A Letter From ABA President Betsy Burton
My heart is full — as is, I’m sure, the heart of anyone who attended Winter Institute 12. Already pumped by a day visiting bookstores and by a charged and joyous opening reception, we were split wide open at breakfast on the first official day by the keynote address of Roxane Gay — a verbal fusillade of home truths (if you’ll forgive the dumb metaphor) that brought into sharp focus the issue of diversity. Not that we hadn’t been aware of it, talked about it, and taken action before, both on our ABA board and regionally, creating scholarships and making Booksellers Advisory Council (BAC) appointments, talking to publishers, and making plans to help and encourage the creation of new stores. But it hasn’t been enough — not nearly — as Gay pointed out so candidly, her words shocking us out of complacency and into the need for action. A perfect example of the radical candor that Wi12’s third keynote speaker, Kim Scott, discussed two days later.
During the Town Hall, as “we the board” sat on the dais and listened (and really heard), watched (and really saw) a series of impassioned, articulate, brave, visionary women — many from the new generation of booksellers — get up, one after another, the separation between us diminished and I thought my heart would break — not out of sadness but because I remembered myself at that age, how it felt to be excluded (albeit for reasons of sex and religion — or lack thereof — rather than color), felt again that anger, and knew that once harnessed it was going to hone their aim, amp up their power, catapult them — and all of us — into being our/their best selves, creating a better world in the process. And I was suddenly filled to overflowing with admiration for them, as they spoke one by one, and also, suddenly, with hope for the future. Not just their future but that of our industry when they take it in their capable hands, that of the world because there are people like them outside our industry as well as inside it, something we need to remember in this darkest of times. And they will take our world into their hands, lead the way forward in good directions. Of that I am certain.
It is a process, entering the world of governance — in ABA or any other sphere — but because the board heard what we heard, saw what we saw, we responded by creating a Diversity Task Force to give voice to booksellers’ concerns and draw them into ABA in a significant way and by increasing the number of members on the BAC with the express aim of creating a more diverse council. And please, anyone interested in serving on either, or in recommending someone to do so, e-mail me or call me at (801) 792-8363.
This might not feel like enough but it’s a strong start, especially because the BAC (along with regional boards) is where most nominations for ABA board members come from, since service on the BAC is a way to understand how the association works, how the book industry works, what issues we’ve faced in the past, and what decisions have been made to address them — along with the reasons for those decisions. All of which gives context to the role of governance and the governance process itself inside ABA.
Speaking of inside ABA, my heart broke yet again on my last night at Wi12 when I was privileged to witness during the ABA staff party another moving and life-changing event — the changing of the guard as Mark Nichols, a man beloved by everyone, was heralded by his colleagues. We all know Mark to be a quiet but brilliant, discerning and knowledgeable, kind and caring man who was involved in ABA seemingly forever and in every conceivable way. As I listened to his colleagues honor him, say goodbye to him, watched the sincerity that broke voices, brought on tears, knowing how hard they had all just worked putting on this miracle of an institute, how hard they work year after year to keep the wheels of technology and commerce, information and education turning ever faster, with the connection and love necessary to make it all work as brilliantly as it does, I saw Mark’s role at the heart of it all and I was again filled to overflowing. By their words, yes, but even more by his as this ever-wise, always valiant, loving, caring man expressed his utter faith in all of them. In their ability to help us keep our world in order, keep the wheels turning as another page turned over in ABA’s life and in ours.
Between these profound and unforgettable bookends, there was the rest of Wi12, three full days, four for those who took advantage of Friday’s bookstore tours and special workshops. Days filled with education targeted at our newest members and those more experienced, some about business, others involving the book itself. As I watched the presenters and authors at the Indies Introduce talk proceed with a wonderful program before an appreciative audience that numbered in the hundreds, I remembered that first Winter Institute, and again grew teary thinking of what ABA had wrought over the ensuing years, growing, with the help of hundreds of booksellers and scores of publishers, a small idea into a partnership that benefits us all — authors, publishers, booksellers, readers, and the books themselves — just as they had done again and again in program after program. I attended the marvelous Backlist Book Swap and the backlist panel that showcased innovative ideas and underlined our board’s conviction that a rich, new backlist program could be of vast benefit to publishers and booksellers alike, again benefiting this entire industry. I listened to sessions on finances and technology, localism, merchandizing, management; I heard keynotes and rep picks, talked to publishers during focus groups — as we all did, learning in the process how to be our best professional selves.
Day by day my optimism grew along with my pride at being a part of all this: Part of a dedicated, visionary board while the equally amazing BAC was also hard at work, not to mention the inspired and dedicated ABA staff, who bend their collective will and expend their amazing energy on our behalf. All of that and all of you. It seems to me there’s nothing we can’t do. As we sat there at the Town Hall, sometimes angry but always respectful, always visionary in the best sense, as, panel by panel, audience by audience, we mulled, made sense of, found useful nuggets of knowledge or technique or truth, our voices pooling and coming together… We are an amazing group of people: booksellers, ABA staff, publishers, authors, all fashioning a life around books. I can’t imagine a better one.