Venerable Beacon Press Shines on Social Issues

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Boston-based Beacon Press, a nonprofit independent book publisher founded in 1854 as the Press of the American Unitarian Association, has long been known as a house devoted to providing the public with thought-provoking, sometimes controversial, works focusing on social issues. Renamed Beacon Press in 1902, it remains a branch of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), often referred to as the Unitarian Church, although its titles are nondenominational.

"We see the role of the independent press as a very important one," Beacon's director, Helene Atwan, recently told BTW. "That there are so few independent presses, and so many publishing conglomerates, influences so deeply what is published. We also pride ourselves on being forward looking -- to consider what issues Americans are going to be facing next.

"Back in 1999, we published a major book on gay marriage [What is Marriage For? by E.J. Graff]. It is frequently cited in what is now the national gay marriage debate. We are publishing a book about the big box stores [by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance] that the commercial houses didn't want to do. We're looking ahead to concerns for the rights of immigrants and have several books in the works."

The press was founded with the mission of publishing works that promulgate "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in society." That mandate has inspired Beacon to publish the work of dozens of prominent, notorious writers -- including historians and philosophers. Making history in 1971, Beacon published the top secret U.S. Department of Defense history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, known as "The Pentagon Papers," after 35 publishers declined to publish it and despite President Richard Nixon's direct intervention.

More recently, in the fall of 2001, Beacon Press found itself attacked by some for the publication of Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, a '60s-era radical group whose protest actions included bombings. Ayers' book tour, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, provoked some strong reactions. A. David Schwartz, the late owner of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, who refused to cancel Ayers' appearance, received threats he termed "hysterically ugly." Refusing to bow to these threats, he and the other booksellers on the tour refused to cancel Ayers' visit.

With 500 titles to its credit and 35 to 40 new books published each year, in addition to reprints, Beacon continually strives to produce books on "matters of importance to society," said associate publisher, and former independent bookseller, Tom Hallock. "Beacon has always published books on a variety of social justice issues, from abolition to nonviolence, McCarthyism, and same sex marriage."

During its 10 years under Atwan's directorship, Beacon has expanded its publication of fiction. "[In publishing] original fiction, we are extremely selective. [We ask,] Does it represents important issues and values and is it of distinctive quality," Atwan said. "Our first book [of original fiction], The Healing by Gayl Jones, was a National Book Award Finalist, so we've set the bar very high."

Original fiction through Beacon's Bluestreak series of works by women of all colors claims a small but significant new niche, and poetry has long been a staple of the house. Beacon Press counts numerous books of poetry by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Mary Oliver among its titles.

In her first-ever bookstore tour this past fall, the Book Sense-bestselling Oliver read to packed crowds at independents across the country. Oliver plans to tour bookstores again in late 2006 to promote her compact disc recording of 40 of her favorite poems, At Blackwater Pond. The recording, to be released in April to coincide with National Poetry Month, is a first for Beacon Press and Oliver. The CD, in a clothbound case, will include an insert with an original essay, photos of the author, and a full listing of the poems and their sources.

Beacon Press was a charter Book Sense Publisher Partner, and Hallock pointed to Oliver's appearance on the Book Sense Picks and Bestseller lists as a prime example of how well the Book Sense program dovetails with Beacon's list. "Independent bookstores have been among our strongest supporters," said Hallock. "We're really indebted to the independents, they are a perfect match for us." --Nomi Schwartz