Book Distributors in the Age of Electronic Publishing: Part II

This post is the follow-up to the previous, which addressed what distributors do now at a time when printed books still dominate book sales, and will describe the role of distributors as the industry transitions to eBooks.

The advent of the eBook changes everything. Distributors are about to be disintermediated (a fancy way of saying put out of business) along with publishers, and booksellers. Authors will self-publish and sell directly to their readers, eliminating all those parasitic middlemen. Except for Amazon.

Or maybe not. The world of e-everything requires more investment in technology, not less, and distributors once again will be able to pick up the check when indie publishers cannot. And it turns out that the sophisticated IT capacities that distributors have had to develop over the last few years to handle print books at a high level—especially databases that can seamlessly share information in-house and with client publishers and customers—has made the technical challenges of eBooks seem not especially daunting. We are used to shooting metadata and book files all around the book industry, and eBooks are just a subset of that activity.

Also, there are new opportunities for distributors that completely bypass the big e-retailers. IPG’s sales of books directly to consumers—from our own website, through the shopping cart we supply (for free) to our client publishers, to affiliated special interest groups on the internet, and to the thirty-five or so eBook resellers we work with—are growing exponentially. These expanded sales methods, and others not yet thought of, will require new technological investment and innovation, but we are ready and able to provide it.

Moreover, it seems to me, on one essential front the electronic booksellers are highly vulnerable. They have been unable to solve a gigantic problem with their business model, the problem of quality: What is good and what isn’t? Non-professional reviews posted on e-booksellers’ web sites are by now completely compromised, scammed, useless. You cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Last year over a million new titles were “published,” the great majority of them incompetent. How are readers supposed to navigate through this sea of mediocrity?

One of the most important functions of publishers, distributors, and booksellers (book agents and reviewers too) has always been to assure a certain level of quality, not necessarily as high a level as we might want, but at least a baseline far higher than the abysmal standard—in fact the non-existent standard—set by the new electronic vanity presses.

Good distributors are appreciated by their customers almost as much for what they refuse to sell as for what they do sell. IPG takes on a very small percentage of the publishers who apply. We know that weak titles will dilute the sales of strong ones. Satisfied customers come back for more. Does this mean that IPG takes on only large, well established publishers? Certainly not. Some of the best books we handle are published by start-up presses and self-publishers, and over the years IPG has helped many such ventures to grow and prosper.

Traditional booksellers are outraged by the phenomenon called “show rooming.” Customers browse the books in a bookshop and then order what they want from a web bookseller, who gets a free ride because he has paid nothing toward of the expense of providing that highly curated selection of titles. The bookseller’s taste and experience go unrewarded.

Many electronic booksellers, however, don’t think they have any obligation to their customers to separate the sheep from the goats. Since the customers who buy books from them almost always come to their sites already knowing what they want, they are free riding on the publishing professionals who do provide this essential service.

If all a web bookseller needs to do is throw everything that quacks like a book up on its website and then mindlessly process orders—will that be enough to justify its continued existence? Will customers learn to love trash if only it is cheap enough? The electronic booksellers may be the ones who in the long run get disintermediated.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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