When PGW parent company AMS filed for bankruptcy on the last business day of 2006, Rich Freese, president of the distributor, played a key role in limiting the damage to PGW's clients as the Chapter 11 proceedings unfolded and publishers found new homes. Freese took a breather after the PGW business was resolved and after launching a new distribution unit for BookMasters, he rejoined his former company, NBN, this July as president.
Freese, who grew up in the book business—his father, Walter Freese Jr., headed Doubleday for many years—is bullish about returning to what he regards as one of the nation's top three book distributors. When he first joined NBN in the early '90s, the company was relatively small and did only about $7 million annually. During his tenure, NBN doubled in size. “Now,” he says, “my mandate is to do it again.” To grow NBN, which does over $60 million in business, Freese is planning to use economies of scale made possible through sister company Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, headed by Jed Lyons, who stepped down at NBN to make way for Freese. “Rowman & Littlefield has all this operational infrastructure,” says Freese. “It offers access to markets and investments in systems that enable them to compete with large publishers. It's hard for a distributor to invest in e-books. But being part of a publishing company that's had an e-book company for 10 years, that makes it viable.”
With RLPG Freese recently launched NBN Fusion, a suite of digital services, including print on demand, short digital runs and e-book conversion and distribution for both NBN clients, as well as other publishers. “The world is going to want consolidators for content,” says Freese, who sees the digital capacities that RLPG makes possible as a way to position the distributor for the next decade. “The cost of developing things like EDI [electronic data interchange] and ASN [advance ship notice] just doesn't make sense for small publishers to invest in,” he notes.
In addition, Freese is starting a new academic and reference division, which will share marketing staff with RLPG to offer representation to institutional sales channels. He is working closely with his sales and marketing counterpart at RLPG, v-p Linda May. Although NBN already handles distribution for a number of professional publishers, including RLPG, on an à la carte basis, the as yet unnamed division will enable both trade and professional publishers to reach more readers, which for Freese is key to future NBN growth.
“It is more profitable to grow a publisher's list than to acquire new customers. So our focus has to be on growing publishers,” says Freese. He points to such successes in this area as fitness book and magazine publisher Robert Kennedy Publishing in Canada, which has quadrupled its business with NBN in the past two years. While Freese is not averse to adding more client lines—NBN currently has 130—there is a fine line between having too many titles and just the right amount. “I have to have enough product in my bag so we're important to every category buyer, but not so many that we have to choose” which titles to promote, Freese explains.
At a time when distribution is about much more than just shipping, Freese is working to ensure that NBN develops a collaborative relationship with the publishers who are already in its bag, looking for ways both NBN and its clients can grow together. As part of this approach, Freese has asked several clients to serve as an advisory group so he can find out what's working and what's not. “If you don't have shared expectations on the front end,” says Freese, “the likelihood of success on the sales end is diminished.” For Freese, that sense of partnership extends across the Atlantic to Plymbridge in the U.K., which is also owned by RLPG and is roughly the same size as NBN. At present both distributors are designing a set of client reports that will work together to make it easier for NBN clients distributed by Plymbridge to get a better picture of how they're doing both at home and abroad. It's all part of what Freese sees as the purpose of distributors: to add value.