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Spotlight: Sara Nelson

The new editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly talks about her new job, the Internet, and the future of publishing.

By David S. Hirschman - January 12, 2005

After making a name for herself covering the publishing industry for Inside.com, The New York Observer and most recently, the New York Post, Sara Nelson has finally reached the place where she was headed all along as the newly-appointed editor of the venerable publishing trade book, Publishers Weekly. Having said that she will try to "modernize" the title, which has lost some readership in recent years due to competition from web sources like blogs (see MBís Galleycat), Nelson talked with MB's David Hirschman about the specifics of her new position.

Tell me a little bit about how the new job came about.
The short answer to that is that I've been at the Post for about seven months, and about a month ago I got a call from PW to see if I would be interested. They knew my work and it went from there. The long version is that I think I have been unconsciously moving toward this, or something like this, for a long time. I have been a reviewer at bookreporter.com, as well as for Glamour magazine. I was then at Inside.com at the very beginning of 2000, from before the beginning until after the end a couple of years later.

Will you modernize PW specifically online? How can you make a weekly magazine more relevant in the age of blogs, when news is broken in such a widespread, instantaneous manner?
Well, that's the $64,000 question. PW the magazine has stuff that exists on the website but that you probably wouldn't read on the web. For instance, I don't think most people are going to read all the reviews of the week on the website. The fact that they are there is good, but when you want to see what's going on this week, you are much more likely to want to read it in the print form. I think that's not going to change significantly. There may be individual changes in the physical layout of the pages, et cetera. It's really going to look very different than it does now.

Blogs? More blog content?
I don't think so, at least not in the print magazine. One of the early priorities however, will be to redesign the physical magazine. The second priority is to make some significant additions, and shuffling of the web products.

Who do you see as your main competition?
I believe that Publishers Weekly does at least three things and the nearest competition does some of those three things but not all of them. There's Publisher's Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, and there is a new product coming from VNU, which is the BookStandard.com. I think if you look at those things, you see what they have and what they don't have.

I think PW needs a lot of changing and I think everyone in the industry agrees on that; in the few days since my appointment was announced, that's what I keep hearing. I don't disagree. There's a lot that needs to be fixed, updated, etc. But the truth is that it really is the brand of the industry, and that it just needs to be spruced up and shined up and modernized.

Do you anticipate it being tough to take over such a well-known brand and making changes?
I don't know. I've frankly never run something of this size before. I feel like it is going to be hard in the sense that people involved with Publishers Weekly, you have to keep reminding yourself that things don't have to be the way they've always been. For instance, maybe we shouldn't have this column, or maybe this review should go in the front and maybe it should be in black and white and not have any color pictures or vice versa. So it's a question of sort of releasing yourself from some of the things that have existed. And that's hard for the people who have been there. But, while it needs a lot of change, it does function well and it's profitable, and so you want to make sure you don't fix the parts that aren't broken.

Are you going to try to expand the target audience at all? Do you think that PW has the potential to be more generally read?
It's always going to be a trade publication. I mean the industry is so disparate anyway; you have publishers and editors, and then you have publishing houses and you have agents and booksellers, who are all in the same business but who all have different agendas.

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. They felt that it had information that they needed, and I think that some of that has fallen off.

Is that because news now is overwhelmingly broken on the web?
It's partly that and I think that the web cannot be underestimated in how it had changed the business. But the business has really changed and the magazine got tired, and I hope that some of this will be remedied by new energy and a new pair of eyes.

What are some of the major publishing industry issues that you're going to focus on when you get started? Certainly the conglomeratization of both the publishing side, meaning publishers gobbling each other up, and on the bookselling side. Online selling has changed the way people buy books, and the superstores.

Are you particularly in favor of small stores? Do you have any political angle to take on that?
I don't think you can do that anymore. It was sort of fashionable to do that once, but this is really a question of survival of the industry. I think the chains do some things really well and I think the independents do some things really well.

I don't intend to support one way of doing business over the other. I would not like to see more independents to go under, but I would like to find a way to talk about these issues better so that independents might find a way to do business better, so that everyone can co-exist.

How about the whole idea of E-books? This idea seems to be gaining steam a bit in recent years.
I don't know yet. I did a lot of coverage of electronic publishing when I was Inside.com, and while I do believe that it will be the way that some books will get published and read, I don't know if the time is right just about now.

Who are some of the people doing innovative things in book publishing these days?
Richard Nash at Soft Skull Press has really turned that place around, making it into a really smart, tiny venture. There are a lot of really terrific young agents and editors moving in. Actually, I don't really want to name anyone else, because I feel like I'd be leaving someone out. I guess the thing is that, for all the people who say that the book business is dying, there seem to be an awful lot of really great people who are in it and who are so smart and interesting that they could easily be in a different business and they don't want to be. I mean, nobody goes into book publishing because they think they're going to get rich; a lot of people in publishing really love what they do.

Do you read a lot yourself?
Yeah. Actually one of the emails I got when I took this job said "So much for having the time to read all those books you love." I mean, I'm a crazy, nutty reader. I'm always reading something and easily go through a book a week. Mostly fiction. I read some nonfiction but I'm really a fiction person.

How are you feeling about the job?
I'm definitely really thrilled and excited and nervous, but somebody said to me the other day that if it doesn't make you feel at least a little bit nauseous, it's probably not worth doing. I am really interested in and knowledgeable about the industry and more optimistic that many people about the future of publishing. I mean, a lot of things may change and a lot of things may need to change in book publishing, and I've read all the studies that say people don't read anymore, but people do read. There are more book groups than there have ever been, there are all those TV book clubs, and there is just a lot going on and I believe it will continue.

Are you going to write for the magazine at all?
I expect to write on a regular basis.

Have they found anyone to replace you at the Post yet?
Nope.

David S. Hirschman is mediabisto.com's news editor.



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