Another major Book Expo is almost upon us. For those who have been here before, I'm sure you have came away with your own lessons for success. A funny thing happens when you attend an industry convention. You become part of the "we can do anything" mindset and all the excitement tends to insulate and isolate you from true reality. Keep this in mind as you read further.
I have written my diary of these shows, which were a rather visceral reaction to the events and goings-on about me. I'm sure all who have attended could relate. But when the cold light of dawn has arrives to strip away the drunken haze of giddy enthusiasm it is time that those of us in this industry take a good look around and realize that all is not well in Ingram-land; as you surely can't call it Book-land.
I call it "Ingram-land" because Ingram is all around us; the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. Ingram is doing print-on-demand. Ingram wants to become the Microsoft of books. Ingram seeks a vertical monopoly. Ingram can do what it wants, when it wants, and the rest of us have to just accept the fact that this one company holds the keys to distribution, and soon production.
It only takes about ten minutes of walking through the exhibit hall or any large B&N/Borders to realize that the world is awash in books. I estimate that there will be some 50,000 different titles on display at the next BEA. Are there ample readers out there to absorb all ofthis product? I don't think so. Do you? Does Ingram?
Well, to you and me, it makes a difference. But to Ingram, it does not. They take little risk and in return they make a huge reward. If I were to give a "Bogus" Ben Franklin award to the one company that has been right far more often than it has been wrong, that award would go to the evil empire of La Vergne. Nothing happens nor will it happen without the direct input, acceptance, and perhaps permission of Ingram. If the Merck Manual can win the Ben Franklin Book Of The Year, than there is no doubt that Ingram would win had there been a category for Monopoly Of The Year. Bill Gates and Microsoft? I wish the Justice Department had looked at Ingram instead.
Is an Ingram monopoly a bad thing? I think it is. But some disagree. However, it is hard to find anyone in this industry with the courage to speak out against what is most assuredly a monopoly at best, or a major controlling interest at worst. We all just lay back and accept that Ingram will have its way with us. What can you do against the only entity that holds the keys to the conduit to billions of dollars of retail book sales?
Having talked with many hundreds of publishers over the past two years, I come to the simple conclusion that we publishers do not control the publishing industry, but that the distribution channel is our goddess. This sector sets the discounts, they determine our cash flow and they make the decisions on what will be available to the book buying public and what will not. And they are so good at it, that they even have us believing that it is we who are in control. But we publishers are not that stupid. We know who controls the trade sector of our industry. It is not B&N or Borders or Amazon. It is Ingram. There is not a part of this industry where they are not a controlling factor.
I will be accused of not citing specific examples and for making some kind of ad-homonym attack on the sainted wholesaling entity that purports to be our rock and our redeemer. And maybe I overstate my case. But in my heart of hearts, I firmly believe that nothing happens in the retail and distribution sectors without the express consent of John Ingram and his band of merry monopolists.
Who is strong enough to stand against the tyranny of Tennessee? Maybe it is PMA?
...SO I ISSUE A CLARION CALL TO PMA
In talking with publishers of all shapes and sizes over the past few years, I am more certain than ever that only we, the members of the small/mid-size press can make a difference. Most of the large houses are caught up in their own internal strife, consolidations, and general ignorance about this industry; being run by mostly bean-counters most of whom have never seen a book, much less read one. So who is listening? So who is there to speak out?
Is it Pat Schroeder at the AAP? No it is not. She and her band of corporate conglomerates are more interested in copyright issues than in seeing that our industry survives against the onslaught of electronic and digital media. I always hope for a merger between the small and large houses, but I don't see it in the cards. We have different agendas.
Is it the Book Industry Study Group? No. They are academics who are more interested in what has already happened then in what is destined to occur.
Is it us? Is it PMA?
Taken as a whole, the vast majority of this industry is made up of small 10-50 book-a-year publishers like you and me. We don't make a majority of the profits, but we do produce the majority of the product. And we are without a strong, firm voice in the industry. Indeed, we are the sleeping giant that, as one high level executive from John Wiley once told me, "we never want to awaken."
Even if you are a one book publisher you are part of a huge number of similar publishers. Even if you publish books that are so esoteric that they have created their own genre or category, you are part of a huge number of similar publishers. Even if you are a non-profit, or a university press, you are part of a huge number of similar publishers who share similar problems with distribution, slow payment, damaged returns, and low profitability.
Now what follows may make some of you uncomfortable. But it is the truth, like it or not. No matter what kind of publisher you are, how many titles you produce, or how much money you make or lose, there is only one organization that has the ability to speak for your interests. That organization is the Publishers Marketing Association.
It is Jan Nathan and PMA that is the entity that can and should speak for us. It is PMA that has the legitimacy to act on our behalf. It is PMA that has the power to change the returns structure, to help open the distribution channel, to spearhead the vision of electronic media, to insure that the one-book publishers of this business have an outlet to the retail channel, and to define what the future of book publishing will be.
I have tried my best the past ten years to open the ears of the PMA board and staff to the needs and callings of the membership. I have spoken out on behalf of all of us who are tired of the same old, same old. I have ranted, raved, cajoled, debated, and instigated in an effort to get small and mid-size publishers to realize the power that we have, and to energize our spirits with the confidence to fight against the tides that hold us back.
And I have failed miserably.
I wanted to say that "we" failed miserably. But in truth it is I who have failed. Not one of my proposals has been adopted nor even considered important enough to be brought to the PMA annual meeting. It is a humbling defeat which I bear, but not lightly.
Whenever PMA chooses a new board I am hopeful that it will see as its mission the need to enlarge the scope of PMA and to make it a strong and viable spokesperson for the needs, interests and desires of the small and mid-size publisher. As I said at the start of the previous paragraph, I feel that I have lost the battle. But I'm not sure that we have lost the war; for I will continue to see things not as they are, but to see them as they have never been. For in my heart of hearts, I deeply believe that we small publishers, can make a difference in our industry.
I call upon the new PMA board members to listen to the membership and to embark on a new term directed toward leadership within the industry, toward a mission of having the voice of the small and independent press heard throughout the industry, toward an administration with clear cut goals and achievements that will be for the benefit of the majority of the members, not the university presses, not the vendors, not the retailers, not the distributors, and not the large members who are a distinct minority.
I call upon our new board to open up OUR organization to direct participation of the members, via direct elections.
I call upon our new board to present to us a well reasoned charter with respect to returns and to let us vote on it.
I call upon our new board to begin the process of a full and complete outside audit of PMA programs.
I call upon our new board to publish the budget of PMA, to create formal procedures for communication with the membership, and to be frequent contributors to the pub-forum listserv.
I call upon our new board to establish the groundwork for our future in electronic commerce.
I call upon our new board to aggressively take our rightful place at the table with the other industry power brokers; to actively call upon B&N, Borders, Amazon, and Ingram and open a dialogue on issues that effect all ofus: returns, payment, slotting, copyright, etc.
I call upon our new board to consider the advice of the vendor members, but to never lose sight of the fact that PMA is an organization of publishers, not web-site providers, not printers, not distributors, and not retailers The PMA charter should be changed to prohibit vendors from having voting and veto power on our board.
I call upon our new board to dream, to think, to hypothesize, and to position our segment of the industry into a position of potential success in the new millennium. We must evolve from an organization dependent on trade shows and mailings into an entity on the forefront of electronic commerce.
With a new board, we have the ability to put aside old animosities, old petty differences, and to forge ahead with vigor and energy to make our organization, our industry sector, and perhaps our entire society better when we leave it, than as we found it.
This is my clarion call, this is my challenge, this if my trumpet to battle. I call upon all PMA members and all publishers to not only help make this board and administration the best that it can be, but to demand the same. It is our job to communicate our needs, wishes, desires, and problems to the board, and it is the job of the board to communicate back to us that they indeed have heard us. We have been ignored for too long. We should not be ignored any longer. And if I have anything to do with it, our voice shall be heard.
I do not call for miracles or for overnight successes. All I ask from the board is that we be heard, that we be listened to, that we be acknowledged, that we be taken into account and that the greatest good for the majority (as opposed to the vendors) be always enacted into what becomes PMA policy and programs.
This can be a new adventure for us. We can achieve greatness. We can overcome. This can be our time. We have the ability, we have the need, we have the power, and we have the will. I offer my best wishes to the new PMA borad members, and only ask that they remember that it is us, the "keepers of the culture" who are the heart and soul of PMA.
We are the publishers. We keep the culture. It is important that we survive.
Please help us, PMA.
I ask no more than that. And I demand no less.