After running Black Classic Press for nearly 40 years, founder W. Paul Coates said he is proud of his work as an independent publisher. But he said his work running BCP Digital Printing, a short-run printing operation, may be more significant: “I don’t know of any other full-time African-American printers. It kind of freaks me out. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve been looking for 20 years. ”
Coates founded Black Classic Press in Baltimore in 1978, with a mission to reprint classic out-of-print works of African-American scholarship and history. He launched BCP Digital Printing in 1995. “It’s more affordable to go into printing today—it used to take millions of dollars—but I still can’t find any other book printers who are black,” he said. “Maybe a copy shop but not on a large scale—full-time, turning out books every day.”
Since its launch, BCP Digital has grown from a money-losing experiment into a profitable division of Black Classic Press. BCP has had total sales of more than $1 million “for some time,” Coates said, adding that he expects revenue in 2015 to approach $2 million. BCP Digital Printing, Coates noted, represents about 85% of Black Classic Press’s total revenue. The printing side is critical to the press’s business model, lowering costs for the publishing side by printing all of its titles. “The publishing side would have gone away a long time ago without the printing business,” Coates said.
BCP Digital Printing specializes in short-run printing—generally 200–500 copies of books and manuals, ARCS (about 25–100 copies), and other kinds of printing for local businesses. One of his biggest jobs, Coates said, was producing 18,000 copies of a Pearson textbook. “We can do 100 books in a couple of hours, and that’s actually more profitable than doing an 18,000-book job,” he said. BCP deals mostly in trade paperback books and some hardcovers, which are sent out for binding.
On the publishing side, all Black Classic titles are printed by BCP Digital Printing. “We print books as they are sold,” Coates said, explaining that he works closely with his longtime distributor, PGW, to keep returns extremely low. “Our returns are in the single digits,” he said. “PGW understands our model and knows that we can resupply quickly. We don’t overprint.”
BCP has about 125 active titles on its backlist, but the press does not work on a traditional publishing model. “We publish books that we have the resources to do. We may release three books in a year, or 10 or more. We also take on projects that make use of the print side.”
He pointed to a new deal to take over the publishing program of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, the historical society founded in 1915 by the pioneering African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, who was influential in the creation of African-American History Month. BCP will take over the production of 125 ASALH titles this year (including 15–20 titles by Woodson himself), releasing them in print and e-book formats cobranded with ASALH. “This is part of our mission and a significant project for us. Many of these titles are out of print,” Coates explained.
“This is why we exist in the first place,” Coates said of working with a prominent African-American institution, describing several of the most important books BCP has published over the years. In 1996, for instance, it published bestselling novelist Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlings novel Gone Fishin’ (BCP eventually published two more nonfiction titles by Mosley), “the biggest commercial book we’ve done.”
Coates also pointed to one of his most controversial books, A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X,” by Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, a 2012 anthology of essays by a number of academics and other writers (among them Amiri Baraka) that challenges the conclusions, scholarship, and competency of Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which was published by Penguin and won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. Marable worked on the book for 20 years, but died in 2011 before the book was published.
In a note from the publisher that prefaces the book, Coates criticizes the Marable work for “excessive innuendo, glaring omission, questionable sourcing, undocumented speculation” and points to an “inexcusable lack of key primary sources,” specifically Malcolm X’s wife and family, who were not interviewed by Marable. “This is emotional to me,” Coates said, citing Marable’s impact on a popular understanding of Malcolm X’s life. “We were forced to respond to that book. It is full of errors and is lacking sources to support much of what Marable claimed to be fact.”
Other key BCP works include David Walker’s Appeal, first published in 1830 (it’s “the earliest black political manifesto,” Coates said; “Walker is a predecessor to Marcus Garvey and all black political thinkers”), and Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. First published in 1968 and out of print for years, Coates described Black Fire as a key collection of writing from the Black Power movement that “should be available for everyone.”
After nearly 40 years as an independent black publisher and 20 years as a black printer, Coates said he’s now working on a succession plan for his businesses—he expects to continue to run BCP Digital while transferring Black Classic Press to new ownership. Proud of his work on behalf of African-American scholarship, Coates, who is also a former board member of the National Book Foundation, emphasized that while he loves “printing books for black publishers and keeping the money in our community,” he is not racially exclusive. “I love working with everyone.”