having a strong and persevering
event was streamed to a neighboring room, also packed.
Other visitors have included Bob Woodward, the
investigative journalist, and Ishmael Beah, who was
launched to fame by his memoir of a life as a child
soldier in Sierra Leone and a few years ago wrote his
who led the conversation with Duckworth, said authors
sometimes are intimidated by the idea of coming to
for one, wasn’t too fearful. CEO Jeff Bezos’ mother,
Jackie, sits on the board of her foundation. "I
feel this strange kind of a tie-in" with Amazon,
she said. Besides, "most of my books are sold
through Amazon," she said.
where the editors have had their biggest impact is in
their recommendations of what they consider the best
reads. They do so monthly, tallying dozens of books
spread in 15 categories, from history to business. They
also put out more substantial "best-of" lists
in June and at the end of the year.
recommendations are picked up by The Christian Science
Monitor and Business Insider (a business-news website
that counts Bezos among its investors), a sign that the
book group is making the rounds beyond the online store.
early June the editors gathered over bottles of water in
a conference room to pick a midyear contingent of the 20
best books "so far." Coming in with a list of
38 books drawn from monthly lists posted on the site,
they aimed to quickly weed out 18. It was not easy.
editors championed their favorites, Erin Kodicek, a
one-time librarian and department manager at Barnes
& Noble who has spent nearly 10 years at Amazon,
kept bringing up the ax. "Don’t forget we have to
cut some," she said.
a grim report about poverty in Milwaukee by Matthew
Desmond, drew praise among many of the editors, one of
whom suggested putting it close to the top.
can’t put too many depressing books near the
top," said Schluep, the former Random House editor.
it shows you a way out of the cycle of addiction,"
said Liang, the indie author.
many are we going to have on the top five?" Schluep
we should change the top five to top 50," Kodicek
it came to "Lab Girl," it was clear that book
would go places. "Top five for sure," Kodicek
said, to widespread agreement. "This could be a
contender for No.1."
their picks have an impact on sales or put a book on the
radar of other literati is hard to measure. The literary
agent who didn’t want to be identified certainly
pointed to the team’s early embrace of Celeste Ng’s
debut novel "Everything I Never Told You,"
picked as best book of 2014. It likely helped the book
become a success, she said.
Kiyan, a spokeswoman for Ng’s publisher, Penguin
Press, declined to say whether the imprint or the author
thought they had gotten a specific boost from Amazon’s
accolade. "We are thrilled with the success of ‘Everything
I Never Told You’ and grateful for the enthusiasm and
support from the Amazon editorial team as well as
others," she said in a statement.
Ng’s novel also gave Amazon a begrudging nod from U.K.
newspaper The Guardian.
no literary prize can claim scientific objectivity for
its judgments, one might be suspicious of a trophy given
by Amazon," wrote Guardian columnist Mark Lawson,
who nevertheless concluded that after delving into the
book "there is much here that might impress
Pulitzer and Man Booker judges as well as the panelists
of an online bookseller."
bucking the trend to help an unknown author gain
recognition also helps Amazon’s literary taste win
some recognition, too.
as Schluep, one of the book editors, said of authors and
their encounters with Amazon: "They realize we’re
just humans who like books."