By 1994 the book industry was close to a “peak” bookstore moment with an estimated 10,000 stores open across the United States. It was the year I started working at Consortium Book Sales and Distribution as sales director after previous stints working for publishers as a sales manager, sales representative, and before that a bookstore buyer and manager. My friends thought I was crazy to trade the New York City publishing world for a distributor of independent publishers in Saint Paul, Minn., but I was ready for the change.
Exclusive distribution for independent publishers had expanded since the 1970s along with the growth of small press publishing. Distributors worked with publishers in a wide range of services, many of them more specialized than those available from large publishers. In the early ’80s, before the desktop revolution took hold and the arrival of bookstore chains, small presses, literary and otherwise, continued to operate at a considerable disadvantage. In October 1981, PW summarized “the hazards of book distribution” while gamely crediting “The Big Six Distributors,” which included Bookpeople, Bookslinger, SPD, and one humbly called “the distributors” from South Bend, Ind. Looking back at that report inspires gratitude for the early pioneers—Don Gerrard, Toby Clark, Randall Beek, Jim Sitter, Jeanetta Miller, David Wilk among them—who built the foundation upon which now sits a robust system of getting books from independent small and medium-size presses onto bookstore shelves.
By the 1990s Publishers Group West, led by Charlie Winton in Berkeley, Calif., was one of the largest distributors, with a wide variety of publishers, from New World Library to Green Candy, while Aaron Silverman in Los Angeles attracted small regional and esoteric clients. In some instances, publishers owned their distribution companies: Curt and Linda Matthews owned Chicago Review Press and distributor Independent Publisher Group (run since 2015 by their son, Joe Matthews), and Rowman & Littlefield owned National Book Network, led by Jed Lyons near the nation’s capital. Both distributors were distinguished by the wide range of client publishers. There were, and still are, specialists like Distributed Art Publishers, or DAP, led by Sharon Gallagher in New York City, which represents publishers focused primarily on art, design, and photography. Consortium had its own specialty in the early years, its roots in not-for-profit literature and poetry publishers such as Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, and Milkweed Editions. There were many other distributors, of course, but the costs and challenges of the business meant that many would disappear, some quietly, others, like the LPC Group, imploding spectacularly, taking down the publishers they distributed.
Distribution, like much of publishing, was a collegial business, and with the rest of the industry, it gathered annually for the trade show initially called the American Booksellers Trade Association Conference, or ABA, and later BookExpo America after it was bought by Reed Exhibitions, in 1995. For Consortium, it was an opportunity to showcase our current clients and scout prospective publishers. Publishers I met for the first time at BEA include Enchanted Lion, introduced by venerable sales rep Stu Abraham, who brought me to Claudia Bedrick, now publisher, editor, and art director; and Hazy Dell, a start-up for quirky, adult-friendly children’s books, founded by two brothers, Kyle and Derek Sullivan, on the West Coast. In the early days, we had show discount specials and some free shipping; Paul Yamazaki from City Lights would drop off a backlist order with a big smile and tell me we were one of the store’s top three vendors every year. Nearly every distributor had an aisle or two on the show floor with booths featuring individual and collective publishers.
Then there were the parties. Both PGW and Consortium organized separate events with their publishers in whatever city the BEA was in, inviting booksellers, sales reps, and media to celebrate their collective devotion to get books to readers. PGW’s party featured live music, dancing, and drinking, and was always a hot ticket. Consortium’s was more about talking, occasional dancing—and drinking. Toward the end, our parties stayed on the floor and out of swanky, wacky, or historic venues. Publishers like Akashic, Cinco Puntos, and Coach House, among other miscreants, organized a speakeasy party, smuggling liquor and snacks into the Consortium aisle, which was thronged with guests at the appointed hour along with those who just stumbled into it. The parties didn’t last long, but then again neither did BEA.
