Interview with Helene Atwan, Director
How did Beacon Press start?
That story is told in our history, here. Since we were founded in 1854, there’s quite a lot of story to tell, but essentially the American Unitarian movement founded the Press to help spread and promote liberal religious ideas, including, in those early years, abolitionism and suffrage. Freedom of religion and thought, equality, and social justice were the backbone of the mission.
Tell us a bit about Beacon Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The mission is written at the bottom of the same page. It matches overall the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which still owns the press, though we operate with complete editorial independence. We have adapted their mission statement a bit to better match our particular work as publishers.
At various points in our long history, Beacon was influenced by liberal religious leaders including William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, and William Greenleaf Elliot; by radical philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and Claude Lévi-Strauss; by historians like Howard Zinn, a long-time adviser and friend of the Press; by writers of color (a Beacon editor commissioned James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, e.g.); by radical feminist writers like Mary Daly, Gertrude Stein, Margaret Atwood, and recently Anita Hill, Daisy Hernandez and many others; and by activists including Cornel West, Marian Wright Edelman, and the Reverend Dr. William Barber. We also work with quite a few writer activists in the environmental movement, in the LGBTQ justice movement, and in the field of public education.
Beacon also has a history of taking risks in what we publish, perhaps most famously Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Gandhi’s autobiography. We value good writing, deep thinking, and progressive values. Though we aren’t acquiring new fiction now, in the past we proudly published and reprinted many works of literature, including writings by Gertrude Stein, Marguerite Duras, and Rachel Carson; classic works of fiction by women of color, including Octavia E. Butler, Gayl Jones, and Alice Childress, and many volumes of poetry, notably works by Miribai and Kabir, Lorca and Jiminez, Sonia Sanchez and Mary Oliver. We are a proud member press of the National Poetry Series, and we’ve been lucky enough to have Tracy K. Smith, Gregory Pardlo, and now Tyehimba Jess judge for us. Today we are as influenced by need and crisis as anything; our books—both new and deep backlist—received a substantial “Trump Bump” as progressive Americans searched for meaning, solace, and inspiration after the elections. We hope to continue adding books that address the issues of our times head on, as we also offer insightful looks at our history, and stirring works of poetry and memoir that invite us into the world of traditionally excluded voices.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We have some essential new books coming in racial justice, including a 25th anniversary edition of our Cornel West classic, Race Matters, as well as his forthcoming book, Justice Matters. We are constantly seeking out important work in social justice activism; we will be publishing Francis Moore Lappé’s latest book, Daring Democracy (coauthored by her associate Adam Eichen), in the fall, and a new book by the Reverend Dr. William Barber (whose book The Third Reconstruction may well be the most important book we’ve published this decade) next spring. Several of our new books address the rights and role of women in society, including Trust Women, a new argument for abortion rights by a Presbyterian Minister, Rebecca Todd Peters.
We’ve also expanded two important subject areas in the last two decades: books about public education and books about public health, both urgent concerns now. One of our best selling books of the last two years was Christopher Emdin’s landmark For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too. Our upcoming education titles include These Schools Belong To You and Me, by MacArthur grant-winner Deborah Meier and fellow teacher Emily Gasoi, and Jim Crow Schools, by a trio of knowledgeable educators exploring the effects of charter schools on public education in Chicago, New Orleans, and New York.
Lately, we’re focused on publishing books that use intersectional approaches to emphasize the complex realities of American lives and the need to address injustice across all identities. To that end, we are publishing several new volumes in our critically acclaimed ReVisioning American History Series, including A Black Women’s History of the United States and An African American and Latinx History of the United States.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
Though being a smaller press has its challenges, we are lucky to have a degree of flexibility that allows us to pursue exciting new ventures and opportunities. When Frankie Lappé approached us, she wanted a house that would help her and her co-author Adam Eichen quickly publish a good, substantive, well-edited and designed book. Because of our flexible, tightly-knit staff we were able to do that. We are also able to work closely with authors on all aspects of publishing their books, whether that means careful editorial support, or crafting well-designed marketing and publicity campaigns. Today, many big houses encourage authors to hire their own publicist. We don’t do that. We’re proud to keep doing what publishing houses are supposed to do, even in the 21st century when most have left a lot of that work behind.
In these challenging political times, it’s meaningful to be a small and independent publisher with a progressive and deeply relevant list, one which is attracting the broadest readership we’ve ever had. We recently launched a campaign called “Now More Than Ever,” which highlights not just new titles, but some of our crucial backlist titles—on race, immigration, gender and inequality—showing that the publishing we’ve always been committed to is more critical than ever.
But one thing that needs to change, I believe, is that the entire industry needs to become faster and more flexible, and more format agnostic. As part of our effort to continue growing and reaching as many readers as possible, we began our own Beacon Press Audio imprint alongside our already-existing print and ebook formats. We really hope to put books into the marketplace much, much faster, on a routine basis. The entire industry is going to have a very hard time competing with long form journalism and podcasting if we can’t keep up in terms of timing.
And, of course, we strongly believe the publishing industry must become much more inclusive and reflective of American society in terms of its hiring practices. The issue of diversity has been something we’ve discussed for many years in book publishing; we also know not much has changed in terms of the percentage of people of color in our ranks. Internships for individuals of color can be one, of several, important correctives and it’s heartening that a few publishers, including Beacon, are offering those internships. We’ve also done a lot of recruiting in actively trying to diversify our staff and we’ve been quite successful. It has unquestionably made our staff stronger to be more diverse.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Beacon Press?
We don’t charge any kind of fees, and I can’t imagine we ever would. On the other hand, we’ve never paid big advances, and that’s helped keep us going for so many decades. We also pay attention to details, watch our margins carefully, and price our books in each format thoughtfully. Other than that, we need to keep publishing what readers want, what libraries need, and what booksellers love to hand-sell.