With the resurgence of print sales and an increase in the number of independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores, several bargain wholesalers have seen their business rebound. Granted, said Brad Jonas, owner of Powell’s Books Wholesale and Powell’s Books Chicago and cofounder of CIROBE (Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Expo), “it would be foolish to say there hasn’t been a shrinkage” in the number of bargain book wholesalers. But his business is solid, and this year CIROBE, the nation’s largest remainder book show, which is set for October 20–22, is on track to more than make up for the dip in attendance last year, when there was a scheduling conflict with the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“The return to print books is imperative for the bargain industry,” said Bill Van Vliet, CIO and managing partner of Book Depot, one of the largest book distributors in North America. The company, which is based in Ontario, Canada, saw sales in 2016 increase 10% from 2015, and it is expecting “modest” gains this year. Book Depot’s recent growth has been fueled, in part, by a $3 million warehouse project completed in spring 2016, which added a large-scale mechanical sorter, robotics, and supporting technologies to facilitate book returns. As a result, Book Depot can sort more than 100,000 books per day. The company has continued to reinvest in the business with several new initiatives in 2017, including increased inventory and more robust tools for buyers on its websites.
At Book Country Clearing House in McKeesport, Pa., which has exclusive agreements with a dozen publishers, digital books didn’t have a significant impact on sales. “Our customers like the tactility of [physical] books,” said CEO Richard Roberts, whose “gut feeling” is that e-books may have lowered sales by about 10% in the past year. In general, his business is insulated from e-books because he doesn’t sell to bookstores that carry new books.
Roberts prefers to work with more stable secondary and tertiary markets like used booksellers, flea market sellers, and those who sell factory seconds. To service them, Book Country keeps its 400,000-sq.-ft. warehouse stocked with 11 million–14 million books at any given time, representing around 45,000 titles.
Rachel Geer, director of sales at Great Jones Books in Pennington, N.J., said that “for us, 2016 was a good year; sales grew by 3% [over 2015],” and that she anticipates another rise in sales in 2017. While she regards the return to print as a good thing, because publishers are treating remainder and bargain sales as a regular part of their business, she noted that print books never went away. The disappearance of many independent college stores—which have either closed or been taken over by corporations such as Barnes & Noble Education—and the cutting back on trade titles among those that remain have had a greater impact on her business.
Great Jones has gone from primarily selling academic titles when it was founded 20 years ago to carrying books with a more general appeal in art and design, children’s, history, and literature. And the rise of indie trade bookstores hasn’t necessarily been a boon. “The renaissance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores mostly consists of the openings of smaller stores, where it is not a given that bargain books will even have a place,” Geer said.
Even though e-book sales have slowed, customers are still picky about which print books they want. “Nowadays,” said Albert Haug, president of U.S. Media Partners, which is headquartered in Centerport, N.Y., “the key accounts know exactly what they want and cherry-pick the very best titles.” His company, which relies on exclusive agreements with publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and nonexclusives with smaller houses to drive sales, has had to get creative.
“It’s not easy out there,” Haug said. “It’s much more challenging than ever before, and you have to be innovative and come up with ideas for making assortments and special displays to market the B and C titles. That’s really our company’s strength.”
U.S. Media Partners is also careful about controlling expenses. Two years ago it gave up its Fifth Avenue showroom in New York City, and it maintains a small presence at CIROBE and other trade shows.
At Texas Bookman in Dallas, director of acquisitions James Palmer views the resurgence of print as a different kind of challenge. Bargain titles must now, he said, “offer information on subject matter people want beyond single Google searches, in nice enough packages that people want.” He added, “This really means that bargain needs to have increased perceived value in both subject and execution.”
Since Texas Bookman isn’t always able to find the inventory it needs, it has upped its participation in existing package print runs and developed more books and products. The company has also expanded its product lines to carry more sidelines, games, graphic novels, journals, and stationery. And although Texas Bookman reaches out to a variety of stores, including museum stores and new independent bookstores, it is one of a number of wholesalers with a built-in customer base: its sister company, Half Price Books, has 124 outlets.
Like Texas Bookman, Pittsburgh, Pa.–based Bradley’s Books is dependent on its stores; it went into wholesaling as a result of supplying bargain books for them. There are currently 10 Bradley’s outlets in western Pennsylvania, which account for 20% of Bradley’s total business. Its sales were hurt when Amazon upped its fees for third-party booksellers in March, from $1.35 per item to $1.80 per item. According to owner Michael Paper, online sales at the stores, as well as those of his wholesale customers who sell on Amazon, fell by one-third overnight.
Texas Bookman is one of a number of wholesalers that have been looking more to international sales. After sales slowed in the U.K. and Europe because of the strong dollar, Palmer said that Texas Bookman has begun dipping its toe into South America. International markets comprise roughly 13% of Book Depot’s overall sales, a number that Van Vliet plans to increase in the current fiscal year. “We believe that the overall international market will remain strong for the next several years, and we will continue to focus on countries that stress English as a secondary language,” he said. By contrast, at Great Jones, international has shrunk from 12%–15% of total sales to less than 10% today.
Despite the challenges, Paper and other bargain wholesalers remain resilient. As CIROBE’s Jonas remarked: “For years we’ve been reading our obituary. We’re pretty optimistic about the future.”
An earlier version quoted Rachel Greer. Her name is Rachel Geer.