Alexandra Cooper, Assistant Editor
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers (2005)
Alexandra Cooper graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in English. She feels privileged to be working under the tutelage of David Gale. She always loved reading and writing, but didn't think she wanted to be a teacher. She had a couple of publishing-related internships in college, and that's how she found out about the Radcliffe Publishing Course, which she attended after graduating from Brandeis. From there, she worked as an editorial assistant in Little Simon, the novelty division of Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing. After almost two very fun years there, she wanted to work on books for older readers. Fortunately, David's assistant was leaving at the time to join the circus, and she got the job!
Alexandra accepts unsolicited submissions addressed to her at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10020.
How many books does Simon and Schuster publish every year and what kind of books are they?
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers is one imprint of Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing, and there are two other imprints here — Atheneum and McElderry Books — that publish hardcover books just as we do. All three imprints publish both picture books and novels for young people, though my imprint is more retail-driven, while the other two are more focused on institutional sales (schools and libraries). My imprint publishes about 100-110 books a year, a combination of picture books and novels.
How many do you edit per year?
Personally, I only edit a few, because I still work under David Gale, who edits between 25 and 30 books a year — and that's a lot for one editor!
What have you edited recently?
Right now, I'm working on a middle-grade novel that's historical fiction, as well as a non-fiction picture book.
Were any manuscripts you edited from the“slush pile”?
One I'm working on currently is, yes. But I was sold because the writing is incredible - the author has been published in several journals and literary magazines and is also a writing teacher.
Is the slush pile an actual pile? Where is it? How many manuscripts are in it?
Yes! My slush pile is in a corner where I don't have to look at it everyday. Right now, only about 10 or so envelopes are in the pile — I try to do a few every week.
What percentage of manuscripts from the slush pile do you estimate get published?
Not many, maybe 1 percent.
Why does so much NOT get published?
For one thing, there's already a lot out there, and the number of books published each year is increasing. Chances are, if it's a good idea, it's been done. It's very competitive for us, as well, to find something fresh to publish. I'm happy to say, though, that I have yet to come across anything that I think is outstanding that we won't or can't publish.
How long does it take Simon and Schuster to read a manuscript?
I can't speak for the company, but I take a long time — 6 to 9 months, I'd say, just because so many other projects are rush jobs!
Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!
We are usually working on around 40 books at any given time, all in various stages. Last week, a new manuscript came in for a book we already signed up, so today I will be putting together my editorial comments for my boss. I am also in touch with authors, sending contracts, checks, reviews, and going back and forth with copy-edited manuscripts and first-pass pages (the first version of the book laid out and designed in pages). Then my boss and I also check over each consequent version of the pages until the final stage. We are constantly receiving manuscripts from agents which need to be read - sometimes in a matter of a day or two if the agent is planning an auction. There are also many meetings: staff meetings, at which we discuss departmental business; production meetings, which involve editors, designers, and managing editorial to make sure we're keeping projects on schedule; editorial positioning meetings, where we discuss our sales expectations for upcoming books with people from marketing; marketing meetings, which highlight the performance of books currently on the market; and acquisition meetings, where we talk about books to sign up. We might also meet one-on-one with designers to talk about cover concepts for a novel or make sure that picture book art matches up with the manuscript. On top of all that, we have to find time to keep up with publishing trends and look for new talent, which means reading books that seem to have “buzz” about them as well as trade magazines like Publishers Weekly. I usually leave work between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. with at least one manuscript tucked in my bag to read at home!
Do you usually read manuscripts at work or at home in the evenings and on weekends?
At home, because I don't get very much time to read at work.
What kinds of books do you like to work on?
Novels and pictures books represent different challenges. For novels, I love being in the trenches of writing - figuring out how to solve problems on the sentence and paragraph level. I am a stickler for le mot juste! That's also essential in picture books, where the challenge is to find the right balance of text so that the illustrator can expand on the story. One of the most fun parts of the job is finding new illustrators! In both genres, I am interested in books with strong, spunky female protagonists with real voices that readers can relate to, even if the situations are foreign.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I have to thank my parents for reading so many wonderful books to me — two that I can think of off the top of my head are CAPS FOR SALE and FERDINAND. I also remember reading the FROG AND TOAD stories by Arnold Lobel over and over, and MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. I loved the “SHOES” books by Noel Streatfeild also the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES series.
Do you have any favorites now?
I'm lucky in that I get to work with some of my favorite authors — Rachel Cohn, Ellen Wittlinger, and Sonya Sones, to name a few. There are a couple of upcoming books I read in bound galley form that I'd recommend highly - CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC by Sarah Darer Littman, and LIGHT YEARS by Tammar Stein. I also love anything illustrated by Ana Juan.
Is it every editor's dream to discover the next J.K. Rowling?
I think any editor would love to have books that are well-received commercially and critically!
What must a manuscript have to get your attention?
Good writing speaks for itself. I think every editor is looking for relatable characters, a riveting plot, and an original voice.
Do you read manuscripts all the way through or do you read just the first page? First chapter? First paragraph?
I read as much as holds my attention. Sometimes the beginning is the weakest part of the book, and other times it can be the strongest, because the author has worked on it the most. I can get a sense of the writing from the first few pages, and if it's good, then the plotting and characters have to keep me engaged.
Describe the acquisition process. Let's say you found a manuscript you want to acquire. What happens next? Be specific!
