A peek inside the best books process

Erin Kodicek on November 17, 2020

A peek inside the best books process

Drum roll, please. On Thursday, November 19, the Amazon Books editors will be unveiling our picks of the Best Books of the Year. When people ask how we arrive at the final list, we like to say we do things the old fashioned way: we argue. And it's true.

These selections are mainly culled from the books anointed Best of the Month picks, and all of us have personal favorites that we passionately champion. Some make the cut, some don't, and it can be a painful process of killing our darlings in service of highlighting what the team deems the crème de la crème of literary gems.

Here is a peek inside our process, for years when determining the number one pick was particularly challenging.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I wasn't even at Amazon when the editors picked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I mention this one only because it's a clear indication that you can't judge a book by its cover. Before coming to Amazon, I was working at Random House as an editor, and I remember seeing pre-publication copies of Henrietta Lacks in every kitchenette at work. Clearly, someone was really excited about it and wanted to share it with their colleagues; but I would look at the cover and the title and think, What the heck is this? I thought it was one of the ugliest covers I had ever seen. Many months later, however, Amazon selected it as the Best Book of 2010, and the thing took off. Kudos to our predecessors on the Amazon Books editorial team—especially Tom Nissley, who went on to become an eight-time Jeopardy! champion, left Amazon, and started Phinney Books here in Seattle. We are proud to follow in his footsteps. —Chris Schluep

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The year was 2012 and this was the Best Book of the Year battle I will never forget. Gone Girl was the book everyone was talking about. Readers either loved it or hated it, but it was one of our contenders for the number one Best Book of the Year. Chris and I fought hard for Gone Girl to be number one. We loved it. It was different. It was exciting. And it proved to be a book that launched a new obsession with psychological thrillers, unreliable narrators, and using the word "girl" in your book title. Chris and I lost that fight, majority ruled, and our number one was...hold on while I go look that up. Enough said. —Seira Wilson

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s debut novel was published in late June of 2014. Several of us loved it at the time, and we selected it as a Best Book of July 2014. I liked the novel so much that I wrote this in my Best of the Month review: "There isn’t a false note in this book, and my only concern in describing my profound admiration for Everything I Never Told You is that it might raise unachievable expectations in the reader." That’s always a concern when you hype up a book. People get excited. Too excited. But in the end, readers didn’t really take notice. It sold ok and got great reader reviews from those who did read the book—but the world just kind of moved on.

Flash forward to the end of the 2014—the year that Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was the talk of publishing—and we were left with a conundrum: What’s the best book of 2014? People certainly weren’t talking about Celeste Ng’s book. But we went through our normal process of picking our favorite books of the year, and by the end it was clear that Everything I Never Told You was the one. So we picked it. And lo and behold, people started buying it. I remember the U.K.’s Guardian writing a skeptical article questioning our choice of number one book of the year—at least it started off skeptical, but ultimately (and still snarkily) they wrote, "By the third of the 12 chapters, though, it is apparent that there is much here that might impress Pulitzer and Man Booker judges as well as the panelists of an online bookseller." They even did a follow-up interview with Celeste Ng. When Everything I Never Told You was released in paperback, it went to the top of best seller lists and stayed there. And her follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere…well, that did ok, too. —Chris Schluep

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This was an interesting one, which I have written about before. Colson Whitehead's novel was originally scheduled to publish in September of 2016. We had read it (we read months before publication) and chosen it as our favorite book of September. However, Oprah also read it and decided to choose the novel for her book club—which resulted in the book's publication date being moved up to August 2nd to fit the book club announcement schedule. So The Underground Railroad published in August and we essentially got scooped from naming it the Best Book of September. But we did go on to name The Underground Railroad the Best Book of 2016. A few days later, It was awarded the National Book Award. And it won the Pulitzer. It seems like Colson Whitehead didn't suffer much from not being selected Best Book of September 2016. —Chris Schluep

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

David Grann's book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI published in April of 2017, and we loved it. Several months later, when it came time to choose our number one book of the year, this one was still at the top of our list. We hadn't picked a nonfiction title for this spot since 2010's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks but Grann's book is as suspenseful and thrilling as a work of fiction. While we still had some debate (because, well, we always do…) this one had all of the editors rooting for it and was our clear winner. Killers of the Flower Moon remains a favorite for many of us, and a book I'm proud we chose as our No. 1 that year. —Seira Wilson

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Halfway through the year we also release a list of the Best Books of the Year So Far, our favorite reads published between January and June. In 2018 we selected Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. That this was a unanimous decision was rare enough, but even more unusual was the fact that we also selected it for the best book of that year. Never in the history of this list was the number one pick the same for both, and prior to making that decision we made it our mission to find a book that would top it (we even told Ms. Westover this to her face, and she gamely said, Game on). We happily ate some crow that year. Ultimately, our charter is to choose the best and for us, that year, it was no contest. —Erin Kodicek

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