On Dec. 7, 2009, Baker & Taylor, Inc. (B&T; www.baker-taylor.com) announced it acquired Blackwell Book Services North America (www.blackwell.com) and Blackwell's Australia-based James Bennett bookseller. The news of this acquisition has been reported throughout the library media world. Several venture firms have owned B&T over the past 10 years. Castle Harlan Partners (www.castleharlan.com), a private equity fund, is the current owner. B&T acquired YBP (www.ybp.com) in 1999. YBP, a once-small regional company, has become an impressive book supplier that has made remarkable strides since B&T's acquisition. For many years, Baker & Taylor was the dominant book supplier to the school and public library market. It made several attempts to enter the academic marketplace but never gained a foothold. Since 1999, YBP has developed a highly talented management team and marched to the top of academic bookselling. YBP created new services, hired some of the best library sales folks, and stayed focused on academic library needs.
While the media has covered the acquisition from the B&T viewpoint, this article will focus on the Blackwell North American (BNA) customers and their reactions and comments. BNA has been the North American flagship of the Blackwell book and publishing family since its purchase of the Richard Abel Co. in 1974. Richard Abel is the father of computer-assisted approval selling who built a large company in the Portland, Ore., area which for many years was a source of innovation in the academic library marketplace. Overextension and lack of computing technology innovation caused Abel to hit the wall and lose his financing. He was forced into bankruptcy. Along came Richard Blackwell, a British bookseller, who took a risk and bought what was left of Abel. He built Blackwell North American into the dominant academic book company along with his son, Miles Blackwell.
During 1980-2000, the Blackwell family, primarily under Miles Blackwell, built Blackwell North American into a national powerhouse that owned the academic research library marketplace. The BNA sales staff were bookmen first and sales staff second. During this period, BNA acquired Ballen and Academic Book Center. BNA's approval books service was rated as outstanding. Their knowledge of the book trade was second to none, and YBP during this time was a small regional player. So how did the No. 1 player in the academic research library bookselling market end up being acquired by YBP? What is the BNA large client reaction?
The academic marketplace changed with the transition from print to electronic formats, and we have all witnessed the change in economic conditions in academic libraries. BNA may have lost some market share, but they still have many loyal and very large academic library clients who still find their service excellent. I spoke with the acquisitions management staff at the University of Texas-Austin (UT), the University of Arizona, and the University of Georgia. All three institutions are top 10 BNA customers.
Everyone I talked with is disappointed at the merger. The library community has experienced a long pattern of mergers with their suppliers and publishers. Less choice is not a good thing. Losing contact with customer service staff is painful. Having to learn a new system is expensive and time-consuming for library staff. Jill Emery, head of acquisitions at UT, a longtime BNA customer, summed up in these words:
Blackwell North America has been a mainstay vendor in the U.S. academic library world for a long time and this buyout adds to already shrinking number of library print providers. Blackwell personnel were always seen and greatly appreciated for their close working relationship with librarians and library staff. To this end, Blackwell's disappearance from the market comes as a shock and a blow. However, the changes brought about by the electronic resources evolution for the past two decades have had far reaching impact at this point and I think we should see this as one of them. Many academic librarians are beginning to turn to the electronic book providers such as EBL and Ebrary. The print material market is shrinking while the electronic book market is beginning to bloom.
At the University of Arizona, Stephen Bosch, materials budget, procurement, and licensing librarian, expressed sadness to find another company biting the dust. "The University of Arizona was also one of the top accounts and we were willing development partners and had been working on pervasive patron initiated acquisitions programs and are afraid that the new owners will not continue the work in that direction. We are not thrilled with the merger and had hoped to see BNA go to the Ingrams/Coutts camp since that seemed to be a better match."
