An ILMK interview with Adrian Liang, Amazon Books Editor
When I recently wrote about
it engendered some interesting conversation on this blog, and that got me quite curious about how the list was put together.
Well, I was very pleased when a member of Amazon’s team was able and willing to arrange an interview for me with the editor of the list
and to share it with you!
Without further ado:
ILMK: Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions for me and my readers about Amazon’s 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime! I always find lists like these fascinating, and I think proud geeks like me are particularly prone to analysis and opinion about them. Before we get started with the list itself, I’m curious: while I’m sure it would be a fantasy job for many of my readers to just read books and make lists about them all day, I suspect that isn’t the sum total of your job description. Could you tell us a bit about what your role is at Amazon, and what your typical day is like?
Adrian Liang (AL): I’m part of a team of six Amazon Books editors whose goal is to recommend great books to readers—which is pretty much a dream job. We’re all insatiable readers, but we do most of our reading at night and on weekends. Most mornings we come in and ask each other what we’ve read the evening before that we liked. We get literally boxes and boxes of advance reading copies from publishers, so when the mail delivery comes, it’s like Christmas every single day.
We have a lot of ways that we alert readers to excellent books. Each month, we select Best Books of the Month, and we let readers know about these picks through a dedicated page on Amazon.com and through our books blog and social media. In mid-November, we select the Best Books of the Year. We compile lists such as 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime—100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime is the sixth list in this series. We also write on our books blog, the Amazon Book Review (www.omnivoracious.com), where we review books and interview authors.
There is a LOT of reading involved so that we can make recommendations—but that’s one reason why this is perhaps the very best job in the world.
ILMK: Thanks! Okay, on to the list. Let’s start out with the goals: what did you want to accomplish when you set out to make the list? What effect did you want it to have, and how did you think you would measure its success?
AL: Book lovers are always searching for the next good book, but a lot of the messaging about books (including ours!) focuses on new releases. With these 100 Books lists, we have the opportunity to remind readers of books that were published in the past and that have stood the test of time because they are amazing in various ways. If this list is the final nudge that leads a reader to say, “Fine, okay, I WILL finally read Dune,” then we’ve done our job. We also wanted to set a stake in the ground by calling out a few more obscure titles that we believe deserve more attention than they have received, and by recommending newer books that we think will become future classics.
ILMK: Let’s talk about the process. Being an editor is a collaborative function, and there had to be a lot of discussion about what to include. How did you work with any other people involved with the list?
AL: Every month we have to convince each other what books deserve to be on our Best of the Month lists, so we’re pretty good at discussing books and weighing their merits. SF and fantasy is a genre that is rich with great works, so we started out with an extremely long list. While whittling it down to 150 books wasn’t terribly hard, it was painful to get that list down to 100 books. We know that readers are going to say, “Why didn’t they include [insert amazing book here]?”, which is why we set up a list on Goodreads where readers can vote on which books they consider to be must-reads.
ILMK: The list is called 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime, and as I’m sure you know, both “science fiction” and “fantasy” are difficult terms to define…and some people are adamant that they should be treated separately. Even among diehard geeks, we often end up with Damon Knight’s dictum: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say ‘science fiction.'” How did you determine which books would fit that categorization for the list?
AL: You’re absolutely right—some books can slosh back and forth. We debated whether we should split it into separate lists—100 Science Fiction and then 100 Fantasy—but we decided against it for two reasons. One is that there is a large number of readers who read happily in both genres and don’t really care what the book is labeled as long as it delivers a smashing read. The second is that I don’t think it helps readers to squish books into ever-smaller and more limiting boxes. We read these types of books to expand our minds and our experiences, not to shrink them.er
ILMK: Were there specific rules of inclusion? For example, did the book have to be available to purchase on Amazon? Did it have to have an English language edition (not all of the books on the list were first published in English)? Rules are what make a game fun: were there any you’d like to share?
AL: I know this sounds disingenuous, but honestly, I can’t think of a single rule we came up with when compiling the initial list. We were focused on the qualities of the books themselves. We asked ourselves, what books changed our way of thinking about our world or ourselves? That we go back to over and over again? That we take with us when we move to a new home? That we recommend to people who are looking for a good book, whether they have proclaimed themselves science fiction or fantasy readers or not?
ILMK: One of the biggest challenges for a list like this, after you’ve decided what you’ll consider, is the distribution of titles. Did you, for instance, try to have them distributed somewhat evenly across publication date decades?
AL: That’s a great question. We wanted the final choices to be somewhat balanced between fantasy and science fiction, but we didn’t make it a hard 50-50 split. We also wanted to give the classics their due, as well as include a number of newer books and authors that readers might not have heard of yet but (we think) would want to know about.
ILMK: A more specific type of distribution is author representation. Almost all of the authors are represented by only one entry each, but Neil Gaiman has two, and H.P. Lovecraft has a collection. If limiting the list to one title per author was a general goal (with exceptions), how did you select which single book from an author would make it?
AL: These were among the hardest decisions we made. We ended up limiting the number of titles each author had on the list because we trusted that if a reader picked up a book by that author and liked it, he or she would read other books by that author. For example, it’s the rare reader who would read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and then not read the rest of the books because we didn’t have them on our list.
I admit, we did fudge the author limitation by making Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings one of our picks, even though it was initially published as (and is still published as) three separate volumes. But hey, it’s Tolkien.
ILMK: While readers love to see their tastes confirmed, one of the joys of a list like this is the discovery of new (to the reader) titles. Do any titles stand out to you that you discovered in editing this list?
AL: I loved looking back at the older titles and remembering how I felt when reading them for the first time. I’ve read a lot (but not all) of Robert A. Heinlein’s books, and creating this list made me want to reread some of my favorites as well as dive into his books I haven’t read yet. One of the best parts about creating this list is that when I would tell people what we were working on, they would immediately suggest three or four titles that they loved.
ILMK: Finally, is there anything else you would like to tell my readers about editing this list?
AL: I’m admittedly biased, but my experience is that sci-fi and fantasy readers are a very thoughtful and passionate group. I loved seeing the responses readers had to our list, especially when they disagreed and had their own suggestions. The truth is that there are far more than 100 science fiction and fantasy books that we should read in our lifetime. Let’s all read far, far more than that.
ILMK: I want to thank you again for taking the time and energy to share a little behind the scenes of Amazon’s 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime! No doubt some of my readers will find great reads out of it, and I want to wish you happy reading in the future.
AL: Thanks! Happy reading to you, too!
Big thanks both to Adrian Liang, and to the Amazon team member who arranged it! I really appreciated the thoughtful and insightful answers. This shows clearly to me that the booklover culture is alive and well at Amazon…I particularly enjoyed the Tolkien comment. 😉
Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think, and I’ll be sharing the link to this post (and your comments) with Amazon.
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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
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