Surviving his own success Books: W. Paul Coates hit the big time when his small press got the rights to Walter Mosley's "Gone Fishin'."

Catching Up With ... W. Paul Coates vTC

January 25, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

When we last saw publisher W. Paul Coates, it was almost a year ago to the day and he was cruising the snowy streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., in Walter Mosley's hired car, starting off on a heady entrepreneurial journey that ultimately could make or break his business, Black Classic Press.

Mosley, the best-selling author of the acclaimed Easy Rawlings detective series, had decided to give a small press the rights to his unpublished first novel, "Gone Fishin'." The potential gains were so high -- a national best seller, six-figure paperback sale, foreign rights -- that Coates burst into tears when he learned he had been chosen.

But the costs associated with bringing out such a big book also could have crippled Coates' company.

"You still have to worry about laying an egg," he said, as he contemplated bringing out a book with a printing almost 10 times larger than anything he had ever done.

Actually, that's not the last time we saw Coates, but it makes for such a lyrical beginning that we're sure he'll allow us some poetic license here. For there he was at the Baltimore Book Festival nine months later, asserting cautiously that he had indeed survived success.

He had even weathered the returns on "Gone Fishin' " -- less than 25 percent in an industry where 50 percent is standard. Still, each book that came back last summer pushed him that much closer to the edge.

"As the returns came in, our cash flow was zilch," he says cheerfully, sitting in his offices on the aptly named Mount Hope Drive in Northwest Baltimore.

"And people were coming up to me, saying 'Yeah, man, congratulations on the Walter Mosley deal. I read about you in the paper, you must be livin' large.' People see what they want to see."

Business builder

Coates founded Black Classic Press in his basement 20 years ago. A former Black Panther and bookstore owner, he had seen a need for a small press that would print books by and about African-Americans.

Two years ago, he also expanded into printing, buying state-of-the-art equipment that allows him to publish "on demand." The digital press technology means he can turn out extraordinarily small print runs, perhaps as few as 10 copies for a college course that needs an obscure text.

"It was another year of learning," he says now of 1997. "It was like going for a Ph.D., doing a doctorate in publishing. And a doctorate in on-demand printing."

Still, the year turned out well. Printing contracts keep rolling in from new sources. "Gone Fishin' " went into a second printing, with more than 100,000 copies in print to date. Although it did not hit the New York Times list, it was a national best seller. Coates negotiated the foreign rights in six countries. The paperback edition, published by Pocket Books, appeared this month.

Coates is happy. Mosley is happy. The two men, unknown to each other before they entered business together, are now fast friends. "Are you ready for your next big book?" Mosley teases Coates. "Not yet, not yet," he replies.

"He [Mosley] felt it was a good experience on all sorts of levels," says Sallyanne McCartin, Mosley's publicist. (The always-in-demand Mosley was out of the country last week.) "Just getting treated the way he got treated was wonderful. It also was a good experience because it allowed him to see if the model worked. And in fact, it worked."

And "Gone Fishin' " continues to affect the fortunes of Black Classic Press, in expected and unexpected ways. "You can't put a dollar value on the visibility it's given me," Coates says.

Making contacts

For example, Coates sits on the board of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Award. One of his fellow board members is Leonard Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest book-selling chain. "They're talking about raising millions of dollars and I'm wondering if I can pay my bills next month," Coates marvels.

Another example: Black Classic Press sold the audio rights to "Gone Fishin' " to a young woman whose father happened to be in charge of the rights for "Black Mutiny," the book on which Steven Spielberg's recent film "Amistad" was based. So Black ++ Classic Press ended up bringing out a new hardcover edition of that 1953 novel.

"That was a good fit," says Coates, for it dovetailed with Black Classic's long-standing commitment to African-American history. It also makes sense that BCP is to publish this May "The Black Panther Party Reconsidered," an anthology of essays.

A less likely project is "Behind Closed Doors," a first novel by Kimberla Lawson Roby. The 32-year-old woman from Rockford, Ill., had published the book herself last year when she couldn't interest an agent or publishing house.

Using her background in business, Roby borrowed $20,000 against her and her husband's savings, then marketed the book to African-American bookstores. "Behind Closed Doors" sold 10,000 copies and has been on the Blackboard best-seller list from African-American bookstores since January 1997.

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