In these times when readers are responding to our books “more than ever,” when our authors—such as Cornel West, Anita Hill, and Christopher Emdin—are appearing in the media, their ideas going viral on social media, their voices being heard on so many platforms, we thought it might be good to take a break to focus on some of the staff who work hard to find, shape, edit, produce, and promote those works. Our blog series “Beacon Behind the Books” introduces to you a member of our staff and gives you a behind-the-scenes look, department by department, at what goes on at our office.
This June, meet our associate publisher, Tom Hallock!
What drew you to publishing, Tom? How did you find your way to Beacon?
My career in books started in the spring of 1976 when I was working at a Volkswagen dealership in Nashua, NH, doing state inspections, lube and oils, and washing the boss’s Porsche. I was not well suited to the work, and noticed I felt most at home in the nearby Paperback Booksmith, where I went on breaks. I walked in one evening after work and begged the manager, Jim Fudge, for a job. Not sure what to make of me, he offered me a shift on the register at $3.00 an hour, but only on Wednesday nights. I was thrilled. Being paid to work in a space full of books and records instead of lug wrenches or snow tires seemed like a good move. Forty-two years later, I can say that it was.
My path from the Paperback Booksmith to Beacon Press ran through Brookline Booksmith, Waldenbooks, Brick House Publishing Company, Prentice Hall Press, the Chinese University of Geosciences, Aperture, and Farrar Strauss & Giroux, where I was vice president of Sales and Marketing. Beacon was one of its distribution clients, and when its new director, Helene Atwan, called saying she was looking for someone “like me” who might want to be her Sales and Marketing Director, I called her bluff, and she gave me the job. FSG President and founder Roger Straus was not pleased and responded by immediately raising our distribution fees.
When I decided to take the job, I remember thinking, “This is not just going to be an interesting job. It’s going to be an interesting life.” And, so it has.
What is one book on our list that has influenced your thinking on a particular issue?
Our authors have been my teachers, beginning with Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, which was on the first list after my arrival at Beacon. I learned much from Leslie about the trans experience, and from Michael Bronski about LGBT history, from Nancy Mairs about disability, from Teresa Perry, Bob Moses, Geoff Canada, Cornel West, and so many others about race. Most recently, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has taught me about whiteness and helped me see racism in myself, and not just as something “out there” in the world.
What are some of the challenges of being an associate publisher? What do you find most rewarding?
I’ve loved being Associate Publisher because of the room it gave me to be involved in so many areas of the publishing process, and to work so closely with authors, booksellers, reps, and our talented staff. I’ve been involved with acquiring our books, developing sales and marketing plans, selecting titles and covers, setting print runs and prices, presenting them to our reps at sales conference and to booksellers at trade shows. I’ve loved the way a book takes shapes through this beautiful, gnarly, collaborative process.
I’ve taken particular pleasure in launching an author’s first book, books such as Michael MacDonald’s All Souls, Meredith Hall’s Without a Map, Marty Moran’s The Tricky Part, or Daisy Hernández’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed. I loved the feeling of being one of the first readers and knowing it would be our job to introduce an important book and writer into the world. It was immensely gratifying when the first review from Kirkus called All Souls “luminous reading;” The Tricky Part was a B&N Discover New Writers Pick, and Without a Map hit the New York Times extended bestseller list.
I had a similar feeling when editor Will Myers gave me the manuscript for Rev. William Barber’s The Third Reconstruction as I was leaving for the fiftieth anniversary of the March in Selma, where I would meet him. I was riveted, and by the time I landed, had finished the book, scribbled many notes, and had a new vision of how a social movement could form. We knew Rev. Barber would become an important voice, something that was borne out over the following year as he rocked the Democratic National Convention and launched his Poor People’s Campaign.
Another highlight of my career was my involvement in the acquisition of the publishing rights to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The agent who represented the King Estate also represented Beacon on domestic rights, and I had worked with her for several years. We’d been asked to revert rights to Where Do We Go from Here to the corporate publisher who then controlled the publishing rights to MLK’s work. I noticed that the book, nonetheless, remained out of print. I started trying to persuade the agent to grant us the rights for that title, then realized it was the whole body of work that was not being well published. It became clear to me that MLK’s work was a better fit with a smaller, mission-driven house than one of the New York conglomerates, and I proposed she negotiate an agreement with Beacon for those rights. With the door thus open, Helene and the Estate came to terms, and Beacon Press became the official publisher of the Estate of Dr. King and started to publish the King Legacy, which now includes more than a dozen titles, including much that had never been published in book form before.
As Associate Publisher, I also had the latitude to discover projects the house eventually acquired, such as Chris Finan’s book on free speech, Chuck Collins’s on the estate tax, and Kate Whouley’s on her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.
As a longtime member of the Beacon publishing team, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
When I started at Beacon, Amazon was an upstart account in Seattle that was still handled by a commission rep, Borders was a key player and there were over 7,000 independent bookstores, including a network of over 200 feminist bookstores. There was no Bookscan, no eBooks or digital download audio, metadata was unheard of, and the industry was overwhelmingly white. The industry remains very white but has begun the work around race that is so essential to our culture. Still, though much has changed, the essential work of finding books that are worth publishing and connecting writers and readers remains the same. Publishers also have important work to do when so much misinformation about critical national issues is being promulgated by social media, partisan media outlets, the current President and his party.
Name three non-office items on your desk and their significance to you.
- A Muhammad Ali coaster acquired at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville;
- A picture of my wife Beth, to whom I was introduced by Beacon editor Deanne Urmy shortly after I arrived, and my stepdaughters Sarah and Maya;
- A calendar given me every year by Virginia Moore Bradley, a former leader of the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table and retired librarian from the Prince Georges County Memorial Library System.
What’s your commute like?
In the winter, I commute by T, and on Mondays or Tuesdays am usually reading a proposal. Other days I listen to The Daily, Pod Save America, or read the Times. The rest of the year, I commute by bike and mostly try to keep an eye out for potholes and car doors.
You’re planning to retire from Beacon at the end of June. What are your plans?
My main focus is going to be on the midterm elections and the House of Representatives. As Thomas Friedman says in the New York Times, “it’s a choice between letting Trump retain control of all the key levers of political power for two more years, or not.”
I also have a writing project that has been calling to me for about twenty-five years. After my mother died, I discovered extensive notes that she had taken when she worked as a social worker in a Westinghouse factory during World War II. I’d like to delve into the stories of the women in the factories, and the person who recorded them.
Lastly, my tennis team is off to a good start this summer and I’m hoping we can make it to the district championships.
About Tom Hallock
Tom Hallock joined Beacon in 1996 after holding executive positions in sales and marketing at Farrar Straus and Giroux, Simon and Schuster and Aperture. He is a former independent bookseller and was the manager and buyer for the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHallock.