Direct: The Problem of Middlemen

Cory Doctorow
6 min readJun 12, 2022

Kathryn Judge’s debut book is a hymn to short supply chains.

Back in 2007, I published my second short story collection, Overclocked. I was elated; not just because I’d published another book (the thrill of a new book has yet to pale even today, after dozens of books), but because it was a short-story collection, the kind of book I’d devoured as a kid, the mainstay of writers I’d worshiped, from Harlan Ellison to Spider Robinson to Kate Wilhelm. The publisher was Avalon, which had recently acquired Four Walls Eight Windows, the small press that had published my first short story collection, A Place So Foreign and Eight More. Selling a book to Four Walls had been its own thrill, as they were publisher to Abbie Hoffman, another writer I’d grown up on.

But then, something weird happened.

Avalon was distributed by Publishers Group West, a great mid-sized distributor that I’d ordered from many times myself when I was a bookseller. PGW was one of those companies that scouted fantastic boutique publishers, hand-picked their best titles, and combined them in a quarterly catalog that was delivered by knowledgeable sales reps to bookstore owners and clerks like me. For a book nerd like me, being distributed by PGW was almost as cool as being published by Four Walls.

But PGW had a problem. Bookselling was changing, with indie bookstores shuttering all over the world, leaving the retail channel dominated by a couple of massive bookstore chains, and a handful of big-box retailers like Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart and CostCo. These retailers held a whip-hand over their distributors and demanded terms and fulfillment efficiencies that a mid-sized distributor like PGW couldn’t meet.

So PGW got bought out by Advanced Marketing Services, a giant distributor that specialized in servicing these big box stores. AMS had the exclusive bookselling contract for these big stores, and it used that as leverage to squeeze publishers. It operated so viciously that one of its executives was led out of its offices in handcuffs by the FBI in 2003. She was the first of three top AMS execs who’d be indicted.

Shortly a few weeks before my book was published, AMS filed for bankruptcy, taking PGW with it. When PGW went down, it took down a dozen mid-sized presses — all those wonderful…

Cory Doctorow

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