Harper’s Sara Nelson on the Lifelong Pursuit of Learning
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” William Butler Yeats once wrote. If Yeats is to be believed, then Sara Nelson is aflame in her position as executive editor at HarperCollins. The relatively new appointment comes after several extremely high-profile positions, including editorial director at Amazon and editor-in-chief with Publishers Weekly. And despite such an esteemed résumé, Nelson underscores how much more she wants to learn about publishing — a humble statement from an industry titan — but not a particularly surprising one, considering Nelson’s love for the art of writing.
From Freelancing to Publishing Houses
Although most people know Nelson’s name as a powerhouse in the publishing industry, her post-college career started as a freelancer. “I was a freelance writer for a long time, writing about a lot of different stories. I did that for a number of years, and I always read a lot, so I started to specialize in book reviewing,” she says. Interviewing authors and learning about the publishing world helped deepen her interest in the literary industry, which led her to write her own book, So Many Books, So Little Time, solidifying her standing as an expert in the field and leading to her tenure at Publishers Weekly.
“I’ve been in the book business since then, that was in 2005, but this is the first time I’ve ever been at a publishing house, when I’ve actually been acquiring books,” she says. “I knew a lot about the publishing business when I started at HarperCollins a year ago, but I had never really done it, so I didn’t really know what it was to go through an auction, I didn’t understand how the relationship with agents worked, I didn’t know anything about the relationship between editorial and the sales force, and how to get books out to booksellers, so I’m learning a ton.”
Learning From One Another
One of Nelson’s most unique traits is that she is confident in what she knows about the industry, but she is freely willing to ask her colleagues for tips when she is less sure of a topic area. “I have a lot more experience outside of publishing, while many of my coworkers have never worked outside of publishing houses. So there are certain things that I know because of working at Amazon, such as how books are promoted. But these people I’m working with now, who may be twenty years younger than I am, may know a whole lot more about how a conversation should go with an author whose book you want to acquire, or how to behave in an auction.”
That give-and-take between the staff members creates a synergistic publishing firm that offers a uniquely well-rounded experience to the authors who work with HarperCollins. “I think I bring things to the publishing house that other people don’t have, but there’s a lot for me to learn from people that have been in publishing for a lot longer than I have,” Nelson says.
Don’t Mourn the Death of Paper Books Just Yet
As someone who was integral in helping build the e-book market during her tenure at Amazon, Nelson is well aware of the strong feelings that many people have about whether e-books will eventually overtake paper books, but she advises stakeholders not to panic.
“When I was at Publishers Weekly back in 2005, there was this thing starting called the e-book, and everybody was freaking out, and there all this talk that it was going to be the ‘death of the book’ as we know it and all this stuff. Bottom line, that didn’t happen. E-books are there, and a lot of people read them, but they have hardly eclipsed paper books. It’s not like they’ve ruined the traditional book at all.”
Although the publishing business is ever-evolving and will continue to do so, it doesn’t mean physical books will be heading to the wayside any time soon. “I think the death of publishing has been greatly exaggerated,” Nelson says.
Titles on the Horizon
HarperCollins is continuing its tradition of bringing fresh new voices to the field, and early next year will see the debut of Aimee Molloy’s The Perfect Mother. “It’s about four mothers in a mommy’s group with newborns in Brooklyn; they all go out one night and leave the babies home with the babysitter. They don’t know each other all that well, and one of the infants goes missing. They all suspect each other. It’s really good, smart book that asks, ‘what’s the perfect mother?’”
Another upcoming release is Adrienne Sharp’s The Magnificent Esme Wells, a novel about a girl growing up in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the ’30s and ’40s. “Her father’s kind of a low-level gangster in Bugsy Siegel’s organization,” Nelson says. “It’s just incredibly funny, and very wise. It’s a coming-of-age story but set in this really fascinating time.”
“It’s All About Voice”
When Nelson is reading manuscripts for potential acquisition, “it’s all about voice and being really hooked within the first 20 pages,” she says. “I like a plot, it doesn’t have to be a thriller plot, although there has to be some story. But for me it’s all about voice and to be really hooked by within the first 20 pages of a book. I really like things that are off-center, things that aren’t linear or predictable.”
Nelson says one big thing she’s learned from working at HarperCollins is how difficult it is to publish a book well. “It’s a lot harder to find good material, then when you find it it’s a competition for it, everybody’s looking for the novel that’s going to change the way we think about a certain topic.”