St. Paul's Other Book Baron

David Kern

WHEN RANDALL BEEK joined a handful of the nation's elite small publishers in a National Endowment for the Arts conference room in Washington, D.C., he had no idea that a crisis was brewing elsewhere in the organization's labyrinthine bureaucracy. As Beek, CEO of St. Paul's Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, would soon learn, NEA officials were anxiously debating the political ramifications of a book published by the tiny, family-owned Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Texas. The officials had discovered that the book, an illustrated children's folktale called The Story of Colors, was the work of famous Zapatista leader Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. (To call this a "discovery" is a bit silly, though, as Marcos's name was on the cover, and on the NEA grant application.) Because The Story of Colors was funded in part by the NEA, there was concern that money from the book's sales would trickle to militant revolutionaries in Chiapas. In a public relations panic, NEA czar William Ivey canceled funding for the book.

That would have been the end of it, were it not for a front-page story in the New York Times a few days later that exposed the whole affair. Suddenly, orders were pouring in for The Story of Colors, and Cinco Puntos Press turned, as they have for the last five years, to Randall Beek and Consortium to get their little tome onto bookstore shelves across the nation. "Before Consortium, we were just doing books we loved," says Susannah Mississippi Byrd, Cinco Puntos' publicist and daughter of the company's founder. "We were doing gorgeous books, but we didn't do a very good job on the sales end. We were selling books on our own steam and it was all sort of willy-nilly."

Since taking the helm of Consortium in 1992, Beek has turned the small St. Paul-based company into one of the premier book distributors in the nation. All told, Consortium now represents 65 independent presses, ranging from Cinco Puntos to Alyson Publications, the country's largest publishers of gay literature, and local nonprofits like Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, and Hungry Mind press. "We've been building into a lot of different markets," says Beek. "The important thing is knowing the book world and offering an eclectic list that has something for everybody."

Like all distributors, Consortium is a link between bookstores and its publishers. The books produced by Graywolf or Cinco Puntos are inventoried in Consortium's massive 50,000-square-foot warehouse in St. Paul's Midway. Meanwhile, the distributor's 27 sales representatives call on bookstores around the country to pitch Consortium's list, an accumulated catalog of all the titles produced by its 65 small presses. Specialty stores like Minneapolis's Amazon Bookstore can, thus, pick from a list of women's titles from smaller presses, ranging from Krusl Marilyn's How to Accommodate Men (Coffee House Press) to Paula Vogel's The Mammary Plays (Theater Communications Group), without dealing individually with the myriad presses that publish feminist writing.

Unlike the giant wholesalers in the industry, Consortium addresses the marketing needs of small presses. Jim Perlman, who credits Consortium with helping to keep his Holy Cow! Press in business, identifies Beek as the "driving force behind [Consortium's] growth. Since he took over, they've really come of age. Before that they were dedicated to what they were doing, but not really ready for the national market."

When Beek arrived in St. Paul in 1992 from the Oakland, California-based distributor Bookpeople, Consortium represented only 17 publishers and did a paltry three million dollars per year in business. By specializing in market niches such as gay literature, children's books, and small-press fiction, the company blossomed into a major player in the late '90s, and now has 30 employees and does $12 million in annual net sales.

Not too shabby for a guy who says he just "fell into" the book business after wandering into a little book warehouse in Maryland as a young man and becoming enchanted with the diversity of small-press literature. But is Beek concerned over recent reports that Americans are reading less and buying fewer books? "We lead complicated lives. There's tons of music and movies, and now the Internet. It's overwhelming sometimes....I guess I'm just a book person," he adds. "I still think the book is a near-perfect object."

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