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Beacon Behind the Books: Meet Helene Atwan, Director

Helene Atwan with Keith Richards and Peter Wolf
Helene Atwan with Keith Richards and Peter Wolf

In these times when readers are responding to our books “more than ever,” when our authors—including Cornel West, Anita Hill, Robin DiAngelo, Charlene Carruthers, Howard Bryant, 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.

For the month of October, meet our director, Helene Atwan, who is celebrating the twenty-third anniversary of her appointment as director of Beacon Press this month. 

How did you land at Beacon, Helene?

I was amazingly lucky. I’d been associate publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux when we were distributing Beacon, so I got to “help out” with some of their books, including best-selling books by Marian Wright Edelman and Cornel West. When my predecessor left, the search committee came knocking at my door. I just happened to know one of them, Roger Straus III, so maybe the fix was in. But it was the amazing Kay Montgomery, executive vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who really settled me in and supported me for the next seventeen years. I’ve never recovered from her abandonment (well, yes, she retired after more than twenty-five years at her job . . .).

Was it different?

As I like to say, I’d just drunk a cup of coffee at Pocket Books after leaving FSG, so I went from one of the most blatantly commercial, profit-driven houses in the industry (where I oversaw TV ads, a department devoted to building “furniture” like the Starship Enterprise “dump,” aisle violators, and gravity feeders for drugstores, etc.) to one of the oldest and most “venerable” nonprofit, mission-driven publishers in the country. It was culture shock, but every bit of it positive! Needless to say, I’ve never regretted any part of it, including the move from NYC to Boston. And though we may still be venerable, I was thrilled to see a tweet from one of our authors last week calling Beacon “a woke ass publisher!”

You’ve been with the press for over two decades. What are some of the changes you’ve seen both in publishing and at Beacon?

Way too many to itemize, but maybe a couple: One of the first, which is one bred in the bones of the press, is the emphasis on the voices of women and historically marginalized peoples, which is an important aspect of our program, dating back to our suffragist and abolitionists roots in the 1850s. I’m happy that we’re moving towards better representation of the population across the entire industry, though we do have a whole heck of a lot more work to do. Early in my tenure, we launched an internship program for people of color. Over the past decade in particular, the press has grown in diversity and in the diversity of writers we publish, and the subjects we cover. It’s a credit to the editorial department, led by Gayatri Patnaik. 

And then there was the explosion of social media. We responded with this blog! Begun in 2007, it marked part of a sea change in how we promoted our books and authors, but more importantly, how we fulfilled our mission. All of our social media outreach has evolved to be part of the work we do to introduce progressive ideas and voices into the culture. So, yes, the books and authors are first and foremost, but also the blog posts, the tweets, the Facebook posts, even the Grams (right now, I’m getting a big kick out of #BookFaceFridays).

Can you give us an example of a really special moment, one that stands out over the years?

One of the proudest moments I shared in with the press was becoming the exclusive trade publisher of the works of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We launched the King Legacy series in 2009 (see my Broadside Post about it here),  and we’ve done some great work with Dr. King’s writings. One, which also points to a developing direction for us, is A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr. for Students. That also started us on the road to adapting other books for a student/young adult market, including a young readers edition of our perennial best-seller, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and two coming from our groundbreaking ReVisioning American History series, Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

We hear that you’re an audiofile, true?

Yes, I’ve jumped into audiobooks with both feet. I just did a scan of my audiobook libraries, and I have at least 335 books, which means I’ve listened to almost fifty books a year since I first got hooked. Most recently, I’ve been listening to some real classics (I promise you Hardy’s Tess holds up). So, it can be no surprise that I wanted to start Beacon Press Audio. Like everyone else in this business, I see audiobooks growing at almost exponential rates. I love listening to narrator auditions with our audiobooks director, Melissa Nasson, and the editors. And it’s been great fun to “reread” some of our books by listening to the audio versions.

Who were the authors who most influenced you in your work?

I think almost every author we’ve published has made an impact on my thinking—that’s where the igniting hearts and minds slogan comes from. But there are three women I need to call out for the special guidance they gave me through their own keen intelligence and gifts of understanding and empathy: Lani Guinier, the brilliant legal scholar who I had the joy of working with on The Tyranny of the Meritocracy; Anita Hill, a brilliant legal scholar as well, who first taught me the deep lessons of intersectionality, and whose Reimagining Equality is a gem on our list; and Danielle Ofri, a physician and philosopher of medicine, author of What Doctors Feel, who is still teaching me so much about being an editor as we work together on her sixth book. I feel one of the greatest gifts of my career was working with Gayl Jones on two new novels, The Healing and Mosquito, as well as reissues of her previous work. Her novels before then had been acquired and edited by Toni Morrison, so it was a daunting role, one I sweated, believe me, but one I will always cherish.

What was the funniest moment in your career at Beacon?

There have been some pretty good ones. Many involving my good friend and close colleague Tom Hallock, who just retired as associate publisher in June. My favorite was in the early years, when we traveled to Book Expo in Chicago with our own booth in a shipping crate. Those were penny-pinching days. The crates were stored on the roof of the Chicago convention center. Tom and I had packed up, mostly, and taken a break to have dinner with our wonderful author and advisor Bill Ayers (this was back in the days when he was allegedly writing Barack Obama’s books for him). By the time we got back to the convention center, it was pouring rain. We had to drag our already bedraggled booth up to the roof to pack it up for shipping home. The crate was completely flooded. At 1:30 am, Tom and I were hopelessly engaged in trying to mop it out with paper towels purloined from the ladies’ room. It didn’t help. By 2:00 am, we were standing in the puddle at the bottom of the crate, looking at each other with wonderment: how the heck had we ended up looking like drowned rats on a roof in Chicago?

What has been the best moment of your life at Beacon?

Right now. We have an important book on the Times list, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility; two other incredibly timely books about race just coming out, Crystal Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race, and Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic; two important histories garnering rave reviews, Howard Bryant’s The Heritage, and Scott Stern’s The Trials of Nina McCall; and a landmark biography, Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine, poised to break out. Plus, our backlist is selling at record high levels. 

Most of all, we have an amazing staff, and we’ve welcomed some new staff members recently who are deepening our professionalism, among them Carol Chu, our new creative director, and Sanj Kharbanda, our sales and marketing director. But I’m cutting myself off now . . . I could definitely go on to mention all the other twenty-seven Beaconites.

OK, but are you going to say anything about your personal life?? What’s on your desk, maybe?

Alongside a photo Tom Hallock took of me with poet Sonia Sanchez (here’s a post I wrote about her joyous seventy-fifth birthday) and a really fun one of me sitting between Keith Richards and Peter Wolf, just an outrageous number of photos of my two wonderful kids, Greg and Emily, and my three absolutely fabulous grandkids, Irving, Daphne, and Evelyn.  Yes, they are the lights of my life.