Publishers Weekly reports that Ingram Content Group, the US’s largest remaining book distributor, is pledging to do all it can to help the publishing industry through the coronavirus crisis. The company has indicated that it will be staying open during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders that are shuttering “non-essential” businesses, because it qualifies as an essential business under the exceptions listed on the shelter-in-place orders.
The article goes into detail about the various ways Ingram is gearing up to fight the business disruptions caused by the crisis, thanks to redundancy built into its distribution network. The company says that its Lightning Source print-on-demand service can help keep titles available when traditional distribution networks fail, and also points to its digital distribution platforms CoreSource and VitalSource as having seen an influx of titles and conversions. With bookstores closing under shutdown orders, Ingram also touts its ability to help fulfil online orders, through booksellers’ own sites, the IndieBound independent bookstore portal, or online retailers like Amazon or Bookshop.org.
This, naturally, can only keep up so long as Ingram can keep its offices and warehouses running. “We have developed business continuity plans in the past, but this is unprecedented,” said [Ingram President and CEO Shawn] Morin, who explained that those able to work at home have been given permission to do so. “For our warehouses we are focused on keeping our associates safe and healthy. We are allowing for timing between shifts, are focused on social distancing and are cleaning like crazy. If we find ourselves with a requirement to close a facility, we are confident we can be back up and running very quickly.”
While it’s certainly nice for the publishing industry that Ingram is stepping up, not everyone is so pleased. A number of reader-posted comments under the Publishers Weekly article express doubts that Ingram should really be considered an “essential” service in the same way medical services are, and it shouldn’t be putting its employees at added risk for the sake of a profit.
It’s a fair point. Over the last couple of weeks, stories have emerged about various retail chains, such as GameStop or Hobby Lobby, insisting that they, too, were “essential” and refusing to close their stores, insisting that their employees keep coming in. That kind of move smacks of greed—or perhaps of desperation from being unable to afford to stay shut down for long. Whenever a business that doesn’t seem immediately crucial to health and well-being decides to stay open, it can prompt the same sort of indignation as a handicapped license plate or tag on a car whose driver isn’t obviously disabled.
But Ingram is not, as some have accused, exploiting a loophole to stay open. The exceptions in the shelter-in-place orders are there, fair and square. For example, in the “safe at home” order covering Ingram’s Nashville, TN facilities, types of business permitted to stay open include “Product logistics, transport, and distribution businesses,” and “Warehousing and storage.” Those pretty much describe Ingram to a T. Ingram’s online services might even mean it also qualifies under “Internet and telecommunications systems (including the provision of essential global, national, and local infrastructure for computing services, business infrastructure, communications, and web-based services),” though that one’s a little more iffy.
Regardless, the orders are not meant to stop all business processes, and Nashville is not alone in making exceptions for logistics and distribution businesses. For example, the exceptions to the stay-at-home order issued by my own home state of Indiana include:
Manufacturing companies, distributors, and supply chain companies producing and supplying essential products and services in and for industries, such as healthcare, pharmaceutical, technology, biotechnology, chemicals and sanitization, agriculture, waste pickup and disposal, food and beverage, transportation, energy, steel and steel products, petroleum, fuel, mining, construction, national defense, communications, and products used by other Essential Businesses and Operations.
While you don’t see “books” or “publishing” included on that list, they’re not specifically excluded either, and it seems reasonable to assume they would fall under “products used by other Essential Businesses and Operations.” (“Educational Institutions” are another Essential Business exception, after all, and you’d have a hard time running an educational institution without books!) Unfortunately for them, comic book distributors like Diamond wouldn’t be able to make the same claim.
So, it stands to reason that Ingram actually is the type of company that governments consider an “essential business.” But should it be? I suppose it depends on how stringent you feel the lockdown needs to be. The lockdown orders we have, at least from the cities and states willing to impose them, seem to be trying to strike a balance between isolating everyone from contact with anyone else on the one hand, and completely destroying our economy on the other hand. While a lot of businesses have had to shutter, many others are still able to stay in operation on a limited basis, so they can support other businesses or provide the necessities of life to people who can’t go out and get them for themselves. These measures may not entirely prevent the infection from spreading, but they won’t completely ruin us either. And since Ingram doesn’t deal directly with the general public, there’s not as high a risk of their employees serving as a vector for infection as those in essential jobs in retail.
At the moment, there is a great deal of public discussion over how harsh the restrictions need to be, with some agitating for a stricter lockdown to try to control the infection faster and others feeling that even the restrictions some places have now are doing irreparable harm to the economy. It remains to be seen just which way the pendulum will swing.
Personally, I’d be happy if only everywhere could be made to impose restrictions even as harsh as those I’m (and Ingram is) under now, because at least that would be doing something. As the infection rates continue to climb, it will surely only be a matter of days until our healthcare system is overloaded. But at the same time, I have to confess that in my day job, I work from home for an “essential business” myself—a huge health insurance company, that’s only going to be more in demand the sicker people get.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it is one of the greatest strokes of luck in my entire life that, at a time when many of my friends are out of work, or are working essential jobs that expose them to the public, I still have a job that doesn’t even require me to step outside. So I have the luxury of not worrying where my next paycheck is going to come from, and I feel safe, no matter how harsh the restrictions get. So that could color my thinking on how far the restrictions need to go. Perhaps if I had lost my job due to the epidemic, I’d feel differently.
In any case, with Ingram still in operation, at least we’re not likely to have a hard time getting books to stave off boredom—even if we want books that are paper rather than electronic.
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