A small regional publisher based in Medford, N.J., could have its best year ever thanks to HBO. The sister company to Information Today, Plexus Publishing, which is distributed by IPG and typically releases two or three trade titles a year, has the book on which HBO’s newest series to mix crime, corruption, and New Jersey, is based: Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire. The eponymous series, written by Sopranos writer Terence Winter and produced by Mark Wahlberg and Martin Scorsese, who also served as director, and slated to begin airing on September 19 has the makings of a hit.
As a result, Johnson’s book, originally published by Plexus in 2002 after being turned down by a number of large houses, could turn out to be a national hit, too, despite an inauspicious beginning. “Boardwalk Empire had everything going against it,” says Plexus publisher and editor-in-chief John Bryans, who holds the same position at the book division of IT. “It was an unsolicited manuscript by an unpublished author. I just liked it. It read like a novel.” He readily got the okay from press owner Tom Hogan to publish Johnson’s book as a paperback original to be marketed strictly as a regional book. Plexus is a 50-minute drive from Atlantic City.
Even before the boost from HBO, which optioned the book in 2007, Boardwalk Empire was among Plexus’s top sellers. It had sold nearly 10,000 copies, behind the press’ all time bestseller, A Field Guide to the Pine Barrens, which has sold over 15,000 copies. With the HBO tie-in edition comes a 16-page photo insert from the show, a foreword by Winter, and a new afterword by Johnson, Boardwalk Empire has leapfrogged past all of the press’ previous books. Plexus released the tie-in edition in mid-August with an initial printing of 75,000 copies. Three weeks later it went back to press for another 10,000. The book is in front-of-store displays at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million and will be featured at the fall NAIBA trade show to be held in Atlantic City later this month.
Much of the credit for Boardwalk Empire’s success goes to the persistence of its author, who began planning a history of early Atlantic City when he was an attorney on the Planning Board in the early days of the casinos in the 1980s. Johnson, now Atlantic County Superior Court Judge, spent two decades writing the book. Over the course of finding a publisher Johnson went through two literary agents before sending the manuscript of what was then called Nucky’s Town for Republican boss Enoch (“Nucky”) Johnson to Plexus.
Getting the book picked up by HBO was an equally circuitous process. According to Bryans it either came about as a result of one of the pitch meetings that Johnson held in California where he took screen writing classes or more likely from Wahlberg or someone in his office trolling Amazon looking for books on Atlantic City crime and corruption.
Plexus is readying a second book by Johnson on how Atlantic City was built on the backs African-Americans after the Civil War, a subject touched on in a chapter in Boardwalk Empire. The new book, North Side: African-Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City, is due out in hardcover in November. “If it were to become a film,” says Bryans, “it would be a documentary.”