“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.”
New York Times media columnist David Carr, who was hired at Inside.com a few months after Ms. Nelson was, remembered an obsessively competitive reporter whose taste for scoops matched the uncommonly speedy metabolism that Inside.com was aiming for.
“We were both smokers, and it would be 10:30 in the morning—we would have already filed—and we’d both be outside scuffing the ground and saying, ‘I’ve got nothing,’” Mr. Carr said. “You never saw a more hard-core competitive journalist than Sara Nelson. Freakish. Freakish. She would see something come up on her screen and just explode.”
Mr. Carr went on: “She was the rare trade reporter who could write and think and who could do real-time analytics. And so she took full advantage of the platform in terms of breaking a lot of news, and doing it so it was clear not just what happened but why.”
“We used to report auctions in real time at Inside,” Ms. Nelson said. “We’d put up a story, you know, ‘Ann Godoff is up to $200,000! This one’s up to 300!” It was like a horse race. You know, ‘… Aaaand coming around the corner is …’ It was fun, but also it was new—nobody else had ever done it.”
Predictably, Ms. Nelson said, she saw the publishing industry from a rather different light as editor of PW than she had as a beat reporter. Among other things, she noticed for the first time a hostility from the outside world directed towards editors, agents and all the rest of her people—a creepy chorus of eager detractors who snarled with glee whenever someone in the industry screwed up. The controversy around James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, she said, is what set it off: “It opened the floodgates for people to say, ‘It’s all publishing’s fault! They’re all a bunch of insiders who scratch each other’s backs and don’t check their facts and keep the rest of us out and think they’re better than us!’”
This vinegary sort of scolding initially stunned Ms. Nelson (“I was like, what?”), but in the years since she has developed a clearer theory of where the vitriol comes from.
“I think it’s because many, many, many, many people think they can write and that they have a book in them,” she said. “And they are very, very resentful of someone else who has a book come out. … I think everybody thinks that there but for the luck of knowing a New York editor goes their memoir.”
One of her ambitions when she took over PW and initiated a major redesign of its look and contents was to draw some of these people into the magazine’s audience, and show them that in fact they could participate in the book business as well as any so-called insider. “It used to be that every writer, either published or who just wanted to be published, felt they had to have a subscription to PW,” she said at the time in an interview with Media Bistro. “They felt that it had information that they needed, and I think that some of that has fallen off.”
One of the ways she tried to reverse that trend was by diluting the “nuts and bolts, hard-core information” that people in the business needed to do their jobs with columns and features that might not normally appear in a trade publication.
“I wanted to make it more of a magazine that I wanted to read, and I’d come out of consumer magazines and women’s magazines,” Ms. Nelson said. “There were things I specifically stole from Lucky, for example. … I just thought, like, ‘This is not enough fun, and it should be more fun.’”
So she turned it into a more popular magazine—one that included not only the data, trend analysis and deal reports that the core audience relied on it for, but also columns and features that were accessible to relative outsiders. “It’s not quite stage-door Johnnys, but it’s some version of that,” Ms. Nelson said, referring to the readers she hoped to attract. “You know, people who kind of want to know who’s publishing what because they’re writing a book, or they know someone who’s writing a book. We have many more of those readers than they had in the previous regime.”
On Friday evening, in between saying goodbye to one staffer after another—not kissing any of them because of that dreadful cold, and warning each of them that she’d be in over the weekend cleaning up her office—Ms. Nelson said she wasn’t sure what her next move would be, but that she hoped she might stay connected to the book world.
“To me, it’s like the most fabulous thing, to hang around with a bunch of editors,” she said. “It was a big part of my job. … I loved that part of my job. I will miss that part, though I’m hoping to have a new place to put my column or blog soon, and I hope I will do a fair amount of hanging around when I do that.”
Whatever it is, she added, “it’s hard for me to imagine that it won’t be somehow connected to writing and the arts. I’m probably not going to go learn how to be a dance reporter—I don’t know that much about dance—but fashion, I would go and learn how to report on that. Or, you know, music. Not that any of these are growth industries! I don’t know. This had seemed like such a perfect job—like my whole life had been coming towards having this job, and now I’ve had it.”