As its name suggests, Beacon Press has had many moments to shine a light into darkness during its 166-year history, from publishing Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to the Pentagon Papers, which set in motion the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Now, in the wake of the largest civil rights protests since the 1960s, Beacon's works on race and racism in America have been a popular source of information.
At the top of its current bestsellers' list is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which debuted as a bestseller in 2018 and catapulted back onto the charts in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. According to BookScan, 107,000 copies of the book sold during the third week of June and the title has sold more than 271,000 copies so far this year. According to Beacon director Helene Atwan, total sales of the book to date are around 1.5 million, making it the second bestselling book in the history of the press after the classic Man’s Search for Meaning.
Meeting such demand during a pandemic has pushed the press in ways Atwan has never experienced. “I’ve never been busier in my life,” she said. When sales rose swiftly in early June, the press had to move rapidly. “Our production department had to really dig in,” Atwan said. “We’ve gone out as broadly as we can. We don’t print anything—hardly anything—abroad, but we print with all the [printers] that all the publishers use to print. Right now, we’re going out to all of them.”
White Fragility’s first wave of success in 2018 gave Beacon a dry-run for working with their distributor, Penguin Random House, to meet sudden, high sales volumes. Still, there have been delays, with customers taking out their frustration on booksellers, including nearby Frugal Bookstore, which is Boston’s only Black-owned bookstore.
Atwan said the vast majority of retailers have been patient because they know the delays are heightened by the protocols needed to ensure worker safety in warehouses. As for customers, she called for patience. “My favorite comment in this whole Twitter stream about anti-racism is that one of the major characteristics of a white supremacist culture is to rush everything and act like you have to do everything yesterday,” she said.
“We have books that are selling more in two weeks than they did in the last year because we have such a rich subject list in this area,” Atwan said. While White Fragility was penned by a white author for white readers, all but two of Beacon’s bestselling books were written by Black authors. They include newer titles like Dr. Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More than Survive, and Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross’s A Black Women’s History of the United States.
Beacon's backlist also includes now-classic works by some of America’s foremost activists, religious leaders, scholars, and teachers on race and civil rights. They include Martin Luther King Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here?, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Cornel West’s Race Matters. The messages in those books are timeless, Atwan said, which gives rise to mixed feelings.
“All of this was out there decades ago and nothing was done, so it’s bitter that we have not gotten anywhere. King could have written Where Do We Go From Here? 10 years ago,” she said. “He could have written it three years ago. When you read the opening essay in Race Matters, you think oh my God, is he really writing about Rodney King or is he writing about Trayvon Martin or George Floyd?”
“But the sweet part is that Americans are waking up and getting it—I hope they’re getting it—and at least they’re reading more about it. To see that is immensely gratifying.”
The strength of Beacon’s backlist is guiding Atwan’s vision as she looks ahead. When coronavirus first hit, she expected a catastrophic financial downturn for the press. Instead, the enormous influx of sales has prompted her to hire an intern to go back through the entire publications archive at Beacon with her. Together, they are finding overlooked titles to reissue in digital and print in order to further expand the press’s active catalogue.
Among the titles she is looking at are major works by Black religious leaders and scholars of religions. They include the 1999 publication The Courage to Hope: From Black Suffering to Human Redemption, which PW called a “medley of well-crafted essays.” Edited by Quinton H. Dixie and Cornel West, the book was dedicated to exploring the work and ideas of the Black theology scholar James Melvin Washington. Other books Atwan is considering include James Cone’s groundbreaking 1970 A Black Theology of Liberation and William R. Jones’s Is God A White Racist?
The work, and demand, continue unabated even while coronavirus rages on. Our books, Atwan said,continue to get to readers because of Beacon’s employees, who know the mission of the press and see the chance to share it widely. Simply put, Atwan said, “they’ve performed miracles.”