How Amazon influences what we read

In an engineer-driven company ruled by algorithms and metrics, the Amazon book editors are rare birds.
Reuters

In an engineer-driven company ruled by algorithms and metrics, the Amazon book editors are rare birds.

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 Amazon 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 at HarperCollins.

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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 honour 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."

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To be sure, the Amazon editors' output is still far from having the impact of, say, The New York Times Book Review.

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 co-exists 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 generates "by far" the "biggest online discovery within the Amazon world".

Oprah's

Unlike most literary reviews, which rely on freelancers, Amazon Book Review depends on content mostly churned out by the Amazon bookworms at the tune of a couple of posts a day. That includes about 10 book reviews per month.

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.

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.

Whether their picks have an impact on sales or put a book on the radar of other literati is hard to measure.

Nelson pointed to the team's early embrace of Celeste Ng's debut novel Everything I Never Told You, picked as best book of 2014. It likely helped the book become a success, she said.

 - MCT

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