Sara Nelson

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Sara Nelson
Residence New York City, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Andover
Occupation Editor, book reviewer
Years active 1980–present
Notable work Book So Many Books,
So Little Time (2003)

Sara Nelson is an American publishing industry figure who is an editor and book reviewer and consultant[1] and columnist,[2] and is currently the editorial director at[3] Nelson is notable for having been editor in chief at the book industry's chief trade publication Publishers Weekly from 2005–2009 during a time of wrenching restructuring and industry downsizing. After that, she was book editor at Oprah's O Magazine. Her book So Many Books, So Little Time was published in 2003.[4] Her views have been widely reported in numerous publications such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and she has appeared on television broadcasts including CBS's The Early Show. She has written for the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post[5] about publishing industry trends and has been described as a "lively presence within the book publishing industry."[2] She is an extensive reader[6] and has been described as a "lover of books."[7]


Nelson attended Phillips Academy in Andover and graduated in 1974.[8] She wrote about books and publishing at the New York Post, the New York Observer, Glamour magazine, and held editorial positions at Self,, and Book Publishing Report.[2] Nelson married and had a child and is a fierce advocate for respect for working mothers.[9] Women struggled with ways to juggle careers and families, and stay-at-home moms and working mothers jostled over women's roles in the home, sometimes termed in the media as the Mommy Wars. Nelson wrote:

Nelson, based on a New Year's plan, embarked on an ambitious project to read one book each week and write about it, and the effort morphed into a book entitled So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading which was published by Putnam in 2003.[10] While her initial book–a–week plan fell apart almost immediately, according to New York Times book reviewer Ihsan Taylor, the effort was fruitful since the book was seen as a commentary on the "nature of reading itself."[11] Nelson's future employer, Publishers Weekly, reported that her book revealed her "infectious enthusiasm for literature in general."[12] Writer Augusten Burroughs said Nelson's book was a "smart, witty, utterly original memoir about how every book becomes a part of us."[13]

Nelson has been a consistent heavy reader throughout her life, and at one point, in a YouTube interview, said that she typically reads about 50 books cover–to–cover per year regardless of her self-imposed commitment. She will only write about a book after she's read it completely, according to Nelson in the interview. Further, she reads portions of many books which are sent to her or recommended by others, sometimes only the first ten pages. She favors fiction over non-fiction generally, occasionally reading classics overlooked during her college years, and some non-fiction works such as David McCullough's treatment of American president John Adams.[12]

Publishers Weekly[edit]


Nelson became editor–in–chief of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly in January 2005.[7] It was a powerful position since the magazine is traditionally regarded as a standard bearer for mainstream critical opinion regarding books. A positive review from Publishers Weekly can bring a big sales boost to an unknown title, and the editor–in–chief's opinion about new books has considerable weight in the publishing industry. New York Times reporter Edward Wyatt suggested that the top job at Publishers Weekly in 2005 involved facing "many challenges".[7]

In her new position, Nelson added a new assessment for books called a signature review.[14] She permitted greater variety in the length of reviews (typically 200 to 500 words long), considered bylines to reviews, and changes to the magazine's cover format.[7] She hired graphic designer Jean-Claude Suares, added color using so-called drop down shadows behind color book covers, and wrote an editorial each week. She switched the magazine's logo to use the two letters PW since the abbreviation was well understood within the publishing world. She developed a nominating board of several thousand booksellers and librarians to nominate books for prizes in nineteen different categories; readers voted for books within stores or online, and the awards were termed the Quill awards. There was increased use of a foldout advertisement on the front cover, with the theme repeated inside the table of contents page.

The first decade of the new century was marked by turbulence within the industry as well as a continuing trend away from serious writing and towards pop culture. Publishers Weekly had enjoyed a "near monopoly" over the past decades but was getting vigorous competition from Internet sites, e-mail newsletters and daily newspapers.[7] The industry was consolidating. Many independent booksellers—a mainstay of Publishers Weekly clientele—were going out of business.[7] Paid circulation dropped by 3,000 to 25,000 in the mid 2000s.[7] Nelson pushed for significant changes towards modernization, greater use of the Web, and more focus on analytical reporting.[7]

Nelson commented in an interview about how she saw PW evolving:

Nelson, looking at business practices within the book publishing industry, saw problems. She speculated that the industry practice of printing too many books to "kind of create a buzz" and then having to ship books back from bookstores was inefficient.[15] She saw a trend favoring so-called big books at the expense of lesser known writers:

Television's impact on publishing[edit]

Picture of a woman in a suit clapping.
Nelson noticed Oprah's impact on the book publishing industry, not knowing that the popular celebrity talk show host would one day be her employer.

