End of an Era

When I first moved back home, I found myself working for a well known Northern California independent bookstore. My time there is a tale for another post, but I was recently reminded of it by this article in the New York Times.

The article made me think of numerous phone conversations with the people at Publisher’s Group West, our primary distributor after Book People went bankrupt. Whenever I had to call PGW with a problem, they were unfailingly polite and helpful. Need stock information? They’d hook me up. Damaged book in a shipment? Instant credit. They even sent us Christmas packages every year. They carried an amazing array of unusual, educational, daring, and simply awesome books.

Later we picked up a second distributor, Baker and Taylor. I dreaded calling them because of the phone system, which would pass me through 12 automated menus before I could talk to an actual person. And because we were a relatively small client, we got piss poor customer service.

And now PGW is bankrupt, thanks to mismanagement. The company used to be independent, but sold itself because of financial issues, hoping that AMS could get them out of the hole. Instead, the company collapsed, taking PGW with them.

Now, maybe this doesn’t seem very important to some of my readers. Hey, companies go bankrupt. It’s a fact. Rough, for sure, but we’ll get over it. The Times is claiming that we won’t see any real impact. Did I mention that PGW was the third largest distributor of trade fiction in the United States? And among the top four distributors of printed books, period?

I think that the Times is wrong. I think that the bankruptcy spells the end of an era. As a result of the bankruptcy, several indy publishers are facing economic troubles of their own. The money from sales in the last quarter cannot be released to the publishers until the bankruptcy proceedings are over, if ever. Of course, the last quarter also is traditionally the most profitable in publishing. Small companies cannot hold out without that cash, and are facing some tough choices.

Don’t care about indy publishers?

You should. Major trade publishers often do not carry controversial books. You want books about obscure topics, you’re looking at indy publishers. You struggling to make it as an author, trying to get a book published? Indy publishers will take a chance on you when the big houses won’t. Indy publishers are a cornerstone of informational exchange in this country. And right now they are pretty much fucked, with no distributor, no way to recover stock still in the PGW warehouses, and no cash.

Furthermore, these publishers cannot pay their authors, either. As Violet Blue points out, this can be devastating. The ripple effect of financial mismanagement at AMS is huge, and most people in the writing community know people who have been severely impacted by it.

Make no mistake: the PGW bankruptcy is breaking news, and should be of vital interest to anyone who enjoys reading, the free exchange of information, or writing for a living.