And Then There Were None?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 7th, 2019

From Monopoly. © Richie Lomba | Dreamstime.com

Before I get to today’s topic, I have a check-in. Last Tuesday, I set a 100-book challenge for Children’s Book Week. Did anyone succeed? Did anyone almost succeed, and if so, do you need a few extra days to finish? Entries are still being accepted at e bluemle @ publishers weekly (no spaces, and the usual .com).

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The bookselling community has been rattled this week by the news that Baker & Taylor, one of the nation’s two largest book wholesalers, has decided to stop selling to retailers and concentrate all of its efforts on the school and library market. The reverberations of this decision might not be immediately visible to the outside observer, but this is the latest body blow to the almost comically Sisyphean task of running a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Wholesalers stock hundreds of thousands of titles, making it possible for booksellers to order books from multiple publishers at once and receive them, in most cases, the following day. Wholesalers ship faster than publishers, making it possible for bookstores to give their customers this overnight service for special orders. And because booksellers can build orders that meet free freight minimums with wholesalers, we can buy books from many small publishing houses at once and avoid margin-killing shipping charges.

To put this in perspective for the layperson, Baker & Taylor and Ingram are major suppliers not only to bricks-and-mortar bookstores, but to Amazon. (Contrary to the misunderstanding of many people outside the industry, Amazon doesn’t supply booksellers with books. They are just another bookseller, ordering from all the same sources we do, so it’s ironic that Amazon is one of the reasons Baker & Taylor is getting out of the retail supply market.)

It’s a BIG change to lose one of these behemoths, not only because it narrows the supply chain, but because it leaves bookstores vulnerable to the potential ramifications of what becomes essentially a monopoly. Last year, there was an uproar when the two wholesalers were pursuing a merger, because of these monopoly concerns.

Each wholesaler has its unique strengths, as well, and for our store, losing Baker & Taylor also means losing their better discount, which in a business where every percentage point has impact, is significant. It also means losing Baker’s greater depth of the kinds of titles schools and libraries order from us, and their better discounts not only on regular titles, but on short-discounted books as well. (Often, Baker offered 20% off books that were sold at no discount on Ingram.)

The news of this loss wasn’t a complete surprise, although it was announced suddenly and with a very short adjustment period time (around six weeks until everything B&T-related stops for retailers). Ingram has assured us that they are committed to the indie bookstore market, and their stock is the largest of any wholesaler, so we are hoping that the increased order volume they receive will support better, rather than worse, terms for booksellers. It’s a tough market all around, and I don’t know exactly how this decision will affect Ingram and all of the publishers who wholesale through Baker.

The one bright spot in this mess is that a third wholesaler (the only other one left in the country), Bookazine, which has a smaller footprint in the U.S. but is primary in the overseas market, is stepping up to help fill some of the gaps. They are actively soliciting feedback from booksellers to discover the areas in which we will most feel this change and are looking at ways to support indies, including those smaller, rural bookstores who rely almost entirely on Baker & Taylor for their books.

It says something about the changing nature of the bookselling economy that we now have so few wholesaler choices. The advent of Amazon has seismically altered the landscape of industries of every kind, funneling everything into a narrower and narrower channel — all attempting to lead to the same place.

Independent bookstores are flexible, nimble, resilient—all necessities—and fabulous, but if people want us to be here, and want publishing to be a vibrant and free enterprise, and if true choice matters to them, then these canaries in the coal mine (like B&T shuttering its retail operations, like publishers merging and consolidating in the face of severe economic pressure, like bricks-and-mortar stores of all kinds going out of business in every community) are the signs that we need to do some serious assessment of where we choose to send and spend our dollars. Every single choice matters.

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