With 45 titles slated to hit the shelves this year, Beacon Press has plenty of new books to market, from Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to Howard Bryant’s The Heritage, but that hasn’t stopped the press from aiming a classic title specifically at independent booksellers. Beacon has created a new marketing effort that encourages indies to take a fresh look at Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
The Boston-based publisher’s reason for pushing Frankl’s slim work on finding meaning boils down to numbers. First published in 1959, the book is a mainstay of Beacon’s backlist, selling more than one million print copies in the past three years and 12 million copies since the first edition came off the press nearly 60 years ago. “It’s just grown and grown and grown and grown,” said Beacon director Helene Atwan. “Over the last five years, we’ve averaged 15% growth in the numbers.”
Atwan attributes the rise in sales to the current political turmoil in the U.S. “I think people are desperate to find meaning, and the more challenging the world becomes, the more divisive, the more they’re looking for answers,” she said.
As Sanj Kharbanda, Beacon’s director of sales and marketing, watched sales steadily rise, he noticed that independent booksellers were being left behind. In total, he estimates that over 90% of the one million print copies sold in the past three years have sold through nonindie channels, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, schools, colleges, and private organizations.
“I think most independent bookstores know the book,” Kharbanda said. “But I think indies are underindexing compared to what they should be selling, even based on their market share. To me, they’re leaving money on the table.”
After speaking with indie booksellers about ways that they might give frontlist space to a backlist title, the press devised a program to get them to stock more copies of the book. For multiple-copy orders, Beacon will offer better terms while backing the discounts with print advertising, media outreach, and even magnets and posters. The offer begins in September and goes through October. The press is also encouraging stores to look at different formats of the book, which include the 2008 trade paperback, gift, and mass market editions, as well as a young adult version edited by John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Beacon communications director Pamela MacColl said she is convinced indies will see a rise in sales because the book is often mentioned in the media, creating something of a ready-made readership. Among the celebrities who have talked about the title are Drew Barrymore, Chris Martin, and Michael Phelps. “These popular references keep popping up that are amazing,” MacColl said. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, David Wheeler, the parent of a victim of the Sandy Hook shooting, said the book teaches people that “our purpose as human beings is to find the best possible answer to the questions and problems that life presents us every day.”
Often shelved in psychology sections, Man’s Search for Meaning is one of a handful of Beacon’s backlist titles that seem to resist easy categorization. Atwan describes the work as a “philosophical psychological notion of looking for meaning, finding meaning, and creating meaning—even at the worst moments of your life, even in the absolute worst circumstances imaginable.”
Genre-spanning deep backlist titles with strong sales deserve greater attention from publishers, Atwan said, adding that the industrywide focus on frontlist titles at the front of stores means the older titles tend to get crowded out. Publishers are often reluctant to try to persuade booksellers to move those titles forward.
“I understand the real estate issue—that when you go into a store they only have a certain amount of shelf space—but if you take classics from the backlist that sell hundreds of thousands of copies year after year, you’ve got to be able to turn those copies over,” Atwan said. “Customers just need to be able to see them.”
Atwan hopes that the Beacon’s support for Man’s Search for Meaning will be the beginning of a shift that sees independent bookstores moving more classic titles to the front of the store. Whichever titles those might be, she said they must share one quality that she finds each time she rereads Frankl’s book. “It speaks to all people of all stages of life,” she said, “across a wide spectrum of society.”