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The Little House That Could

Publishing: When a bestseller lands on your doorstep, it's what you do with it that counts. Just ask the admirers of tiny Black Classic Press.


BALTIMORE — Sitting prominently on W. Paul Coates' desk is a black-and-white metal sign that simply reads "Janitor."

Coates, owner of Black Classic Press, explained that the sign helps keep him and his staff level-headed. He and the eight employees of the publishing company do all the janitorial work as a way to remind themselves of the basic things that need to be done as they try to build a successful business.

And success is what Black Classic Press has been enjoying lately. The tiny black-owned company is the hero of the publishing industry.

Last year, Walter Mosley, author of the best-selling Easy Rawlins mystery novels, decided to make a statement by delivering his unpublished manuscript, "Gone Fishin'," to Black Classic Press. It was a move to show support for black publishers.

Mosley said he also wanted to start a trend, hoping that other popular and profitable black authors might take some of their book business to minority publishers.

"Walter was reaching back into the community and helping another brother out," Coates said. "By presenting us with that book he created a dynamic action."

As part of the agreement with Coates, Mosley waived his normal six-figure advance and assigned him the paperback, audio, large-print and international rights to the book. Coates needed that money to finance the project. In turn, Mosley was to be paid later for the rights.

It was a deal to die for.

But Coates also knows that the venture with Mosley easily could have killed the business he started in the basement of his home in 1978 with $300. Often it is success that can torpedo a small business, Coates acknowledged.

"You don't get opportunities like this all the time," Coates said. "If we didn't sell enough books it could have meant closing the business."

The largest print run for a single Black Classic Press book had been 12,000 copies. The company normally prints from 2,000 to 5,000 books. The deal with Mosley called for printing 150,000 books.

"One of the hardest things I had to do as a small printer was not to think small," Coates said. "So, we had to focus this on being the best-selling book Walter ever had."

To do that, Coates, 50, began some serious deal-making.

He immediately sold the paperback rights to "Gone Fishin' " to Pocket Books for six figures. The cash from that deal helped finance the whole operation.

Next, Coates said, he negotiated to have the book's distributor, Publisher Group West, guarantee the 150,000 print run, which was handled by R.R. Donnelley, a major printing company based in Chicago.

Coates said he needed to find an outside company to print the book because his was too small for such a large print run. But Black Classic Press oversaw and controlled the entire project, negotiating the contracts with the distributor and printer, arranging Mosley's six-week book tour, developing a $150,000 marketing campaign, selecting the artwork for the jacket cover and selling the various rights to "Gone Fishin'."

"Everybody recognized how difficult it was for a small press to pull something like this off. I think a lot of people were rooting for the underdog and wanted to do everything in their power to help me to succeed," Coates said.


Five months after the release of "Gone Fishin'," by most accounts, the company has done just that.

"Paul has sold a lot of books and made money and claimed a new place in history because of this deal," said William Mayo, chief operating officer of Third World Press, a Chicago-based black publisher. "And his deal benefits all independent black-owned publishers. He helped us all because there were so many people out there that didn't know about independent black publishers."

Mosley said he has made as much money off the deal with Black Classic Press as he might have with a larger publisher.

"I will definitely publish with Paul again," Mosley said. "I'm not saying there weren't mistakes made, but Paul made all the right decisions. It is a beautiful book."

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