How Amazon’s book reviewers influence what we read

Angel Gonzalez
The Seattle Times

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.

They 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 culture.

In 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 after years of clashes over the book industry’s future.

The 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.

The 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.

Even 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.

Last 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.

Nelson, 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.

“We’re 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 readers.”

A prominent New York literary agent who spoke on condition of anonymity said the program is “extremely, widely and warmly admired.” And not because they are the “biggest account in the business,” but because they read seriously and influence readers, the agent said.

The existence of this unusual group of book editors highlights the experimental strategy that underlies most of Amazon’s efforts.

The 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 reading.

Then 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.”

In 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, genre readers who buy on Amazon help inform what book editors are going to review.

“People 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.

Perhaps 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.

Amazon’s 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.

In 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.

As 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.

“Evicted,” 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.

“We can’t put too many depressing books near the top,” said Schluep, the former Random House editor.

“But it shows you a way out of the cycle of addiction,” said Adrian Liang, one of the editors and also an independent romance-novel author.

“How many are we going to have on the top five?” Schluep retorted.

“Maybe we should change the top five to top 50,” Kodicek said.

When 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.”