With last month’s purchase of U.K.-based United Independent Distributors (which includes the distributor Eurospan and several distribution centers), Chicago’s Independent Publishers Group doubled in size and added a 106,000-square-foot, nine-pallet-high warehouse an hour and a half north of London. The acquisition helps close the gap between IPG and Ingram Content Group, the #1 trade book distributor in the U.S., and makes IPG the largest distributor in the U.K.
“I do feel like this is a life-changing transaction,” says Joe Matthews, CEO of IPG’s parent company, Chicago Review Press Inc., over a video call. “It’s a large number of employees and a huge volume of numbers through their system. I would say it doubled IPG.” By some measures, he adds, UID was the bigger company.
Under Matthews’s watch, IPG and CRP (which was founded by his father, Curt Matthews, who retired as CEO at the end of 2015, and his mother, Linda Matthews, who stepped down as director in 2014) have grown significantly. Much of that growth has been fueled by major acquisitions, including InScribe Digital (in 2016), International Specialized Book Services (in 2018), and Midpoint Trade Books (in 2018). Together with its newest acquisition, IPG has quadrupled since Matthews, who started in 2006 as a sales rep, became CEO in January 2016. He has also doubled the number of clients, employees, and backlist. Currently, IPG has more than 1,000 clients across various services. Some are U.S. or U.K. only; some print or e-book only; and some on software subscription model only. The company has more than 400 employees and 150,000 SKUs.
One other advantage of the merger from Matthews’s perspective is that it will solve a multimillion-dollar problem: unauthorized competitors violating territory exclusivity by selling books in a geographic area where they don’t hold rights. “With this union,” he says, “we can have one contract with a publisher for the English-speaking world. And I won’t care how the books got there, because we will have made the first sale.”
For Matthews, the acquisition is also a significant piece in IPG’s reinvention at a time of transition. “Online has taken a massive market share as a result of the pandemic,” he says. “In response to what’s happening with this shift toward online, this shift toward audiobook, this recent 13% growth in e-books, we’re becoming a much more global company to bring out the efficiencies of the scale we need.”
Other recent changes include replacing its commission reps with a 25-member in-house rep team in April. IPG continues to rely on commission gift reps. The Manda Group sells its list in Canada. Overall, IPG has a big sales team.
“I remember one publisher saying that the #1 thing we want from our distributor is sales and the #2 thing we want is sales. So we’ve really focused on that,” Matthews says. “It’s really made a big difference, honestly, in all markets.”
In addition to a newly introduced analytics package, IPG will launch a joint venture with the royalty software company MetaComet Systems to provide statements on which every single figure in a summary page has all of the detail line items to roll up to that number. “That seems obvious,” Matthews says, “but I think we’re going to be the only distributor to offer that. It’s going to help publishers control expenses and understand deals and agreements better than they ever have before.”
IPG continues to invest in its print facility, which it initially launched with Edwards Brothers Malloy in 2016. When the latter closed in 2018, IPG rehired the staff and upgraded the equipment. “We can produce twice as many books as we could one year ago, more than 100,000 books in a month,” Matthews says. “In the U.K., we have a partner called Printforce that has a print facility across the street from its warehouse.”
IPG also works with Amazon and Ingram on printing. “We’re not trying to consolidate all the volume we can into our own print facility,” Matthews says. “We’re trying to sell books.”
IPG’s Chicago warehouse has grown, too, and is nearly 250,000 sq. ft. after adding 20,000 sq. ft. in September. With an additional off-site facility where it parks pallets, IPG now has about 12 million units in hand, according to Matthews. Up in next year’s first quarter is the introduction of an audio pre-press product.
Also in 2022, Matthews is planning to announce major licensing deals for the publishing side of CRP, which began releasing its first Sports Illustrated books this year and will publish the 19th edition of Better Homes & Gardens’s classic plaid cookbook in 2022. Matthews considers licensing as “a multimillion-dollar business to be developed.”
Although some things have changed, IPG’s mission remains the same. “The reason why we exist in the first place,” Matthews says, “is still the reason why we exist today: the idea that an alliance of small publishers together can act like one big publisher. That’s it. We’re an alliance of little guys that looks like a big guy.” His hope is to be able to keep reinventing and maintaining the alliance so IPG will be here for another 50 years, or more.