Big Fish, Bigger Fish

Last November, Barnes & Noble announced that it intended to buy the Ingram Book Group, a book distribution source for bookstores, for $600 million. Ingram is the primary distribution source for the vast majority of the nation's independent bookstores, which depend on distributors because they can offer books to bookstores from many different publishers and because they offer rapid turnaround time to bookstores (usually within three to four days from Ingram, with somewhat longer turnaround time from other distributors; ordering books directly from the publisher can take as long as three to four weeks). As soon as the announcement was made, the American Booksellers Association, whose members are independent bookstores, asked the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice to investigate, saying that the proposed merger would be "a devastating development that threatens the viability of competition in the book industry, and limits the diversity and availability of books to consumers." Companies that intend on merging in dollar amounts as large as this one are required to file pre-merger notification with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission anyway; as it stands, the FTC is currently reviewing the merger.

Now why should you, particularly if you're not a bookseller, care about this? Many independent bookstore owners find the idea of buying books from a Barnes & Noble-owned company repugnant. Some independent bookstore owners allege that if the deal goes through, Barnes & Noble would have access to their buying history, buying patterns, profit margins, and credit line information. And if that were to happen ... well, Mary Ellen Keating, the senior vice-president of corporate communications at Barnes & Noble, says that won't be happening at all. "First of all, what we had said is that Ingram is going to continue operating as a separate company. ... John Ingram has reached out to their customer base and said, 'We're going to continue to serve you as we have always served you,' and we have said that the information provided to Ingram by its customers will remain confidential and will not be shared with us or with anyone else, that they're going to continue to operate as the Ingram Book Group." Here's where some local independent booksellers stand on the issue:

  • Abe Zimmerman of Book People says that the store still uses Ingram but is avidly seeking out other options. "I suspect at some point we're going to swing away from this, from everything being a chain and bigger is better. I just don't know if it will be anytime soon."
  • Scot Casey of FringeWare: "We kind of just over the last few months that we were working with [Ingram] became more and more, not so much disillusioned, but we just finally decided we were tired of dealing with faceless, nameless operators who treated us as a faceless, nameless entity."
  • Congress Avenue Bookseller's Eleanor Cochran: "Small independents have been forced to totally rely on Ingram so that our whole system is tied into Ingram as I guess most independents' has been, and I have kind of hated that but they are so good."
  • Barbara Thomas of Toad Hall: "Ingram's a big part [of our business], so what the threat of the sale did was made us really look at our options, so now we're really trying a little bit of everybody."
  • Lynn Bender, Desert Books: "I think that they're like the octopus with 100 arms and 99 times out of 100 the arms find their way into a wall socket and the octopus goes 'Ouch!' It's only one out of every 100 times that the machine actually comes back with something."

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More Postscripts
The last time we heard about Karla Faye Tucker, she was being executed; now, almost four years later, there's a new novel about her. Or about someone very like her. And Beverly Lowry's classic Crossed Over, a memoir about getting to know Karla Faye Tucker, gets a reissue.

Clay Smith, Jan. 18, 2002

Not one day back from vacation and the growing list of noble souls who need to be congratulated is making Books Editor Clay Smith uneasy.

Clay Smith, Jan. 11, 2002


Readings, Signings, Claiborne Smith

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