ABA Membership Meeting and Town Hall: Indie Resurgence Gains Steam, Challenges Remain

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

At the American Booksellers Association’s Annual Membership Meeting on Thursday, May 29, at BookExpo America, ABA President Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, called the meeting to order and provided the Report of the President, which included thanking Ken White of Books Inc. in San Francisco, California, who had just completed his second three-year term as a member of ABA’s Board of Directors. Bercu also welcomed Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who is beginning her first term on the Board, and thanked the other eight Board members for their “great effort” on behalf of ABA bookstore members.

In the Report of the Vice President, Betsy Burton of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah, noted that ABA regular member locations now stand at 2,094. “I think that is significant,” she said, characterizing it as “a renaissance of independent booksellers.”

ABA CEO Oren Teicher

During the Report of the Chief Executive Officer, ABA CEO Oren Teicher spoke to the Hachette-Amazon controversy when he said, "The book industry is being held hostage by a company far more interested in selling flat screen TV’s, diapers, and groceries. It is clear they are prepared to sacrifice a diverse publishing ecosystem to achieve retail dominance. That’s not good for anyone, let alone American consumers."

Teicher thanked the ABA Board, noting that they “are the unsung heroes of ABA ... they devote countless hours to our work and do a masterful job at representing the interests of all booksellers.” He especially thanked outgoing Board member Ken White for his “indelible impact” on the association during his two terms and added, “We are grateful for your service.” Teicher told members, “We do not take your participation for granted,” and continued, “I sincerely hope you know that ABA is committed 52 weeks a year to hearing your ideas, concerns, and feedback.”

In his report, Teicher said the association’s independent auditor had once again given ABA’s financial statements a clean opinion. (The 2012 - 2013 Consolidated Financial Statements for ABA and its Subsidiaries and ABA’s 990 tax form are available to ABA members on the Governance and Finances page on BookWeb.org.)

“Under the direction of your Board,” Teicher continued, “the ABA investment policy continues to serve us well. ABA’s endowment has again grown stronger since this time last year.” This past year alone, ABA has invested in a number of new programs, he reported, including the Indies First promotion inspired by Sherman Alexie, the Indies Introduce effort to highlight debut authors, new and expanded programming in children’s bookselling, as well as in upgrading ABA’s IndieCommerce product.

Pointing to the growth of ABA membership noted in Burton’s report, Teicher said that the independent bookstore resurgence has not only continued but has, indeed, gained steam. For the fifth year in a row, ABA membership has grown and “for the first time since 2005,” he said, “ABA member bookstores are operating in more than 2,000 locations. In addition, a number of established stores are expanding and opening in new locations, and a whole new generation of younger booksellers is continuing to join our ranks.” Perhaps the most significant change is that, for the past few years, many veteran store owners are not closing up shop when they retire but are instead finding buyers for their bookstores. “Stores that just a few years ago might very well have closed are now beginning new chapters of innovation and growth.”

However, Teicher said, “the ultimate indicator is sales. After a year of robust sales growth in 2012, the indie channel held on to the lion’s share of those gains in 2013. And, as I hardly need to remind many of you — after a truly brutal winter that depressed retail sales nationwide — sales in the second quarter have recovered.” If these trends continue, he said, “There’s every reason to believe that 2014 will be another year of solid sales for the indie channel.” The result, he noted, is that the usual media narrative that indies are waging a losing battle is changing.

Part of the indie resurgence is due to help from many important allies, Teicher said. Noting that on Wednesday, May 28, at BEA, author James Patterson had announced the second round of bookstores to receive grants from his $1 million campaign to help independent bookstores, Teicher said, “[Patterson’s] commitment underscores his strong belief that indie booksellers are essential in creating a lasting love of reading in children and adults…. And I want to thank Jim on behalf of all of you.”

Teicher then pointed to ABA’s relationship with Reed Exhibitions. Announcing that “ABA has entered into a new seven-year arrangement with our colleagues at Reed to continue our partnership at BookExpo America,” Teicher said that, while “everyone knows that trade shows are changing,” ABA’s ongoing co-sponsorship of the event will maintain a strong independent bookstore presence and will ensure that ABA members participation in the event will continue to be a significant piece of the show.

Publishers have also been important allies, Teicher continued. “It was three years ago at BEA while giving this report to the membership that I first challenged our colleagues in publishing to work with us to chart a new course, to identify innovative new ways to do business together. And a number of publishers have done just that. Every test of new business models didn’t succeed but a number of them did and some of them resulted in new terms and policies that are helping both bookstores and publishers grow and prosper.”

Still, in a hyper-competitive business environment, the need to “innovate never ends,” Teicher warned. “I want to clearly state that ABA will in no way lessen our efforts in the important task of working with publishers. It’s my view that we have only begun to scratch the surface as to what is possible and I want to assure you that cementing favorable working relationships with our publishing partners remains one of our highest priorities.”

While noting the successes, Teicher said it would be “naïve” to not acknowledge the challenges ahead. “In a world of constant connectivity and proliferating media content, the competition for the leisure time of book buyers has become ever more fierce,” he explained. “The rapid rate of change only seems to accelerate and simply keeping up with what one needs to know to operate a successful and profitable bookstore can at times seem daunting.”

