Over the past 38 years, the BookMasters Group in Ashland, Ohio, has grown from a print broker into a vertically integrated provider of printing, content, and distribution services. As recently as three years ago it was one of the best-kept secrets in fulfillment and distribution, even though it began offering both in 1988. Then, when BookWorld abruptly closed its doors, BookMasters's AtlasBooks Distribution division signed 70 micro presses. Several months later, in January 2008, it took on another 500 small presses from National Book Network's small press sister company, Biblio. At year's end, it launched BookMasters Distribution Services to provide full-service distribution for midsize presses.
While BookMasters's distribution business is still relatively small—AtlasBooks does close to $10 million in revenue; BDS will be at $5 million by the end of 2011—CEO and co-owner Dave Wurster is in no hurry to grow aggressively in this economy. "As long as we're doing a good job at representing our authors," he says, "it's fine. I just want to be a good distributor with steady growth." BookMasters, whose clients range from scholarly houses like Marquette University Press to new trade houses like San Francisco–based Time Capsule Press, can afford a more leisurely, prudent approach. Its fulfillment services brought in $60 million in 2009.
Going forward, Wurster anticipates that much of the company's increase in distribution could come from self-publishing. "The story of [the 2010] BEA," says Wurster, "is that you can take the term ‘vanity press' and throw it out the window. We had five agents approach us about self-publishing packages that may apply to their author clients looking for other options. In my mind, that's huge. They're looking at whether authors can get away from big advances and share in bigger profits. These are previously published, highly credible authors."
Early on, BookMasters, which has an imprint that handles distribution for 1,800 self-published authors, recognized the importance of bypassing traditional trade distribution for micro presses. When it formed AtlasBooks in 2000 in response to Ingram's decision to get out of micro-press distribution, it made direct-to-consumer sales a centerpiece of its services, with a Web site (www.atlasbooks.com) and a 24-hour call center with an 800 number. Recent AtlasBooks topsellers include Debi Pearl's book on marriage, Created to Be His Help Meet (No Greater Joy Ministries) and Lindsey McGraw's account of training to be a nurse, So You Want to Be a Florence Nightingale (Bootin' Annie Publishing). Now, Wurster is revamping the Web site. The new one, which will go live by the end of the year, will have a snappier URL and be able to accommodate multimedia products.
Not that BookMasters is neglecting its larger distribution clients. For Wurster, the next push is Europe and the U.K. He recently brought on British publishing veteran Jonathan King, who has offices in London, to give both AtlasBooks, which handles distribution for scholarly publishers and university presses in addition to self-publishers, and BDS, a substantially bigger presence in Britain. Previously, AtlasBooks was represented by Gazelle Books in the European market, which doubled its sales between 2007 and 2008. In addition, BookMasters has a New York City office and sales representation in Canada through Quanta Distribution and Scholarly Book Services.
What enables Wurster to grow distribution organically is, in part, vertical integration. The content services division, headed by his brother Matt Wurster, and the manufacturing division combined bring in $25 million in sales—and all three feed into each other. "If I were just a book distributor," says Wurster, "or a stand-alone printer or a content shop, my job would be a lot harder. A combination has complemented each division nicely, which brings tremendous value to our publishing partners."
Through its printing services, BookMasters can offer offset printing as well as POD in quantities of 20 copies and up. Its content services division provides project management for complex educational content, as well as e-book conversion and digital distribution for trade and academic publications. In April, BookMasters introduced Converso to give small and midsize publishers what Wurster regards as "a better deal on revenue-sharing and digital conversion." A month later at BEA, it launched a similar program for self-publishers, Auturo. Both provide access to 125 digital outlets.
Steady may be fine, but Wurster says that the well-being of BookMasters's 273 employees in Ashland is never far from his mind, and he remains alert to new ways to expand. Plus, by growing its services in a volatile economy, says Wurster, BookMasters has an opportunity to reap greater market share.