It’s been an eventful two years since Baker & Taylor CEO Aman Kochar added a new title to his job description: owner. On Nov. 4, 2021, Kochar completed his acquisition of B&T, the country’s largest public and academic library wholesaler, where he’d worked in various roles since 2014—a move that put the company in the hands of an owner-operator for the first time since W.R. Grace bought it in 1970, and ended B&T’s five-year stint as part of the Follett Corp., which had bought it back in 2016.
“We were coming out of a brutal period,” Kochar said when asked about the state of affairs at the company leading up to the acquisition. Not only had B&T’s finances taken a hit, he explained, but in the wake of the pandemic, the company was struggling to meet the shifting needs of its library customers.
“We were kind of in a state of flux,” he recalled, noting the widely reported pandemic-driven surge in demand for digital products and services in libraries, which historically had been a small part of B&T’s business. “There just wasn’t a clear path forward for libraries to come back to normal in terms of operations and material acquisitions.”
Now in his third year as B&T’s owner, Kochar said his vision for the company’s next act has taken root. B&T employees are “reimagining” the way B&T supports its library and educational partners, with the goal of creating a company where libraries know they can get books but also “the best of breed software and content solutions.” Kochar estimated that 50% of the products, solutions, and services B&T now offers didn’t exist two years ago.
For example, Kochar said, B&T has harnessed prescriptive modeling technology to offer Evidence-Based Selection Planning (EBSP), which uses the same methods that drive common online assistants and recommendation engines to help librarians make better book buying decisions. The company has also created a tool to help libraries assess whether their current collections match the needs of their diverse communities. And B&T has invested heavily in creating new digital services for libraries, including the launch of Boundless, an app that replaces B&T’s Axis 360 and provides patrons with expanded digital content and programming options, particularly for children.
The goal, Kochar said, is to give local libraries the tools they need to customize their collections and services to carry out their mission. “I want to empower communities and their thinking,” he explained. “I am not interested in providing a one size fits all model for libraries.”
To that end, Kochar wants the company to operate along the lines of “radical candor,” a principal developed by author Kim Scott that focuses on “caring deeply” and “being direct.” He said he has empowered B&T’s 1,500 employees to bring new ideas to the fore, and enabled the team members who interact most with the company’s customers—such as sales reps—to recommend new products and services. “We need to listen to our customers and form solution-oriented partnerships,” Kochar said.
In other significant moves initiated by Kochar, B&T has re-entered the academic library market, an area it left in 2015. And in May 2022, Kochar sold off B&T’s U.K. division. And while some thought he would also exit the distribution business, he has in fact grown Baker & Taylor Publisher Services. BTPS now has 80 full-service clients, distributing to bookstores and a host of nontraditional outlets.
Kochar is also deeply aware of the tensions in the library market today. Amid a surge in book bans and attacks on libraries, Kochar emphasized the wholesaler’s commitment to supplying libraries with the books their communities want and need. “We are in the business of supporting all our library customers equally,” he stressed, adding that B&T’s “guiding principal” is the fundamental belief that “people have the right to decide what they want to read and don’t want to read.”
Kochar also launched a children’s publishing arm, Paw Prints Publishing, in May 2022, which grew out of his belief that more children’s books are needed that feature voices from marginalized communities. “I wanted a platform to tell lived stories,” Kochar said. The first titles were released in June 2022, available in both English and Spanish.
Two of Paw Prints’ titles are written by Kochar himself—his first turn as an author. Both The Loving Library and Forever Friends are drawn from his experiences growing up as a religious, social, and ethnic minority. (Kochar is a Sikh.)
Kochar said he is encouraged by early results of the publishing venture: Paw Prints books are getting good reviews from industry publications, and sales are robust. To date, the company has shipped nearly 48,000 copies of the 43 titles Paw Prints has published thus far.
Kochar is also aware that the relationship between publishers and librarians can sometimes fray—particularly when it comes to issues around digital access. He said he has worked hard to earn the trust of both publishers and librarians and believes he can serve as an honest broker in developing economic models that can meet everyone’s needs. Candid conversations around price points and digital lending models can help develop terms that publishers can embrace and that “libraries can comprehend and can successfully spend on,” Kochar said. And in working with more than 5,000 libraries, he added, he is well positioned—and willing—“to be a mouthpiece for libraries to the publishing community.”
As the new year approaches, Kochar said his efforts to remake B&T are paying off, and he points to a number of positive metrics. For the first time in years, B&T is at capacity levels in its two warehouses, which allows it to offer customers more choices. B&T’s inventories are also at their highest levels in years. And incoming customers orders have increased every year since he bought the company.
“Our economic model is carry it, sell it, and turn it,” Kochar said. And the positive metrics, he believes, reflect a renewed confidence that B&T’s customers now have in the company. “When I started in 2014, I instantly fell in love with the industry and the work Baker & Taylor does,” he explained. “To have a company that started in 1828 still be thriving and evolving to meet changes in a rapidly evolving marketplace is incredibly motivating to me.”
While Kochar is gratified B&T is on the upswing, he said he was never driven to buy the company merely by the prospect of profits—he bought the company to support libraries. “I am committed to the cause of libraries,” he added. To be sure, B&T is “a profit-making business,” but those profits are being reinvested to help libraries promote literature, reading, and diversity.
“We’re not in the library business,” Kochar said. “We are in the business of celebrating and championing libraries.”