Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, June 7, 2021

Monday, June 7 Dedicated Issue: IPG's 50th Anniversary

Independent Publishers Group: IPG celebrates 50 years of reimagining distribution!

Editors' Note

Happy 50th Birthday, IPG!

With support from the publisher, Shelf Awareness celebrates the 50th anniversary of IPG, an agile, ever-growing, multi-faceted company that has a wide range of operations, including distribution, publishing, importing, digital publishing, printing and print brokerage services and more.

Independent Publishers Group: Booksellers! Meet our new sales reps!

Bookselling News

IPG: A Reintroduction to a Multifacted Company

Joe Matthews

From its beginnings in 1971 as a distributor of indie publishers, IPG has grown phenomenally. It includes so many connected but distinct segments that, as CEO Joe Matthews says, "People in the business think they know IPG, but many of them know only part of what we do." In its 50th year, the company aims to "reintroduce ourselves. You think you know us, but we might surprise you."

Consider: while IPG continues to be a distributor of indie presses in the U.S., it also:

  • Distributes publishers from around the world in the U.S., particularly through Trafalgar Square Publishing, which focuses on U.K. presses, and through IPG Spanish Books, which counts some of the major Spanish-language publishers in Spain, Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere.
  • Distributes in a range of specialized categories through its IPG Academic and Professional Publishing and IPG Art divisions. It also includes Midpoint Trade Books and Small Press United, geared to small and start-up publishers.
  • Publishes its own books through a variety of presses and imprints, most notably Chicago Review Press, which publishes a range of adult, children's and YA titles and has a strong backlist; Triumph Books, which has a major emphasis on sports; and Lawrence Hill, the progressive imprint.
  • Offers a range of services to its client publishers, including pre-publication consultations; global sales, marketing and publicity; fulfillment; data and reporting; e-book and digital audiobooks capability; other digital services; print on demand through a 20,000-square-feet digital print facility; and printing brokerage services (especially important during the current printing disruptions caused by the pandemic).
  • Has its own sales force and sells directly to all book retailers, from indie bookstores to the chains to mass merchandisers to libraries, schools, the professional and academic market, the gift market, special sales, the Spanish-language market, etc.

(More on the many parts of IPG below.)

As it's grown, IPG has remained remarkably true to the principle that led to its founding: a way for independent publishers to join forces to market their titles to the trade. "We're still the same essentially as we were 50 years ago," Joe Matthews says. "We're an alliance of small presses that can act as one press."

The company's many moves over the years--adding services, and more client publishers, acquiring other distributors and publishers, expanding warehouse and printing operations, expanding into a variety of categories, adding digital publishing capabilities--are all part of that principle of making the alliance strong and able to meet all challenges and opportunities in the book world.

Now, during its 50th anniversary, the company is celebrating with record sales that have doubled since 2014. It has more than 1,000 publisher clients. Its publishing operations publish approximately 135 books a year and have a combined backlist of 2,500 titles. Its warehouse is 200,000 square feet and 10 million books in stock with some 60,000 different SKUs.

Company History
In 1987, Joe's father, Curt Matthews, bought IPG. He and his wife, Linda, came to the company in a somewhat roundabout way that provided an education about book publishing. They met as literature professors at Northwestern and wanted to become involved in publishing. He was poetry editor at the Chicago Review magazine, and with the magazine's permission, in 1972, started Chicago Review Press, publishing "poetry and passion projects," Joe says.

At the same time, Matthews bought a bookstore next to the Drake Hotel in Chicago, a small store that sold a lot of romance and crime genre fiction in hardcover; he ran it for four years before selling it to focus on publishing. For Matthews, bookselling was a great way "to learn about the business." In 1973, Chicago Review Press published its first book, Spring & Asura, a volume of Japanese poetry in translation. That year it also published Prairie State Blues by Bill Bergeron, which was one of the first graphic novels published in the U.S. Other early titles included guidebooks Sweet Home Chicago and Antique Collecting in the Midwest.

After a few years of publishing one or two books a year and running the bookstore, Chicago Review Press found a distributor, Swallow Press, but wasn't paid at one point. With the help of legendary rep Jerry Stroud of the Fujii Group, the company got some of the best rep groups in the country to rep it. Chicago Review Press grew, moving from the Matthews' basement to an office building with a coffin factory across the street--where the press stored stock, and Joe and his siblings sometimes played.

In the 1980s, mall bookstores became dominant and chain superstores arrived on the scene. Publishers had to have minimum levels of sales to sell to these retailers, a policy that blocked many small presses from access to these fast-growing bookstores. The chains also developed high-tech (for the time) centralized buying operations that required publishers to use expensive technology. Chicago Review Press was affected, and in 1987, Curt Matthews found an answer to the problem: he bought IPG, which had been founded by David White, a commissioned rep, and had a half dozen publishers.

