Bethesda -- HARDLY ANYONE noticed when National Press Books came out with its first book, "Employees' Rights in Plain English," in 1985. The same was true for most of the other approximately 40 books put out since by the Bethesda-based publisher: "The Glove Compartment Book," say, or "The Bank-Hater's Handbook."
But give the world James Earl Ray, and the world will beat a path to your door.
Ever since Ray's memoir, "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" was published last November by National Press, more and more people have heard of the small, independent publishing house that mostly specialized in self-help books before branching out the past few years to national-interest books. But in the process, Joel D. Joseph, the Washington-area attorney who became a publisher because he wanted to bring out "books that make a difference," has found that with the long-awaited national attention has come some uncomfortable and potentially damaging controversy.
When "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" was published, the calls started coming in to the modest second-floor offices of National Press Books. "Geraldo," "Inside Edition," "Hard Copy," CNN -- even the "Today Show" -- all wanted to talk to the man who was convicted of killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
If you turned on the TV set and were startled to find James Earl Ray in your living room, you can thank -- or blame -- Joel D. Joseph. Convinced that Ray is innocent, Mr. Joseph has helped Ray state his case by not only printing 30,000 copies of "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" but also making Ray available to the press around the country.
Mr. Joseph calls himself an admirer of the slain civil rights leader, and notes that as a public-interest and First Amendment attorney in the Washington area in the 1970s and early '80s, he frequently handled civil rights cases. Nonetheless, he's
convinced of Ray's innocence.
"I cross-examined him, and I think he held up pretty well," said Mr. Joseph, 43, a tall, unassuming man. "I was with him for two hours the first time, and then I talked to him a dozen times on the phone. I believe him. I think he's telling the truth."
In the book, Ray asserts his innocence and asks for the naming of a special prosecutor "to investigate the FBI's involvement in the case."
Though initial sales figures for "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" are incomplete, Mr. Joseph is hopeful it will become his first best seller. But if the world has finally taken notice of National Press Books, the new visibility has come at a price.
Columnist Carl Rowan, former King associate Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III protested when statements of theirs concerning the King assassination and investigation were printed on the dust jacket of "Who Killed Martin Luther King" without their permission or knowledge. (Mr. Rowan's name also was misspelled.)
Mr. Rowan told the Washington Post he thought Mr. Joseph was "unscrupulous" for quoting him without permission.
"The bottom line is this: They should have called him and asked him about using a quote of his about a book by his father's convicted murderer," said Ralph Daniels, administrative assistant to Mr. King, now a county commissioner in Georgia, whose blurb reads, "In my opinion it had to be a conspiracy. . . . It's probably a fact that the intelligence community played a role."
"They took something that he said five years ago and stuck it in there," Mr. Daniels said. "To us, it's misrepresentative because too many people could see the book. The comment says nothing about Ray's involvement."
Mr. Joseph maintains today that "it's perfectly legitimate to quote public figures on matters of national importance, just like you would in a newspaper," but said he wrote to the three and promised that their statements would be removed from the dust jacket in future printings.
He conceded: "While I don't think we did anything illegal, it was a tactical mistake probably because it distracted people from the true focus of the book. Publishers Weekly gave us an excellent review, and other newspapers did, too. We'll put the actual reviews on the next printing."
"In hindsight, it would have been handled differently," said Alan Sultan, 26, the vice president of National Press Books. "When you're doing a book like this, you've got to do it 100 percent perfect and not give any type of opportunity to be hit upon, as in this case."
Another sticky situation developed in December, when Mr. Joseph agreed to destroy about 10,000 copies of a new book, "The Second Pearl Harbor," which harshly criticizes Japanese trade practices.
He agreed to the highly unusual move after Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca and author Pat Choate threatened legal action, saying that writings of theirs were used without permission.
"The very idea of somebody printing the book and alleging you are the author is very scary," said Mr. Choate, who was listed as an author of "The Second Pearl Harbor" even though he said he and his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had denied National Books permission to run an excerpt from his recent book, "Agents of Influence: How Japan Manipulates America's Political and Economic System."
"Your critics will beat you to death for it -- it's a nightmare." Mr. Choate said.
Mr. Joseph maintains he did receive permission to run an excerpt from "Agents of Influence," but when told that "The Second Pearl Harbor" does not identify Mr. Choate's excerpt as coming from the book, he conceded, "We might have made a mistake on that."
According to Mr. Sultan, the 10,000 copies of "Second Pearl Harbor" that were printed have been destroyed. Mr. Joseph estimates that his company lost a potential of $100,000 in sales ++ from the book.
Turning to publishing in the early 1980s was not difficult, despite a thriving law practice, Mr. Joseph said. "I did a lot of cases that were pretty exciting, but even in the most exciting cases you can get bogged down in the procedural morass of practicing law.
"Also, it is frustrating because I consider myself a pretty good writer. You can write the most brilliant brief in the world, but three people read it. I basically felt that publishing is an extension of that, that we could publish a book that could reach 25,000 people."
Not many publishers would take on a book by James Earl Ray, let alone embark on an extensive publicity campaign for one of the best-known convicted killers of the 20th century. But Joel Joseph says the Ray autobiography is just the kind of book he wants to do, and few other publishers will.
"I'm really shocked by mainstream publishing -- how frivolous a lot of the books that Simon & Schuster and Random House and others will come out with," Mr. Joseph said in his modest offices, which are shared with the Made in the USA Foundation, a pro-American trade lobbying group that he helped found in 1990. "We fill a real niche, a real gap."
"Who Killed Martin Luther King?" actually is the reworking of "Tennessee Waltz: The Making of a Political Prisoner," a memoir Ray had published privately in Tennessee in 1987.
It is not noted anywhere in "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" that it is derived from "Tennessee Waltz," but Mr. Joseph said, "We think that that book was really not published. It wasn't widely available, it wasn't reviewed. It was really a rough draft. It was never available in the chains, or in any bookstores." (The book is available, though, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library).
"Mr. Joseph said he really wants the book to be presented as James Earl Ray's first book rather than republishing the second book," said H.B. Saussy, part owner of a screen printing business in Alto, Tenn., and the woman who sold the rights to "Tennessee Waltz" to Mr. Joseph. "Not a whole lot has been changed in the book except that he [Mr. Joseph] brought it up to date. It's been polished, which it needed."
Ms. Saussy said she had obtained the rights from her ex-husband, William, who had worked on the book along with his brother, F. Tupper Saussy. She said about 1,000 copies of "Tennessee Waltz" had been sold in three editions, primarily through mail order. "The Liberty Lobby [a right-wing organization] was a big customer. They would order about 100 books every year about the time of Dr. King's birthday."
Mr. Joseph said he contacted Ray about a year ago after learning about "Tennessee Waltz," and said that at the time he had no more interest in the King assassination "than the average citizen."
Ray will earn royalties on this book, Mr. Joseph said, adding that the money will go to a legal fund which Mr. Joseph helped set up.
Mr. Joseph acknowledged the two controversies "certainly have hurt us," and added, "We want to overcome it with positive things that we're doing -- new books. We look to learn from any misstep that we have."
He speaks with pride about National Press' main offerings for the spring: a book on the BCCI scandal, and a profile
of the National Rifle Association.