In an era when many book publishers are struggling to survive, Beacon Press—which prides itself as “an independent publisher of serious nonfiction”—is thriving and growing. For the past thirteen years, Beacon Press has posted surplus revenues despite tough competition for entertainment dollars and a sometimes-fickle reading public, and it is on track for another surplus this year, said Helene Atwan, who has been Beacon’s director for over twenty years.
“Their revenues are growing, their income is up every year, they’ve added new editors—it’s an amazing story,” said Tim Brennan, chief financial officer and treasurer for the Unitarian Universalist Association, of which Beacon Press is a department.
Especially compared to other large “small presses,” many of which have died out in the past decade, Beacon Press, which has thirty-two employees, has “done really, really well,” Atwan said.
So well, in fact, that Beacon is launching a growth plan: over the next few years, it will increase its annual list from around thirty-five titles to about forty-five titles, and, in a few weeks, it will begin offering Beacon Press Audio Books. In a few years, all of its titles will be available in three modes: print, e-book, and audiobook, Atwan said, adding that its e-book division has itself been very successful. Beacon is also starting an endowment for the press and hopes to reach out to potential donors, she said.
Considered one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the U.S., Beacon—founded in 1854 by the American Unitarian Association—has a long and storied history promoting the works of such social justice activists and intellectual luminaries as James Baldwin, Mary Daly, Howard Zinn, and Dr. Cornel West. In 1971, it published the Pentagon Papers in book form when no other publisher was willing to take that risk.
It continues to publish important and provocative works, from Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, which is on the New York TimesBest Sellers lists in two categories and is selling 1,500 copies a week, to Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, by Timothy Caulfield, which Atwan calls “a very funny book that looks at celebrity culture and ways we really ought to rethink the values with which we are raising our children.”
Although it has not as a rule published young adult or children’s books, Beacon, with help from grants from the UU Funding Program, now is translating some of its books into school-friendly editions, including a queer history of the U.S. “There’s a push in schools to teach queer history, and we want to be part of that,” Atwan said.
“Each of the books we publish has a really important message,” she added.
It’s through this focus on mission and a savvy, creative business strategy that Beacon is succeeding while others falter, Brennan said. “Helene has done an outstanding job in a rapidly changing business,” he said. Beacon authors are regularly featured on NPR and in the New York Times and other major media, he said, adding that the press is “an outstanding way that we advance the conversation in the world about social justice issues that we are concerned about.”
Atwan credits the “really strong team” at Beacon, many of whom, like herself, have been there for a decade or longer, for its upward trajectory. She makes special note of executive editor Amy Caldwell; associate publisher Tom Hallock, who is the director of sales and marketing; and Gayatri Patnaik, a longtime Beacon Press editor who recently was named as editorial director.
Last year, Atwan hired two new editors, Rakia A. Clark, who is based in New York City, and Jill Petty, who is based in Chicago. It marks the first time Beacon has had off-site editors, which will allow the press to increase its visibility and connection to writers, agents, and others in those urban centers, Atwan said. In addition to being “excellent editors” with deep experience in publishing, Clark and Petty are African American women who will add to the diversity of voices among the Beacon Press staff and its authors, Atwan said.
Among Beacon’s successful strategies is being “really careful to do books that speak to our core mission,” Atwan said, and building audiences within fields important to that mission. Shortly after Atwan arrived in 1995, Beacon began putting additional focus on books about the crises in public education and the environment. It stepped up its emphasis on titles related to race and class, and did the same on the lives and experiences of women.
It also launched a new list on public health, “an area that is really important and resonates with UU values, as there should be a right to quality public health in this country,” she said. Beacon is currently working on a book about the global shortage of neurosurgeons; some countries in Africa are bereft of any neurosurgeons at all. “That’s the kind of thing I think Americans should be aware of and thinking about, and that Unitarian Universalists can lift up,” Atwan said.
Beacon has been careful not to overextend itself financially by providing large advances to authors, since reaping those funds through book sales can be a gamble. “We are very careful about keeping our terms fair and reasonable, and that has allowed us to continue to publish these books within our means” while still generating a surplus that keeps the press successful, she said.
“The reading public is a pretty rarefied part of the American public and the [numbers of] readers of nonfiction are even slimmer,” said Atwan. “They are people really looking for substance, looking for an argument or a story that illuminates something, and that is what we are proudly publishing.”