In 2008, Nelson commented on the intersection of political candidates, books, and television celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, not knowing that the talk show celebrity would be her employer within a year. There were several dozen books about then-candidate Obama.[17] Nelson was interviewed on National Public Radio on Winfrey's influence,[18] similar to that of radio personality Imus,[19] in the publishing arena.[20] She described Oprah:

Television was playing a bigger role in the publishing industry in other ways. Nelson explained how publicity efforts such as a book excerpt were being eclipsed by TV interviews.[21] Publishers were increasingly seeking TV exposure for authors since "TV has a greater reach than magazines," she explained.[21] Sometimes TV shows require that some material not be used, she explained in an interview while commenting on the increasing use of a practice termed book embargoes.[22] In addition, other ways to promote books were becoming more prominent, such as book clubs.[23] Nelson was reportedly "not thrilled" by the trend towards pressuring authors to become speakers to promote their books publicly, and wondered whether the pressure from having to make public presentations would detract from a writer's focus on improving his or her craft.[24]

Reporters sought her insight about why some books generated controversy while others didn't[25] as well as her counsel on how publishers were trying to reach the lucrative teen market.[26] "Teens can be very passionate readers ... the format isn't as important as the fact that they're reading," she said.[27] Nelson commented that reading was ultimately a private act and said "Why people read what they read is a great unknown and personal thing."[28]

Controversies and industry realignment[edit]

During these years some prominent book fabrications emerged, with supposedly credible books being published which later were found to have been untrue.[29] Nelson wondered whether hoaxes would bring negative publicity to the publishing industry.[30][31] There was considerable fallout from an attempt to publish O. J. Simpson's controversial book If I Did It. Nelson criticized the project as a pathetic way of "trying to cash in."[32][33] By that point, a huge negative public backlash, which had been building up, erupted, and the publisher withdrew the book from the marketplace.

After a profound economic downturn beginning in 2007 and lasting for the next few years, the publishing industry slumped significantly. Nelson commented in 2008 how layoffs and salary freezes were "sobering".[34]

Advice for aspiring authors[edit]

Nelson's advice was repeatedly sought by aspiring writers regarding how to get their book on the coveted bestseller list.[5] When asked How to get a title on the bestseller list? she responded cryptically: "... That depends ... And who knows?"[5] Nelson said that publishers, evaluating a potential book, look to past successes to gauge potential profitability, and tend to rely on big-name authors[35] who have a series to sell.[36] Non-fiction books about food or eating tend to do well, and Nelson commented that Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food was doing well.[37] She counsels writers to write excellent books and "get it into as many people's hands as you can."[6]

Industry trends, digital books, self-publishing[edit]

Picture of a tablet with words.
Amazon's Kindle is one of many new technologies affecting the publishing industry. Nelson owns one as well as a Sony Reader.

Nelson wrote about such industry topics as Twitter writers signing book deals,[38] Jonathan Littell's controversial 1,000 page Holocaust novel,[16] and realignments of publishing firms.[39] Nelson was quoted about sleeper hit books such as Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen[40] as well as an expansion of what's considered to be chick lit which has grown to be more accomplished and "grown up," according to Nelson.[41] She commented on trends in changing technology, such as the coming of digital books such as Amazon's Kindle.[1] She owns a Kindle[6] and a Sony Reader and sees both as a "statement to the world that you like to read."[42] She said:

Nelson identified other trends. Fewer places review books now, unfortunately, but there is more information available to consumers who may not want in-depth literary reviews of a book; rather, they want to know whether it's worth plunking down $25, and that's it.[6] In some respects, according to Nelson, smaller publishers are better off than large houses which have huge budgets devoted to overhead; for example, Nelson said a small "mom and pop" publisher can do five books a year and be profitable.[6] She still thinks it's tough times for people employed within the industry; she said "You can do all the right things and still lose your job."[6] She thinks business-to-business magazines will become available mostly online, and soon.[6] In the past, self publishing was seen as the "exclusive realm of egomaniacs, eccentrics, and failures," according to a reporter in the Los Angeles Times, but over the past decade or so it's become more popular and somewhat better accepted.[43] Nelson commented in 2010 that there were more instances of publishers picking up a self-published book, although such success stories are still rare.[43] "Publishers are taking self-published books more seriously," she said.[43]

