“I think these people are rock stars, I always did,” Sara Nelson said. “I think they’re cool. I’m much more interested in hearing about what’s going on in Sonny Mehta’s head than I am in George Clooney’s.”
This was Friday afternoon, and Ms. Nelson, 52, was in her office at Publishers Weekly, where until the end of last week she was editor in chief. Surrounded by boxes of books that she’d been packing since being told the previous Monday morning that she was being laid off, Ms. Nelson was battling an unforgiving cold, sneezing and sniffling emphatically.
She talked about how much she loves the book business. After nine years on the beat—four of them as editor of PW—she speaks of her subjects with warmth, and describes their sorrows as if they were her own.
“There’s so much written about how publishers don’t know what they’re doing,” Ms. Nelson said. “But how do you know what to do? You’re making a bet on who’s gonna like something a year and a half from now. That’s without even getting into the economy or anything—just, ‘What’s the mood of a number of people going to be a year and a half from now?’ If you thought too much about that, you’d shoot yourself.”
People in the book business don’t tend to go to such extremes, she said, as most of them can’t give up the rush they get when they discover a new work and put it out into the world.
“That’s the thing about the book business,” she said. “You know, things are terrible, but there are not a lot of highs—legal highs!—that match that feeling when someone reads a book that they fall in love with. I mean, it is like falling in love—it’s like the world becomes a beautiful place. I really think that that’s what happens. And if you happened to fall in love with something, you thought it was a great week, even though 70,000 people lost their jobs.”
As even the sleepiest observers know by now, the last few months have been bleak ones for the publishing industry. Lots of layoffs, for one thing. Also, fewer book deals being done and fewer books being sold. Two of the oldest publishing houses in the country slaughtered by careless owners. And so on. Ms. Nelson, in her widely read and much-discussed weekly PW column, has tried to stay positive, acknowledging the trouble but never failing to sound notes of optimism and reassurance. Take, for example, her Dec. 15 column titled “The Biz Is Alright,” in which she implored her readers (“the walking wounded”) to draw strength from one another:
“I know it sounds hokey—and I will spare you the Chinese proverb about every crisis being an opportunity—but while the mood in BookLand is decidedly tense, it’s a tension tinged with community and compassion.”
Ms. Nelson’s insistence on seeing the bright side week after week provoked some critics to say she had come to identify too strongly with her subjects in the industry, either because they had become her friends over the years or because her magazine depended on their advertising.
Ms. Nelson bristled Friday at the notion that her optimism in recent months was insincere.
“I mean, how do I say this? It is sort of my way—it’s sort of true to my personality to be that way,” she said. “So it’s not like I was really going around growling, and then writing these kind of sunny things. First of all, I don’t think they were so sunny, really, but it is true to my personality to make a joke or try to figure out where the good news is in the story. I think [my columns] were true to what I was feeling, but I’m a little bit that way.”
IF MS. NELSON is sensitive on this point, it’s probably because for all the cheerleading she has done from her perch atop PW, she retains the guts and inclinations of a reporter who, before taking over the industry bible, spent five years—first at Inside.com, then the New York Observer and, finally, the New York Post—hunting from the outside for insider gossip, million-dollar book deals and dramatic job moves.
It was at Inside.com—which folded in 2001, just a few years after its launch, but not before introducing a number of formal innovations that are now standard in online journalism—that Ms. Nelson first got her legs as a business reporter. Prior to her start there, she was mainly freelancing and editing for women’s magazines and writing book reviews.
“I got [the Inside.com job] and I was scared to death,” Ms. Nelson said. “I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t how to report a story, and I was reporting for this thing that no one had ever heard of because it didn’t exist yet. And I was with all these guys who were all from The Wall Street Journal and Spin magazine, and I was, you know, the girl in the corner writing about the book business.”