Last week's news of reorg at Ingram and new partnerships for B&T triggered me to try and crystallize some unstructured thoughts I've had floating around. In the physical book world, wholesalers and distributors had distinct, well-understood roles, and success in one business didn't guarantee success in the other.
Wholesalers dealt with a variety of publishers, non-exclusively, as many as they could reasonably do sensible business with. That gave wholesalers the ability to compete on their title selection and availability, and fill a vital role in the 20th century book supply chain. They still do function in this way, but the vitality of their role continues to shrink as the bookseller base shrinks.
On the other hand, Distributors worked with a fixed list of publishers and essentially replaced the warehousing and order fullfillment function (along with sales for most) of those publishers. Distributors occupied a place one notch higher than wholesalers in the supply chain in that they would ship to wholesalers as well as booksellers.
In the ebook world, the plethora of delivery systems and formats have, so far, eliminated the wholesale function. The vertical plays of both Amazon and Sony mean that they occupy the functions of distributor (for format/device), wholesaler and bookseller, going directly from publisher to consumer. The relatively new iPhone distribution channel may be the only place where ebooks can be content-centric rather than device or format-centric. As such, we've seen Amazon now occupying a new role, straddling bookseller (Kindle) with distributor (Kindle titles to iPhones).
Where is the role for Ingram or B&T in this world? So far, despite the attention they've gained and the resources invested, they do not have a vital place in the supply chain comparable to their role in the physical world.