Well, usually I would show it to my boss, the editorial director, to solicit his feedback. If he likes it, the manuscript would then go to an acquisitions meeting, where we discuss sales and marketing feedback on it, and the editorial group weighs in. If I don't think a manuscript is to my boss's taste, or I'm interested in getting more feedback on it before a formal acquisitions meeting, I might bring it to a staff meeting, which is just our editorial group. I want the manuscript to be in the best shape possible before it goes to an acquisitions meeting! At the acquisitions meeting, a decision is made to extend an offer for the manuscript or turn it down. If people have reservations about an aspect of a manuscript, I might go back to the author and ask for some revisions before we make an offer. In this case, if the revisions are satisfactory, then we will extend an offer for the manuscript.
Do you think “celebrity books” are on the rise? Why?
I have to say, I think they're trending down right now. Some celebrity books have really broken out, but others haven't at all met expectations sales-wise, so stores are more cautious about which books they buy in. Some celebrities, like Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow, are authors in their own right who take children's book writing seriously, and stores respect that. For other celebrities, it's merely a vanity project with a ghost writer. In any case, I think stores are becoming more and more wary of books written by celebrities.
Do you ever love a book that you have to turn down? Why?
The answer is no — at least, it hasn't happened to me yet. When an editor really loves a book, she will do everything she can to acquire it, and that passion for the manuscript comes through to everyone in the acquisitions meeting. Also, I think a manuscript has to be pretty darn good for an editor to feel so strongly, and in that case, other people who read it will most likely also see its merits. I believe that good writing sells itself.
Do you read manuscripts addressed to you or do you have an assistant?
I read them.
When you make an offer to an author, do you expect the author to negotiate the terms or to accept the offer on the spot?
It depends. If the author has an agent, I would expect there to be some negotiation. I have no problem with negotiating, except that sometimes authors or agents ask for terms that we simply cannot meet - there usually isn't a whole lot of wiggle room when we make an offer.
Are offers made by telephone or email?
I will usually call the author or the author's agent, just because I like to talk in person, and it's easier to gauge his or her reaction to the offer!
Which parts of a publishing contract is the publisher most flexible about?
Again, there are some things that we cannot negotiate, mostly legal matters; however, I would say that there's nothing wrong with asking - the worst we can say is no.
How often do you send “personal rejection letters” versus “form rejection letters”?
I would only send a personal rejection letter if I wanted to see more from the author, which is maybe 10% of cases. Otherwise, I simply don't have the time to write a personal response to every unsolicited manuscript I receive.
What is the approximate print run of a picture book these days? A novel?
Good question! It varies widely, depending on the book. I'd say that our first print quantities range from 7,500 up to 50,000 - but the higher number would be for a celebrity book or another book that we expect to get a lot of attention from sales and publicity.
Is it true that most books lose money for the publisher if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?
I'm really not sure about that — I would think it depends on the price point of the book, but I know we calculate profit-and-loss statements that project several years into the future.
How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days? The average novel?
Another good question - my best guess is around five years for both a picture book and novel. It's hard to give an “average” answer, since again, it depends on the book. Another factor is whether a paperback edition was published - in that case, the hardcover version would probably be taken out of print sooner.
Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?
I think all forms of media are becoming more saturated and the competition more stiff - I always make the comparison to television. Ten years ago, a show like Seinfeld was kept on the air even though it took three seasons or so to really build an audience. Now, shows are pulled off the air after a few weeks. Books are becoming the same way - there is only so much shelf space, and we're publishing books in greater and greater numbers - so it follows that the shelf life of a book is shorter. I think part of this is also due to the short-attention-span nature of the marketplace - people are always looking for the next big thing, and book-buyers don't want to see the same book front and center every time they go to the bookstore.
Is it true that editors have little time to “edit” these days? Is it true that they are looking for manuscripts that are more “finished”?
I think it depends on the editor. Many editors who are more established have the privilege to pick from the cream of the manuscript crop, and it's usually younger editors looking for a break who are more apt to go through several rounds of major revisions with a writer - before the book is even brought to an acquisition meeting. I think agents also have a tendency to pitch big projects to big editors, and agents will direct manuscripts that they know need more work to younger editors who are establishing themselves. A lot also depends on the project. If an editor sees a diamond in the rough, she will probably be willing to work on the manuscript as long as it takes!
How has the field changed since you've been an editor?
I have been in publishing for about four years, and in that time, I think the market has become tighter and the stakes higher. There are more auctions in children's books, and we expect every book to carry its weight in terms of sales expectations. We are being much more selective about what we publish and think about sales potential much earlier in the publishing process.
How has Harry Potter changed the field?
Harry Potter proved that children's books can make big money. It's also one of the only children's books that has really crossed over to be read by many adults, which is no small part of its success. With any fantasy proposal we get, the agent makes the inevitable Harry Potter comparison - I can't tell you how many manuscripts I've seen that are touted as “the next Harry Potter.” Compared to an overall downturn in the industry, children's books have been a growth area, and I think that's due partially to Harry Potter - it brings people to stores.
Have big chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, changed the field? How?
B&N, Borders, and other super stores exert an influence over our business. If one of the large chains doesn't take a title in a significant quantity, it makes it that much harder for that book to get noticed. In recent years, independent bookstores have been banding together so that they have a greater presence, which definitely helps us build support for books that might be “quieter” or passed over by the chains. One thing everyone can do is shop at their local, independent bookstore rather than a chain.
Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?
Do you think these changes are for the better or worse?
I think that the industry is changing, and whether it's for better or worse isn't the question. The question is how we can adapt to these changes and continue to do what we do and feel good about the books we publish. It's our challenge to figure out how to make every book we publish a success - and by that - I don't necessarily mean a New York Times bestseller, but a book that sells commensurate with our expectations, which can mean a book that sells 6,000 copies of its 7,500-copy print run. I think that overall, it's surprising how much we do that's similar to the way books were published fifty years ago, when there were no computers, no Internet, no cable, no TiVo, no PlayStation - looking at it from that perspective, I think the fact that we're still around speaks to the power of books!