The top buyers at the big chains are notoriously tough gatekeepers. They hold the key to making a book a bestseller. When they grant you a favor, the tendency is to go wild with glee. Sure, it's something to celebrate—but don't go too crazy. Because without judicious planning, an unexpected bestseller can be devastating.

In early 2006, Haki Madhubuti of Chicago's Third World Press invited me to his office. He explained he'd never had a distributor before, since he mainly sold his books to African-American bookstores and wholesalers. "But for this book," he said, "I need the major retailers, and we need to move fast."

Book distributors hate the idea of fast. We're always explaining to publishers why Barnes & Noble needs to know about a title for six months before they'll let their buyer even talk to your rep about it.

Haki's book was The Covenant with Black America, a collection of essays by important black thinkers, introduced by Tavis Smiley. Clearly the book could sell, but it didn't seem to have New York Times bestseller written all over it.

It was February 1. I said, "If we stretch some rules I can get the book on the fall list."

Haki replied, "We need to have 50,000 copies in the stores by the 26th."

"The 26th of what?"

"The 26th of this month." (C-SPAN was going to devote most of its coverage that day to an important meeting of black leaders—including Smiley—organized around recommendations developed in the book.)

Twenty-five days to gather orders, print 50,000 books and ship them? Driving back to my office with a signed distribution agreement in my pocket, I contemplated how I was going to break this news to the IPG staff. Would the buyers take this pitch seriously? After all, Covenant was a niche title, a black interest book.

By February 26, 50,000 copies of Covenant were in stores. The ridiculously speedy laydown was possible because the IPG staff worked crazy hours, the book's substance held up under scrutiny, and the media support really was solid. But that wasn't all. What really made the laydown happen was the willingness of the famously difficult people at the top of the retail and wholesale book business to get involved. They all saw a chance to do some good for the African-American community, and they took it. Various carefully watched gates flew open.

The next challenge was to make sure Covenant didn't ruin Third World Press. A bestseller can be fatal to a small publisher. The book starts taking off, print runs get increasingly bigger, the media goes wild—it looks like it'll go on forever. Then sales plunge, returns flood in and the profit, and then more than the profit, is eaten up by unsold books.

To prevent this, IPG adopted a stingy approach. We monitored point-of-sale information from our major accounts on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis; we arranged reprints of only 25,000 to 30,000 copies at a time; and we based the size and timing of the reprints on sell-through rather than demand. By late April we'd shipped more than 300,000 copies, and Covenant was #1 on the New York Times nonfiction trade paperback list (the first title published by a black-owned press to do that), where it stayed for 10 weeks. Then, of course, sales plummeted.

Our tightfisted approach had some negative consequences. The short print runs meant a slightly higher unit cost. Reprinting to the sell-through rather than the demand may have cost some sales. But virtually every one of the 315,000 copies printed has been sold. The rate of returns overall was about 12%, but except for a few damaged copies, the returned copies have been reshipped. The 2,000 copies in stock will be gone by the end of the month. Third World Press is alive and well.

What does this anomalous bestseller mean for the world of publishing?

First, that there's a large African-American audience for a relevant book, and there are black media professionals (not just Oprah) like Mr. Smiley with the savvy and authority to drive sales. Second, that with some smart planning, a small publisher can survive almost anything, even success.

Author Information
Curt Matthews is CEO of Chicago Review Press Inc. and Independent Publishers Group (IPG).