Last summer, Marlo Thomas got to thinking about how certain words, spoken by an important person at a key moment, have resonated throughout her life. "We all carry around in our heads these little phrases that people have said to us in our lifetime," she told PW. "People always say actions speak louder than words, but I'm not so sure." Thomas thought it would be fascinating to find out what "custom-made slogans" have inspired prominent people from many fields, so she started asking around.

The idea became a book proposal that wound up in the hands of Judith Curr at Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books division. Last summer was also a turning point at Pocket Books, when its paperback operations were largely split off from the hardcover. In the months following the split, Louise Burke was brought in from New American Library to be executive v-p and publisher of Pocket, which has returned to its roots as a predominantly mass market imprint, while Curr became executive v-p and publisher of Atria, a newly created imprint dedicated to hardcover and trade paperback publishing (that includes Washington Square Press). Both women report to Carolyn Reidy, president of S&S's adult publishing group.

This month, Atria debuts with the publication of The Right Words at the Right Time by Marlo Thomas and friends, backed by 200,000-copy first printing and a marketing blitz that begins with appearances by Thomas on the Today show on April 26 (the book's pub date) and on 20/20 on May 3; a first serial in O magazine; and a national book tour. For Curr, the title not only launches Atria with a bang, but sends the right message. "It really does show the power of words," she said. "And that's really the business we are in."

The Right Words at the Right Time features short essays by 109 famous figures, among them Muhammad Ali, Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Carter, soccer star Mia Hamm, Toni Morrison, Itzhak Perlman and Oprah Winfrey. Phil Donahue, Thomas's husband, shares a lesson in hubris and integrity he learned from a preacher when he was a hotshot cub reporter for CBS News. Is it a typical once-over-lightly celebrity book? "I wanted it to be way more than that," said Thomas. "Once the contributors got involved, they were really committed to it and wanted to pass along a good story." Thomas and the contributors will donate their proceeds from the book to St. Jude's Children's Hospital, founded by Marlo's father, Danny Thomas.

"I knew the key to this book is that it would have to be well written," Thomas said. Some of the essays are penned directly by the celebrities, others are the result of interviews, and some are a mixture of the two. "Al Pacino must have rewritten his about seven times," she said. Thomas approached some of her contributors with specific topics. For instance, she wanted Martin Sheen to talk about what has inspired his activism and Cindy Crawford to discuss how she handled her two-year-old brother's leukemia diagnosis. Thomas also was interested in the juxtaposition of generations, which led her to include Billy Jean King, Venus Williams, Uta Hagen and Gwyneth Paltrow. There were also a few surprises along the way: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cherished the loving, practical advice she received from her mother-in-law on her wedding day; Kenneth Cole faced down his father's skepticism when he left the family shoe business and went out on his own. The book ends with a prayer from the Dalai Lama and a pictorial thank-you from the children of St. Jude's.

Not all of the books from Atria will have the celebrity patina of The Right Words at the Right Time, but Curr thought it was a good way to start. Thomas will be at BEA in May, where Atria will present its fall list. The imprint plans to publish 100 hardcover titles a year and another 40 trade paperbacks under the Washington Square Press imprimatur. Half of the list is what Curr called "quality commercial fiction," featuring such familiar authors as Elizabeth Berg and Chris Petit, along with some new names. In nonfiction, there will be an emphasis on religion and spirituality titles, from the prayers of Pope John Paul II to the just-signed Dalai Lama's Advice on Dying. "We will try to pick a category we enjoy publishing in, and then publish all along the spectrum in it," said Curr. In other words, Atria aims to publish the right books at the right time.