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Putting David Foster Wallace On Hold
     by Michael Neff

An Interview with Jen Noon of Little, Brown

Jen Noon has been a copyeditor and proofreader for more than ten years. She began her career in educational publishing, with Heinemann and Educators Publishing Service, but currently works as a copyeditor for Little, Brown. Authors she has worked with include Carolyn Parkhurst, Robert Hellenga, and Denise Mina. Her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, traces beginnings to 1784. In recent years, Little, Brown bestselling books have included James Patterson's THE BEACH HOUSE and VIOLETS ARE BLUE, Malcolm Gladwell's THE TIPPING POINT, Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES and LUCKY, Anita Shreve's THE LAST TIME THEY MET and THE WEIGHT OF WATER and David Sedaris' ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY.

"Even when an author and I disagree about something, we can usually find a compromise that satisfies everyone."

                     - Jen Noon

NEFF: Jen, how did you grow into the profession of copyeditor for Little, Brown?

JEN: I first started in publishing as an intern for Heinemann, which publishes professional books for teachers (primarily in language arts) as well as theatre and arts books and works by writers in developing countries. I interned there for two summers during college, and my senior year I began doing freelance proofreading and copyediting while I was at school at Bryn Mawr College. After graduation, I started working as an assistant editor at Educators Publishing Service in Cambridge, MA, which publishes workbooks and other programs for K-12 students, and I worked my way up to senior editor. I kept freelancing for Heinemann, and then when we hired a new editor who had worked at Little, Brown, I asked her to put me in touch with the copyediting manager there. I took their proofreading and copyediting tests and began freelancing for them as well. So I had a built-in relationship with them, and when they said they were looking for a full-time copyeditor I was eager to apply.

NEFF: Tell us something about Little, Brown, from your viewpoint. Where is it going as a publisher? Leaning away from literary and more towards commercial?

JEN: I think both literary and commercial books are very important to Little, Brown. In my opinion this is just as it should be--both kinds of books appeal to different readers (or, often, the same reader!). And since the reality of publishing is that James Patterson is going to sell a lot more books than Elizabeth Kostova (no matter how well The Historian sells), I think the bestselling commercial books help subsidize the more literary ones. The only thing you'd have to watch out for is that the commercial ones don't crowd out the literary ones altogether, but I don't think there's a danger of that at such an old and well-respected publishing house. We've just been acquired by Lagardere, a French company that owns other publishing companies around the world, and I think they plan to maintain the status quo, since our books are certainly selling well and Lagardere seems pleased with how the company is being run.

NEFF:Your job is extremely demanding and diverse. What is a typical day in the life of a copyeditor? What happens?

JEN: Usually, each day is different, but includes some or all of the following: copyediting manuscripts and jacket copy, uploading jacket copy to our shared server, proofreading jackets, checking pages that come in from the typesetter (we hire freelance proofreaders for the first set of typeset pages, but after that it's often the copyeditor who checks pages), reviewing corrections and changes from authors, freelance copyeditors, or proofreaders, and so on. It's very important to be able to multitask! But usually we don't have all of these things happening at once, and sometimes they may take just a few minutes or less than an hour, and then we can get back to copyediting manuscripts.

NEFF: Tell us about some of your more memorable experiences in the field.

JEN: Well, once I heard my cubicle neighbor, the copyediting assistant, saying, "OK, well, I'm not sure about that, but let me find out and I'll get right back to you. I just need to put you on hold for a second, hang on." Then later I get this e-mail from her: "I just put David Foster Wallace on hold." I do find it exciting to work for a company that publishes such great authors, and it's fun to work with people who are similarly excited about books. I think I'm still waiting for a similarly memorable experience that's really my own, but I love working with authors and helping to improve their books.

NEFF: What kind of interaction do you have with authors?

JEN: So far I've been lucky with all my authors. They are often touched and grateful that a total stranger is taking such thoughtful care with their work. I think this is an area where Little, Brown really excels--all the copyeditors are fantastic, and we really try hard to do right by people's work. Even when an author and I disagree about something, we can usually find a compromise that satisfies everyone. The only thing I can't stand is when I make a correction to a manuscript and the author changes it back and tells me I'm wrong when I'm not. Fortunately, this happens VERY rarely!

NEFF: What is the most difficult aspect of your job in the context of bringing a ms to a polished state?

JEN: Sometimes if I'm having a busy day (like one in which all of the things in my answer to question 3 are happening), it's discouraging not to be able to just sit down and copyedit for several hours at a stretch. But there's always a time when the rush eases and I can get back to it.

NEFF: How do the copyeditors interact in the organization with the editors and other professionals? Do personalities come into play?

JEN: I suppose they might in some cases, but it seems that generally the editors do a good job prepping the MS, so that we copyeditors don't usually end up having much interaction with them. I had a book that I thought needed a little structural reworking (a chapter was divided into several sections that flipped back and forth between different days, and it was too hard to tell which day was which). I talked to the editor and author and it turned out that everybody agreed that the chapter needed some help.

NEFF: What does the future hold for Jen Noon?

JEN: Wouldn't I like to know! I have been copyediting for about ten years, and I still enjoy it. I love working in trade publishing as much as I always thought I would. I'm fortunate in that copyediting is a job I can do from home, so if I give up full-time work to raise a family, I can still freelance. It's also a job that I think will be around for a long time--we're nowhere near having a computer program that could do what I do--and one that I could incorporate into my life pretty much indefinitely, whether it's my full-time job or not.

About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is editor@webdelsol.com


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