When Barry Beckham decided to publish an annual update of his "Black Students Guide to Colleges," he wasn't dreaming of yachts and penthouses, but he did figure to make a buck or two. He had a good product, a clearly defined market and the potential for repeat business of the sort you can do through the mail.
When I talked to the part-time literature professor at Brown University last week, his Beckham House Publishers bank balance was about $150. He doubted that he'd be able to publish four books on which he had contracts, and he had "no immediate prospects" for getting out a third edition of the guide that was to bankroll his other publishing ventures.
Barry Beckham, in short, is broke in spite of the fact that the analysis that got him into the venture still seems sound.
As the father of a high school senior, I can vouch for the unique usefulness of the "Black Students Guide." Dozens of publications will tell you about tuition costs and course offerings. A fair number provide information on minority enrollments and minority faculty ratios and all of that. But Beckham's book provides peculiarly useful insights into the intangibles of college life: not just the number of black students but the degree to which black students either withdraw unto themselves or participate in the general campus activities; the availability and usefulness of counseling services; the prevailing racial attitudes on campus and off.
The assessments come from black students themselves and are updated (at least that is what Beckham had planned) every year.
It is just the sort of publication black high school seniors and their anxious parents would gladly spend $11.95 for, that high school counselors would order as a matter of routine -- if they knew about it.
That, Beckham is convinced, has been the problem.
"All of the people I talked to thought it would be easy to sell the guide to school systems around the country, since it fills a very special niche. We raised $75,000 by tapping the resources of friends and supporters, and my partner, Glenn Morris, a former marketing executive for Gulf Oil, put up his house to secure us a line of credit."
But the venture was undercapitalized by half, he says, and as a result was unable to afford the necessary marketing. He figured that it would take 15,000 sales the first year to keep the business afloat and provide a little cushion. He sold 9,000 and lost money.
"It's just so hard to get the word out when you don't have money," he said from his office in Providence. "I know there's a market there. We had a small mention in the February issue of Black Enterprise, and that little item resulted in 100 orders a week, and they're still coming in."
Unfortunately, it has come to the point where Beckham House needs more than sporadic orders. It needs capital, and Beckham, broke and in debt, doesn't know where it's coming from. "We need a minimum of $110,000, and realistically we need twice that in order to be able to lose money for a while. I don't know where you get that kind of backing."
If he could find the money, he said, he'd get started immediately on a third edition of the guide, gear up publication of his college selection workbook and scholarship list for black students, and start cranking out the four other books on which he has stopped taking back orders.
"But if nothing happens soon, we'll just have to chuck it," he said. "It's been eight months since we've paid ourselves, and next week I'm afraid we're going to have to let our secretary go."