Dismissal from Publishers Weekly[edit]

Then, in 2009, Nelson was dismissed from Publishers Weekly. She said:

The action sent shockwaves through the industry and was widely covered in prominent newspapers.[44] There was considerable reaction by readers as well. One reader wrote: "Sara Nelson turned Publishers Weekly around!"[2] Another wrote that "Sara Nelson pulled Publishers Weekly into the 21st century with grace, verve, and panache. And I’ve never met such a loud cheerleader for books and for the book publishing industry."[2]

O Magazine[edit]

In September 2009, Nelson was appointed book editor at Oprah's O Magazine.[45][46][47] She continued to comment in the media about new forces in publishing such as the new quarterly literary magazine called Electric Literature which allows readers to read in a variety of media, including e-book, iPhone, and audiobook.[48] Nelson applauded the effort saying that "anything that takes the starch out" was good.[48] Generally, Nelson's outlook for the publishing industry is bright and thinks that "in the end readers will win."[49] Sara Nelson appeared with Harry Smith of CBS News on The Early Show.[50] She's also served as moderator for events sponsored by the LA Times Festival of Books.[51]


  • So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, Putnam, 2003.[10]


  1. ^ a b c BRAD STONE (April 4, 2009). "Is This the Future of the Digital Book?". The New York Times: Business. Retrieved 2010-10-05. “Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium,” said Sara Nelson, 
  2. ^ a b c d e f MOTOKO RICH (January 26, 2009). "Top Editor at Publishers Weekly Is Laid Off". The New York Times: Arts. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  3. ^ "Sara Nelson Heading to Amazon". Publishers Weekly. May 9, 2012. Retrieved November 23, 2012. ...Sara Nelson, book editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, is moving to Amazon where she will be editorial director, Books.... 
  4. ^ SARA NELSON (March 4, 2009). "Will Controversial Holocaust Novel Find an Audience?". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Sara Nelson is the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the author of "So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading." 
  5. ^ a b c d Sara Nelson (September 10, 2007). "What Makes a Best-seller Does Not Make a Winning Candidate". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Sara Nelson in Publishing Point video (November 2009). "Sara Nelson - Publishing Point Perspectives (interviewed by Susan Danziger) - November 2009". YouTube. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i EDWARD WYATT (January 5, 2005). "The Winds of Change Are Felt at Publishers Weekly". The New York Times: Arts. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Executives at Publishers Weekly, the 131-year-old trade journal, say that the appointment of a new editor on Monday had been in the works for weeks... 
  8. ^ Jack Gray (1999). "Reminiscences from Reunion 1999: year (G+25), courtesy of Jack Gray.". Andover's BlueLink. Retrieved 2010-10-05. New Yorkers Sara Nelson and Margaret Downs rushed back to campus to enjoy the Abbot tea with restaurateur Priscilla Martel. 
  9. ^ a b Sandra Tsing Loh (May 2006). "Rhymes With Rich". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  10. ^ a b Sara Nelson (2003). "So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading". Google Books. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  11. ^ Ihsan Taylor (January 2, 2005). "January 2, 2005". The New York Times: Arts. Retrieved 2010-10-05. SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME: A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson. (Berkley, $13.) Nelson, the publishing columnist for The New York Post, recounts how a simple plan -- to read 52 books in 52 weeks -- fell apart almost immediately, and comments on the nature of reading itself. Ihsan Taylor # ISBN 0-399-15083-8 Putnam Adult; Fourth Edition (October 9, 2003) ISBN 978-0-399-15083-8 
  12. ^ a b "Review of "So Many Book, So Little Time"". Publishers Weekly. 2003. Retrieved 2010-10-05. "I have a New Year's plan," Nelson writes in the prologue to this charming diary of an unapologetic "readaholic." ... 
  13. ^ "Booksigning - Sara Nelson". eventful. Jun 11, 2005. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Augusten Burroughs remarks, "A smart, witty, utterly original memoir about how every book becomes a part of us". 
  14. ^ DWIGHT GARNER (July 31, 2007). "Signed, Sealed, Delivered". The New York Times: Books. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  15. ^ Lev Grossman (Jan 21, 2009). "Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  16. ^ a b SARA NELSON (March 4, 2009). "Will Controversial Holocaust Novel Find an Audience?". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  17. ^ Martha T. Moore (2008-08-14). "Presidential race one for the books". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-10-05. "There seem to be a particularly large crop of books about Obama," says Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly. 
