Diversity, diversity, diversity,” intones Julie Schaper, president of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, explaining the factors contributing to the company's longevity in an increasingly competitive book industry. Consortium, which evolved out of Bookslinger, a wholesaler of literary and poetry titles published by small presses, is marking its 25th anniversary this year.
Schaper describes the company, which has been owned by Perseus Books Group since 2006 and employs 15 persons in its Minneapolis offices, as stable, with sales improving after being adversely affected by last year's economic free fall. Booksellers are making “hard choices,” she says, about what they can and can't afford to stock in their stores to sell to price-conscious customers. “We have to figure out ways to get them interested in what we have,” she says. Schaper and the eight members of Consortium's sales and marketing team are doing so by expanding the company's client publisher base.
Since its founding in 1985, Consortium, which distributes about 10,000 titles from 118 publishers in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, has been renowned for its list of midlist literary and poetry titles from small and medium-size independent presses, books that typically sell anywhere between 300 to 30,000 copies. But Consortium is more than simply a distributor of literature and poetry. The company also distributes nonfiction as well as children's books, plays, and books for niche markets, like GLBT titles from Alyson and feminist works from the Feminist Press. “We want a diverse list,” Schaper explains. “We want something for every store we walk into.”
The variety of the list is somewhat evident in its bestselling titles. Consortium's all-time bestseller is a play about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America (Theatre Communications Group), which has sold 530,000 copies to date; its three current top-sellers are a collection of Amy Goodman's political essays, Breaking the Sound Barrier (Haymarket); recently deceased historian Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History, 2nd edition (Seven Stories); and a mystery/suspense story collection, Boston Noir (Akashic).
Although the offerings distributed by Consortium have become increasingly eclectic in recent years, those producing the books Consortium carries all have one quality in common, Schaper insists: passion. “Even though not every publisher is mission driven, they're all driven by what they do,” she says. For instance, she explains, Whitelines, a recent addition to Consortium's stable of client publishers, is a Swedish company producing writing journals. It's also a company committed to environmental sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint. “A journal publisher is different for us,” Schaper says, “but their emphasis on the environment fits with us. They fit with the work we're already doing.”
This emphasis on diversity also extends to the company's strategy of venturing into untapped markets. “You've got to have access to every possible array of the marketplace,” Schaper says. “Whatever you've got, you've got to find more than one place for it.” It's a goal more easily achieved since Consortium became part of Perseus, an acquisition that has provided Consortium's publishers with new access to the gift, special sales, and mass markets, as well as with more comprehensive international sales representation.
Consortium client publishers can use Constellation, Perseus's two-year-old digital printing program, which includes the capacity to convert PDF files into e-book formats. While e-books are only 4% of Consortium's total book sales, up from 1% a year ago, Schaper considers the format an important component of a multifaceted sales strategy.
Schaper, who started her career at Consortium as sales director 15 years ago, describes marketing and sales for what was then a group of 27 publishers as targeting independent bookstores and chain bookstores, especially Borders. That has changed since Amazon.com emerged in 1995. “Amazon is huge,” Schaper says, but,she adds, sales to independent retailers and regional wholesalers combined together nearly equal total sales to the e-tailer.
“Independent retail can still be a force in making or sustaining a book,” she insists, pointing out that while the Internet accounts for 65% of sales of Gardening When It Counts (New Society), the inverse is true of the Pulitzer Prize—winning poetry collection Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon), with bricks-and-mortar stores accounting for 65% of its sales.
While some of the books on the distributor's list tap into the zeitgeist, Schaper says, Consortium as well as its client publishers have become more savvy about marketing and publicity. Even a newly launched company, Bellevue Literary Press, sold 30,000 copies of Paul Harding's debut novel, Tinkers, in its first selling season.