ABA’s Annual Meeting & Town Hall: Finding Opportunity in Tumultuous Times

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ABA Vice President Steve Bercu, President Becky Anderson, and CEO Oren Teicher

At the American Booksellers Association’s Annual Membership Meeting on Tuesday afternoon at BookExpo America, ABA President Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Illinois, called the meeting to order and provided the Report of the President. Before beginning her report, Anderson asked the Board members to introduce themselves and said, “I want everyone to know how incredibly talented you are, how caring, and how sharing you are…. They are working for each and every one of you.”

Noting that sales at her store and at many other indie booksellers have been up this year, Anderson said, “I am being cautiously optimistic” about the future.

Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, provided the Report of the Vice President, including ABA’s Membership Report. “The good news,” he said, “is that in every category we measure, we’ve had an increase. We’ve gone up from 1,512 companies to 1,567 companies, with 55 new bookstores, and 77 new locations, and 135 [new] members. We are trending up. That’s great news and it shows that people feel bookselling is a good business to get into, something that would have been considered insane just a few years ago.”

“There was great excitement at the Paz Bookseller School” for prospective booksellers, Anderson added. “There was real optimism.”

Anderson also noted that in the past year, “we’ve had the opportunity to talk to other booksellers in other countries.” ABA Vice President Steve Bercu went to Russia, and Anderson herself spoke to booksellers in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s interesting how we are facing the same issues, and in Australia and New Zealand, they are using IndieBound.org,” she said. “These international connections are important.”

In the Report of the Chief Executive Officer, which included the Financial Report, ABA CEO Oren Teicher said the auditor had given the association financial statements a clean opinion. (The 2010 - 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements for ABA and its Subsidiaries are available to ABA members via BookWeb.org.) He also noted that the association’s 990 filing was available on BookWeb.org.

“ABA has come through a difficult time in what has been a challenging financial market, but our investment policy has put us in good stead,” Teicher reported, “and there is a modest strengthening of the association’s endowment. As you review the financials, I think it’s important to point out that the bottom-line numbers reflect the fact that the ABA Board — in response to member direction and feedback — is committed to continue making appropriate investments in member programming, whether it’s in education, or technology, or vigorous member advocacy. While the financials show a deficit, we think of it as an appropriate investment in our future.”

Noting that in his last CEO’s Report, in 2011, he broke from tradition to look ahead, rather than back at the previous year, “to help us navigate our way through this period of unprecedented change,” Teicher said, “It is a year later. And, as we all know, things have gotten even more challenging. If anything, it feels like the pace of change has even accelerated more than a year ago, and turbulent trends continue to roil our industry.”

Teicher then pointed to Google’s decision to end its e-book reseller program and stressed that the association fully understands how important it is that independent booksellers continue to sell e-books. Finding a solution is ABA’s top priority, he said. “You have our strongest assurance that there is going to be a new e-book solution, or solutions, in place well in advance of Google’s January termination of its program.”

Noting that there are more e-book options available today than when ABA signed on with Google, Teicher said, “We are aggressively working to launch a new program. Indeed it’s our goal … that the new e-book solution will be more robust and more flexible than the Google program…. We hope to present you with options and choices well in advance of the holiday season.”

Teicher then turned his address to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit regarding the e-book agency model. “Frankly, the legal steps that the DOJ have taken are baffling to us,” he said. “As we’ve repeatedly said since the DOJ announced its suit, we believe that the agency model is legal, appropriate, and necessary. Since its implementation, the evidence is absolutely clear: The agency model has enhanced competition in the e-book world and in no way lessened it. That has created more options and more value for consumers. For the Department of Justice to propose a remedy that limits choice, selection, and value for consumers, or that returns the market to a monopoly, simply turns logic on its head.”

Teicher thanked Macmillan and Penguin for fighting on behalf of the agency model and stressed that there are still other publishers employing the agency model. “While it’s impossible to predict how the court will rule, it’s vitally important for all of us to avail ourselves of an opportunity to make our voices heard,” he said. “As you may know, the law requires DOJ to accept comments from the public, to publish the comments, and to submit a written summary of these comments to the court. This means that we have the opportunity —  indeed, I suggest, the responsibility — to tell the court just what a unique and critical role the agency model is playing in our business.

