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Sarah Gelman on Amazon’s Best Books of the Year

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

By Diana Tramontano

Today we’re spotlighting Sarah Gelman, Editorial Director at Amazon Books and host of the book club, Sarah Selects. Below, Sarah tells us about her role at Amazon, where she developed her love for reading and authors, and her top picks for 2022!

Let’s get this question out of the way: What’s your favorite book of 2022?

The team picked Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin as our best book of the year. We absolutely love this book! Let’s just say the team is very opinionated, and the fact that we all agreed speaks to just how moving this book is. This isn’t just a story about friendship, it’s about complicated relationships, messy people, growing up, the many forms of love, and yes—gaming.

I also loved Solito by Javier Zamora, which is a memoir about the author’s migration as a child from El Salvador to the United States. As a mother, an American, and a human, this book hit me so hard. It’s the book I can’t stop recommending. I also think it’s really powerful paired with Celeste Ng’s genre-bending, Our Missing Hearts, another one of my favorite books this year.

How has your role as the Editorial Director at Amazon Books impacted your personal reading taste?

The entire editorial team has incredible and very distinct taste. When your job is talking about books all day with experts, I think it’s inevitable that your reading boundaries are pushed. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t read Stephen King since I read Misery as a kid, but I read Fairy Tale after the team was raving about it, and it’s in our Top 5 books of the year.

What do you most enjoy learning about the authors behind your favorite books? Is there a particular author you’ve really connected with this past year?

Before I worked at Amazon, I was a book publicist at Knopf. I always felt this huge responsibility as a publicist: here’s an author who has poured their life into a book, and you’re responsible for ushering their baby into the world. I think—and hope—that the experience made me respect each author individually.

I always love talking to authors, but one that I’ve especially enjoyed this past year was Jennifer Givhan, who wrote one of my Sarah Selects book club picks, River Woman, River Demon. Givhan is Mexican-American and Indigenous, and talking to her made me want to go back and read her book all over again. The comments during my live interview with her kept talking about how impressed they were by her and how much they were learning. If she’s not an author you’ve read before, I highly recommend River Woman, River Demon.

What is the most exciting aspect of your job that people might not expect?

Two things are getting advance copies of books, and also getting to meet and talk to authors. I’ve been able to talk to some really incredible authors, such as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Katie Couric. But one of the most exciting things for me is getting to interact directly with readers in my book club, Sarah Selects. I love reading their comments and seeing what they think of the books we read together, or just what else they have enjoyed.

How do you and your team determine which books should land on the “Best Books of the Year” list?

The team of Amazon Book editors read all year to pick the Best Books of the Month and then the Best Books of the Year. It’s a fun, but hard process—there are so many good books out there. But ultimately we want to pick the best—the books that we can’t stop talking about and want everyone to read. Our Best Books of the Year list includes an overall top 100 list and then picks in popular categories like biographies and memoirs, literature and fiction, romance, history, cookbooks and children’s books broken out by age. You can see the full list at amazon.com/bestbooks or visit the Amazon Book Review for great recommendations from our team of passionate editors. As a team, we are trying to connect readers with their next favorite book and we’ve made this list with every kind of reader in mind. This year, the books we loved captured our hearts and minds and made us feel deeply about the power of humanity and connection, the importance of sustained thought and dialogue, the innocence and nostalgia of youth, and the kicky pleasure of reading for entertainment sake.

Is there a book that you or your team really loved but is a little more “under the radar?”

One unexpected book in our Top 20 is the upcoming book Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke. Editor Lindsay Powers was the early champion for this book, and several of us have read it and loved it. The book doesn’t go on sale until November 29, but I could see it being a popular holiday gift—and not only because the cover art has the most perfect peach emoji. In her review of the book, Powers writes: “Radke whisks us though history, starting with how backsides enabled human evolution two million years ago, to the complicated story of Sarah Bartmann, the owner of the most infamous butt of all time (on display inside a Paris museum until recently), to, yes, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Buns of Steel, and Kim Kardashian. We learn about twerking’s religious roots and why pants never fit (blame the male scientists who dreamed up the “normal” female body in the 1940s).

I’m sure your job requires you to read widely across genres. Which types of books do you most enjoy? What qualities in a book make it really stand out for you?

I love fiction. I like to say that life is nonfiction, so I read to escape. That said, I’m not an ostrich with my head in the sand so I do read nonfiction, and not all nonfiction needs to be incredibly serious (see: Butts, above).

I love an epic dysfunctional family saga, which might have started with my early love for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. (I dressed as Jonathan Franzen for Halloween in 2001, which was not a popular costume for women in their early 20s…). I also love what is referred to as a “beach read.” I am a huge fan of Elin Hilderbrand and think she’s not only an incredible writer—trained at the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop—but also a savvy businesswoman. I’ve read every single one of her books and even made a pilgrimage to Nantucket.

An easy way for me to describe what makes a book great is if I want to talk to someone about it right after I finish it.

Are there any “big books” of the year that you haven’t read yet? Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on books you might love?

Absolutely, yes! I realize this won’t exactly garner sympathy, but there are so many books I want to read and I miss some that I’m really excited about. I keep a pretty epic “to read on vacation” list, and one of my top picks is a book my colleague, Vannessa Cronin, recommended to me and I also know Zibby loved: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan. I’m also really looking forward to finally reading I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette Mccurdy.

Do you anticipate the way readers consume book news will change in the upcoming years? What’s your go-to way to find new books and authors?

I do think social media will continue to be a place where readers discover books and authors. At the end of the day, I think a lot of readers—myself included—want a great recommendation from a trusted friend.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Solito by Javier Zamora

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid; listen to Taylor’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng; listen to Celeste’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.

The Escape Artist by Johnathan Freedland

City on Fire by Don Winslow

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus; listen to Bonnie’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy; listen to Jennette’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.

All the Broken Places by John Boyne

Take My Hand Dolen Perkins-Valdez; listen to Dolen’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.

The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander; listen to Kwame’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.

Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Maid by Nita Prose

Book Lovers by Emily Henry; listen to Emily’s episode of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books here.