Looking back over 40 years in independent book publishing, W. Paul Coates, founder and publisher of Baltimore-based Black Classic Press, which reprints classic works on African-American history and culture, said he is grateful to “the many folks that have helped us—people who made an investment in me and in black books.” Coates’s gratitude will be on display May 18–20 during a Black Classic Press 40th anniversary celebration and fund-raiser, hosted by the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore.
The museum will host a variety of events as part of the BCP celebration—including a black book fair, an evening gala, panel discussions, a museum tour, and an open house at the BCP and BCP Digital offices—and will benefit from its fund-raising. In addition to musical performers, the celebration will offer programing with a number of featured guests, including Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh, novelist and BCP author Walter Mosley, Just Us Books publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson, and poets E. Ethelbert Miller and Sonia Sanchez.
Coates, who is the father of acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates, described Black Classic Press as a mission-driven publishing venture focused on preserving “the collective story of African-American people.” He added, “People have been aware of and grateful for the books we’ve published.”
Among the works brought back into print by Black Classic Press are David Walker’s Appeal by David Walker (first published in 1829), Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire by Drussila Dunjee (1926), and Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal (1968). And in 2012, BCP published A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X by Jared Ball and Todd Steve Burroughs, a collection of essays challenging the accuracy and scholarship of Marable’s 2011 biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.
The history of Black Classic Press is also the legacy of an innovative business model, made possible by its sister company, BCP Digital, a pioneering short-run digital printer founded by Coates in 1995. BCP Digital is one of the few full-time African-American-owned printing companies in the country.
Black Classic Press will generate nearly $2 million in revenue in 2018, Coates said—the vast majority of it coming from the printing side of the business. Black Classic Press works in conjunction with BCP Digital, which prints its books. BCP book trade distribution is by PGW.
Coates emphasized that under the Black Classic Press business model, he does not overprint and uses short-run printing to keep returns minimal. “Most of our growth comes consistently via the printing side, while the publishing side is stable,” he explained. “We publish books to demand. Inventory levels are tied to requests, and we respond quickly to [orders] because we print the books. Using BCP Digital we can get other black publishers into the marketplace at a profitable price point—and not just black publishers: we do printing for a lot of small presses.”
BCP Digital can print 10 copies or 100 copies. But it also produced 320,000 copies of a workbook for an educational publisher. “We had to work 24/7 for two months to do it, but we hired people out of the community,” Coates said. “Many of them had no printing skills, but they ran the equipment and got the job done. BCP offers multiple ways of helping the black community.”
On the publishing side, BCP releases a small number of new titles each year and has a backlist of about 145 titles; Coates expects to publish five titles this year. “Our model is not based on releasing as many titles as possible,” he said. “We are trying to make the business pay for itself. A print run can sometimes be 100 copies.”
BCP’s 40th anniversary will also mark a turning point for Coates, who is in the process of transferring the ownership and daily operating responsibilities for Black Classic Press to successors. After 40 years, Coates said, he’s in the process of “working myself out of a job.” He will transfer day-to-day oversight of Black Classic Press to longtime BCP publisher Natalie Stokes-Peters, while two of his children and a BCP Digital worker will take over the daily operations of the printing business.
“I’m not retiring,” Coates said, citing a number of projects that will occupy him post-BCP. Most prominently, he is working to create a “wholesale” online book-printing portal for booksellers that will provide booksellers (as well as self-publishing authors) with an easy-to-use online interface. The new wholesale print portal will complement the BCP Digital “retail” portal (which can require more help from BCP staff) and offer users access to quick-turnaround short-run printing at a significant discount. “We’re working with stores to set this up specifically for booksellers,” Coates said, adding that the African American Literature Book Club, an online black books site, has partnered with BCP Digital to offer an initial version of the portal.
Coates mentioned some of the people he wants to thank after 40 years of publishing, including Mosley (BCP published a 1996 Easy Rawlins novel and two nonfiction works by the author). “We achieved prominence and new opportunities because of him,” Coates said. And he thanked other black independent publishers, such as Kassahun Checole of Africa World Red Sea Press, Haki Madhubuti of Third World Press, and the late Glenn Thompson, founder of Writers & Readers.
Coates said he is “happy to be a part of the legacy of black publishing” and noted that BCP is “built on the shoulders of those that came before.”