Baker and Taylor, a worldwide distributor of print media for over 180 years, will no longer be servicing publishing houses or bookstores as a wholesale retailer. Under the direction of its owner Follett, who purchased B&T in 2016, B&T will be shifting its focus on servicing public libraries and education. While their new initiative to increasing US literacy through supporting American libraries and the US education system sounds promising, this move will have major consequences on the publishing industry, leaving pub houses and retailers with only one worldwide book distributor: Ingram.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who watched the Ingram vs Baker & Taylor saga unfold in the last months of 2018. In October, Follet offered to buy out Barnes & Noble numerous times. Upon investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, no such purchase was made.
By December of 2018, Follet shifted gears and offered to sell Baker & Taylor to Ingram. Again, the FTC investigated. However, this investigation came quickly at the heels of the government shutdown in the beginning of 2019. While we know that everyone from indie bookstores to publishing houses to major retailers such as B&N were interviewed by the FTC, the results of the FTC investigation were never reported. It is speculated that due to the shutdown, the FTC was unable to finish their work in time, and the deal may have just dissolved. Regardless, this purchase never went through.
Instead, it was announced back in January of this year that Baker and Taylor would sell its entertainment avenues (CD and DVD) to Ingram. This was proposed as being the actual deal approved by the FTC, rather than a full sale of the book distributor B&T to Ingram. But we know for a fact that Follett meant to sell the entirety of B&T from the start: there would not have been any FTC interviews with every level of the book publishing industry otherwise. However, this was presented as the only sale of company avenues that Follet planned to make, and for the most part publishing breathed a sigh of relief.
Until May 1st, when it was announced that Baker & Taylor would cease to operate as a wholesale retailer.
B&T offered better prices and shipping deals to indie bookstores, which have been instrumental in the growth of indie bookstores. Since 2016, sales at indie bookstores have grown every year, despite falling sales at major retailers such as B&N. Overall, indie bookstores have shown a compound growth 5.4% for the past five years, according to stats from the American Booksellers Association. With only a monopoly left to service retailers, bookstores are deeply concerned about the effects on their bottom line – their ability to get books in the hands of their customers both efficiently and at great prices.
However, their may be hope for indie bookstores yet. Regional retailers are stepping forward and making a bold statement: a promise to do all they can to fill the hole that B&T is leaving in their wake. Yet these words are just that: words. While it is easy to believe this will solve everything, it may not be the case. Regional retailers such as Bookazine, NJ based and a first choice for many bookstores in the NorthEast, will never be able to carry the same breadth of items that Ingram does. This limits the purchasing power of an indie bookstore. Regional distribution will need to truly pull out all of the stops and increase their own reach, if they have any hope of repairing the damages of this blow to the publishing industry.
A shift of this magnitude affects everyone in the publishing industry, including authors at all stages of their careers. For unrepresented (unagented) authors looking to sign with an independent publishing house, you’ll need to be wary if the pub house says they use Ingram for distribution. This could be limited to only Ingram Spark, Ingram’s self-publishing arm, which you can access on your own as a self-pub author. The downside of Ingram Spark is that books published through this platform are non returnable. A non returnable book is very difficult to get into a bookstore, as they cannot return the book after x amount of days for store credit. This forces the bookstore to take a gamble that may not pay off, and it’s a bet most bookstores are not willing to make. Without Baker & Taylor as a secondary avenue, we expect these problems will rise in the months ahead.
What this means for indie authors:
- Keep a weather eye on all contracts for distribution. If you’re an Ingram Spark user, be attentive of all emails regarding changes to your services; you may see a rise in price or an updated Terms of Service which they will ask you to approve to continue working with them. Read any TOS updates carefully before approving!
- If you’re looking at indie and mid-sized publishers, be wary of vague descriptions of distribution. Your titles should be returnable. You’ll often encounter phrases such as “we use Ingram” or “we use the same distributors as Penguin Random.” Be sure to get clear, firm details on any book distribution avenues before signing a contract.
- Indie bookstores may have a harder time carrying your book through these distribution avenues than in the past due to pricing fluctuations and changes in service. Ingram will become a global monopoly; they could stand to make a whole number of negative changes due to retailers having no other choice but to work with them. Don’t get frustrated with the bookstore, but rather consider other avenues such as selling on consignment.
Baker & Taylor will cease shipping customer orders on July 15, 2019.