The 1990s were a time of incredible growth, as Barnes & Noble expanded its superstore model, heedless of the existential threat to independent booksellers. Borders was also growing, and though considered friendlier to independent publishers and small distributors, was nonetheless another threat to small stores, along with Musicland. Still, it was true that superstores, with their colossal square footage, wanted to have a wide range of titles. It seemed like a thrilling opportunity to sell more books, but the downside could be heavy returns that often came back in giant boxes called gaylords, leaving us and our publishers with more “hurts” than sellable books. There was also a new online book company called Amazon.
By 2000 PGW had become not only a distributor but a publisher as well, acquiring its own clients. PGW was “the largest distributor of independent presses in the U.S., with 140 clients and 50% of the market share,” according to PW’s Judith Rosen in September 2001, having grossed $165 million in 2000. Other distributors were adding new clients, expanding into Spanish-language titles and going global in a big way. National Book Network launched NBNi, a distribution company in the U.K.; IPG was distributing overseas publishers into the U.S. through Trafalgar Square; and Consortium hired a consultant to help expand distribution of overseas independent presses into the States. More American distributors were attending the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs to build connections and grow their business.
Changes were afoot. In 2001 Consortium’s absentee owner, Bill Brinton, was nearly 80 years old, and when the current president, Randall Beek, declined to purchase the company, we were suddenly up for sale. The Consortium board, which included George Gibson, Bill Hammond, and Po Bronson, guided the sale, opting for a single owner rather than a sale to another distribution company. We had one major casualty of the change: the loss of one of our flagship publishers, Graywolf Press. The purchaser, Don Linn, was a former investment banker and catfish farmer, and while he had no background in books, he had big ideas for growing the company. On the heels of that change, in January 2002, the wholesaler AMS, with near exclusive access to sell to membership warehouse clubs, purchased PGW to diversify its business.
The relentless growth of B&N and Borders had pushed many independent booksellers out of the business, but many survived, predictions of their demise being premature. The smaller-format stores like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton had been losing market share for years and were on their way out, B. Dalton in 2010, Waldenbooks in 2011, as were the Musicland stores that sold books, music, and video. But Amazon was growing and ordering heavily from wholesalers, mostly Ingram. Before long, they were buying direct and nonreturnable—what could be better!
Other changes percolated. Print-on-demand was available from companies like Ingram’s Lightning Source, Edwards Brothers, and Bookmobile; and e-books were poised to take off, as the first commercial e-readers became available. These two technologies emerged as powerful forces affecting all aspects of publishing and distribution.
Consortium kept growing, adding City Lights, AK Press, and Haymarket. In 2004, Serpent’s Tail author Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was a controversial choice and a perfect example of publisher Pete Ayrton’s risk-taking approach to world literature—Serpent’s Tail had three of her works in print and a fourth on its way. The next year Ted Kooser, then America’s poet laureate, won the Pulitzer for poetry with Delights & Shadows, from Copper Canyon. It wouldn’t be the last for the press—its authors have won 10 major poetry prizes. Theatre Communications Group’s John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer for Drama for Doubt; TCG authors have won 16 Pulitzers in the last 28 years.
In 2005 Ingram launched a distribution company with an eye to integrating POD and e-book services. The Perseus Books Group moved into distribution as well, purchasing CDS, a Random House spin-off that gave clients a range of distribution and fulfillment options. Large New York houses—Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Norton among them—were expanding their distribution client list to small presses. The distribution landscape was becoming increasingly competitive.
In 2006 Consortium was quietly put up for sale—the purchaser, the Perseus Books Group. We would no longer run our own warehouse in Saint Paul, so those books were moved to the Perseus warehouse in Jackson, Tenn., along with our racking, forklifts, pallet jacks, and one truck. Although the Saint Paul warehouse staff people were offered jobs in Tennessee, most of them declined, and we lost more than half of our employees. Less than a year later, AMS declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Perseus took over PGW. We were all reeling, but most of our publishers stuck with us through the change.
In 2007 the Amazon Kindle was released and became the most popular e-reader in the world. The industry jumped on board and sales of e-books grew. One of the bonuses of being part of a larger organization like Perseus was the ability to offer our publishers the opportunity to do e-books along with access to special markets, international, and the mass merchandise channels.
