All Over the Map: Up Close with the Head of National Geographic Books

Editorial director Lisa Thomas looks back on a wide-ranging career at National Geographic Books that has included editing titles on animals, the national parks, and sustainable living.

Editorial director Lisa Thomas looks back on a wide-ranging career at National Geographic Books that has included editing titles on animals, the national parks, and sustainable living.

Can you describe your time at National Geographic Books?

I’ve been at National Geographic Books since 2001. In 20 years I don’t think I’ve had one day that was like any other. Each book presents an opportunity to learn something new, from underwater archaeology to astrophysics. I’ve had the great joy of getting to know our incredible explorers including Robert Ballard (who uncovered the wreck of the Titanic), Lee Berger (who discovered several new hominim species), Sylvia Earle (a groundbreaking underwater explorer), and legendary photographers like Joel Sartore, Tom Peschak, and Brian Skerry (who just won an Emmy for Secrets of the Whales). In 20 years, I’ve done about every job an editor can do, from fixing the photocopy machine to traveling on location to see our photographers in action.

In your time at National Geographic, what has changed the most?

When I started at National Geographic Books 20 years ago, we derived most of our sales from marketing our books to a carefully guarded database of members. We created books tailored to the interests of our members and had a fairly predictable business. That direct selling model (via the mail) unfortunately became unsustainable, but the idea of direct selling—knowing and being able to communicate with your customers—is timeless, and it is absolutely thriving in the publishing industry today.

Today we all chase the infamous Amazon algorithm and hope it will suggest our books based on what the company knows about the data it tracks around shopping habits. Among individual writers, I’ve been fascinated to watch the reinvention of the idea of direct selling to drive book sales. Big successes in publishing today are often driven by a powerful platform, which is simply a mechanism for being able to reach an audience directly. Humans of New York is one of the best-selling photography books of the 21st century, driven by that amazing social media presence. Atlas Obscura and more recently Subpar Parks have fabulous social media followings that allow their creators to solicit feedback on cover design, collect preorders, announce appearances and special offers, and engage with their core audience. It’s a far more powerful book-selling tool than the traditional model of hoping for a great book review (though those are still important, too). So much of the power has shifted from big corporate entities to individual influencers and tastemakers.

What are some of your favorite titles for National Geographic Books that you’ve published?

Photo Ark was something special. It was a big project for National Geographic—Joel Sartore is creating a visual record of every species on the planet. His work has been featured in our magazine, on TV, everywhere. For the book, we realized that we could play with the idea of an “ark” and we paired up the animals two by two, showcasing a giant panda holding leafy bamboo opposite a ribboned seadragon, whose leaflike head adornments echo the panda’s bamboo, and the stunning red and white snout of a mandrill against the brilliant red-and-white pattern on the back of Derbyana flower beetle, for example. It felt like a case where the book format really allowed us to add something special. The book has been a huge success, with many follow-ups. I’m so proud that through this beautiful photography we’re able to shine a light on the mind-boggling diversity of life on this planet and hopefully make people care about protecting it.

Another favorite book is The Blue Zones Kitchen. The blue zones—the places on Earth where people live the longest—were featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 2005. I saw the author, Dan Buettner, on stage at a National Geographic event in November of that year, and realized in an instant that his work was a book, many books. I am so proud that, more than 15 years after that cover story, Dan’s research has become one of the most powerful forces for wellness in the United States.

Have you learned anything that’s surprised you?

Last year we brought out a book called Complete National Parks of Europe. When most of us think of Europe the great cities, cathedrals, and artwork come to mind, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to shine a light on the fact that Europe is home to more than 450 parks of astounding natural beauty—from arctic wonderlands to idyllic Mediterranean paradises.

Has the pandemic affected your work?

During the pandemic we saw a surge in domestic travel titles, like 50 States, 5,000 Ideas; National Parks guides like our Atlas of National Parks; and field guides as people stayed close to home and spent more time outside. We think that trend will continue—it’s great to be outside! And so we have a number of outdoors and camping books in the works. Food and lifestyle also did well. We had success last year with Attainable Sustainable, a beautifully illustrated guide for living lightly on the planet through cooking, gardening, and making one’s own household cleaners based on author Kris Bordessa’s popular Facebook group. We have more food books in the works. Pandemic or not, I think cookbooks and books about food and healthy living are always popular.

What new titles are you excited about?

In November, we’ll publish Fauci: Expect the Unexpected; Ten Lessons on Truth, Service and the Way Forward. It’s based on an amazing documentary National Geographic will release this fall. Our editors [combed] through hundreds of hours of interviews to pull out inspiring life lessons.

We’re also publishing a history book that circles back to my love of archaeology: Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World. One of my favorite writers, Doug Preston, contributed an introduction. 

And next year, we’ll publish The Catch Me If You Can, which is Jessica Nabongo’s amazing illustrated memoir of her quest to become the first Black woman to visit every country on Earth. Her stories made me laugh, cry, and think, and her photographs are absolutely jaw-dropping.

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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