Politically, in the nation’s Capitol, congressional gridlock has seemingly delayed the progress of federal sales tax fairness efforts and sensible reforms to the Senate’s USA Freedom Act. This, “despite the efforts of many of you in this room and that of our many retail colleagues…. We’ve by no means given up but getting Congress to act has been a tall order,” Teicher said. He also noted that state and national minimum wage legislation could pose very difficult business decisions for members as they work to maintain the business profits necessary to pay an equitable wage.

Looking at the book industry, Teicher said, “The consolidation among publishers presents a number of challenges. And, certainly most starkly, the aggressive discounting and strong-arm tactics of the dominant online retailer continue to cause havoc. Its recent bullying assault of a major publisher is just the latest example of a unilateral and shortsighted strategy…. It is clear they are prepared to sacrifice a diverse publishing ecosystem to achieve retail dominance. That’s not good for anyone.”

In concluding, Teicher said that, while there may indeed be significant challenges, the association is “committed to do everything we can to help you meet these challenges…. And we have the resources to meet these challenges. There has never been a better educated, more professionally astute community of indie booksellers.”

The ABA Town Hall Meeting

ABA President Steve Bercu and Vice President Betsy Burton.

At the Town Hall, held on Thursday afternoon, May 29, just prior to the Annual Membership Meeting, topics included the need for more diversity in books, the Hachette-Amazon battle, Amazon’s partnership with the United States Postal Service, California Bookstore Day, and the effects of deep discounting.

Bercu and Burton chaired the Town Hall, a yearly meeting that provides members with an open forum to bring questions, suggestions, and concerns to the attention of the ABA Board and staff, and to share them with fellow booksellers.

Steve Rosato, BEA show director, spoke briefly and one of the topics covered was BEA’s move to to Chicago for the 2016 trade show. Noting that the event has been in New York City for a “long time,” he added, “It is important to go outside Manhattan.” Rosato also discussed BookCon, which will be Saturday, May 31, a day in which consumers are invited into the convention. He explained that the goal of the event is to “elevate the status of books” and that as of Monday about 7,500 people had registered for the event, which could welcome as many as 10,000 people. “We would probably cap it there,” he said.

Todd Dickinson of Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pennsylvania, opened up the Town Hall discussion with a question about what role ABA will take in helping to ensure there is diversity in books “especially in middle grade and picture books,” he said. “Does ABA plan to talk to BookCon?”

“We plan certainly to converse with them about the event, and as to encouraging diversity? That conversation is certainly ongoing,” Bercu said.

Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, New York, wondered what booksellers can do about Amazon’s dispute with Hachette.

Bercu said the situation was discussed by the Board and he stressed that indies should “take advantage of every medium to educate the community about these issues. Anything that helps customers take a reasoned look at where they buy their books is a good thing. I think [Amazon delaying fulfillment and pre-orders of Hachette titles] is an incredible opportunity … [shopping at] Amazon is not always so convenient.”

Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wondered if there was data on whether sales of Hachette titles had increased at independent bookstores, and if so, it should be reported. Too often, she noted, the loss of a book sale at Amazon is considered synonymous with a lost book sale. “It’s not a lost sale,” she said, noting that those sales may be moving to other channels.

Doug Robinson of Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Georgia, questioned Amazon’s partnership with the United States Postal Service, a quasi-government agency, to provide Sunday delivery.

Teicher noted that booksellers should use the template letter in ABA’s E-Fairness Action Kit and reach out to their legislators about this. “And we’ll continue to talk about it — what is available to one company should be available to all.”

John Bennett of Fieldstone Book Company in Wyckoff, New Jersey, asked for an update on federal sales tax fairness legislation.

“The answer is, the door is not slammed shut, yet,” Teicher said. “There is some hope that it could be attached to some other legislation. But there is real frustration.” He noted that it’s very likely that booksellers will again hear from ABA urging them to reach out to their legislators before the current legislative session is through.

The conversation then moved to the success of California Bookstore Day and booksellers discussed the pros and cons of expanding the event nationally. On Saturday, May 3, more than 90 bookstores in the state celebrated California Bookstore Day by hosting parties and events throughout the day and offering limited-edition literary merchandise to shoppers.

Bercu said the ABA Board has discussed this idea but that looking through “data from California Bookstore Day is the first step. We need [the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association] and others to evaluate it internally.”

While stressing that he was not offering an opinion on whether to bring Bookstore Day national, Ken White of Books Inc. in San Francisco noted, “The success of Record Store Day is that music has a broad popular and cultural appeal. Books are more personal. It is harder to match a book with a reader.” He said it was no surprise then that Neil Gaiman’s books did so well on the day because he is one author with a large fan base that communicate with one another. He also pointed out that, while areas of California have a high concentration of bookstores close together – and that traveling from one store to the next was part of the event’s appeal — that may not be the case in other, more rural areas of the country.

The Town Hall concluded with a discussion spurred by comments from Chris Doeblin of Book Culture in New York City, who cautioned booksellers that the problem is not necessarily the Amazons of the world but the paradigm of book pricing, in general. He noted that other industries don’t have the same problem with deep discounting and companies using products as loss leaders. “Why is only [the book industry] having this problem?” he said.