In 1980, Chicago Review Press moved north, to the River North area, once known for the Cabrini-Green housing projects, and an area that for a time had inexpensive office space. The company eventually moved again, to its current spot at 814 Franklin, a former bicycle factory, where it created a striking loft office, with an open ceiling and open floor plan. At the same time, the neighborhood became hip, with art galleries and cafés, and now attracts tech companies.

In 1996, IPG expanded its warehouse, buying a former Tootsie Toy factory with 65,000 square feet that they thought they'd never fill. Eventually, of course, it did fill up, and the company took more space across the street.

Notable acquisitions over the years have included, in 2016, INscribe Digital, a San Francisco tech company that strengthened IPG's digital operations and has helped make IPG e-books one of the top 10 aggregators of e-books. (Matthews notes that the staffers who came with INscribe Digital have developed into the rare, invaluable breed of "IT guys who understand publishing.")

In 2018, IPG bought ISBS (International Specialized Book Services), which bolstered the company in the domestic academic market, as well as distributor Midpoint.

In 2016, IPG had Edwards Brothers Malloy open a print facility in the IPG warehouse, which gave the company "a great deal on printing our books," as Matthews put it. Two years later, however, Edward Brothers Malloy went bankrupt and closed down. IPG took over printing operations in the warehouse and has made major investments in state-of-the-art equipment, including $1.5 million last year, and will soon have three shifts, making it a 24-hour facility. The upgrading has been all the more timely because of disruptions at traditional printers and shippers, leading many printer clients to have more books and other material printed in the U.S. IPG's brokerage service for its publishers--reserving space at printers--has been key in this area as well.

Joe Matthews joined the company in 2006 and for a decade received a basic education in IPG's basic operations. He began as an educational sales rep, then worked on a series of sometimes multiyear projects designing new systems that included supply-chain management, warehouse management (after which "I knew the warehouse in and out") and order processing. Because he knew so much about the business, he became chief operating officer, "a crash course in business administration" that involved hiring and firing staff, dealing with bankers and lawyers, and more. In 2015, when his father, Curt, retired, Joe became CEO.

Independent Publishers Group: Check out our Fall Top Shelf List!

Marketing, Sales, Brand Identity Changes

In 2018, IPG founded the Top Shelf program, which each season highlights key titles from its distributed lines and its own publishing encompassing adult and children's titles, fiction and nonfiction, in a range of categories. Chosen by the company's sales, marketing and publicity departments, Top Shelf titles are the books with the most potential for sales and the biggest priorities.

The spring 2021 Top Shelf list consists of 24 titles, including a series of children's titles celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community called Pride In from Booklife; David and Ameena, a modern New York romance with massive cultural differences from Fairlight Books; My Shadow Is Pink (Larrikin House), which tackles gender identity for kids; Authentic: A Memoir by the founder of Vans (Vertel Publishing); Central Avenue's new poetry volume sometimes i fall asleep thinking about you; The Captain and Me: On and Off the Field with Thurman Munson by former Yankee Ron Blomberg (Triumph Books); the latest Nordic noir from Orenda with Winterkill and Hinton Hollow Death Trip; We Are the Baby-Sitters Club (Chicago Review Press), building off the retro buzz started for the classic series by the updated Netflix series; Surf by Day, Jam by Night (Lost the Plot) featuring interviews with surfer musicians Jack Johnson, Dave Rastovich, Kelly Slater and more; and a major golf title, The Story of The Masters, from Tatra Press.

IPG, which had used commission reps to sell to independent bookstores and other trade accounts in the U.S., this year created an in-house field sales force that now handles sales to indies and other trade entities. The new in-house field sales force focuses on three territories--East Coast, Midwest and West Coast--aiming to establish closer ties between IPG and the stores and chains.

The field sales team is headed by Michael Riley, v-p of sales, and recently hired trade sales manager Chris Conti, who leads the field sales team and focuses on the Midwest territory. In Canada, IPG continues to be represented by the Manda group, which reports to Scott Hatfill, IPG's director of international sales.

IPG's long-established corporate team works directly with national accounts, library and education accounts, and special sales accounts. That group was bolstered in a similar way by the hiring in late 2019 of Sharon Rich Shell as director, library and education sales. She had earlier held executive sales positions in the school, library and other fields at Scholastic.

Leveraging and using the collective power of IPG continues to be important. "I'm constantly looking for ways to take our combined buying power and get a good deal for our publishers," Matthews says. In the same vein, he aims to provide publishers with the best tools that would be out of their reach if they were on their own, including cutting-edge sales and marketing analytics software. IPG also provides regular and in-person representation to major accounts that indie publishers can't make happen on their own.

