Baker & Taylor Digital Chief on Reaching Millions of Readers

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

In July 2008, Tom Morgan was named CEO of Baker & Taylor, the Charlotte, NC-based distributor of digital and physical books, videos and music products. Just a month later, Morgan hired Bob Nelson as executive vice president for strategic business development.

Morgan came from outside of the book industry and so did Nelson. The idea was to build a management team that would help bring Baker & Taylor into the digital world.

In April of 2009, that plan took a big step forward when Baker & Taylor launched its digital media services group which was intended to “help publishers execute an integrated merchandising strategy to deliver their content in multiple formats to multiple devices,” according to Nelson at the time.

In the two years since, Baker & Taylor has grown the number of people working on its digital initiatives to 100, has launched an e-reading software platform as well as a merchandising platform, and has cut deals with a swath of PC, phone and device manufacturers.

Nelson, 53, started his career in sales at a medical device manufacturer called Del Mar Avionics after graduating from the University of Southern California in 1980. He spent eight years in medical device sales, holding several executive posts, including national sales manager at Del Mar. In 1988, he joined up with R.R. Donnelley, the Chicago-based, publicly traded printing company. After rising to the rank of president of U.S. sales operations, Nelson took a post in London to run an R.R. Donnelley subsidiary called Astron, which eventually became R.R. Donnelley Global Document Solutions.

In late 2007, Nelson left the company for a short-term consulting gig and then joined Morgan at Baker & Taylor in August of 2008.

We spoke with Nelson about Baker & Taylor’s digital strategy, the next phase of Blio and how Baker & Taylor plans to put publishers’ digital content into the hands of millions of readers next year.


Jeremy Greenfield: You’re head of the digital group at Baker & Taylor, which has traditionally been a print book distributor. Can you give me an idea of what you oversee at Baker & Taylor?

Bob Nelson: My charter is to work with the senior team to create a digital media infrastructure to parallel what we have on the print side.

At Baker & Taylor, we basically have two major channels: library and education; and retail. About 20% of our revenue is international.


JG: How do you plan to mirror that physical infrastructure on the digital side?

BN: There are three legs of the stool:

The content: We sign distribution agreements with publishers to distribute digital media. We do the conversion and QA [quality assurance] and when they’re blessed by the publisher, we then put them in our repository and distribute.

Blio, the e-reader: Blio was developed by our partner K-NFB Reading Technologies Inc. and works across Windows, Android and iOS devices. We provide a digital reader for companies that don’t want to build one themselves. We make all devices e-book-compatible. Device manufacturers want content that can be delivered through their devices. With Blio, content is portable across all devices.

Merchandising: We merchandise on the part of our OEM [original equipment manufacturer, companies that produce electronics] partners. We create new digital marketplaces for our key partners on the OEM side, like Toshiba, HP, Dell and others, by turning them into booksellers. We give them software that they pre-load at the factory onto the device.

We turn companies that weren’t sellers of content into retailers of content. OEMs and mobile carriers see it as a way to keep consumers interested in their product.

We’re helping everyone who isn’t yet in but wants to get into the business of providing content – and we share revenue with them.


JG: There has been a lot of talk this week and last about the relevance of publishing companies. What is your take on the relevance of publishers in a world that is becoming more digital?

BN: We think they’re very valuable moving forward. They are our key suppliers of content and we’re aggregating their content and distributing it through our network. Publishers develop authors and their content and provide the marketing to support the sales of books. They sort through all the content and find the gems.

We value the relationships tremendously and as physical migrates to digital, our trusted infrastructure will handle both for publishers.


JG: You’ve cut deals now with a number of players in the device market. Why should a publisher seek to cut a deal with you to have their content distributed to them?

BN: We are projected to be installed on millions of devices shipped worldwide. Our distribution channel is the OEM. We turn every one of their devices into an e-reader. The hope for them is that over time, they get me to buy a book via sites like Toshiba Book Place versus on a Kindle.


JG: What are some of the biggest challenges you are working on tackling over the next year?

BN: Our challenge is to have an infrastructure in place regardless of where our customers’ customers want to consume content.

So, we’re putting structures in place so that both print and digital can be purchased through our e-commerce platform.

A new version of our digital media platform is being released in early 2012 that will allow these digital marketplaces to also deliver physical books.


JG: What are you reading and on what platform?

I’m using the Blio e-reader. I read not only on my laptop but also on my smartphone. I have my entire library accessible on my iPad.

I’m reading the new Steve Jobs book as well as content for my children on the iPad. I recently downloaded some books for my 10-year-old.

Hear more insights from top executives on the future of book publishing at Digital Book World Conference + Expo 2012, this January 23-25 in New York. More>>>

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