"Boardwalk Empire": from near-bust to boffo

How "Boardwalk Empire" – a book from a first-time author and a small publisher – became an HBO series.

Nelson Johnson chronicles the history of Atlantic City – seen in this early 20th-century postcard – in his book "Boardwalk Empire."

When a first-time author's book about the tangled history of Atlantic City came out in 2002, it was hardly a (mob) hit. "Boardwalk Empire" sold a few thousand copies locally, and its publisher didn't bother to distribute it anywhere else. Then Hollywood got wind of it.

Now, the author – an attorney-turned-judge – is the toast of the small-time publishing world: His book is the basis of the new HBO series with the same title that debuts this Sunday.

How did that happen? The story's a bit blurry, just like Atlantic City's liquor-addled past. But the editor who bought the book says it has a lot to do with the benefits of working with a small publisher.

"It's great to publish your book with a big publisher, but it's difficult to get your boot in the door," says John B. Bryans of Plexus Publishing in Medford. N.J. In contrast, small- and medium-sized publishers "will take a risk on an unknown author," he says.

And that's just what author Nelson Johnson was when he approached Bryans about publishing his book.

As an attorney for a local planning board, Johnson had been involved in the approval of new casinos when they began appearing during the city's rebirth a few decades ago. "That’s when he really got hooked on this story," Bryans says, "during that period when they were looking closely at what the casinos were trying to do. He started reading up on the history and was captivated."

The manuscript of "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City" landed on the editor's desk in 2001. "I don't know anything about Atlantic City. I'm a Connecticut Yankee," Bryans says. Even so, "It was a fascinating read with the corruption and the sheer chutzpah of those people down there."

The publisher bought the book, which tells an epic story of boom and bust and boom. It was published in 2002 but was hardly a huge seller. Then, in 2006, an agent emailed from Los Angeles.

How did Hollywood bigshots hear about it? One theory is that Johnson spurred things by pitching the entertainment world directly. Another is that producer Mark Wahlberg – yes, the actor – specifically wanted to create a series about Atlantic City and went looking for the right book.

Whatever happened, HBO came calling, and the series "Boardwalk Empire" was born. While the section of the book about the 1920s and 1930s is fairly small, the producers were smitten with Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, a politician and boss of all things Atlantic City. The show focuses on a character not-so-coincidentally named Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi.

The show has gotten a fairly good reception, with some critics appreciating its "Sopranos"-like exploration of violence, vice, and corruption in the Prohibition era. (I watched a preview copy of the first episode and think the series has promise but seems a bit too familiar.)

Johnson, whose publisher said he's not available for interviews, has moved up in the world: He's now a New Jersey judge and has a new book, by the same publisher, coming out in November called "The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City."

Meanwhile, there's a new edition of "Boardwalk Empire" on bookstore shelves. The 2002 edition sold perhaps 8,000 copies. The new one has a printing of about 85,000.

Moral of the story: You can make a killing in Atlantic City without doing anything naughty at all.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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