  18. ^ Ulrich, Carmen Wong (October 24, 2006). "The Oprah Effect: THE $1.4 BILLION WOMAN INFLUENCES POP CULTURE, CREATES STARS, AND DRIVES ENTIRE INDUSTRIES. HERE'S HOW SHE DOES IT". Essence. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Says Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, "Oprah is getting people who were not particularly reading, to read." 
  19. ^ Sridhar Pappu (April 11, 2007). "No One to Talk To?". Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Beyond personal loyalty, there are sound business reasons to "do" Imus. 
  20. ^ Liane Hansen (host),Lynn Neary (reporter) (December 9, 2007). "What Oprah's Endorsement Means for Obama". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  21. ^ a b JOANNE KAUFMAN (June 11, 2007). "A Publishing Quandary: Do Excerpts Help Sales?". Retrieved 2010-10-05.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  22. ^ Marcela Valdes (October 22, 2006). "Book Notes". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  23. ^ JOANNE KAUFMAN (November 19, 2007). "Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles". The New York Times: Media & Advertising. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, said an increasingly potent sales pitch when debating the merits of a manuscript is whether “this would work for a book group.” 
  24. ^ CELIA McGEE (June 4, 2007). "A Way to Give Authors a Lucrative Second Platform". The New York Times: Media & Advertising. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Not everyone is thrilled by the trend. Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, 
  25. ^ ALLEN SALKIN (September 28, 2008). "Writers Say the Torah Holds Key to Success in Business". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-05. But Sara Nelson, the editor of Publishers Weekly, disagreed with the authors’ assessment, saying she was surprised the potentially controversial subject matter was not attracting attention. 
  26. ^ James Poniewozik (Apr 30, 2006). "Books: An F for Originality". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Alloy's parent company also owns the teen shopping website What it provides publishers, says Publishers Weekly editor in chief Sara Nelson, is "the market researching of books, and every publisher is desperate for the teen market." 
  27. ^ Bob Minzesheimer and Carol Memmott (June 18, 2009). "Book publishers make a move toward mobile to attract teens". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Sara Nelson, an editorial consultant to, a fledging firm looking for new ways to connect the worlds of video and books, says it's smart for publishers to experiment with new formats, especially for teen readers. 
  28. ^ MOTOKO RICH (November 25, 2007). "A Good Mystery: Why We Read". The New York Times: Week in Review. Retrieved 2010-10-05. “Why people read what they read is a great unknown and personal thing,” said Sara Nelson 
  29. ^ David Carr (January 30, 2006). "How Oprahness Trumped Truthiness". The New York Times: Business. Retrieved 2010-10-05. "The book industry has been deeply embarrassed and I think that her show pointed up the disconnect between publishing and the real world," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. 
  30. ^ Carol Memmott (2008-03-05). "Author's 'Love and Consequences' memoir untrue". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-10-05. "This appears to be more of a deliberate, if naive, attempt at a hoax rather than a memoir that went too far," says Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly. 
  31. ^ Melissa McNamara (April 28, 2006). "Novel By Harvard Student Pulled". CBS News. Retrieved 2010-10-05. It's really kind of shocking," Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publisher's Weekly tells Solorzano. "I mean it's not common for publishers to pull a book before there's any sort of legal discussion. 
  32. ^ Sean Alfano (Nov 16, 2006). "Publisher Defends O.J. Book". CBS News. Retrieved 2010-10-05. “This is not about being heard. This is about trying to cash in, in a pathetic way, on some notoriety,” said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. 
  33. ^ Lynn Neary (August 15, 2007). "Victim's Family Reaches Deal on O.J. Simpson Book". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2010-10-05. "This is the book Rupert Murdoch didn't want to publish," said Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. 
  34. ^ Lynn Neary (December 5, 2008). "Book Industry Enters Shaky Chapter". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2010-10-05. But when the fallout from the Random House reorganization was announced on the same day that Simon & Schuster and the Christian publishing company Thomas Nelson announced layoffs, it stunned the book world, says Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. 
