5 Questions with Sara Nelson, VP, Executive Editor, HarperCollins

Sara Nelson, dbw, digital book world conference, harper, harpercollinsSara Nelson is a vice president, executive editor and special advisor to the publisher at Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. Before joining the publisher, she was the editorial director for books and Kindle at Amazon, the books editor at O, Oprah’s magazine, and the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly.

This year at DBW 2017, Sara is part of a session in which she will help provide an inside look at what’s going on at the big publishers.

We spoke with Sara about her DBW session, her career, and what the biggest issues in the industry are.

Your career has been so wide-ranging. From where you sit, what is the state of the industry today?

I think the industry is always in better shape than people inside it tend to believe it is. Publishing has always been difficult, and while it’s undeniable that new technology, the Internet, large retailers and other big, bad boogeymen are putting pressure on the business, they are also helping it in innumerable ways.

Ebooks, for example, are bringing writing to many more readers, but the ebooks themselves bring less profit to the publishers (than traditional hardcovers). So there’s give and take, good and bad.

There will always be a market for good writing and storytelling, whatever the format, and there are always going to be “gatekeepers,” no matter how much people complain about them. In fact, the more self-published stuff that’s out there, the more imprints, the more books, the more regular people (i.e. people who buy books) are going to need a filter, a curator, a gatekeeper. Nobody can read everything, after all: people still want to hear what’s the best of the bunch.

Are there any big lingering issues that publishers need to address?

The biggest issue, as I see it, is cutting through all the media “noise” to get people to read books. There are just so many things vying for our leisure time: movies, TV, etc. It’s not so much that the kinds of books published need to change—though there’s some argument for that (see YouTube books, bloggers-as-authors)—but we need to find new ways to make people aware of books and make them want to read them.

You’re also an author yourself with 2003’s So Many Books, So Little Time. How did that experience inform the way you approach the industry as an editor?

Ah, if only I knew then what I’m just learning now! I had a wonderful publishing experience with that book. I had a smart agent, who helped me tremendously with the proposal. He sent it out to a half dozen or so editors (some of whom I knew, some not). One of them (Neil Nyren and Putnam) pre-empted, and 18 months later my book came out.

In those days I had no idea how labor-intensive it is for the editor: you have to round up in-house support, you have to negotiate with the agents, you have to read a dozen manuscripts to find one you want to publish. And then you have to figure out how to publish this thing you love! It’s much, much harder than I anticipated.

I like to think that because of that experience—being on the other side of the desk, as it were—I am more sympathetic to writers and try not to leave anyone dangling, be straightforward and fair about what I expect, editing-wise, etc. But honestly, I think I have always been sympathetic to writers. My new job has taught me sympathy for editors!

Your session at DBW 2017 is titled “What’s Working, What’s Not: Publishers Talk About the Trade.” What sort of ideas will you be discussing?

I think people always want to know what “the trends” are going to be, so I expect we’ll talk about that. Essentially, I think it’s impossible to predict trends, and I hope that we can avoid the me-too nature of publishing (and other creative endeavors, like movies, for example).

Just because something worked five years ago doesn’t mean it will work now, and just because a book on Topic A worked last year doesn’t mean another on the same topic will work now. Does the book work on its own? Is the writing good? Is the author promotable?

What made you want to be a part of DBW 2017?

I love to talk about publishing, and I’m so happy to be on the inside, actually finding and making books. I loved the experience of being on the near-outside, writing about books and authors and the industry, but it’s both a completely new and somehow familiar experience to be involved at a much earlier stage in the publishing process.

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4 thoughts on “5 Questions with Sara Nelson, VP, Executive Editor, HarperCollins

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Good points all. Living near a major university, I’d add another risk to book publishing. For many young adults, reading now means texting one another brief remarks filled with terse abbreviations and emoticons. That’s not good preparation for reading even the shortest of books. It’s a bit like preparing for a marathon by walking to the refrigerator.

    Amazon is attempting to fight that trend by joining it with its Rapids app and $3/month subscription service. You can watch Amazon’s promotional video here: https://rapids.amazon.com

    Will that work? Probably not, and I’ve pointed out why elsewhere on DBW. The most important reason is that good story telling can never be squeezed into characters sending text messages. The result is likely to be so awful, it will turn some kids off on reading much like the dreadful Alice and Jerry readers, which had a similarly limited format, did for many in my baby boomer generation.

    I would offer Sara Nelson a suggestion. Don’t look down on independent publishing. Include it in your gate-keeping. Hire perceptive lay people in small to middle-sized towns to read those books, often languishing in obscurity, and pick out ones that might do well with the additional editing and publicity that major publishers can offer. Become like the old-time major league baseball teams that sent out scouts to watch for talented players in the minor leagues.

  2. Yoav Lorch

    Sara –
    I absolutely agree with you that the big challenge is to make books surface above the clutter.
    You should look into Total Boox, where we create immediate availability, and bring books and people closer than ever before.

  3. Kate

    It worries me that a major criterion is “Is the author promotable?” I am an aspiring author, but I have a shy, retiring personality and am physically well past my best years. Should I just give up?

  4. David VanDyke

    The claim that ebooks bring less profit is hugely telling. Somehow, a physical object that needs more work to set up, plus all the labor to coordinate printing and distribution, plus dealing with returns STILL makes them more profit than an ebook that can be uploaded and distributed with stunning ease.

    This is either a false claim, or it highlights the profitability of hardcovers, which are barely more costly to print than paperbacks. Ebooks yield, in effect, a roughly 65% markup after setup costs, and she claims hardcovers are more profitable than that.

    Given that many other businesses operate on razor-thin margins of few percent, how can publishers be claiming to be under profit pressure, unable to pay their non-blockbuster authors decent advances? Are they paying too much for New York real estate? Putting stock price above good business? Badly managed? I really have no idea, but these are questions that need asking.



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