Many of us have a dream job, how many people do you know who are actually doing it? Sarah Gelman, a book lover and author whisperer, is living her dream job each day leading two teams at Amazon—the Books editorial team that helps customers discover and fall in love with new reads, and the Books public relations team that promotes Amazon's latest innovations for readers.
As you can imagine, reading a lot of good books is part of the job requirement, and for a bookworm like Gelman, it's a labor of love. "I still remember the first chapter book I ever read. I remember learning to read, and I feel like it opened up a world for me," she said. "I love how reading takes you places that you're not able to go otherwise and teaches you about people who are different from yourself. I'm incredibly passionate about helping others discover their love of reading, because if you love books, you'll never be lonely or bored."
Gelman also regularly hosts Author Live at Amazon Live, a video series where she chats with authors about their latest works while answering questions from readers around the world.
When asked if she'd take some time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her career, Gelman gladly accepted, saying she makes a point of sharing her experiences with others who might aspire to a similar role. Here's the Q&A from our conversation.
How would you describe your role?
"It's unique in that it's a dual role. As a director of Books PR, I lead a team that promotes Amazon's place in publishing and reading innovations—whether that's from a digital reading perspective or in the ways we've innovated on behalf of authors. On the editorial side, I lead a team of six editors, and we are essentially the 'booksellers' of the Amazon bookstore. We read new books in various genres and make recommendations for customers—kind of like a bookseller at a brick-and-mortar shop would do for customers in person, but at a larger scale. Though Amazon is known for its recommendation engine, we know customers also benefit from this curated approach to book recommendations. The books editorial team is one of the oldest teams at Amazon, yet many people don't know we have one, and we're working hard to change that."
Where do customers find your editorial team's book recommendations?
"We're working to make sure we provide strong recommendations in the places where customers want to discover books. So you might see a push notification for our recommendations in the Kindle app, or a promotion for our reviews as you shop for books on Amazon.com. Customers can also visit the Amazon Book Review, our blog, to find all of our curated lists and articles. We curate regular lists of top books for each month and in various categories for Best Books of the Month, and one of our biggest projects is our annual list of the Best Books of the Year."
How do you consider readers' interests as you read and recommend new books?
"It's a science and an art. We do look at various data points so we know what customers are interested in, and we have content that helps them make informed purchasing decisions. But we also aim to push them a little bit out of their comfort zones to discover new books and authors. That's why we're doing the hard work of reading books in advance. We also consider cultural moments that readers might be interested in reading about. So for example, we'll look at trending TV shows and write a piece about what to read after you finished the show. Data and trends are important to help us understand our readers, but we also consider the books we personally love and think our readers might enjoy too. There's nothing better than helping a customer discover their next favorite book or author."
How many books would you say you read in a given year?
"Excluding the books I read in my personal time, I read 84 books last year. I'm pretty obsessive about tracking everything I read in Goodreads for my Goodreads Reading Challenge. If you count the books I started and didn't finish, the number would be more than 100. I start a lot of books that I don't finish. If I don't like them, I stop reading because if I'm having a hard time getting into it, I realize I shouldn't be the person reading the book for customer recommendation. This year, my personal goal is to read and finish 75 books. I read religiously every night before I go to sleep, and I have a very supportive husband who helps me carve out time to get reading done over the weekend. I love reading, so it doesn't feel like a chore, but it takes time."
What's one of your favorite parts of your job?
"It's really exciting when we help support the debut of a new author. One really good example is when the editorial team picked Celeste Ng's first book, 'Everything I Never Told You,' as the Best Book of the Year in 2014. This helped the book get a lot of attention and sell more copies. Several years later, a New York Times article for her second book, 'Little Fires Everywhere,' which was a huge best seller and had been adapted into a Hulu series, credited Amazon for supporting Ng's success. It's exciting to support new authors like that, and we work pretty hard to highlight debuts. We always include a featured debut in our list of Best Books of the Month."
After 11 years at Amazon, what is one of the projects you're most proud of?
"I am really proud of the work we've done for the Author Live series on Amazon Live. I love doing the interviews, and it's great to bring a human face to the bookstore by having someone from Amazon interview authors. I also enjoy sharing these videos with Amazon employees in our internal Fishbowls. I get the nicest notes from employees who love that we're bringing a human voice to the Books conversation. The fact that someone took the time to write a note is so meaningful and makes all the preparation worth it. Amazon employees particularly enjoyed the Jay Shetty interview, where we discussed his new book 'Think Like a Monk' and he led us in a guided breath work meditation."
How do you balance managing two teams?
"Honestly, sometimes I feel a little all over the place, but finding out how to prioritize where I'm needed helps. I have really strong teams that are pretty self-sufficient, so I check in and add value where I can, but I also realize they need room to grow. My first hiring manager at Amazon told me that there comes a point where your success is really your team's success. It stops being about the work you do and becomes about the work they do. So I focus on being there when my teams need me but also giving them the autonomy they need to collaborate and come up with creative ideas on their own. In meetings, it's impossible to separate my jobs, and I wouldn't want to. I know that part of the value I add is from having this broad perspective and deep subject matter expertise."
What steps did you take to get to where you are today?
"I went to a small liberal arts school in Ohio called Kenyon College. I majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Big companies didn't come to the school to recruit because it was so small, so we joined with other small liberal arts programs to apply as a group to companies in larger cities like New York City. My dream was to be a book review editor for a women's magazine, so I interviewed with a few magazines as well as a few publishers during a recruiting trip. All of the book publishers called me back and none of the magazines did. I accepted a one-year role in publicity at Ballantine Books, which was part of Random House (it's now Penguin Random House). That role led to a full-time role at Knopf, another imprint of Random House, where I had the chance to work directly with amazing authors like Lawrence Wright, Oliver Sacks, Karen Russell, Barbara Walters, and Anne Rice. I worked at Random House for eight years before I had the epiphany that I wanted to leave New York. I had been in publishing and had seen the innovative and surprising things Amazon was doing in the books space and thought it was a company that I could work for. I found an opening in Seattle, interviewed, and got the job managing PR for Amazon Books. In my 11 years with the company, I've held several roles in PR. Eventually I told my mentor, the Vice President of Books, about my interest in the editorial side. When Amazon's print and Kindle teams merged, he realized the need for my current role and presented me with the opportunity the day I returned from maternity leave."
What advice would you give to a fellow book lover aspiring to a career like yours?
"Stay focused on the work you're passionate about and advocate for yourself to earn the role you want. I stuck with books because it was my passion, even when other opportunities were flashier. I was okay with being a subject matter expert, even when it was more popular to be a 'PR athlete,' as we used to say. I was also direct and honest about what I wanted, to the point where I wrote an official document about me joining the editorial team and gave it to my mentor to get his thoughts on whether or not there was a place for me. In my experience, it's even harder to do this as a professional woman. It's kind of a dream to have someone watch out for your career, but you are the only person you can rely on to advocate for yourself. You shouldn't be afraid to ask for what you want, and it's important to not assume people will have you in mind when an opportunity you aspire to pops up. For example, my mentor would have never known I was interested in this editorial job if I hadn't told him about it."