Every morning at 2 o’clock Chris Schluep wakes up, reads for an hour, then goes back to sleep. He’s done that for at least a couple of decades and can’t really explain why.
“It’s like someone asking me, ‘why do you eat food?’ or ‘why do you put your feet on the floor when you get out of bed?’ I just do. Books are vital to me. I love reading, and I’ve always been this way,” said Schluep, who manages the Amazon Books editorial team.
Schluep is part of a small team of literary lovers who had many years of experience in the publishing industry before joining Amazon. They’re obsessed with helping customers find their next great read, and they do it the old-school way by sorting through thousands of published works, reading almost a hundred books each month, debating the merits of books they’ve read, and then assembling monthly recommended reading lists for customers through Amazon.com and the company’s retail bookstores.
“The machine learning at Amazon and the personalization system here is extremely impressive,” said Erin Kodicek, an editor on the Amazon Books team. “But when the guys who work on artificial intelligence want a book recommendation, they come to us.”
The books editorial team includes Schluep, Kodicek, Adrian Liang, Seira Wilson, Jon Foro, Sarah Harrison Smith, and other avid readers throughout the company. One way they help customers discover books they’ll enjoy is through curated lists that are part of Amazon’s book personalization system that includes automated recommendations based on purchase history, customer book reviews, a site called Goodreads which allows people to see what books their friends are reading, and the Amazon Book Review blog.
Discussion, debate and ‘killing your darlings’
Schluep’s team just released their Top 20 picks for 2018’s Best Books of the Year So Far. The list includes fiction and non-fiction must-reads heading into the summer, but it wasn’t easy for the book-loving team to narrow a large list of possibilities down to 20 titles.
“It’s this painful process of killing your darlings because these are all books that we are passionate about and that we really, really love. It can be a tense process,” said Kodicek. “Yeah, we do it the old-fashioned way,” Schluep added. “We argue.”
As each team member tries to sway another toward their favorite books, they keep their customers in mind. “We want to find books that appeal to a variety of readers. People read to be entertained. They read to learn something, to be inspired. They read because they really appreciate a well told, well-structured story. We hope our lists represent that,” Kodicek said. “It’s about introducing readers to new authors, or authors who they otherwise might not have discovered. That’s what we really get a kick out of.”
The Amazon Books editorial team’s number 1 pick was unanimous this year. That’s rare. The best book of the year so far is “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover. Kodicek describes the memoir as an extraordinary story of a woman who was sitting in a college class when the professor mentioned the Holocaust. She raised her hand and asked, “What’s the Holocaust?”
“It was not a sick joke. She honestly didn’t know what it was and that’s because she never set foot into a classroom until she was 17 years old,” said Kodicek. “She grew up with a family where the father was very distrustful of the government, he did not believe in sending them to school or to the doctor. So it’s a story of how she survived her survivalist upbringing and she eventually ended up getting a PhD from Cambridge University.”
Although they’re pleased with the top 20 picks, the editorial team’s task of reading, discussing and selecting books never ends. And that’s the way they like it. Soon they’ll choose their favorites for the next month, then the next, and eventually 2018’s “best of the year” list.
“There are so many great books. We don’t care what you read, and we don’t care if it’s on paper, on the Kindle, on a stone tablet, or Audible. Just please read,” Kodicek said. “We want people to love reading as much as we do.”
That doesn’t mean readers need to get up at 2 a.m. to swipe open a Kindle book, like Schluep does. But they might relate to his attitude toward literature.
“When you find a great book it’s like finding a great friend,” he said. “What’s the value of having a great friend? You tell me.”
Favorite books of all time
Click below to hear how Erin and Chris discovered a love of reading, and find out what their favorite books of all time are. Hint: Erin’s favorite is from someone she describes as “one of our greatest living writers.” Chris has “unapologetically” read his favorite book three times, although many of us struggle to get through it once.