The publishing industry is in a period of change and adaptation. From resignations and supply chain issues to livable wages and employee burnout, the industry is experiencing a generational shift. On September 14, Ingram Content Group hosted a live panel discussion to explore the issues surrounding the industry ecosystem. Panelists were Allison Hill, CEO of American Booksellers Association; Phil Ollila, chief commercial and content officer of Ingram Content Group; and Molly Stern, founder and CEO of the indie publisher Zando.

At the top of everyone’s mind was the labor shortage. “People power” is one of the biggest challenge facing booksellers and could be potentially harmful to sales, Hill explained. Hill pointed to how employee turnover creates a loss of institutional knowledge, which in turn makes it more difficult for new booksellers to hand sell titles, which could hurt customer service and make discoverability more difficult.

Discoverability is a key challenge among many media segments Stern, agreed and new approaches to reach consumers must be adopted. Marketing strategies that used to work no longer do, Ollila said. “We need to rethink how to get books to readers,” Ollila said, offering solutions that include direct-to-consumer programs.  Ollila argued that to make the supply chain more efficient, “marketing is the next space for consolidation” adding, “it is the next area where innovation and subsequent consolidation will occur.” Ollila said a key to becoming more efficient is slimming down back-office operations, be it for publishers or booksellers, in able to bring more resources to the front of the business.

That approach was backed by Hill, who noted that the long-awaited arrival of the technology platform Batch can help streamline invoicing for booksellers and is one example of how booksellers can use technology to become more efficient.

One of the big changes in the market in recent years is that publishers can influence where consumer book purchases can be made, Ollila maintained: “Publishers are now in a position to select which sales channels of distribution they want.” They in that position now, he added, because they are more aggressively involved in created audiences, whereas in the past purchasing decisions were dictated by the market power of retailers. He went on to say that booksellers need to understand that they need to become more involved with audience development, expanding on such programs as author events by creating more outreach to book buyers. “The understanding of audiences, and who owns them, will either be a partnership between publishers and booksellers or an adversarial relationship,” Ollila said. “I can’t tell you which, but it will be fascinating to watch.”  

As sales channels shift, bookstores continue to be extremely adaptive. “It’s been exciting to see how innovative bookstores were and how they pivoted during the pandemic,” said Hill. Existing stores did everything from establishing hybrid business models to changing their relationships to their community, Hill said. In addition, she said that the assumption that you can’t open stores during a pandemic proved to be wrong, noting that over 300 stores were opened over the last two years and ABA membership grew 20%. Most importantly, Hill said, the industry learned how interdependent everyone in the industry is and that things would work better if the industry players worked together as partners. “It’s time for the industry to look at the health of the ecosystem, and that being a shared goal.” One shared goal needs to be building an industry where all those in it can earn a livable wage, she said.

To help build an audience, Hill observed that the ABA is now helping its members better analyze sales data while at the same time continuing to protect customers’ privacy. The ABA has developed turnkey marketing approaches

Stern, who founded Zando after leaving after leaving Penguin Random House where she was publisher of Crown, said the excitement for an independent publisher is to focus on scalability. With so many tools and technology available to publishers, Stern said independent publishers have the ability to create the platforms necessary to promote diverse authors. In acquiring books Zando doesn’t focus on an author’s track record, as many of the larger publishers do, Stern said.

Zando’s newly-released The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart, who runs an immensely popular true crime podcast, Morbid, was offered by Stern as an example of publishing more effectively. After Urquhart announced the cover of the book, preorders hit unexpected new heights. By supporting Urquhart through the development of the novel, and being mindful of the author’s audience, along with Zando’s ability to leverage partnerships, the title exceeded 43,000 preorders by the end of the week.

Looking at prospects for the fourth quarter, all panelists echoed a cautiously optimistic stance. “There’ll be a lot of business in this quarter,” Ollila said, predicting it will be higher than in 2019 but “slightly below” 2021. He added that it looks 2022 will more of a consumer direct holiday, rather than retail focused, but not because readers will be staying home, but because not all the books are where they need to be. Supply chain hiccups are still being felt, Ollila noted.

“It’s going to be a good season for publishers and indies,” Hill said, though she added booksellers will be challenged in unique ways. Given the various shifts in the market, particularly at the staffing level, Hill said it is imperative that publishers build deeper relationships with booksellers.