More Notes Towards an Ambassador of Literature

At the beginning of 2012, I wrote out some ideas I’d been having about an “ambassador of literature,” essentially a “paid spokeperson for awesome books” who could use online and offline platforms to encourage people to read more—with some specific recommendations, sure, but at a fundamental level simply promoting reading itself as a thing worth doing. I talked about NPR’s Nancy Pearl as a possible model for how that could work, and I think came up with another interesting approach, hiring Sara Nelson as the editorial director of the store’s book section.

For those of you who don’t know who Sara is, here’s a quick rundown: She’s a former editor-in-chief at Publishers Weekly, and used to run the books section at O Magazine; she’s also the author of So Many Books, So Little Time, a memoir detailing her attempt to read a book a week for an entire year. Although I never reported directly to Sara when I was writing for PW, I did have a fair amount of contact with her, and I’d also see her regularly at book fairs and writers’ conferences—in some cases, we’d be speaking on the same panels about making it in today’s book world… or, for that matter, whether today’s book world is going to make it. She loves books, and from what I’ve seen, she recognizes that books depend upon a thriving publishing industry, and a thriving retail market, if they’re going to flourish.

What does it mean, though, to be the “editorial director” of’s book section?

"I can't help but wonder if running the books page of a major online retailer should be called "bookseller," not "editor.""

As some of you might know, I worked at’s book department in 1998 and 1999—not in the position that Sara just accepted, but one or two levels below it. And I hear where Jacket Copy book blogger Carolyn Kellogg is coming from, wondering if we can really call this an editorial gig. I don’t know how Amazon envisions Sara’s job as it exists today; what I can tell you about my job nearly 15 years ago was that my lateral colleagues and I did have a lot of what was called editorial autonomy in terms of choosing the books we wanted to promote, and the ways in which we got those books reviewed, whether we wrote the reviews ourselves or assigned them to freelancers. At the same time, we knew full well that we were working for a bookstore and that the overall mission was to sell books. So, recognizing that just about every book has an audience, I generally made sure to find a sympathetic reviewer for each book, somebody who could explain why you would like that book if you were the sort of person who would like that book. (It’s worth noting that I specifically managed—we didn’t say “curated” in those days—the politics and current events sections, so that specifically meant finding reviewers who could advocate for books that held positions antithetical to my own views.)

There were exceptions—I wrote a not-insignificant number of negative reviews when I was Amazon, for books that I believed were so awful that the responsible thing to do was explain why they were awful—and I never caught flak for that. As long as my section was selling books at a decent clip, and I coordinated with the “store-wide” promotions, I was left to my own devices. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I was in marketing, but that’s not the way we tended to think about it then, nor was it the way we were encouraged to think about it—even when Amazon introduced a co-op program, with publishers paying for sponsored placement of books, it was initially presented to the editors as something that would be integrated with their own sense of which books were worth featuring, not something to which their sensibility would need to conform.

The editorial team of Books was one of the departments targeted for layoffs in early 2000, in what looked from my then-outside perspective to be a shift in emphasis from’s “authority” as a source of book reviews to encouraging greater participation in the “community” of customer reviews. (This was around the time customer reviews started having that “Was this review helpful to you?” survey tacked on; I always suggested it would be a lot more interesting to have that question asked of the “staff” recommendations.) You could make a case for the pendulum swinging back in recent years: Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog was an interesting way of restoring a strong “editorial” voice. So when I see PW describe Sara’s new role as “[giving] 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,” I have to admit, that sounds like an “ambassador of literature” to me. And though I’d always figured it should be a role that wasn’t linked to any one retail outlet, the reality of the situation is that is one of the biggest players in the book world, and one of the few capable of committing to the resources an ambassador of literature would need to have any meaningful impact. And, given my familiarity with Sara and her passion for books, I think there could be a lot to look forward to here. I wish her luck in the new position, and we’ll see what happens next!

9 May 2012 | theory |