“To those of you here today who have already written, we say thank you. To those of you who have not yet written, you still have 20 days before the June 25 deadline…. This is a moment when we are compelled to act.”

Teicher urged booksellers to write a letter to the DOJ and “commit ourselves to getting five friends and colleagues to write as well…. The time to speak is now — we cannot and should not allow this moment to pass.”

Discussing ABA’s membership, which has seen growth over a three-year span, Teicher said, “There is energy and engagement in this industry, and I believe that this year we can say with certainty that we have reversed the trend of indie bookstore decline.”

Moreover, Teicher continued, through the first 20 weeks of 2012, indie book sales as tracked by Nielsen BookScan have increased by 13.4 percent compared to 2011 across the approximately 500 ABA member bookstores reporting. “On balance, the indisputable fact is, today, we as a channel, are selling more books than we were a year ago. “Nobody in this room is naïve, but we have reason for optimism. We have proven to the industry that our business model is positioned for the future…. The experience you create every day in your stores simply cannot be downloaded or replicated online.”

The report then moved to the association’s many programs, from education and sales tax fairness, to the new campaign “Why Indies Matter.”

Teicher stressed that ABA is well aware that education continues to be extremely important to members. In addition to the programming offered at the Winter Institute each year, at Monday’s Day of Education, the fall shows sponsored by the regional associations, as well as the bookseller forums held throughout the country, Teicher noted that the first ABC Group Children’s Institute was set for Wednesday at the show.

“We also will continue our ongoing research and development work for IndieCommerce, as well as making sure that our customer service is as good as it can possibly be.”

Moving to advocacy, Teicher stressed, “I am pleased to be able to report that, finally, after almost a decade of work by many of you in this room, that sales tax equity is finally becoming a reality in more and more states. We are not done yet, but your resiliency is paying off and this is a fight we are winning.”

Teicher reported that the range of IndieBound marketing materials continues to grow and urged booksellers to make use of the “wealth of customizable materials…. The DIY is where you’ll find support materials for our latest marketing effort, ‘Why Indies Matter.’ This is a new video campaign that captures unscripted and enthusiastic testimonials about independent bookstores from authors, customers, and indie supporters around the country. Authors and others will be adding their voices in support throughout BEA, including authors at the [Celebration of Bookselling and the Author Reception], and I encourage you to go to the ABA Booksellers Lounge to see the videos and to learn more about how you can participate in ‘Why indies Matter,’ and to get answers about all our member programs.”

Teicher then thanked the ABA Board of Directors “for their vision, leadership, and hard work. The membership is incredibly well-served by this dedicated group of indie booksellers whose tireless efforts are often carried out quietly behind the scenes.... In addition, I want to acknowledge and thank my colleagues on the ABA staff. As I’ve said before: There isn’t a better staff at any trade association anywhere.”

In discussing fashioning a sustainable bookstore model for the 21st century, Teicher noted that the association has spoken with many individual publishers about the important role played by independent booksellers. “In these conversations, we have strongly urged them to create new ways of doing business with you that recognize the importance of our business sector as both a sales channel and a unique, and essential, catalyst in sales in other channels as well,” he said.

“Many publishers have, in fact, responded to our outreach, and several have individually identified new initiatives. There are many tests in place and if you are among those booksellers participating in any of these tests, many thanks on behalf of your colleagues and the industry. We also thank the forward-looking publishers involved in the tests, as well as those publishers who have already rolled out new business models.”

In conclusion, Teicher stated: “I believe this moment in our industry is rich with promise and opportunity. I remain confident and convinced that, despite all the challenges and difficulties, the best days of indie bookselling lie ahead.”

ABA’s Town Hall Meeting

At the Town Hall, held on Tuesday afternoon, June 5, just prior to the Annual Membership Meeting, topics included the issue of showrooming, new business models, and how important it is for booksellers to submit comments to the Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding the proposed settlement of its e-book pricing lawsuit by June 25, among other topics.

