May 2021

Keel Hunt

Behind one of the most influential book companies you’ve probably never heard of
Interview by
We asked author and journalist Keel Hunt a few questions about Ingram Content Group, a little-known, family-owned business based in Tennessee that has shaped the publishing world for 50 years.
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We know authors and agents, publishers and printers, libraries and bookstores—but there’s one company responsible for bringing just about every book you’ve ever read into your life, and you may not even know it exists. In The Family Business, author and journalist Keel Hunt charts the history and contributions of Ingram Content Group, a little-known, family-owned business based in Tennessee that has shaped the publishing world for 50 years. We asked Hunt a few questions about Ingram, its role in the industry and its vision for the future.

Ingram's role in the publishing business is relatively invisible to the general reader. What gaps does Ingram fill for publishers, libraries and retailers?
Basically, Ingram helps publishers, bookstores and libraries by providing essential services that enable publishers to do business in all their modern markets. For many years, Ingram performed a classic middleman function as a distributor of print books, but today, executives at Ingram prefer to describe their job in terms of getting content to its destination—that is, from the publishers who curate and own the content of books to entities that provide it to consumers. This frees up publishers to do their most essential work: finding great content.

"Ingram could and usually did take the longer view and give sustained commitment to unusual or unconventional ideas that might have been unworkable in the short term." 

How did Ingram’s origin as a family business shape its growth and affect its success? 
Because it has been a private, family-owned enterprise, Ingram Book Company (later renamed Ingram Content Group) was freed from many of the onerous short-term horizons that typically constrain public companies—such as the expectations (by shareholders and analysts) to show incremental profit each and every quarter. Ingram could and usually did take the longer view and give sustained commitment to unusual or unconventional ideas that might have been unworkable in the short term. 

Sometimes it’s easy for readers to forget the business machine that lies behind the art of literature. What do you think readers should know about Ingram?
That it has always been a family-owned business, and it grew from a handful of employees to one of the largest media businesses in the world. That its innovations have carried not only Ingram but also the publishers, bookstores and libraries it serves into the new digital age. That Ingram has always taken almost a “partner” approach to each of these critical sectors. Over its 50-year history, key landscape-shifting innovations by Ingram have helped publishers and booksellers alike strengthen their own service models and their profitability.

What are some of those innovations, and how have they shaped the publishing world?
One of the first examples was Ingram’s early application of microfiche technology, which was revolutionary for retail booksellers. Later, Ingram’s development of its Lightning Source model for print-on-demand saved book publishers millions of dollars in inventory costs, adding to recaptured sales and making for faster sales fulfillment and better profitability for publishers and bookstores.

The shift to digital publishing was a real adjustment for everyone involved in the book business. How did Ingram approach this challenge?
In the 1990s, there was much fear and dread in the book industry that the printed book might go away because of digital book technology. But the theorized “death of the printed book” didn’t happen, partly because of Ingram’s innovations in that period and after. These involved business risk and smart thinking. One of my favorite lines in The Family Business is current CEO John Ingram’s early observation that the future was not going to mean “either/or”—as to whether print or digital books would carry the day—but instead it would become an “either/and” world, with both digital and print formats available to serve consumer needs and preferences.

You have written two books about Tennessee politics and have worked as a columnist and reporter. How did that work inform this book? 
Ever since my earliest days as a news reporter, I have loved to write about truly original characters and how they navigated tough situations. That’s certainly been the case with my two previous books about politics and government (Coup and Crossing the Aisle). Some of the best stories in our culture—take Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs or Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail—are about choices that business leaders have made in their own environments. The Family Business has all these ingredients. It shares the untold stories of one of the world’s most private companies and one of the most important media businesses.

Why did you want to record and share the story of the Ingram family and the Ingram Content Group?
I feel it’s important, now more than ever, for as many people as possible to understand how our world works, and particularly what I call the “leadership examples” from innovators throughout history. From Johannes Gutenberg to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to the Ingrams, innovators have materially helped our world to climb higher and human ingenuity to reach further.

If you could only use three words to describe Ingram, what would they be? 
My three words would be the “family of families.” There are many Ingram associates today whose mothers or fathers (or both) were connected to the business, too. Some have met their spouses there. 

Also, the Ingrams themselves have always honored the role rank-and-file associates play in the company’s overall success. Founder Bronson Ingram insisted on that over his career. He always stressed that the line employees were materially contributing to the company’s success in business. He meant it, and John Ingram believes it, too.

For example: When Ingram Micro was taken public in 1996, at $18 per share, the share price climbed by 15% in just two months. Many Ingram employees—from the telephone sales office to the book warehouse to Ingram Barge towboat crew members—shared in the rewards of that profitable event.

You spoke to dozens of people while researching this book. Does a particular interview or story stand out to you? 
There were several, of course, that stand out over my two years of research. Possibly the most revealing was my first interview outside the Ingram family. I drove to Bradenton, Florida, to talk with Harry Hoffman, who was the first president of Ingram Book Company. After college Harry worked for the FBI (he was sworn in by J. Edgar Hoover himself) and later went on to great success in business. He eventually left Ingram to become CEO of the Waldenbooks chain of mall bookstores. He is still a beloved figure among Ingram old-timers. On the afternoon of my visit, Harry, at 90, was charming and answered my every question.

That interview was also a reminder to “do the interview now” when the idea first occurs to you. Harry died in May 2020, at age 92.

If there’s one thing your book proves, it’s that Ingram has always been a forward-thinking company. What are they doing today that will affect the reader experience in the future?
I suspect only a few people know how Ingram helped our nation—and the world—to navigate day to day through the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve never heard Ingram people brag about any of this, but you can read about it in the book. Looking further ahead, it will be fun to see what comes next from this innovative business, and how it will serve our culture and the world.

Author photo © Marsha Hunt.

Get the Book

The Family Business

The Family Business

By Keel Hunt
West Margin
ISBN 9781513267210

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