World's Biggest Book Distributor Takes on Google, Apple, and Amazon

Last Updated Jun 3, 2010 6:00 PM EDT

Many companies want to control aspects of book selling, including Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), and Barnes & Noble (BKS). Add to the contender roster the world's largest wholesale book distributor: Ingram Content Group. The company is anything but a shoe-in to lead the pack, but it knows the business and has some of the best business connections in the industry. Furthermore, there's a twist. Ingram provides a private label type reselling and fulfillment service that could put many publishers into competition with all the name retailers.

According to an announcement yesterday, Ingram has partnered with F+W Media, a prominent content producer that is in 17 different niche markets, such as fine art, design, horticulture, writing, and genealogy. F+W already has a series of 21 electronic stores. Ingram provides nearly half a million additional titles, which allows F+W to sell a big assortment of competing books.

It's the first time I remember seeing this strategy, and it's an intriguing one. Few publishers have brands strong enough to attract buyers on their own merits, with writers' names being secondary. Generally consumers will look for something that strikes their fancy. Retail giants like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are in good shape because they get their percentage of whatever goes out the door. However, publishers have been in an all-or-nothing relationship to individual sales.

This approach could give publishers an incentive to race to set up their own online stores, particularly if they can define specialized niche establishments that could pull traffic from the general retailers. Even an apparently "general" publisher handles books in different categories, and so could set up multiple stores, or even combine forces with compatible competitors. Think of it this way: If you want a cookbook, do you go to the general seller, or do you at least consider the specialty online shop that focuses on food?

Ingram has effectively turned every publisher into a potential competitor of the retailers. In addition, the ability to sell both paper and electronic books broadens the potential audience pool and gives at least one edge to the publishers that an Apple or Google won't have.

Image: user lusi, site standard license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.