Now on to Bridgeton
by Steven Chase (Regional Manager, Midwest Library Service) <[email protected]>
and Column Editor: Scott Alan Smith (Western Regional Manager, Midwest Library Service) <[email protected]>
“When the well runs dry, they know the worth of water.” — Benjamin Franklin
Earlier this year we at Midwest began a discussion regarding the nature of vendors (academic book vendors in particular), but the conversation could apply to many types of suppliers. Steven coined the term “authentic academic vendor” to describe Midwest Library Service and other companies that retain a genuine commitment to delivering consistent, excellent service. Accelerating events and market forces that are fundamentally re-shaping the vendor community sparked these musings; we thought we would share them with you.
First of all, there are far fewer vendors to ponder. In part this is the result of acquisitions and consolidations; in part it is due to the general downturn in the economy; in part the emergence of new business models; and in part the consequence of poor management and bankruptcies.
These issues are by no means unique to the library world, but one need look no further than the acquisition of the Richard Abel Company, Academic Book Center, Boley (who today even remembers Boley?), John Menzies Library Service, and Readmore, among others — all by Blackwell’s (long established as a book vendor and subscription agent, retailer, and publisher) for an example of the creation of a vast empire that could appear unassailable to competitors and customers alike. Indeed, in the late 1960s anyone who suggested that major academic libraries should trade with anyone other than Abel would have been thought naïve or ill-informed. Similarly, Faxon’s market dominance among academic libraries in the 1970s was viewed as virtually absolute. And yet these and other former giants are no more; some having collapsed with dramatic and catastrophic consequences for their customers.
Acquisitions and mergers, closures and bankruptcies are all elements of the business cycle; they continue apace in several market sectors, leaving libraries with fewer choices.
Recessions and depressions have also taken their toll. During the dot-com era several new enterprises emerged. Some spent breathtaking and unprecedented sums on advertising and promotions, including full page color ads in mainstream media. To no avail; when the dot-com bubble burst the consequences were swift and absolute. Those who managed their companies prudently tended to survive. Those pursuing a quick return on investment or short-term gain tended to fail.
One tectonic shift in the book trade was the advent of Amazon. Fueled by millions of investor dollars, Jeff Bezos literally changed consumer behavior. In so doing he condemned whole market sectors to an untimely death — consider how many great independent bookstores, as well as some national chains, are no more. Those who assume an attitude of “survival of the fittest” take a calloused view of what great bookstores meant to their communities; we are poorer for it.
We contend that these conditions and developments are not inevitable. Well-managed firms can, and do, uphold high standards of service. Privately held companies have an advantage in that they do not answer to shareholders or venture capitalists, whose demands for short-term return on investment are generally contrary to the interests of their customers. Additional benefits can be the absence of debt, and ownership of equipment and facilities.
Firms that support their employees benefit from stability. Such staff have reciprocating loyalty, and develop sophisticated skill sets, forestalling the need for constant training and re-training of new hires. Just as is true for libraries, vendors create and sustain organizational cultures. Such cultures are of as much benefit to libraries as to well-managed vendors.
We also maintain that libraries should not be inured to transparent hypocrisy.
We at Midwest take pride in over fifty years of steady, stable management and operations. Midwest is well known for meeting the needs of students and faculty, no matter the publication date — be it in print or out of print. We are capable of providing products and services across a wide spectrum. These include EDI ordering and invoicing, copy cataloging, and shelf-ready books, customized invoicing and reporting, delivery of hard-to-locate and out-of-print titles, Web access to firm and standing order databases, as well as a wide range of collection development services. We continue to pursue informed product development and new — to Midwest — services.
Thus the authentic academic vendor.