‘Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again’: Book Distribution in the U.S., Part 3

As chronicled in my previous two posts (see January 15 and March 12 of this year), the book business has transitioned a great deal since the horseback peddler days of Parson Mason Weems. And yet, in some ways, the book trade is dealing with the same problems that have plagued it since its inception. The simultaneous rise of mass communications and the railroads in the Industrial Age allowed for the establishment of the first national book middlemen.

The railway network is what finally created a national literature through the birth of a national reading audience. People living in cities as far from New York as Galveston, Texas, could receive printed material within a week of publication. While not ideal for daily media like newspapers, certainly magazines could travel from New York or cigar_smoking_traveler_crowds_bench_seat_while_rother eastern cities to points west and reach their destinations in time for features to still be relevant. Additionally, the railways created a new category of reading material, called ‘railway literature.’ This was reading material sold at train stations, hawked by peddlers. Frequently these publications were in larger print, to make reading them on trains easier on a passenger’s eyes. Some of the materials sold were novels, but more frequently they were magazines, newspapers or pamphlets, or perhaps portions of serialized novels. The goal was to make reading material easy to carry and manage on the train. Finally, such material could be discarded when one disembarked. Much like the kind of material read today by airline passengers, railway literature was of the moment, lighthearted, inexpensive and easily abandoned.

Some people within the industry, or those who studied it towards a goal of increased efficiency, felt that the key was more a more streamlined system of distribution, that wholesalers (as jobbers, not publishers acting as their own wholesale agents) were the necessary and missing element, and that the Industrial Age provided the right Petri dish of ingredients for this to occur. Although it took more time for the book trade to adapt to the concept of wholesaler as a critical agent, by the 1970’s, the wholesaler was a primary actor for distribution. The reason this shift may have lagged behind similar shifts in other industries can be partially explained by the shared feeling among publishers and retailers that wholesalers were a common enemy, concerned only with the movement of goods, not with the books themselves as instruments of cultural and intellectual dissemination. Baker & Taylor, the oldest national distribution firm still in existence, began operations in 1828. Other such wholesalers include Ingram, founded in 1962, Consortium Book Sales  (1985), and American West Books (1993). This sentiment echoed long past the Industrial Age and even the mid-twentieth century, and not only amongst industry insiders, but even in popular culture.


Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) reads to her attentive audience of children at The Shop Around the Corner.

The movie You’ve Got Mail (1998) portrays a female owner of an independent children’s bookstore who is forced to close the store she inherited from her mother when a superstore opens up on the same block and puts her out of business. The movie coincided with the mass openings of superstores in the 1990’s by Barnes & Noble and Borders, and the main character encapsulated this precise distaste among independent sellers for wholesalers in the following dialogue: “…I have to say, I have met Joe Fox, who owns Foxbooks, and I have heard him compare his store to a Price Club and the books in it to cans of olive oil” (dailyscript.com). Near the end of the film, the children’s shop owner, Kathleen Kelly, is sitting in the children’s section of Foxbooks and ends up answering a customer’s query about a children’s series because the sales clerk at the superstore has never heard of the title in question. These episodes reflect the worst fears of those committed to independent bookselling and to those who felt that turning over the distribution of books to the wholesalers signified the beginning of the end.

The Joe Fox character, a bookseller himself, is espousing the sentiment publishers and independent retailers attributed to wholesalers; that the product itself is irrelevant, and that quantity and convenience are paramount. In this way, the “big box” or warehouse stores, even bookstores, represent wholesalers in a way more than they resemble retailers.

Goodbye, Old Friend

Goodbye, Old Friend

As wholesalers became more mainstream agents for book distribution, it seemed as though the book trade might finally reach a level of organizational efficiency. Retailers were able to acquire goods from wholesalers (in general) more quickly than they could from the publisher, because wholesalers were either regional companies or national ones with regional warehouses (although no national wholesaler had a regional warehouse until 1949. With regional warehouses, a corporate middleman like Baker & Taylor could purchase books from the publisher and deliver them to far flung locations in days when it would otherwise take the books much longer to reach their destinations from New York. This is still the system utilized by both Baker & Taylor and Ingram, with its four regional warehouses: Roseberg, Oregon;  La Vergne, Tennessee; Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; and  Fort Wayne, Indiana. Of course, there is still the matter of the length of time it takes stock to initially arrive at the various warehouse sites.

Rick Simonson, book buyer at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, bemoans the fact that in his years as a buyer, there have always been delays in getting titles shipped to the west coast, and that this is true for both retailers and wholesalers. An inefficient distribution system, regardless of the precise form it took, has characterized the book trade for over 100 years. As stated earlier, one reason for this is that multiple outfits (both publishers and distributors) attempt to get books into retailers’ hands in competition with each other. Another factor is the initial and continuous dominance of New York as a publishing center, meaning that books by major publishers have always had that eastern city as their initial point of departure and of necessity make their way to western cities at a slower rate. If it is a system that continues to be inefficient in the face of advances that might render it otherwise, this is partially by design. Large retailers with a vested interest in the current system are leery of making any changes that might disrupt their distribution network, or detract from their current market share. Of course, much of that particular playing field shifts as Amazon enters the lineup, but more specifically, with the rise of e-readers and the easy availability of e-books.

Worker Bee, Amazon Warehouse, Phoenix, Arizona

Worker Bee, Amazon Warehouse, Phoenix, Arizona

Further reading:

Angel, Karen. “Independents Trace Title Shortages to Internet Booksellers.” Publishers Weekly, 245.4 (26 January 1998): 25-27. Web. 11 November 2011.

Miller, Laura. “The Rise and Not-Quite Fall of the American Book Wholesaler.” Journal of Media Economics 16.2 (2003): 97-120. Web. 28 November 2011.

Penenberg, Adam L. “The Evolution of Amazon.” Fast Company, 137 (Jul/Aug 2009): 66-74. Web. 8 November 2011.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.


Are there times you buy books from warehouse stores like Costco or Target? Why?

What do we, as readers and browsers of books, lose when warehouse stores  select titles for purchase?



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