I suspect that few – if any – of you have heard of Bertram Books. You could be forgiven for thinking that they are a lesser-known series of P.G. Wodehouse novels, but in fact Bertram Books is a book wholesaler, a large yet overlooked part of the book industry.
It strikes me as peculiar that there is this invisible middle man between publisher and bookseller, known about by everyone in the industry, but by nobody outside. No one buying a book from a bookshop would have a clue that Bertram’s has been instrumental in getting it there. Most customers assume that books come to a shop directly from the publishers rather than via this third party. It is a gap in people’s understanding which makes me wonder how many other unsung heroes of industries there are, how many other invisible middle men exist to ease the way we buy and do all sorts of things.
Easing the creaking cogs of the book industry is exactly what Bertram’s does. Rather than a bookshop having to call several different publishers every day to place several different orders, having so many books in one warehouse means that most books can be covered in just the one order. Added to which, Bertram’s usually gives better discounts to bookshops than publishers do, and they are very efficient – an order placed by 5.30pm will be delivered to the shop the next morning. Thanks to Bertram’s, a customer can order a book from a bookshop and collect it the following day (without a postage and packaging fee) – and yet the customer has no idea that Bertram’s even exists.
Even within the industry, despite daily orders and daily deliveries, the relationship between a bookseller and a wholesaler is in many ways very distant. We never go and visit the enormous Bertram’s warehouse, nor expect any of their 400 employees to visit our shops. We talk to them only over the phone, when we place orders and report damaged books, never face-to-face and there is never any hobnobbing. It’s utterly different to a bookseller’s relationship with a publisher – in which the publisher will send reading copies of their books, drop in and look around the shop, and invite the bookseller to launches and parties.
I wonder if it is in part a feeling of impatience with this invisibility that has led Bertram’s this week to announce the founding of its new online bookshop Wordery.com, due to open next year.
Some independent booksellers feel somewhat betrayed by Bertram’s, annoyed and surprised that this quietly diligent servant is getting above himself, treading on their toes in making direct contact with individual bookbuyers. But of course the marketplace Bertram’s is stepping into is that of Amazon, online bookshop extraordinaire. We independent booksellers should welcome any new challenge to Amazon. Publishers, I’m sure, will be thrilled about any attempt to reduce Amazon’s effective monopoly on online sales of books, which makes it such a powerful bully.
The galling thing is that Amazon will probably remain utterly unconcerned. To the world’s largest online retailer, such an enormous beast, Bertram’s will remain virtually invisible in any guise.
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