In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Literature was won by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, and Wandering Star was the most recent book by the author. The publisher was Curbstone Press, run by Sandy Taylor and Judith Doyle, and distributed by Consortium. It was another sign of the value in small presses that support literature in translation. In 2010 a first novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding and published by Bellevue Literary Press, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as the run of literary successes for independent houses continued.
At the beginning of 2010 Borders operated 511 superstores in addition to Waldenbooks, Borders Express, and Borders airport and outlet stores. By February 2011 the company was in Chapter 11. Barnes & Noble was trying to reinvent itself with its own, ultimately unsuccessful, e-reader, the Nook. There was new competition in the form of self-publishing. While there were many smaller companies offering author distribution services, both Amazon and Ingram Spark, due to their size and reach, fueled the demand for publication without gatekeepers. It was indirect competition, but competition for both publishers and distributors.
At the same time, independent bookstores remained important to us, and to our publishers. These bookstores had been through every kind of challenge, and those that remained were tested and resilient. The ABA launched a new conference called Winter Institute to provide education for booksellers, drive the “buy local” movement, and increase dialogue with publishers and distributors. Over the next 10 years, Winter Institute became a key event in the industry calendar where publishers underwrote the cost of spending time with booksellers; shared concerns about the business; displayed galleys, lots of galleys; and showcased select authors at multiple receptions and keynotes. The model became more inclusive of small presses, and often a dozen or more attended in some capacity. While a core of booksellers had always supported independent presses, there were young booksellers passionate about literature in translation, for whom feminism was not a bad word—and a bookstore that sported titles with a point of view mattered more than the commercial bestseller that could be found anywhere.
In 2015 I was in New York City having dinner with friends at Veselka in the East Village when I received a message to be on a conference call. I walked over to Tompkins Square Park, sat on a bench, and learned that Consortium, along with PGW and Perseus Distribution (later renamed Two Rivers), were, after 10 years with Perseus, being sold to the Ingram Content Group—and then we weren’t. A year later the sale was back on, and in April 2016 we became part of an even larger company with its fingers in the pie of the industry. There were multiple integration challenges, but this time we didn’t lose any staff, we stayed in our current offices, and our publishers stuck with us. We were profoundly grateful for their trust.
In 2017 Baker & Taylor launched a new publisher services business that offered distribution and other functions to children’s, trade, K–12, higher education, and academic publishers with Mark Suchomel, formerly with IPG, at the helm.
In 2019 Barnes & Noble sold itself to a hedge fund, and Waterstones’ CEO, James Daunt, took on management for the company. Remarkably, independent bookstores were on the rise, with more than 2,300 stores open, according to the ABA. Central to this growth was not only the support of the ABA but the concepts of community, title selection, and events including lectures, book signings, children’s story times, and book clubs among others. I remembered, back in the day, the late Karl Pohrt, who owned the Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Mich., talking about buying local and keeping money in the community. In a small way, 26 years later, independent bookstores were teaching the community about supporting them and why it mattered. This became crucial in 2020, when a worldwide pandemic reached the U.S.
At the same time a new indie commerce site called Bookshop.com launched. It offered an opportunity for bookstore sales on the web that weren’t connected to Amazon.
By March 2020 the Covid pandemic was turning everything upside down, yet that year was one of Consortium’s best ever, and 2021 was even better yet, despite supply chain challenges and working from home. Our publishers did well, too—over 70% of them increased their business in 2020 and then again in the following year. Many publishers benefited from access to Ingram’s digital printing services and e-book services while bookstores benefited from direct to home consumer shipping services. The industry changes and we change with it, more focused than ever on metadata, marketing, and diversifying our sales.
Alvin Domnitz once said, “The reading public is best served by diversity.” Independent publishers have been in the vanguard of that diversity, and together we have survived structural challenges, technological revolutions, corporate consolidations, and economic downturns. We’ve seen it all and lived to tell the story. Now, if only those BEA parties could make a comeback.
Julie Schaper is vice-president at IPS-Consortium.