One of the last things I tend to think about in our rapidly changing world is industry realignment through consolidation. I am always alive to the possibility of company merger and closure. We all have gotten used to desperately holding onto the belief that change is good. Variety being the spice of life, changing your job is obviously a good thing — in the long run: it’s just not something you want to experience in the short term.

Shelf Awareness of 19 April says “In a move that marks another major change this year in book wholesaling and distribution — less than three weeks ago, Ingram bought Perseus’s distribution business — Follett Corporation is buying Baker & Taylor, which primarily offers wholesaling services for books, video, music, digital products and more to libraries, schools and bookstores, and Bookmasters, the printer, distributor and wholesaler, from private equity company Castle Harlan. Castle Harlan bought B&T in 2006 and Bookmasters in 2013; the two have had a “strategic partnership” since 2013. Follett operates more than 1,250 college bookstores and 1,700 virtual stores, and provides education technology, services, print and digital content to schools and colleges.”

Now this move of book manufacturing into the wholesale distribution system has been underway for a long time. I remember visiting Lightning Source during the last century. It was an embryonic structure: something like 1½ machines in a disused loading bay at the back of the already gigantic Ingram distribution center. The immense, and super-slick operation which it now is was merely a gleam in the eye. Now book distributors have many options when it comes to filling an order for a book (see also Amazon and POD) one of which is printing it themselves. Of course some bookstores have similar options with their Espresso Book Machine on the floor.

This realignment in the business has been actively under way ever since I started out in 1965. In the old days there were paper merchants, printers (who also set type), binderies, publishers, book shops. Then we got typesetters, paper merchants (though more and more paper is being sourced by printers on behalf of publishers), printer-binders, publishers, warehouse service operations, wholesalers (earlier wholesalers tended to be more magazine distributors, gradually growing into the book business via mass-market paperbacks), and book shops. Then we began to see freelance copyediting companies (and individuals of course) who would also do proof reading and indexing. These editorial services began to drift into typesetting which is now more a text processing than a typesetting business. Design has always been freelance-friendly. Whereas in the past sales used always to be part of what a publisher did, we now have independent sales forces and companies (often large publishing companies) offering sales and distribution services to small publishers. At the other end of the pipe we also have literary agents providing editorial services, and of course self publishers doing the whole thing. The functions that the core publishing business has to be in charge of in order still to be defined as a publishing company may amount to little more today than list selection, and there are many many instances of freelance list-building editors whose essential function is to increase the publishing company’s output without increasing its staff overhead.

So is book printing doomed to move entirely into the wholesale distribution space? I don’t really think so — but then why shouldn’t I be wrong. One could see much short-run manufacturing going that way. And the lower the demand, perhaps, the nearer to the customer is the manufacture likely to move. In a mature Espresso business (if we ever get there) the decision of a bookseller to print the book on their Espresso machine would depend on the cost of shipping a copy of the book from the publisher or their wholesaler plus the “cost” of the time that would take. If they decided to order from a wholesaler, the wholesaler would go through a similar cascade of sourcing options. As long as publishers print books and store them in warehouses, book printers are liable to continue to have work. As I have suggested before, my worry is that there may come a choke point where overall demand is insufficient to support a healthy book manufacturing industry, and it may melt away without any of us actually wishing for that result.

In the meantime consolidation marches on. It’s no one’s job to think through the long-term, industry-wide consequences.

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