ABA’s CEO Looks Back at a Good Year for Indie Booksellers

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Dear Booksellers,

Warmest New Year’s wishes from all us at ABA!

With the holiday season behind us, I trust that you have had an opportunity to recharge your batteries after what I hope was a profitable and busy December. ABA President Becky Anderson summed it up very well in her letter last month when she wrote that during the retail rush of December bookselling is “the most joyous. Phones ringing off the hook, handselling books with finesse and passion, and doling out customer service that surpasses anything our competition could ever dream of — this is what makes us the place of discovery for books and so much more.”

I was lucky enough again to share a little bit of that special time. As I mentioned in my last letter in BTW, each holiday season I try to spend a few days as a volunteer bookseller in an ABA member store, and this year I was thrilled to travel to Wichita, Kansas, to work with ABA Board member Sarah Bagby and her staff of all-star booksellers at Watermark Books and Café.

As is always the case on these trips when I put on my bookselling hat, the days were very busy and enjoyable, and full of feedback and discovery. Between talking to customers, restocking the shelves, straightening up of sections, and a lot more, I was even able to help with a little hand-selling, everything from Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Leave Her, David Nasaw’s The Patriarch,  and both new Jefferson bios (by Jon Meacham and Henry Wiencek) to some of my favorite backlist gems by Erik Larson. These annual bookstore trips are a wonderful holiday gift for me that I eagerly look forward to, and I am very grateful for the warm and generous hospitality of Sarah and her superb staff.

It was certainly busy in Wichita, but I could not be more pleased to be able to share with you that the overall national year-end sales numbers show a very strong year for the indie channel. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, sales at independent booksellers nationwide ended the year up almost eight percent as compared to 2011, based on the unit sales reported by the approximately 500 bookstores reporting to the weekly Indie Bestseller List.

Interestingly, for much of the year we saw double-digit sales growth over 2011 for our channel, but, given the strong holiday season many stores saw that year, we expected that 2012’s robust numbers would come down a little bit. However, the very healthy year-end number clearly demonstrates the vitality of independent bookstores. I know we are surrounded by those articulating a far more pessimistic appraisal of the state of bookselling, but our numbers are what they are. I don’t for one second underestimate the myriad challenges we continue to face — and I appreciate that the increases in sales did not happen in every store — but the fact is that 2012 was a good year for independent bookstores in the United States. As you and I know and appreciate, these sales are the result of careful planning and countless hours of hard work, and, importantly, they are also a testament to the unique role that indies play in helping book buyers discover new titles and experience firsthand a deeper connection with authors, great writing, and their own community.

At year’s end, it was interesting, too, to see how online book sales have grown for indie stores. In 2012, there was a 28 percent increase in online sales for bookstores using the IndieCommerce platform as a growing number of stores saw stronger sales. And though we are still in the very early stages of selling Kobo eReaders and eBooks, the numbers there, too, are encouraging. We significantly outperformed our earlier efforts in this area, and thousands of new e-book accounts were opened by indie customers. I know there is much for both us and Kobo to do to grow and improve this program, and I assure you that remains a high priority for us in 2013.

As I’ve said multiple times before, we continue to believe that the overwhelming majority of what our members sell will continue to be physical books, but we are also convinced that being able to say ‘yes’ to your customers when they decide that they want to read titles in a digital format is a strong strategic benefit to your business.

There were a number of other clear indicators of the strength of our channel in 2012. For the third year in a row, ABA’s bookstore membership numbers have shown a modest growth. Throughout the fall regional trade shows, we talked to many of these new stores, and it was exciting to hear their stories. Another very heartening sign was the growing consumer commitment to the shop local/local first movement, as was clearly shown by the growing success of AmEx’s Small Business Saturday. We heard firsthand from scores of members that Small Business Saturday was one of their busiest days of the year, and AmEx has reported that nationwide an estimated $5.5 billion was spent that day. Indie bookstores have been in the forefront of this movement, and they can take enormous pride in helping reshape the way millions and millions of Americans are shopping.

Related to this, I hope you have taken the few moments necessary to participate in the sixth annual post-holiday survey conducted by the Institute for Local Self Reliance in partnership with ABA and other business organizations. (Here’s the recent BTW story about the survey, which includes a link to the survey.) The data garnered from the survey play a very important role is helping us demonstrate the health of indie retailers, the effectiveness of shop local initiatives, and the growing public support for locally owned businesses. Last year, more than 1,800 businesses completed the survey and its findings were featured in more than 200 stories in local and national news media.

The survey is open until midnight EST on Thursday, January 24, but there’s no time like the present!

Another very hopeful trend of 2012 was that numerous publishers responded positively to ABA’s call to institute new ways in which to do business with booksellers, including most recently Penguin. In addition, hundreds of stores participated in the first multi-publisher promotion exclusively for ABA members, “Thanks for Shopping Indie.” The program gave booksellers the opportunity to offer an “extra” to customers on a broad range of 2012 Indie Next List titles as a way to thank them for their support, and this is only the first of what will be an ongoing offering of innovative promotions. As you know, ABA has been working hard to encourage our publishing colleagues to think creatively about how to formulate new business models that will help provide a strong foundation for a sustainable bookselling business in the 21st century. We think some significant strides were taken in 2012, and are grateful for the positive responses we’ve had from so many, but we know, too, that there’s a lot more to be done.

Again, all best New Year’s wishes to you. I hope to see you soon and that we’ll have a chance to say hello at either the upcoming Winter Institute in Kansas City or at our series of Spring Booksellers Forums being held around the country beginning in March.

And, I hope you’ll never hesitate to be in touch with me, other members of the ABA staff , or members of our Board of Directors when there is anything you want to bring to our attention.


Oren Teicher
CEO, American Booksellers Association