Lisa Thomas first walked through the doors of National Geographic two decades ago, working first with the CD-ROM group and with the website before landing in the books department 19 years ago. She’s now SVP, Publisher and Editorial Director for National Geographic Books, where she leads the book publishing program for adults.
“My primary responsibility is to work with the books team to acquire and make great books,” Lisa explains.
One recent example of a great book is “The Blue Zones Kitchen,” which hit #2 on the New York Times Bestsellers list and was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon for over a week.
National Geographic is a leading publisher in areas such as photography, National Parks, world atlases and aspirational travel, and its books are available in 28 languages in more than 35 countries. Read on to learn more about Lisa, including what she learned from Oprah Winfrey and her favorite place to explore.
1. National Geographic has published several books by Dan Buettner, who writes about the world’s best practices for longevity and happiness. What is your secret to happiness?
One of the greatest lessons Dan taught me was about the idea of "moai." In Okinawa, Japan, your moai is a group of friends assigned to you as a child. You moaisticks together and provides a social support network for life. My son was born as we were publishing Dan’s first book 12 years ago, and I found myself in a moai of sorts among the moms at his preschool. His class of 12 stayed together for three solid years and we had the opportunity to become very close. Not only did the moms become a moai; our kids did too. My son has friends who will be his brothers and sisters for life, which is a great source of happiness for me.
2. Earlier this year, National Geographic celebrated the lives of women around the globe with its book “Women: The National Geographic Image Collection,” which features 400 photographs from the archives and new interviews with several iconic women. Of the women interviewed in the book, who would you most like to have dinner with?
Let’s throw a party for all of them! I was utterly wowed by Nancy Pelosi when she told her story at an event at National Geographic headquarters and had the thrill of a lifetime meeting soccer star Alex Morgan; but I’ll have to pick Oprah Winfrey. I got to sit in on the interview with her in New York last year. Oprah had a wealth of advice that spilled out in perfect sound bites. My favorite was her admonition to pay attention to what life is trying to tell us. She called these messages "life’s little whispers." And I also think she loves books as much as I do.
3. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three books would you want to have and why?
"Gods, Graves, and Scholars" by C.W. Ceram. This is a classic book about some of the great discoveries of archaeology and I first read it at a very influential age. I love how archaeology uses the ingenuity of the present to unlock the mysteries of the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "Tender is the Night." I read this book and Thomas Wolfe’s "Look Homeward, Angel" every few years. Their words are like poetry – and they happened to have the same book editor!
And I’d probably also take James Michener’s "The Source." It pretty much covers the whole history of western civilization in a single book.
4. During this holiday season, what is on your gift list?
Everyone in my extended family wants "The Blue Zones Kitchen"! I’m also giving jute tote bags from The Little Market that say "Eat Your Veggies" and "Earth Day Every Day."
5. Where is your favorite place to explore?
My favorite thing to do in any place on Earth is to explore what’s on display at the local bookstore. I was recently in California and spent hours at City Lights in San Francisco. And I loved poring over all of the wine books and cookbooks in Napa Valley.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.