Both UT and the University of Arizona are worried that YBP will just absorb the BNA customers, forcing staff to learn a new system and changing the way library acquisitions staff has worked for many years. Discussion with other major customers, such as the University of Georgia, BNA's largest customer, revealed that they have already started to move their acquisitions business to more than one vendor. According to Dana Walker, head of acquisitions and serials services at the University of Georgia, "We see no reason to consolidate our business with one vendor at this point in time. We were not surprised at the news because I had heard rumors that Blackwell was up for sale and we had already seen some degradation in the service after they moved customer service operations to Oregon."
Every library I contacted reacted the same way. They are sad to see another good company bite the dust; disappointed to lose another vendor, which limits their choice; and concerned about the cost to their staff of having to learn a new system. Many librarians expressed a sense of loss at the passing of the Blackwell family's interest in the American marketplace.
While the impact of the merger hits the American marketplace, part of the merger is selling the Australian company James Bennett that will now become part of Baker & Taylor. I have been to the James Bennett office on a number of occasions, and it is the dominant bookseller in the Australian academic marketplace. James Bennett should see the least disruption to its staff and customers, which is good news for the libraries in Australia.
The merger will predominately impact the academic libraries in the U.S., as it is the large academic research libraries that are still connected to the Blackwell family and the BNA company. BNA still holds a strong market share in the U.S. Blackwell bookselling in the U.K. eroded many years ago. The U.K. academic library marketplace has been lead by Dawson Books and Coutts for the past decade.
In the end, it is the passing of the Blackwell family out of the U.S. that strikes a nerve. I had the good fortune to work for Blackwell Library Services from 1989 to 1996, when I ran the Readmore Subscription Co. in New York City. During those years, I often attended the BNA board meetings and am well aware of Miles Blackwell's love and devotion to the American marketplace. Miles could care less if he made any money or not; bookselling was his family business, and he was passionate about it. He often invested in services that he believed in without a clear business case. Blackwell North American was his flagship company in the U.S., and losing that company would have been a severe blow to him. I for one am glad that he was not alive to see his baby sold off. While the economy and change in market conditions all contributed to the final outcome, I cannot help but think that the loss of Blackwell family focus and, especially, the loss of Miles greatly contributed to the conditions that provoked this merger.
For More Information
FAQ about the deal and its effect on customers:
Baker & Taylor Letter to Customers:
Baker & Taylor FAQ for Publishing Partners:
Against the Grain has published an interview with Mark Kendall, senior vice president, sales, YBP Library Services, regarding the purchase:
Kendall also submitted the following statement via email in response to my request for information.
One week after the announcement of the YBP and Blackwell North America merger, both YBP and Blackwell staff, working together, have had the opportunity to communicate directly with many libraries worldwide impacted by this news. It has been most gratifying to find that the overwhelming majority of individuals we have spoken with have voiced their support for the merger with a number of libraries, both firm order and approval customers, already requesting the immediate transfer of their accounts from Blackwell to YBP.
The reasons for support of the merger most commonly cited by librarians have included the desire to work with an organization that is both committed and able to invest in developing new services while improving existing ones to meet the continually evolving and complex technical and collection development tools that will be required in 2010 and beyond. Examples of these services include print and electronic patron driven selection/acquisitions service, ebook approval plans, and print on demand services. The Blackwell and YBP service "gap analysis" research evaluating the offerings of the two companies in order to identify and combine the best offerings of each organization is well underway. For those libraries with Blackwell approval plans, they can expect a joint Blackwell/YBP team approach to managing the conversion of their plan to the YBP system. This will often mean a Blackwell representative working in tandem alongside their YBP counterpart in crafting as precise a print and/or electronic approval plan as possible while minimizing any chance of error in the translation. Library training and support in all aspects of YBP services will be provided on an ongoing basis. It is also worth noting that spirit of collaboration and partnership between Blackwell and YBP employees, on behalf of our customers, has been outstanding.
YBP and Blackwell staff will continue to work closely together in managing the transition through much of the next year and both Blackwell and YBP customers can expect regular updates on the ongoing progress of our work.