IN the high-ceilinged Beacon Hill office Helene Atwan now occupies as director of Beacon Press in Boston, an Oriental rug and a marble fireplace bespeak 19th-century tradition. But her task is contemporary: getting books - and more books - in the hands of 21st-century readers.
Ms. Atwan succeeds Beacon's former director Wendy Strothman, who breathed new life into the small press before moving last September to Houghton Mifflin, where she is vice president and publisher of the adult trade and reference division.
"I think women bring a different sensibility, a different group of interests," says Atwan, a 20-year veteran in publishing. "Women are also much more sensitive to how many women they're publishing, and to finding books of interest to other women." 23 of Beacon's 30 employees are women.
Less than a mile from Beacon's quaint offices, Ms. Strothman has settled into a sleek office with a sweeping view of Back Bay. Yet she is looking inward as much as outward these days as she and other Houghton Mifflin executives chart a new course for one of the country's last remaining independent publishing companies.
Amid speculation that Houghton Mifflin will cut back on new titles, Strothman says, "I don't think we want to be actively seeking out blockbusters and be overpaying for books. Quality always rises to the surface." Instead, she wants to revitalize Houghton's "brand names:" American Heritage dictionaries, Peterson nature guides, and Taylor gardening guides. She also plans to launch a new line of children's books and revive the company's prestigious backlist - including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Rachel Carson. "Serious nonfiction does have staying power," she says.
What about the novel, which critics, and some writers such as John Updike, have proclaimed a dying breed? "People are always interested in stories," Strothman insists. "They can convey a kind of wisdom that nonfiction can't."
As mothers of school-age children, both women see electronic publishing as compatible with the printed word.
Atwan's 12-year-old son, who got his first computer at age 5, now reviews books for the Microsoft Network. "One thing people ignore is that technology spawns new fields of publishing," she says. "A lot of kids who grew up on computers are deeply involved in reading books about computers."
Yet she concedes that reference books will undoubtedly be replaced by CD-ROMs, adding, "I don't see myself buying an encyclopedia."
Referring to the possibility that readers will pirate books from the Internet, Strothman says publishers can't be complacent about it. But "for a lot of what we publish, it's not a threat. People aren't going to want to walk around with a sheaf of 8-1/2-by-11-inch pieces of paper. There will always be a book."