For most indie bookstores, stocking the bestsellers is the easy part of the job. Predicting—and stocking—the surprise hits, many from independent publishers and smaller presses, has been the bigger challenge.
“You pretty much have to accept that there’s going to be something every year that you didn’t anticipate,” indie bookstore manager Jeanne Joesten said in a conversation about purchasing titles from independent publishers. One year, that book was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, a title from the South Dakota Historical Society Press that was difficult to keep in stock. But even though the surprise bestseller was not available through any major distributors at the time, Joesten was able to follow up with the press and order directly through them, and ended up selling dozens of copies of the $40 title.
Joesten has a pedigreed background in bookselling: she worked both in Borders’ bookstores and the Borders corporate office before becoming one of the original seven booksellers at Literati, a thriving independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The challenges of choosing titles, she emphasized, can be much the same: though technological advances and new software programs help independent bookstores with their ordering, booksellers still have to maintain a careful watch on trends and be responsive to sometimes surprising customer demands. Independent publishers, Joesten adds, are usually “very great to deal with. They make everything as easy as possible.”
Of course, the meaning of the word “indie” has changed over the years. It is now used to refer to a whole host of different types of publishers, including small presses and self-published authors. What independent bookstores like Literati mean by the phrase “indie” is closer to the traditional definition: any publisher falling outside the “Big Five.” This could mean large publishers such as Greystone Books, Kensington, and Skyhorse, or smaller presses including local and niche publishers.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the number of opportunities afforded to independent publishers in the changing publishing landscape, especially when it comes to access to independent bookstores. Part of this involves the increased opportunities for partnership among major distributors. In March 2016, Ingram Content Group bought the distribution arm of Perseus Book Group, bringing Perseus’ four distribution companies into its fold. The acquisition of these four brands (Publishers Group West, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, Legato, and Perseus Distribution) was a strategic move on Ingram’s part in order to continue to push to be one of the top services for both independent bookstores and independent publishers, connecting content with distribution in the most streamlined way possible.
The new partnership allows Ingram to provide independent booksellers with content from independent publishers at a fast, efficient pace, avoiding long delays that may hurt business. This is because Ingram now stocks books from these and other brands in its major warehouses, cutting the time from order to delivery to ensure speedy fulfillment. And that’s not all. Ingram also has one of the largest sales forces for independent booksellers in the nation, which helps advocate for its 600+ clients. The company aims to be the leading force in bringing independent books to independent bookstores.
“We see a bright future for independent publishing,” with independent publishers seeing “substantial growth” due to the increasing access to both create and distribute content, said Phil Ollila, Ingram’s chief content officer. However, Ollila noted, it is important to utilize all available tools in order to maximize impact. “The best independent publishers create customer demand for their books. No matter what size the publisher might be, sales don’t really happen without a good marketing strategy.” He citied independent bookstores hosting local authors and events of local interest as one beneficial strategy, noting a recent visit to Nashville’s Parnassus Bookstore where “just about all the titles on the local interest table came through Ingram’s distribution network.”
Services that companies like Ingram offer to independent publishers vary widely depending on need. IngramSpark is Ingram’s platform for emerging independent publishers, allowing publishers to use print-on-demand to fulfill smaller orders. Lightning Source is a “slightly more robust solution for more experienced publishers,” while even larger independent publishers with greater budgets may opt for one of Ingram’s distribution brands to gain access to client management, sales, and marketing teams. “We are quite enthusiastic about the future of independent publishers and are very focused on how to bring them services to grow their business,” Ollila said.
Joesten echoed Ollila’s statements about the benefits of distributors, noting that it is often far more economical for an independent publisher to order from a distributor, which offers special deals and discounts (such as free shipping) on bulk orders. This can be especially useful for a bookstore ordering a variety of titles from different publishers, as they can hit such floors more easily than if they had to meet the minimums of each individual press. “It’s easier for bookstores to buy from distributors, and it’s easier for the presses to focus on their authors and deciding what they want to publish,” Joesten said.
Now more than ever, independent publishers have a plethora of opportunities to publish with innovative independent booksellers on their content. Distribution services like Ingram are just one piece of the puzzle, allowing publishers to focus on one of their most important tasks: finding and publishing great content.
Stephanie Bucklin grew up in Connecticut and graduated from Harvard with a degree in the History of Science. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter @smbucklin.