At 161 years old, Beacon Press looks toward its future
For many of the startups among Beacon Press’s neighbors in Fort Point Channel’s Innovation District, the hire of a couple additional telecommuters would be a development hardly worth noting.
But for a 161-year-old, mission-driven, nonprofit book publisher to add two remote acquisitions editors — that, in light of an anxious decade in publishing that has included both a recession and massive technological disruption, is striking news. Beacon Press, founded in 1854 as the publishing arm of the American Unitarian Association, moved with the Unitarian Universalist Association last year from historic offices on Beacon Hill to gleaming, high-tech new quarters in a former factory at 24 Farnsworth St. This month, it announced that it had hired two new senior editors, based in New York and Chicago, who will help expand the annual list of titles by almost a third. With its traditional Brahmin liberal values boosted by 21st-century technology, Beacon is emerging as an unusual confluence of old and new Boston.
“In spite of everything, we have found a way to do really well,” said Beacon’s director, Helene Atwan, in the company’s sunny offices on a recent afternoon. Atwan, a former vice president and associate publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has headed the company since 1995. Though Beacon is affiliated with the UUA, it is generally financially independent (aside from a UUA commitment to provide limited support in case of a shortfall) and makes its own editorial decisions. In each of the last 13 years, Atwan has led Beacon to a surplus, which has gone into a reserve that the press can tap for ambitious projects — such as a 2009 partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to publish his work, and, now, Beacon’s own expansion.
Unitarian Universalism, born when two American denominations merged in 1961, is based in liberal Christianity, but its core principles focus on human worth and dignity, social justice, and a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” At Beacon, those values are reflected in such recent strong sellers as “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; “Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health,” by a team of doctors including H. Gilbert Welch; and “Black Prophetic Fire,” by Cornel West. “We’re looking at human rights in every aspect,” Atwan said.
That mission long precedes the new Fort Point Channel offices. Among the glass-walled conference rooms and sleek furniture are posters of titles by Marian Wright Edelman, Anita Hill, Thich Nhat Hanh, and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, whose 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” sells tens of thousands of copies a year. A shelf displays books by Provincetown poet Mary Oliver. Older publications fill a sprawling archive — classic texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, and James Baldwin, as well as the volumes of the Pentagon Papers. (“Beacon Press Is Visited,” said the ominous headline of a 1971 AP brief, describing an appearance by Pentagon officials seeking cooperation. Beacon executives refused.)
For some authors, including ones who otherwise might be published by commercial or academic presses, Beacon’s values are part of its appeal. Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier’s most recent book, “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy,” was published by Beacon in January. “The commitment is to social justice and to sharing information that helps people rather than harms them,” Guinier said. She believes the publisher promotes “a reading conversation — meaning not just people in a bully pulpit.”
Beacon’s mission also stood out to Rakia Clark, one of the two new nonfiction editors joining the company. “They’re really interested in publishing things that are going to be for the greater good,” she said during a recent interview in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lives. “So much of the publishing that I’ve seen over my career doesn’t strive to do that at all.” Clark, a former editor at Kensington and Viking, remembered treasuring an anthology by young African-American writers that she only later recognized as a Beacon book: “I feel like I’ve been in this Beacon world and didn’t even realize it.”
Both Clark and Jill Petty, a former editor-publisher at South End Press who is Beacon’s other new hire and will be working from Chicago, are African-American, making them part of an underrepresented demographic in the industry. In a Publishers Weekly survey last year, 1 percent of publishing employees who gave their race identified as black; 89 percent said they were white. For Atwan, who had originally sought to add just one editor but decided, as she wrote in a statement announcing the hires, “that we couldn’t live without both,” adding greater diversity to the senior editorial team was intentional. “I really felt it was important to get a different perspective. We publish so many books about race,” she said.
What made any editor in the United States a potential candidate, however, was the wired new offices. “Technology enables me to have someone working in Chicago in a way that I would not have felt comfortable with even five years ago,” Atwan said. On a tour of the building, whose redesign received the top environmental stamp of LEED Platinum certification, she pointed out a multi-person videoconference unfolding in a UUA meeting room. It is the kind of modern connectivity that could convince even the most diehard nostalgic to leave Beacon Hill.
Initially, Atwan herself had been somewhat reluctant about the move. It was the UUA, spread among four old-fashioned and increasingly valuable buildings in Beacon Hill, that wanted to find a modern, unified space; Beacon, which pays the UUA a rent allocation, went along. In August, the building that had housed the press, at 41 Mount Vernon St., became the last of the four to sell, for $11.5 million. It is reportedly being converted into luxury condominiums.
But for Atwan, the Farnsworth office’s capabilities — its conveniences, its greenness, its ample space to host parties — have been convincing. “Like Beacon, Unitarianism and Universalism both have long histories, and you would never want to abandon that history,” she said. “But you also don’t want to be seen as living in the past. You really do need to shake it up. I have to say, I’m impressed by how well that has worked.”