In a related change, these days, IPG uses its name more and more with many of its divisions to reinforce the company's approach to being "one big multifaceted company, with publishing, distribution, warehousing, printing, marketing," as Matthews puts it.

IPG has been "consolidating the bigger corporate work chart," he says. For example, the company consolidated the eight marketing people it had in different units into "one big marketing department," which he says is better for the company, clients and particularly the staff, who now can more easily fill in for each other and have a stronger career growth path.

More and more parts of the company are using IPG as part of their name. For example, IPG is referring to INscribe Digital more and more as IPG Digital. Art Stock Books, the niche art book distributor bought in 2010, is now IPG Art. All of the company's academic profession operations are known as IPG Academic & Professional. (Trafalgar Square Publishing, whose major business is importing titles from the U.K., is trickier because the U.K.'s Independent Publishers Guild uses IPG.)

Matthews emphasizes that IPG is "rooting for indie bookstores and rooting for everybody." Wanting a diverse marketplace, IPG exhibits at or sponsors 40-50 domestic and international trade shows a year. It supports the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) and is involved in a range of trade groups, with representatives at the Book Industry Study Group, PubWest, the Independent Book Publishers Association and more.

Independent Publishers Group: Celebrate Pride Month with books from IPG!

Publishing: Chicago Review Press, Triumph Books, Lawrence Hill Books & More

IPG's substantial publishing operations have grown over the years both organically and through acquisitions, and represent about a third of IPG's revenues. The publishing operations help keep the company on top of "cutting-edge publishing" and keep it aware of new trends in the business, Joe Matthews emphasizes. The large publishing operations help provide IPG with "critical mass and door kickers that open the door for reps to meet with accounts."

From its origins in 1973, Chicago Review Press has grown dramatically from the house that initially focused on "poetry and passion projects," developing a focus on solid regional titles, helping solve problems people have and serving niche audiences in the U.S. that were underserved by traditional, larger publishers. As Curt Matthews has said, "It's not about finding a big audience somewhat interested in something. It's about finding a smaller audience passionately interested in something."

In 1975, the press published The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer, a convicted burglar who explained how he stole jewelry. The book became the basis of the 1981 hit movie Thief, starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, James Belushi and Willie Nelson. "It was a huge success," Joe Matthews says, and gave the press important critical attention that helped it grow.

In 1980, the press began publishing a nursing exam guide that was "a huge success," Matthews says, selling during its 10-year run "tens of thousands of copies."

Another key title for Chicago Review Press was The Covenant with Black America, with a foreword by Tavis Smiley, published in 2006. "It put Chicago Review Press on the national map," Matthews says.

Over the years, Chicago Review Press has made a range of acquisitions, most recently of Fulcrum Publishing, Council Oak Books and Ripple Grove Press. Chicago Review Press imprints include Lawrence Hill Books (more on this below), Amberjack, Academy Chicago Publishers, and Parenting Press.

In 2011, IPG bought Triumph Books from Random House. Triumph, which specializes in sports titles, is well known for its celebration books following each year's major sports championships like the Super Bowl and World Series. The press prepares books for each of the final two teams, including all but a final chapter about the big game. After the game, it cancels the losing team's title, adds a final triumphant chapter to the winning team's book, gets the final copy to a previously chosen local printer by 6 a.m., gives the printer 48 hours to print many thousands of copies, and then saturates the city and region of the championship team while interest and excitement is highest. "They break all the rules of publishing," Matthews says enthusiastically. "They taught us how to be an instant publisher."

Also as the leading sports publisher, Triumph has increased IPG's profile and "cemented our position as a top 10 book supplier," Matthews says.

He's also excited about Triumph's partnership with Authentic Brands Group, owner of the Sports Illustrated brand, under which Triumph will be the frontlist publisher for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids trade books and will publish them with the SI and SI Kids logos. Triumph will have access to Sports Illustrated's vast archive of photos and stories and the books will include coffee-table titles, interactive children's books, anthologies of SI stories, team histories, commemorative books and titles focused on current events and trends

Lawrence Hill Books, founded in 1973 and bought by Chicago Review Press in 1993, centers, focuses on, and uplifts Black voices, interests, and issues within nonfiction. Recently hired acquisitions editor Alicia Sparrow will be leading this imprint forward, seeking biographies, cultural criticisms, current affairs and politics, civil and human rights issues, histories, and graphic novels. Among its recent titles is The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas, which drew renewed attention after the release of the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, which won two Oscars this year.