  35. ^ Bob Minzesheimer (Sep 4, 2009). "Fall Books: Brown, Albom, Crichton big names to watch". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Sara Nelson, former editor of Publishers Weekly, says "all the big names — the tried and true — are heartening to a business that's been struggling." 
  36. ^ RICHARD SANDOMIR (July 30, 2007). "The Ludlum Conundrum: A Dead Novelist Provides New Thrills". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-05. “Publishing does look to the past to see what will work in the future,” said Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. 
  37. ^ Carol Memmott (2008-01-03). "Winter books preview: Warmth, fire and chills await book lovers this season". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Non-fiction.In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (in stores) by Michael Pollan. "This could be the first non-fiction hit of the year," says Publishers Weekly's Sara Nelson. 
  38. ^ SARA NELSON (April 10, 2009). "Twitter's "Garyvee" Vaynerchuk Gets A Book Deal". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  39. ^ SARA NELSON (March 14, 2009). "Reganomics, or How to Publish Like a Porn Star". The Wall Street Journal: Life & Culture. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  40. ^ MOTOKO RICH (July 11, 2007). "Big Time for a Novel Set Under the Big Top". The New York Times: Books. Retrieved 2010-10-05. In Publishers Weekly, Sara Nelson, the editor in chief, wrote that “this overspending is worrisome,” and noted that “best-seller lists are loaded with books that even the most optimistic publisher could never have predicted would become the blockbusters they did — think ‘Marley and Me’ or ‘The Lovely Bones’ or, for that matter, ‘Water for Elephants.’ ” 
  41. ^ Olivia Barker (May 29, 2008). "'Prada' nips at author Lauren Weisberger's heels". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Nelson says. "The definition of chick lit has expanded to include some things that are a little more accomplished and grown-up and literary than what that term used to mean. 
  42. ^ JOANNE KAUFMAN (April 24, 2009). "With Kindle, Can You Tell It’s Proust?". The New York Times: Fashion & Style. Retrieved 2010-10-05. SARA NELSON, the former editor of Publishers Weekly, was at a dinner party recently... 
  43. ^ a b c Joanna Smith Rakoff (June 6, 2010). "Books & Ideas: An author's adventures in 'Anthropology'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-10-05. "Publishers are taking self-published books more seriously," said Sara Nelson, books editor for O,... 
  44. ^ Staci D. Kramer (January 27, 2009). " - Reed Tightens The Belt Again: Layoffs Hit Variety, Multichannel, PW; Wage Freeze; B&C Shrinking". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-10-05. At Publisher's Weekly, the layoffs include Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief for four years... 
  45. ^ Keith J. Kelly (September 11, 2009). "Casey's at the bat at O, The Oprah Magazine". New York Post. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Although Hearst earlier this week announced Pat Towers was retiring as features editor, with many of her old duties now being assumed by Sara Nelson, the mag's new book director, 
  46. ^ KEITH J. KELLY (September 10, 2009). "Oprah's O in overhaul". New York Post. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Sara Nelson was named books editor; 
  47. ^ Lynn Neary (September 10, 2010). "How To Sell A Book? Good Old Word Of Mouth". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2010-10-05. O book editor Sara Nelson attended the same event ... 
  48. ^ a b FELICIA R. LEE (October 27, 2009). "Serving Literature by the Tweet". The New York Times: Books. Retrieved 2010-10-05. As Sara Nelson, the books director of O, the Oprah Magazine, and former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, said, “Anything that takes the starch out — go for it.” 
  49. ^ Bob Minzesheimer (Dec 30, 2009). "Decade in books: Writers work magic, delivery has transformed". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-10-05. Hard bargains will have to be struck," says Sara Nelson, books editor of O magazine, "but in the end, readers will win. Over time, the more readers you can create and nurture, the better ... no matter what the format. 
  50. ^ "Sara Nelson appears on CBS's The Early Show". CBS News The Early Show. December 9, 2009. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 'O' magazine's Sara Nelson showed off her holiday book picks for everyone on your gift list.. Sara Nelson appeared with CBS's Harry 
  51. ^ "Publishing: Editors Speak Out at the LA Times Festival of Books". BookFox: Publishing. April 25, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-05. The panel is moderated by Sara Nelson, Books Director at Oprah magazine, ... 

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