Today only two trade wholesalers of size remain, both family businesses: Ingram Content Group, which had sales of more than $2 billion in 2020, and its much smaller counterpart, Bookazine, in Bayonne, N.J., which services the Northeast and the East Coast corridor. The decline in wholesalers, who serve as middlemen between publishers and bookstores, followed a steep decline in the number of independent bookstores. Although indies have begun inching back up, publishers have taken on much of the wholesaler role in recent years by offering faster shipping and deeper discounts to booksellers.
In 1997, Pacific Pipeline, in Kent, Wash., became the first of the large regional wholesalers to close. Others followed, including Bookpeople, in Oakland, Calif., in 2004. The following year, St. Louis–based Booksource exited the trade while continuing its educational wholesale operation. More recently Baker & Taylor closed its wholesale retail business in 2019.
Even Ingram Book Company, which was folded into ICG in 2009 (formed to offer a variety of print and digital options, as well as book distribution), considered an alternate plan. In November 1998, it accepted a bid from Barnes & Noble’s then chairman Len Riggio for $600 million to merge. (The other bidders included Amazon, Bertelsmann, and Borders.) In the face of bookseller opposition and a negative report from the Federal Trade Commission’s Competition Bureau, the deal was called off.
“Coming out of the failed B&N sales process,” says John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries and CEO and chairman of ICG, “that was a very tough moment. We still had the challenges that led me to say, ‘Hey, I think we need to do this,’ and a lot of our customers were mad at us. It hasn’t always been easy. But I’m certainly proud of the fact that we have solved the problems, and Ingram is more profitable and a better partner to the publishing industry.”
In part that stems from Ingram’s decision to become more than just a wholesaler of physical books to physical places. “If we were just a physical wholesaler, life would not be as good,” says Ingram, adding, “maybe Ingram would be here today, maybe it wouldn’t.” But it also comes from his preference for win-win situations and his concern for maintaining the company’s reputation. “Reputations are hard earned,” he says, “and they can be destroyed very quickly. When your name’s on the door, or in my case my name is on the door, I think about that a lot.”
For Ingram, relevance is also key: “I don’t want to be the biggest. I want to be the one who is the most relevant to our customers and our partners.” During the pandemic this tenet enabled ICG to help at a crucial moment. “When George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota, 50% of the New York Times bestsellers paperback list was solely provided thanks to our print-on-demand capabilities, because the rest of the printing and distribution pipeline was so disrupted [by Covid]. I take a lot of personal pride in having helped create an organization that we do well by helping people do well,” he says.
As for what’s next, Ingram says he wants to make sure that the company continues to meet customer and partner expectations before introducing new products or services. “If you look at the world of data, that’s a very interesting place. We’re certainly surrounded by a lot of data,” he says in reference to two upcoming projects. One is a new publisher portal that has been in the works for a number of years and will enable publishers to place ads on social media, Zoom, and Amazon. Ingram is also building a database of book-buying customers that partners will be able to advertise to and, he hopes, create an additional sales channel.
Bookazine has also survived through diversification, in its case by broadening its wholesaling reach beyond the U.S. to include bookstores throughout the globe, or evolving into “Bookazine 2.0,” says COO Richard B. Kallman. He and his brother, Robert, are the third generation to run the company. But even with the addition of international customers, Kallman has been careful not to stray far from the company’s mission, to get books to customers as quickly as possible.
“I’ve been here 25 years,” says Cindy Raiton, president of sales at Bookazine. “When I have a crazy idea, Rich always reminds me, ‘Stay in your lane.’ That’s what we’ve done, stayed in our lane. There’s a lot of room to grow with our inventory and our customers in the U.S. and around the world. We can expand on what we do, just on a smaller scale.” She views book wholesaling as an important piece of the book industry. “People need us to get the books from point A to point B. So having the resources to get it to them is as important as ever.”
As for whether regional wholesalers will make a comeback, particularly at a time when new indies are opening every day, Kallman doesn’t see it. “It’s all about the pie,” he says, “and whether a new wholesaler could make it larger by servicing a new segment of the market.”