Today we are going to interview Gayatri Patnaik, executive editor of Beacon Press. Gayatri and Beacon publish books on social issues from a progressive perspective. Recently Gayatri became the editor for The King Legacy series. In May 2009 Beacon Press became the exclusive publisher for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work which gives them the right to print new editions of previously published King titles and also to compile Dr. King’s writings, sermons, orations, lectures and prayers into entirely new editions. What an honor that must be!
Beacon was founded in 1854 making it one of the oldest publishers in America. From its earliest mission to publish and distribute books that would “explain and defend Unitarian thought and promote…more reasonable thinking,” to the full flowering of its contemporary commitment to publish intelligent, eloquent answers to the pressing questions of the day, Beacon has been making publishing and intellectual history for decades. One reason that Beacon Press has always been one of my favorite publishers is that it is independent and seems to march to the beat of a different drummer. During the years I owned Cody’s, I always felt an affinity with the Press. It seemed that we had a very similar sensibility.
Andy: Gayatri, welcome to Ask the Agent. I teach a lot of classes about writing good book proposals. I think it would be helpful if authors had a better sense of how editors think and what they are looking for in a proposal. Can you tell us?
Gayatri: In a book proposal, I’m looking for intelligent and informed-but accessible-writing. I’m also looking for writers who have a platform and a real commitment to being part of the book selling process. The truth is that every publishing house now needs active and engaged authors; and if I feel that a prospective author doesn’t have that kind of action-oriented mentality, I’ll probably pass on the book.
Andy: How many proposals do you receive every week?
Gayatri: The number of proposals we receive vary but, including unsolicited material, we must receive 150 or so submissions a week.
Andy: Beacon has always focused on books about American society, politics, and culture. Are there any trends you discern? How has your publishing program changed over the years to reflect changing social concerns? And what sorts of subjects are you focusing on now?
Gayatri: Andy, as you know, Beacon has always been on the forefront of various issues, particularly related to race, class, gender and sexuality. In my time at Beacon, which is eight years now, I’ve seen us develop strong lists in education as well as the environment, both of which certainly reflect changing public concerns. One of the lists I’ve focused on in the last years are books on immigration, an issue I imagine will be deeply relevant for years to come. I’m also very interested in signing smart books on contemporary phenomena ranging from porn to the rural brain drain to gambling.
Andy: I first became aware of Beacon Press, because you published a book by one of my professors at Brandeis: One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. It was a book that had enormous importance in its time. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that it influenced the thought of an entire generation of political activists. But it was written in an impenetrable Germanic academic style. I’m wondering if you were presented with that book today, would you publish it? Do you think it could find a home with any trade publisher?
Gayatri: Andy, great question! I’m imagining us debating whether to sign this book at a meeting and if I didn’t advocate for it, I’m hoping that one of my brilliant colleagues would insist on it!…but, honestly, who knows? As you note, it’s not the most accessible book. And while a university press might pick it up, I’m not sure I imagine many trade publishers being interested. When I asked my colleague, Amy Caldwell, about this, she had a very interesting response. She said that part of the issue is that readerships change and there are intellectual fashions. She reminded us that there was a time during the 80s when money was made on the even more impenetrable prose of Derrida (though not by Beacon), and she doesn’t think academic presses are able to publish many books like that anymore, at least, with the expectation of making money on them. And, of course, there may be a smaller readership for difficult works these days as well.
Andy: It seems to me that the publishing business is obsessed with blockbusters. I don’t think this is new. I know I have been talking about this for 30 years. But it seems to be getting worse all the time. As a publisher of books that probably won’t sell in the millions, are you concerned about this? Or do you feel that there is plenty of room for books like yours?
Gayatri: While I occasionally feel dismayed by the content of the blockbusters, I can’t say I worry about it too much vis a vis our books. I’m convinced there’ll always be room for the smart, relevant, and intellectually important and social justice oriented books we do.
Andy: I suppose since everyone in publishing thinks of nothing else, I should ask you about e-books. How do you think e-books are going to change our literary culture? Or are we going to have the same kinds of books, just a different delivery system?
Gayatri: This is really a question for our Director of Sales & Marketing, Tom Hallock! I’m reading, as I’m sure you are, predictions that e-books will eventually constitute 25% or more of book sales. Our sales at Beacon are currently a fraction of that, but growing, and we’re all curious to see where we end up. But to answer your question, I think it’s impossible to predict how e-books will influence the literary culture. I’ll be very interested to see how Pete Hamill’s e-book will do. His book, They Are Us, will be published in the fall by Little, Brown & Co., and it’ll skip print and go straight to e-book.
Andy: And finally, can you tell us about a few of your books that are in the pipeline that you are particularly excited about?
Gayatri: Sure! I’m very excited about a book in The King Legacy which is called “All Labor Has Dignity.” It’s edited by activist and historian Michael Honey and will be published in mid-January, in time for Dr. King’s birthday. This is the first original book in the King series, which means it’s not a reprint but a book we actually created from the archives. And it focuses on an area that people don’t always associate with King: labor rights and economic justice. The reason I’m excited is that people forget, or perhaps never completely knew, that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation
Another book which I think will be of great interest to many readers is When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years by journalist and former PC volunteer Stanley Meisler. Andy, as we know, since its inauguration, the Peace Corps has been an American emblem for world peace and friendship and did you know there are 200,000 former volunteers (including many high profile ones? Paul Theroux, Chris Dodd, Donna Shalala, Bill Moyers, etc.) Anyway, few Americans realize that through the past nine presidential administrations, the Corps has sometimes tilted its agenda to meet the demands of the White House. In this book, Meisler discloses, for instance, how Lyndon Johnson became furious when volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; how Nixon tried to destroy it and how Reagan tried to make it an instrument of foreign policy. It’s fascinating—and important!