In recent years, no neighborhood in Boston has generated as much book interest as Southie—both tell-alls of street soldiers for crime boss/FBI informant Whitey Bulger, charged with killing 19 people, and analyses of him and his brother Billy, former president of the Massachusetts State Senate and the University of Massachusetts system. During the past year alone, radio personality Howie Carr authored The Brothers Bulger (Grand Central); Kevin Weeks, a Whitey Bulger lieutenant, wrote Brutal (Regan Books); and John “Red” Shea, another insider, brought forth Rat Bastards (Morrow).
Although all three of those books made in onto bestseller lists, it is another book, published eight years ago, that readers have responded to most—Michael Patrick MacDonald's 1999 memoir about coming-of-age during the Bulger years, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie (Beacon Press). MacDonald has just completed the screenplay for Crossroad Films, to be directed by Ron Shelton, producer of Hollywood Homicide.
Under normal circumstances, MacDonald's paperback publisher, Ballantine, might be readying a design for a movie tie-in. Instead, Beacon is taking back paperback rights for All Souls, which has close to a quarter million copies in print in both hardcover and paper. The hardcover spent 34 weeks on the Boston Globe bestsellers list; the paperback hit the New York Times extended list and the list for the Denver Post.
The 150-year-old, Boston-based publisher's decision has less to do with the film than with changes in the marketplace and the book's fit with a backlist that includes Gandhi's An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. “We felt this would strengthen our backlist as a whole,” says Beacon associate publisher and director of sales and marketing Tom Hallock. And, he adds, “it's potentially more lucrative to do it, provided the sales volume is maintained.” To boost sales, the new edition will have a step-back cover, an insert with four-color photos of the family and a slightly lower price [$1 less than Ballantine's].
“A separate ID sales force is no longer necessary,” notes director Helene Atwan. “I don't think there's a channel we can't reach between Beacon and our distributor, Houghton Mifflin.” The latter will pursue the trade, while Beacon follows up on course adoptions at high schools and colleges. Already the book is a popular read at Boston-area schools, including Tufts, Northeastern and Wellesley. “Beacon was my first experience with publishing and that team is really family,” says MacDonald, who is pleased to be back at Beacon. One of the things he says he appreciates most about the press is that they let him find his voice on his own and gave him the final say throughout the publishing process.
For its edition, Beacon is removing Ballantine's reading group guide and will post three guides—one each for high-school teachers, college professors and reading groups—on its Web site (BeaconPress.org). In addition, Beacon plans to cross promote All Souls with Houghton Mifflin in March '08, when they publish the paperback of the second volume of MacDonald's memoirs, Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under. It received a starred review from PW and focuses more on MacDonald's personal story of growing up and away from Southie, the traditionally Irish-American section of Boston.
“Everyone here was passionate about All Souls,” says Ken Carpenter, v-p, director of Houghton Mifflin Paperbacks and Mariner Books. “I think it's terrific to see it back on the Beacon list and for our reps to be able to sell both of Michael's books.” When Easter Rising is published—in time for St. Patrick's Day—MacDonald will do a five-city tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Denver and Portland.
This is not the first time that Beacon has asked for the rights to one of its top sellers. In April 2006, after more than 20 years and 13 million copies, it took back the paperback license for Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning from Simon & Schuster. In fact, since Simon published it in trade and mass market, Beacon had to publish its first, and says Atwan, “only” mass market edition. So far sales have not suffered. Beacon sold 100,000 copies of Man's Search for Meaning in paperback last year and another 20,000 in hardcover.
Nor does Beacon have any intention of stepping back from its commitment to memoir. “I think memoir is one of the best ways to tell a story,” says Atwan, “especially for a mission-driven press.” In April Beacon published Meredith Hall's Without a Map, which chronicles what it was like to be kicked out of the family and community she knew when she became pregnant at the age of 16. A May Book Sense selection, Hall's book got a four-star review in People and was a Reader's Prize in Elle. It has 30,000 copies in print after three printings, and Good Housekeeping is running a second serial this fall.