The Independent Publishers Group’s acquisition of Midpoint Trade Books in late August was just the most recent move by CEO Joe Matthews to ensure that the Chicago-based company remains well positioned in a distribution business that continues to consolidate. IPG bought International Specialized Book Services in April to expand its presence in the academic book field, and in July 2016, the company acquired Inscribe Digital, which dramatically increased IPG’s ability to handle e-book production, conversions, marketing, and distribution.
The mini–buying spree is part of Matthews’s strategy to build back business after the company lost a number of key clients to Perseus in 2016. “We needed to build our volume back up,” he said. “I didn’t want us to reduce our footprint, and relying merely on organic growth would take too long.”
Matthews sees the Inscribe purchase as particularly important to IPG’s future. “I want to be a top 10 digital aggregator,” he said, adding that if he hasn’t achieved that goal, he is close to it. Even as e-book sales soften, Matthews believes there is a solid business in the worldwide distribution of e-books and in doing back-end work for independent publishers. Currently, digital sales account for about 20% of IPG’s revenue.
In addition to its acquisitions, IPG has brought on some key new clients. Matthews pointed to Project Management Institute in 2016 and Albert Whitman in 2017 as important additions. He put the number of IPG’s active publisher clients at more than 1,100. Those clients are organized into seven units: the core IPG division; IPG Academic and Professional Publishing; Art Stock Books; IPG Spanish Books; Small Press United, which works with new and self-publishers; Trafalgar Square, which does distribution for U.K.- and Australia-based publishers; and Inscribe, which has 379 clients, the most of any IPG unit. Matthews said the distributor puts its publishers “in buckets with similar publishers” who often face the same issues.
IPG upgraded its printing capability in July 2016, when it teamed with Edwards Brothers Malloy to install a printing facility in its warehouse. When Edwards Brothers Malloy announced this spring that it was closing down, Matthews moved quickly to reaffirm his company’s commitment to printing. He replaced some of Edwards’s old equipment, bought some new machines, and hired most of the Edwards Brothers staff who worked at the IPG facility.
All together, Matthews estimated that he invested more than $1 million to upgrade IPG’s printing capabilities, which now include both short-run and print-on-demand options. The Edwards Brothers program was printing about 30,000 titles per month (not all for IPG clients), and when the company closed, there was a scramble by publishers to find new printers. Once it was up and running, with the capability to print about 1,700 books per day, the new IPG print center helped cut into the backlog.
All of Matthews’s efforts are paying off. “Sales in August were massive,” he said—a fact he attributed in part to booksellers ordering early “for the first time in years.” The strong August gives Matthews confidence that IPG will have a record year in 2018 and that the company will grow again in 2019. Among the titles that he thinks will do well this fall are Anything for a Hit (Chicago Review), B Is for Baller (Triumph), Disconnected (Central Avenue), Fright School (Albert Whitman), and Peeks-a-Who? (Minedition).