Ingram Content Group is central to the contemporary publishing ecosystem, but the Tennessee-based, family-owned company is known for keeping a low profile. On the opening day of the U.S. Book Show, company chairman John Ingram and author Keel Hunt sat down with PW editorial director Jim Milliot to give publishing professionals a rare glimpse of the inner workings of the distributor, printer, and wholesaler.
Hunt, a former spokesperson for the company and author of The Family Business: How Ingram Transformed the World of Books, said that the company’s quiet approach within the trade was part of an ethic created by John Ingram’s father, Bronson, who founded the company and insisted on keeping it family-owned.
“One of the chief reasons [he kept the company private] was that it would enable what I think was corporate patience,” Hunt said. Without the demands of investors, he explained, the company was able to invest in initiatives that took time to develop.
Working in the company warehouses packing books from a young age, Ingram said he grew up observing how that patience benefitted the growth of the company’s wholesale distribution business. Those experiences led him to believe that, when confronted with either-or situations in business, the best approach was to think in terms of “either-and.”
No aspect of the company’s growth in the last two decades is more emblematic of embracing the “either-and” ethic than the rise of Lightning Source, Ingram Content Group’s print-on-demand service. While the publishing industry was gripped in the 2000s by the idea that e-books would eradicate print—an either-or situation—Ingram felt that Lightning Source could help publishers develop e-books while also printing on demand.
For seven years, the company endured losses that would have forced Ingram to abandon the idea if the business were publicly held. “We took some real lumps there,” he said. Today, however, Lightning Source is a central part of Ingram Content Group’s success. Following the murder of George Floyd last June, increased demand for anti-racist titles led to widespread industry shortages—and as a result, during that month, Lightning Source printed 400,000 books. “50% of The New York Times bestseller list for softcover was basically supplied by us through print-on-demand,” Ingram said.
While the company will continue to be quiet about its significant place in the trade, Ingram did share one glimpse of what’s to come: the company plans to expand its global reach by opening a joint venture in the United Arab Emirates.