May 10, 2012

Sara Nelson joins Amazon


Sara Nelson

The news that former Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson was hired by yesterday 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 with the news a few months ago that Nancy Pearl had sold out, you could just feel spirits flag across the industry for a moment.

Of course, few places reported it that way. In PW itself, which broke the news, the story didn’t even merit much space. Here it is in its entirety:

Sara Nelson, book editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, is moving to Amazon where she will be editorial director, Books. A spokesperson for Amazon said Nelson “will be leading our editorial vision for books in the print and Kindle bookstores on”

In her new role, Nelson is expected to  give a fresh look and voice to the books home page which may include writing a column and talking up books both on the site and at public events. Nelson, who was editor-in-chief of PW before joining O, will be based in New York and is expected to begin her new job in June. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to expand the content on and to bring my voice to this Web site visited by millions of passionate readers,” said Nelson in a statement.

But at least one report got to the murkier aspect of the story that made it, well, more newsworthy. In a report for PaidContent, Laura Hazard Owen observes that “Now Nelson will serve as cheerleader for a company that many in the traditional book publishing industry regard as largely responsible for the crumbling of that business.”

We’ve heard that Nancy Pearl is telling friends the response to her joining forces with Amazon was so overwhelming she’d un-do the decision if she could. Nelson is a tougher veteran, having worked at numerous top-notch magazines and newspapers, and it’s doubtful she’ll generate quite that amount of animosity. Within the industry, she’s been such a great champion for such a wide swath of publishing efforts — including those of little houses like Melville House — that the affection for her runs true and deep. I know I’ll always be grateful for the attention she’s given our books, in places where we might not have gotten that attention otherwise. And there’s no nicer person in the business.

All of which made the announcement a bit more poignant, and made the question of why a bit more pointed.

In possible answer to that, Laura Hazard Owen smartly observes something else no one else did: that the savvy Nelson may have read the writing on the wall at her previous assignment. “If some critics consider Nelson’s move a bargain with the devil, it’s undeniable that her new position will put her in touch with plenty of readers to create and nurture — undoubtedly many more than she reached through ‘O’ magazine, whose circulation newsstand sales have plunged in recent months following the ending of Oprah’s talk show.”

Still ….


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives