Ingram: the global infrastructure for the book industry

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The global infrastructure for the book business that is not Amazon is owned and operated by the Ingram Content Group. In fact, a lot of the global infrastructure of the book business that is identified as Amazon is actually Ingram. And on top of that, there would probably have been no Amazon, certainly not the one we have, if Ingram hadn’t been innovating for more than two decades before Jeff Bezos left Wall Street to became an entrepreneur.

Ingram has been rewiring and repaving the book business since it was expanded beyond its roots in the 1960s as the Tennessee School Book Depository by its new owner, Bronson Ingram, who made his fortune in the oil business in the decades after World War II. His investment in the book business, which would reconfigure and redefine the industry in many different ways, began as a pure act of kindness. As it turns out, that was a very suitable and appropriate genesis.

As a leading businessman in Nashville, Ingram was involved with Vanderbilt University’s business school. So when Jack Stambaugh retired from a career at Vanderbilt, he accepted Bronson’s offer of an office at Ingram to be a base for his post-University endeavors. A few months later, Ingram observed that Stambaugh did little except read the Wall Street Journal each day and offered to put up the money to buy a business for Stambaugh to run.

And that’s how Ingram bought the Tennessee Book Company. The School Book Depository it operated was a low-risk, stable but no- or low-growth business that enabled local school districts in Tennessee to get textbooks in quantities smaller than publishers wanted to deal with. So the sales were pretty assured — new textbooks in some subjects were acquired every year by some school districts — and the customer base of schools were reliable payers.

Thus begins the story told in “The Family Business”, a history of Ingram by Nashville journalist Keel Hunt, a great storyteller who has known the Ingram family for almost all of its just over five decades of operation. “The Family Business” is being published tomorrow, April 20, by West Margin Press in Berkeley, CA.

Having a part in creating this project has been among the most enjoyable experiences of my career. Working with Hunt, publishing veteran Bruce Harris, and editor Karl Weber has been a voyage of rediscovery of my own time in the business. 

. . . .

The Ingram of today reaches every corner of the global book business. It is more accuracy than hyperbole to say that every publisher, every bookseller, and every library in the world does business with Ingram. As a wholesaler, they carry the books of all publishers and are the primary distributor (the originating source) for those published by hundreds of them. Their CoreSource digital asset repository, which dispatches the digital files for books to deliver ebooks or print books all over the globe, is the single biggest. Their “third party distribution” capability delivers books to more American homes than anybody else, in boxes identifying the customer of Ingram’s — which could be any bookstore including Amazon — that transacted the sale as the source for the book’s purchaser.

. . . .

I have met dozens of people from Ingram. I have consulted with them for years as well and introduced them to projects they have taken on board. I have never met a single person from Ingram who wasn’t smart. I have never met one who was in any way difficult to work with. And what was always most impressive throughout all these decades, they conducted their business without a hint of the bullying (even gentle, polite, subtle bullying) that is endemic in all businesses when large accounts deal with small suppliers.

They are relentlessly efficient and they value operational excellence. They are also very civil and they also value just being nice.

Ingram’s growth was accelerating when I met them. The company did about $1 million in business in 1970 and over $100 million in 1979. (Hitting $100 million is another great story well told in the book.) This growth was fueled by the expansion of retailers enabled by the vastly streamlined supply chain that for the first time allowed booksellers to know, through the microfiche, that they were ordering books they’d reliably have in a few days. That level of certainty in the supply chain had never existed before and it suddenly made bookselling a much better business to be in than it ever was previously.

. . . .

At almost the precise moment that Ingram’s operational efficiency was enabling the invention of the phenomenon of Amazon (clearly detailed in “The Family Business”), the torch was being passed to the next generation of the Ingram family. Bronson’s premature death led to his son, John Ingram, coming back from building Ingram Micro in Europe to take over the family enterprise in 1995.

The late 90s were a prelude to the new digital realities that mark the book business today, and Ingram’s hallmarks — operational excellence, focus on delivering value for their trading partners, and the patient money that only a very private business can invest — both shaped the change and assured the central place Ingram has in the global world of books today.

It was in that period, while Amazon was building their own behemoth, brilliantly leveraging the capabilities that Ingram gave them, that John Ingram launched two initiatives that are still central to the company’s success.

One was Lightning Print, the capability to print a single copy of a book at a commercially acceptable price on short notice. The other was the previously-mentioned “third party distribution”: the capability to ship to the end consumer with the book appearing to come from the Ingram customer using the service. The latter capability enabled any bookstore or web site to sell any book Ingram had as though they were sending it themselves. The former extended that capability beyond the hundreds of thousands of titles Ingram actually stocked to the many millions (now approaching 20 million) in the Lightning database.

In 2021, all you need to be a bookseller is customers and a relationship with Ingram. And all you need to be a publisher is a manuscript, a checkbook to hire some freelancers, and a relationship with Ingram.

Link to the rest at Mike Shatzkin