“Indie booksellers are innovative agents of change,” ABA CEO Oren Teicher told an audience at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference on Thursday morning in New York City.
Dispelling the “You’ve Got Mail” narrative — that there’s no way an indie bookseller can swim against the waves of industry change and survive — a narrative that hasn’t changed in last 15 years, Teicher asserted, “Almost everything in the book industry has changed in 15 years — including independent bookselling. And the good news for the indies — and I believe for readers, book buyers, and the entire industry — is that we are seeing a renaissance of indie bookselling.”
Teicher backed up his points during the presentation “Booksellers and Change” with statistics showing that overall unit sales at approximately 500 bookstores reporting to ABA’s weekly Indie Bestseller List were up almost eight percent in 2012 as compared to 2011. And for the 420 bookstores now using ABA’s IndieCommerce platform online sales grew by 28 percent in 2012.
“We at ABA don’t for one second underestimate the myriad challenges independent booksellers continue to face — and I fully appreciate that these increases in sales did not happen in all stores,” Teicher said. “But the fact is that 2012 was a good year for independent bookstores in the United States.”
2012 was the third year in a row that ABA’s bookstore membership numbers increased, and the association welcomed 43 new or branch stores that opened last year in 25 states.
One key factor underlying the indie renaissance, Teicher said, “is that independent booksellers are actively adopting and implementing appropriate technology.”
Through the ABA/Kobo partnership launched last August, “participating ABA member stores can now offer their customers a full line of top-of-the-line eReaders, apps, eReading accessories, and eBooks from Kobo’s catalog of nearly three million titles,” Teicher said. Importantly, the program enables participating bookstores to retain their customer relationships while sharing in the revenue on their every sale.
“But technology isn’t the entire story,” Teicher said. “The “localism” movement in America has taken root, and millions of consumers every day are making decisions to patronize locally owned retail shops — as opposed to only shopping in large national chains.”
Evidence of the growing movement can been seen in the more than half million retail businesses participating in the second annual Small Business Saturday promotion last November that reported sales of approximately $5.5 billion in a single day, he noted.
In addition, indie business owners responding to a recent survey, conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in partnership with ABA and other indie business organizations, “reported revenue growth of 6.8 percent on average, and more than two-thirds experienced revenue growth in 2012 — a larger share than in the 2011 and 2010 post-holiday surveys,” Teicher said.
Indie businesses in communities with an active “buy local first” initiative reported average revenue growth of 8.6 percent in 2012 — compared to 3.4 percent for those in areas without such an initiative. Among survey respondents in cities with a “buy local first” initiative, 75 percent reported that the initiative had had a positive impact on their business.
The introduction of unique nonbook products; staff expertise and a focus on children’s books; a full calendar of store events — not just author events but also classes, co-programming with local theaters, meet-ups in restaurants and bars – are among the other factors that Teicher cited as being critical to the health and growth of indies.
But, he stressed, “the most important element — the killer app, if you will — is the fact that physical bookstores offer a unique and unparalleled experience for readers and book buyers to discover a wide range of new titles.”
Though the indies’ overall market share remains modest, that one data point doesn’t tell the full story, he said. “Our channel’s positive sales numbers highlight that bricks-and-mortar independent bookstores continue to offer book buyers a unique and essential browsing and discovery experience” that is fueling sales in other channels as well.
Pointing to recent findings by the Codex Group that show the percentage of those who say they discovered a title in a physical bookstore — 20 percent — has dropped, Teicher noted, “In part that decline is the result of the loss of the hundreds of Borders stores nationwide. That said, when comparing discovery in a physical store versus an online store, the gap is widest in the online store. While the discovery percentage in a bookstore is 20 percent, it is just seven percent for online stores.”
Teicher noted that, following calls from ABA in 2011 that publishers recognize the unique role played by bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the association has had a number of conversations with publishers “about the importance of reinventing the way we operate together — and a number of houses have individually identified and tested their own innovative ideas,” which have already resulted in new programs.
Teicher observed that in the face of challenges over the years from mall stores, corporate superstores, warehouse clubs, online retailing, e-books, and more, “indie booksellers have innovated and adapted to meet the changing competition and the changing times, all with their eyes firmly fixed on the unchanging goal of connecting book buyers with their next great read.”
The secret to this success, he said, “and perhaps the most important factor fueling the renaissance in indie bookselling — is that independent booksellers recognize that they have an obligation to adapt. Indie bookstores are a permanent work in progress. They are changing every day.
“In a world of such vast and accelerating change, we are discovering that small is better, and that the nimble can adapt more quickly, can turn on a dime, can experiment, and — not burdened with layers of management and infrastructure — can profitably implement necessary change.”