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Editor Brenda Copeland
formerly with Simon & Schuster :: Hyperion Bound

exclusive interview

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Brenda Copeland resigned from S&S and now works as an editor at Hyperion. This is from a previous feature article.

By Wendy Lestina
WordSmitten Correspondent

Brenda Copeland's new office at Atria Books provides a view of Manhattan's 48th Street. "I just got a window office," she says. "I publish self-help books and I've absorbed some of those positive-thinking ideas. I told my friends when I got this job, In five years, I want an office with a window. It's been five years almost to the day."

"I'm the classic late-bloomer," Copeland laughs. "I came to Simon & Schuster when I was 37! As an intern!"

"Typically, interns are 22! After S&S's human resources department talked to me, I was interviewed by the legendary Alice Mayhew. Even at 37, I was too dumb to be scared and did not know I was talking with such an amazing powerhouse. She was very kind; she gave me my first chance. I spent about ten weeks in the editorial hard-cover division, helping editors, and filling in for editorial assistants on vacation. It was an amazing experience. People seemed to feel a responsibility to teach me, explain things. Editors would say, 'Do this, and here's why.' I was given manuscripts to read, and editors would say to me, 'Have a look and tell me what you think.' What I think? I was elated."

This editor's career hasn't had a path, so much as it's had a personality, an energy, fueled by her immense interest in - well, everything. She makes herself available at writer's conferences, attending many around the country every year and the categories which capture her attention are telling: she's reading manuscripts and scheduling author appointments with writers of literary fiction, mainstream fiction, memoirs, narrative non-fiction (especially accessible science) and self-help concepts.

"We're a commercial trade house and I don't publish poetry, but I love it! Billy Collins, Marge Piercy, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton - oh! And I've been reading a wonderful west coast poet, not too well known, Mary Lou Sanelli. She writes about family and food, real life, real women. Ted Hughes, of course - discovering the careful, every-word-counts aspect of poetry. I call poetry 'low-fat language.' No unnecessary words, just like Strunk and White told us. There should be monuments to those men all over the continent. I think S&W needs to be read and read again for the advice they have to offer. It's invaluable."

Brenda Copeland was born in Toronto and began her higher education, at 17, at Glasgow University - "I wanted to do something adventurous without going to the trouble of learning another language!" After four years, and no degree, she was, she says, "Asked to leave, but not for academic reasons."

Copeland eventually accepted the reality that you need a degree to do most things, and she returned to Toronto - "knuckled under" - and emerged with a degree in English Literature.

The University of Toronto, says Copeland, "is an amazing institution. Best professors, best curriculum, wonderful campus. But - it's in my hometown. I'd done Glasgow, London, and it was clear to me that if I were going to go somewhere else, it would have to be New York. One of the world's fabled places. So I worked and saved my money, and went to NYU. I had visions of wearing black turtlenecks, sitting around in a collegial atmosphere, reading poetry and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Nothing of the sort happened. I hated NYU. I spent most of my free time watching 'Matlock.' So here I am, a Canadian grad student, and it's obvious: New York - books - publishing! I wrote letters to every publisher in town and offered myself as an unpaid summer intern."

Better than history, the rest is a good story. "I've learned that all the seemingly unrelated jobs, ones which I had dismissed during those years as irrelevant - well, you learn that nothing is irrelevant. It's all business, and there are basic skills you need to have in business: a good phone manner, strong communicator, a person of good ideas and, and - what was I just saying? Was I just saying you had to be a good communicator?"

An editor who has risen to her job on persistence and creativity admires the same qualities in an author. Especially when it comes to book promotion.
As an example, Copeland discusses a new book by Tom Koppel (Lost World: Rewriting Prehistory, How New Science Is Tracing America's Ice Age Mariners), and his focus on getting the word out about his book.

"Tom is a fabulous writer who knows his subject and his audience," Copeland says. "He is targeting editors and specific newspapers. For him, publicity is a labor of love. He has sent e-postcards, the kind from Blue Mountain, with a shot of the cover of his book, a brief description, and a hyperlink to Amazon. Tom has assembled lists of small museums, clubs -- you can find amazing resources if you troll the internet."

The division between literary and commercial fiction is unnecessary, Copeland believes. "Commercial and quality can exists side by side," she says.

"The word 'literary' simply means a certain standard and treatment of the subject. A story must do many things: reflect our lives, explore our lives, explore the joys and fears we have about our lives. A story is a safe place for someone to work through something. We, as readers, indulge ourselves in a story. Through stories, we live so many lives, in our hearts and our minds, an infinite number compared to our physical lives."

She notes a good example of the combination is Jennifer Weiner's young, vibrant, commercial fiction (Good in Bed). Atria published the trade paper of the novel and so far it's sold 400,000 copies.
Brenda Copeland is unapologetic about the need for a book to be commercial.

"A writer has to have enthusiasm and passion," she says, "but also, a sense of reason, of reality. We have six questions we ask at Atria, and I'll tell you the one we ask at the inception. It's the first question our publisher, Judith Curr, always asks in editorial meetings when a book is proposed: 'How will we get the word out?' As publishers we have certain expectations that have to be met. We want a book to sell. That first question forces us to focus on the reality of the market."

That focus has paid off. Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster spun off from the company's Pocket Book division only a year ago, can already boast eight titles on the New York Times Best Seller List.

"We're very fortunate," says the 42-year-old Copeland. "Atria has all the energy, enthusiasm, and imagination of a start-up with the tradition and the muscle of Simon & Schuster."

In an imprint that has an innovative mix of titles, from self-help to narrative nonfiction, Copeland says, "It's all about stories as far as I'm concerned. An editor needs to be imaginative, persistent."

She mentions strategies which are a significant part of the company. "Our guiding principle is: the treatment of the book has to be appropriate for the subject and the audience." Illustrating this principle, Copeland explains, is a book by Dayle Haddon (Five Principles of Ageless Living) that recently gained recognition.

"The book is graceful, respectful of the audience. I showed the cover to my Mum before it was published, and my Mum looked at Dayle's photograph - Dayle is a very beautiful woman who looks her age - and said, 'There's some mischief there.' Perfect."

"It's the most wonderful job in the world and I love it all including the blue pencil editing. Actually, I use a green pencil - blue does not photocopy well. Then there is the thrill - the acquisition. But to get to that stage, a writer has a responsibility to make me as the reader want to be your reader.

You have to indulge your reader. You can never indulge yourself, because nobody has a responsibility to read your book - so the question needs to be asked." As she rushes through a quick sandwich while sitting at her desk - the one with the view of a few million Manhattan urban workers - she stops briefly to emphasize, "Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, it's all about the story. Even self-help books, business books, have good stories. We are who we are because of our stories."



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