Interviews > Published on December 6th, 2013

10 Questions with Sara Nelson, Editorial Director of Books and Kindle at

If the 15th century was the Age of Discovery and the 19th century was the Age of Empire, future generations will likely look back on the 2000s and dub this period the Age of Big Faceless Corporations. Google, Microsoft, Apple and Twitter: our lives are shaped and directed by these amorphous and impersonal entities, and possibly the most notoriously amorphous and impersonal of them all is Amazon.

Never one to respond in a personal way, when an automated response will do, Amazon’s lack of human touch seems as ingrained into its culture as tracks on a circuit board. But all that is changing, because behind the scenes, Amazon has quietly been replacing its autobots with real people, and one of these people is Sara Nelson, Editorial Director of Books and Kindle. Nelson, previously the Editor in Chief of Publisher’s Weekly and Books Director at Oprah’s O Magazine, heads the team responsible for, amongst other things, picking Amazon’s Best Books of 2013. She kindly agreed to answer ten questions about how the most powerful bookseller in the world chooses which books are best.

How did you and your team come up with the list?

The Best Books of the Year is an annual feature that includes the editors’ picks for the Top 100 Books of the Year as well as Top 20 lists in over two dozen categories. The categories range from Children’s & Teen to Cookbooks to Digital Singles, among others. We also have a feature highlighting Celebrity Picks.

Amazon has quietly been replacing its autobots with real people, and one of these people is Sara Nelson

We read a ton of books each year — and I mean a ton. This list represents a culmination of what our team of book editors believe to be the best. We spend a lot of time — reading, discussing and often times arguing — to curate this handpicked list for readers. To determine the final list for the Best Books of the Year, my team will look at past Best Books of the Month lists, which is the top 10 books of the month chosen by our team of editors, and any other noteworthy books.  

We see the list as an opportunity to introduce our customers to new books, and with the holiday season right around the corner, it gives them gift ideas for their family and friends. Since the top 100 books include everything from literary masterworks to genre fiction to nonfiction, there's something for everyone.

If the process involved a discussion (and I'm guessing it did!) was that discussion a lively one?

The discussion around developing our Best Books of the Year is always lively. Our team of editors is very passionate about books and it’s easy to see when we meet to discuss this list. We get together regularly to discuss what we liked and didn’t like, hoping that our favorite book will make it to the top of the list.

Your personal favorite?

The Goldfinch — it’s the best book I read all year.

(I liked it too — my review is here).

Any books you were sad didn't make it onto the list?

I think of myself as a careful, critical reader — but still, I seem to like more things than we have room for. Which suggests that there are many many good writers, publishers and publishing programs out there. But there can be only 10 top 10, etc. Besides, this is a team effort and sometimes, try as I might to twist the team’s collective arm, sometimes we disagree on specific titles and our votes cancel each other out. 

In a 2009 New York Times article titled “Serving Literature by the Tweet”, you mentioned that you were in favor of 'anything that takes the starch out of' serious literature. Was 'non-starchiness' an important factor when choosing the list?

I do drive the team a little nuts sometimes because I keep repeating:  No Homework! A book you don’t really want to read but feel you “have to”  is so often a book that doesn’t get read. Which is not to say we don’t look at serious books and take them seriously. But I truly believe that what readers want to know most of the time is not so much “Where does this book fit into the literary landscape?” as “Do I want to take it with me for the weekend?”  

I'm personally really interested to see four non-fiction books in the top ten. Does that reflect the popularity of non-fiction, or just the strength of those particular books?

We like to create a balance of fiction and nonfiction on the list, and I think it was a very strong year for all books — both fiction and nonfiction.

Amazon is now a publisher in its own right, yet I didn't spot any books published by Amazon on the list. How do you see that changing?

We look at books from many publishers, including Amazon. Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller is on the list and was published by Amazon Publishing. Also, in our Digital Singles category, several of the books are independently published using Kindle Direct Publishing.

Do you expect the list for 2014 to be very different from 2013?

It’s impossible to say, as we’ve just begun reading 2014 titles. I just hope it’s as great a year as 2013 was in all types and genres. 

If Fifty Shades of Grey had been published in 2013, would it have made the list?

It didn’t make our list last year, but it did make the best seller list!

What are you reading right now?

A great novel about the Dreyfus affair called An Officer and a Spy, a fun novel about a mysterious woman called Belle Cora, and Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure

Thank you Sara! And here's the books which she and her team picked as the top ten of 2013:

  1.     The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  2.     And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  3.     Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel
  4.     Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  5.     Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia
  6.     Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
        by Scott Anderson
  7.     Tenth of December by George Saunders
  8.     The Son by Philipp Meyer
  9.     House in the Sky: A Memoir by Amanda Lindhout
  10.     Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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