Among other important Lawrence Hill titles are Assata Shakur's autobiography; Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom by Dr. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter; and Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.

Trafalgar Square Publishing

Brooke O'Donnell

In 2006, IPG bought Trafalgar Square Publishing and began bringing books from many of the United Kingdom's biggest publishers into the United States and Canada. In the 15 years since, says program manager Brooke O'Donnell, it has grown to include publishers from Australia as well as New Zealand, India and Southeast Asia. "Like any publisher," O'Donnell says, "the goal is to make great books available. These books have slightly different voices that offer readers here something new."

Trafalgar Square operates mostly on a firm sale business model, with TSP buying titles outright from international publishers. O'Donnell explains that this is a bit unusual in distribution, but the arrangement gives partner publishers peace of mind: "There's comfort in the fact that when you're shipping a book across the ocean, you're not worried about returns."

TSP's partner publishers include prominent independent presses, such as Allen & Unwin in Australia, and Fairlight Books and Orenda Books in the U.K., as well as some of the non-U.S. branches of major publishers like Penguin Random House. On the subject of TSP bringing new publishers into the fold, O'Donnell explains that it happens organically. "We don't start the conversation," she says. "We wait for publishers to start looking for a solution in North America."

Over the years TSP has had success with titles that were once considered "too British" or "too Australian" to sell well in the U.S. As examples O'Donnell points to books based on The Great British Bake Off and Home Fires television series; Queen Elizabeth II's Guide to Life by Karen Dolby; and books featuring the Australian children's music group The Wiggles.

Sales have grown year to year, O'Donnell says, despite the fact that bringing a list in from abroad is "not without its challenges," including all of the issues that can arise from things like spelling differences, sea freight shipping and fluctuations in exchange rates.

Nevertheless, TSP has "weathered those storms." One interesting contributor to recent sales growth, O'Donnell adds, has been the proliferation of streaming video services and the greater availability of British films and television shows in the U.S., which has "opened up a group of readers that we didn't have historically."

Reflecting on TSP's history, O'Donnell says she's "very proud of how flexible we are," and offers Banksy's book Wall and Piece as an example. After Banksy traveled to the U.S. and did an art installation in California, American interest in the book spiked, and TSP was able to source the book and make it available immediately.

Asked where TSP might go in the future, O'Donnell replies, "We're always looking for quality publishers, small and large, to add to the mix that complement our existing program."

Spanish Books Distribution

Kelsey Mrjoian

Launched in 2002 with the aim of bringing Spanish-language titles to the U.S. market, IPG's Spanish Books program has grown to encompass some 40 Spanish-language publishers and more than 7,000 titles for children, teens and adults.

Program manager Kelsey Mrjoian says the program's focus is on offering "as many different types of Spanish books as possible," whether they are titles originally written in Spanish or titles translated into Spanish from other languages. In recent years, the program has been diversifying its list both in terms of the categories of books available and where in the Spanish-speaking world they are from.

Driven predominantly by the education and library markets, there has been "a big uptick in children's books" over the past few years, Mrjoian continues. Adult fiction, meanwhile, is the program's second largest category and it, too, has risen considerably in the last couple of years. Categories like mind, body and spirit, cooking and self help are also seeing growth.

Historically, most of the program's Spanish titles have come from publishers based in Spain, but, Mrjoian notes, those books don't always include the types of Spanish that are widely spoken or taught in the U.S. The other half of diversifying the program involves broadening the available Spanish dialects by partnering with more publishers from Latin America.

IPG already has some significant partnerships in the region--the Mexican publishing house Editorial Océano is, in fact, IPG's largest Spanish-language publisher--but Mrjoian and her colleagues hope to add more publishers from all over the Hispanophone world and better represent the "many types of Spanish that are spoken in the U.S."

Asked about IPG's efforts to bring Spanish-language titles to independent bookstores, Mrjoian acknowledges that it's a "little bit more challenging" for indies, given the limited amount of shelf space available, but it is an area in which IPG would love to grow. To that effect, the Spanish Books program will work closely with IPG's sales reps to help make sure that indie booksellers are aware of the Spanish-language titles that might work for them. Rather than receiving a list of the "thousands of titles we offer," indies would hear about specific titles of interest, whether authentic or in translation.

Mrjoian says that IPG would love to hear from indies about what sorts of Spanish titles they and their customers would like to see. "We want to do what we can to seek those types of books out and make sure they're readily available in the U.S."

Orenda Books: International crime fiction at its finest

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Beaufort Books: Enter to win one of our Summer '21 titles!

Central Avenue Publishing: Happy 50th! Thank you IPG!

The Secret Mountain: Congrats to all the folks at IPG and thanks for keeping the music alive!

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