Having been out of the day-to-day of book publishing for a few years now, and — like most people — cut off from most routine commercial conversations in the nearly two years of the pandemic, I took a look at some recent opportunities I encountered online to catch up with today’s book biz realities through conferences or seminars to see how they might update me.
I haven’t found it yet, but the trigger provoked me to think it through enough to identify what I’m looking for.
What has happened since the pre-21st Century publishing world I — and so many of the executives now running things in our industry — grew up in is that book sales have shifted and fragmented. As we concluded the last century, in the earliest days of Amazon and just before the achievement of commercially viable print-on-demand by Ingram’s Lightning, the supply of books came almost entirely from inventory printed by publishers in “press runs” and the customers found them (still, mostly) in bookshops that had invested their own cash in the inventory in their store to make it conveniently available.
The reality that produced — the reality of 20th century publishing which created the overall corporate infrastructure we still (mostly) have today — was that only publishers who could invest in inventory and had the sales organization and retailer relationships to put the books where the book shoppers would see them could compete effectively. “Self-publishing” meant “vanity publishing”: an exercise by which a (foolish) aspiring author printed books at his or her own expense to put them in their garage and sell almost none.
This created three truths which are now historical; they no longer apply. One is that the commercial publishers in the United States who invested in inventory and covered bookstores were able to routinely place some thousands of copies into the marketplace of just about any book they created. A second is that no publisher who didn’t invest in inventory and an organization could really compete. And the third was that publishing was primarily “local”; you published and marketed to consumers in your country and everything else was “export”.
That is not the world we live in today. Most book purchases made today are not from bookstores that invested in and presented a selection. The monopoly of the inventory-investing publishers over customer access is gone. It is safe to say that in every year of this century until the pandemic, the percentage of books sold in stores went down and the number of titles effectively available for purchase by consumers, increasingly through online search and purchase and printed one copy at a time “on demand”, kept rising. There are nearly 20 million titles available for delivery tomorrow in today’s world; there were certainly well under a million available 20 years ago. And with most customers not reached through inventory in stores, it is usually not relevant where a potential customer is: in your country or someplace else.
And while, particularly in the ebook space, players have proliferated (with giants like Apple and Google and B&N’s Nook and upstarts like Smashwords and the newly organized Legible.com — whose proposition is that ebooks should be readable in a web browser — all serving readerships that only partially overlap), there really are only two companies that define the book business today.
They are Amazon, a company that everybody in the world knows, and Ingram, a company that everybody in the book business — but few outside it — knows. Amazon and Ingram comprise the global infrastructure of the book business. Amazon has the single biggest share of the online print and ebook (through its Kindle format) markets. And Ingram reaches every other corner of the book world. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that every publisher, book retailer (online or physical), and library in the world transacts with Ingram. All the publishers must get to Amazon one way or another, but the rest of the retail world sees them as existential competition and would prefer not to support them in any way. Ingram is everybody else’s trusted partner. So for other bookstores and big players in the market like the mass merchants, Ingram is the major source of supply.
Both companies have always had natural interactions with the publishing community. Almost every publisher depends on intermediaries to put their books into the hands or devices of readers. Even publishers which have been building their direct-to-reader relationships and their database of customers for over a decade will still sell most of their books through somebody else.
Both Amazon and Ingram have branded programs to on-board small publishers and authors. Amazon’s is KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and Ingram’s is IngramSpark. There is a lot for any publisher or author to know to optimize their relationship with either company. Amazon is talking to book readers constantly and has all sorts of ways for book publishers to buy their way to likely purchasers. Ingram’s services are vast and much more complex. They can provide a full suite of “with reps and warehousing” distribution services and they are building a package of marketing tools under the banner of “Ingram Insights” that put their clients on a par with major publishers in using modern techniques to identify and connect with book audiences. Ingram’s marketing tools are built an a truly unmatched ability to “see” (and aggregate and measure) customers buying books. Amazon sees its own sales. Publishers see theirs. Ingram sees across publishers and vendors.
In fact, all publishers who plan to actively manage their titles in the marketplace — those who are starting this afternoon and those which have been around for years — need to begin their planning for the future by thinking through the role both Amazon and Ingram will play in their structures. For the smallest publishers, that could include deciding what aspects of their Amazon relationship are best managed through Ingram to simplify their lives and give them only one giant company to deal with rather than two.
This is an important distinction between the two behemoths. Ingram will accept it as part of their job description to help you optimize your sales through Amazon. The reverse is not true.
Publishers which have been in existence for years are constantly reconfiguring. Broadly, they are devoting fewer resources to calling on bookstores and more resources to digital marketing, which is both direct-to-consumer and supporting intermediaries and driving sales that are harvested by Amazon or bookstores or mass merchants or web sites. In fact, smaller publishers distributed by other distributors — other big publishers and other consolidators like NBN — will want to understand their distributor’s policies toward Amazon and Ingram. There will almost certainly be decisions about marketing investments to be made at the individual (client) publisher level.
And while the ebook market share is considerably less than half of the total book sales for the vast majority of titles, the ebook marketing space is of outsized importance because it can also generate print sales. Consumers who discover a book through a BookBub newsletter sometimes buy the book. Open Road Integrated Media’s Ignition, which operates as a Marketing-as-a-Service program controlling all marketing levers, has also seen significant print sales increases as a result of its digitally focused marketing. Those channels have to be worked. Ingram’s marketing programs make it clear that they know that.
And that takes me back to the conference or seminar I haven’t yet found. It looks like a fulltime job to keep up with the multiplicity of marketing opportunities through Amazon and the expansion of all publishing opportunities globally (including the vast marketing component) through Ingram. Whether you are talking about acquisition strategy, sizing up the market for any book or series of books, deciding when to publish or how to price, what formats to offer and which of the proliferation of deal newsletters, vertical websites, or ebook distribution channels to employ, and whether and how to invest in inventory, everything should refer back to a strategy built on how you use and interact with Amazon and Ingram.
Those two companies are the building blocks. For everybody. No matter how big they are or who their distributor is. When somebody offers information and education about today’s industry within that context, I’m signing up.
One marker of how important Ingram is a change in the industry since I wrote a piece in 2018 saying it was all flowing to Amazon. Recent data I’ve seen says that the big mass merchants like Wal-mart and Target are beginning to take online print book share away from Amazon. Once you know this, it is easy to understand why. Ingram enables those stores (actually, any store) to offer a competitive selection of books. As Amazon fulfills its vision of being “The Everything Store”, it competes directly with those mass merchants. Why would a customer buying sheets or shoes at one of them go to another for a book purchase? The answer, increasingly, seems to be “they wouldn’t.” They certainly don’t have to.