ABA President Becky Anderson and Vice President Steve Bercu chaired the Town Hall, a yearly meeting that provides booksellers with an open forum to bring up questions, suggestions, and concerns to ABA Board members and staff, and to share them with fellow booksellers.

Prior to the meeting’s start, Steve Rosato, BEA’s show director, discussed how Reed Exhibitions was filming sessions at the show and providing streaming video for anyone who couldn’t make the sessions. He added that some ABA educational sessions will also be available online within three weeks of the show’s conclusion. Rosato also said that by 2016 BEA may begin moving to locations other than New York City once again. In addition, he anticipates that BEA will move to a Thursday, Friday, Saturday schedule in the future to accommodate more consumer participation in the show.

“I want to thank [ABA CEO Oren Teicher] for the time to be here,” Rosato said in concluding his comments. “ABA in general is a great partner, and I cannot emphasize how important you are to the show…. Without ABA and the booksellers, I’m not sure there would even be a show.”

Bob Contant, long-time co-owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City, brought up the issue of consumers using bookstores as showrooms for books prior to buying titles online (in the hopes of getting a bigger discount or with the incorrect belief that online purchases are tax-free). “Showrooming issues with Amazon.com are yet to be resolved,” Contant said. “This is a difficult situation to deal with and it’s impossible to stop. We cannot afford to be a showroom for Amazon.com. Without bookstores, we will end up just like the music industry.”

Contant also discussed the rent issues that his store had with its landlord, which have been only temporarily solved. He said, in an effort to keep his bookstore open, St. Mark’s will likely have to move to a less expensive location. “We are going to need help,” he said. “My appearance here is to say to you that we are fighting to stay alive. We’ve been in business for 35 years in New York, and we’ve been told by our customers how important it is we’re still here … and I want to continue that.”

In response, Anderson noted that independent bookstores “are here to help each other, so let’s do what we can” to help St. Mark’s Bookshop.

Josie Leavitt of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont, then inquired about publishers that are testing new business models. “How is that going?” she asked, and wanted to know how bookstores are being chosen.

Anderson explained that because of non-disclosure agreements between the publishers and bookstores involved in the tests, much about the testing cannot yet be disclosed, but she did stress that publishers have chosen the bookstores that are participating in the test. She underscored ABA’s commitment to this process and also expressed how important it is to find successful new business models. “We have to reinvent how we do this,” Anderson said.

“We need to find out what we can do to move the needle. We need to change the way we deal with the publishing world, but they choose the tests. They determine the parameters of the test…. We hope that some of these tests will make a difference.”

Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco, California, brought up the question of how ABA and indie booksellers would adapt following Google’s decision to end its e-book reseller program, effective January 31, 2013. She urged ABA to include its membership in its search for a company or companies to replace Google in this capacity.

Anderson assured Evans that ABA is talking to every possible e-book vendor and said, “If anyone has any suggestions, please, please, pass them on.”

Casey Coonerty of Bookshop Santa Cruz in California complimented Mark Nichols and “his team for the amazing job they did” on the Celebration of Bookselling & Author Awards Luncheon, and suggested that it would be great if ABA could video the event and then edit it down to “10 minutes and send it to stores” so it could be posted on store websites and YouTube accounts.

The subject of ABA expanding its work with authors, involving them in efforts to keep indie bookstores alive and well, was introduced by Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves Bookstore in Buffalo, New York. Anderson noted the association’s ongoing work to broaden its relationship with the Authors Guild, especially as it relates to the Department of Justice case regarding the agency model. “We [booksellers] can do this at the local level,” Anderson said. “And you can ask [an author] to write to the Department of Justice. Authors are a huge part of our message.”

Bercu explained that the Tunney Act requires the DOJ to accept comments from the public, to publish the comments, and to submit a written summary of the comments to the federal court charged with considering approval. A federal judge will then determine whether the remedy being proposed is in the public interest. “You have the opportunity to say something,” Bercu stressed. “It’s your letter, your voice, and your opportunity to have a say.”

“Get all of your employees to send letter to the DOJ” and to [ABA Senior Content Officer] Dan Cullen, Anderson added.