ABA Town Hall and Annual Meeting: Looking Ahead and Breaking the Mold

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At the American Booksellers Association’s Annual Meeting and Town Hall, held on Tuesday, May 24, at BookExpo America, topics included how booksellers can succeed in an ever-changing digital world, a significant uptick in the number of ABA member bookstores, and the best ways that ABA can help to facilitate success and sustainability for independent bookselling.

ABA CEO Oren Teicher broke from established protocol for his report. “These are not normal times in the book business. We are living through a period of unprecedented change and staggering challenges,” he said. Given that, he noted that “rather than focusing on the past, I am going to break with tradition in order to share some thoughts and observations about what I think are the keys to responding to the challenges we face, and how I believe booksellers and publishers can work more closely together in the common goal of selling more books.”

Reports on the end of bricks-and-mortar bookselling and the eventual disintermediation of publishers have been widespread recently, Teicher said, so much so, that one might wonder if innovation and independence is enough. “But I believe the time has come for all of us in the industry to stand up to those who would treat books as nothing more than a loss-leader in their march to become the world’s dominant supplier of everything.”

Teicher quipped that “many of you know I like to paraphrase a famous Mark Twain quote in saying that the reports of the death of independent bookselling have been greatly exaggerated.” But he stressed that “recognizing that these are unsettled times, I could not be more confident that if all of us in this business — booksellers, publishers, wholesalers and authors — work together, we will meet the challenges we face — and we will create a business environment where everyone grows and prospers.”

To do that, however, Teicher said that ABA and its members need to chart a bold and creative new course. “We need to come up with new and innovative ways in which we do business together,” he said. “It can no longer be business as usual.”

Teicher said that the book industry’s current system is “antiquated” and in need of a complete reappraisal. “Undoubtedly, in an industry in which every new title is unique, there will always be titles that fail to find their audience. But I think we kid ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that our publishing and bookselling business model is creaking — perhaps even groaning — under the strain of rapidly accelerating technological and social change,” he said. The first step, Teicher said, would be “for publishers and booksellers — together — to take out a clean sheet of paper and ask themselves: If we were to design a business model that would give all stakeholders in our industry the best possible opportunity for success, what would it look like?”

Teicher noted that long-term solutions would build on the core strengths of bookselling while adapting to and implementing new technology. A key reality of retailing was, he said, that “bricks-and-mortar bookstores — and not just indies, but all bricks-and-mortar bookstores, remain the essential showroom in ensuring the sales of a broad spectrum of titles.” Noting that “the music business is a sobering reminder of what happens when an industry loses its showroom,” Teicher pointed out that “in losing a physical display space, we lost the joy of discovery itself. And, importantly, while the shelves in the iTunes online store might be limitless, the attention span of a shopper is not.”

Noting that “books in all formats must fight harder and harder to establish a position in today’s crowded media landscape,” Teicher said he remains convinced that helping consumers answer “the question ‘what should I read next?’ … is what bricks-and-mortar bookstores do better than anyone else.”

Regarding online sales and other new forms of marketing, Teicher said, “We at ABA are leaving no stone unturned in helping empower our member stores to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy digital content” from indie booksellers. Teicher reported that ABA now has more than 300 bookstores able to sell Google eBooks™.

He noted, however, that “ABA in no way believes that print books are going away. We remain convinced that the lion’s share of books sold in our member stores for the foreseeable future will be sold in traditional book format.”

Regarding new business models, Teicher stressed, “I am not saying that indie booksellers are looking for either a handout or special favors. Far from it. But it is time for our industry to acknowledge that new times and new challenges require new business practices.” Noting that “we do understand that publishers are facing significant financial pressures and constraints, too,” Teicher said, “ABA has held a number of meetings with publishers about the direction of the industry and steps booksellers and publishers might take to improve their collective future. Our goal is to continue a dialogue that respects the challenges facing both booksellers and publishers, that recognizes the common ground and goals we share, and that responds intelligently to the opportunities before us.”

In its talks with publishers, ABA has discussed a number of ideas, said Teicher, including consignment arrangements, extended dating for invoices, forgoing returnability — particularly on backlist — for additional discount, and a close look at how co-op might be restructured to take into account both the shrinking number of traditional media outlets and the proliferation of online and social media avenues for book promotion.

In conclusion, Teicher reiterated his conviction that ABA and its members will be able to fashion new business models required to help innovate and strengthen the legacy of bookselling in a new century. “I’ve broken the mold a little bit with this year’s CEO’s Report because I know that the world is changing rapidly, and that your world as booksellers is unsettled — and because, as your trade association, we are committed to doing everything we can to focus our energies and attention on helping shape a new, sustainable bookselling business model,” he said. “Despite all the challenges and difficulties, I am both confident and convinced the future of our industry is bright.”

(To read the full text of Teicher’s remarks, click here.)

In her membership report, incoming ABA President Becky Anderson detailed the membership growth. “Last year, we had nine new bookstores and this year we have 102 new bookstores. We’ve seen two years of growth. The encouraging figures are our provisional members: As of May 15, 2011, we have 167 provisional members, 40 more than the same time last year.” As of May 15, 2011, there were 1,512 ABA bookstore members and a total association membership of 2,050.

Addressing the association’s finances, Teicher said the auditor had given the association financial statements a clean opinion. (The 2009 - 2010 Consolidated Financial Statements for ABA and its Subsidiaries are available to ABA members via BookWeb.org.) Teicher noted that a favorable overall financial environment contributed to association income that was projected to be ahead of budget for the fiscal 2011 year, and he said that it was expected that operating results after taxes would to be better than budgeted for fiscal 2011. He also noted that the association’s 990 filing was available on BookWeb.org.

In his President’s Report, outgoing ABA President Michael Tucker said, “The [ABA] Board members are seated among you, and as outgoing [president], I’d like to thank them for the honor and privilege to serve on the Board for six years and the last two years as president. It presented me with the opportunity to meet with colleagues, visit stores, and hear ideas and creative solutions. On behalf of the membership, I’d like to thank them.”

Tucker said indies faced challenges, most especially the stalled economy, “but we’re still here.” He stressed that “we really need to play to our strengths. We need to strengthen our communication to our publishers…. This is your organization — the more your voice is heard, the more vibrant and responsive ABA can become.”

Anderson thanked the two departing Board members, Dan Chartrand of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter New Hampshire, and Tucker. “I don’t know how to follow this guy’s act,” Anderson quipped.

She also introduced new board members John Evans of DIESEL, a Bookstore in Brentwood and Oakland, California, and Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan.

This spring, the ABA membership adopted an amendment to the ABA Bylaws, expanding the ABA Board to 10 members and electing the president for a two-year term. In the first election subsequent to the adoption of this amendment, Anderson was elected as ABA’s first two-year president. The election created a vacancy for the director position previously held by Anderson. Under the bylaws, the Board of Directors filled that vacancy with a temporary appointment, Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas. Koehler will serve for one year and will be eligible to stand for election to a full three-year term during the next election cycle.

At the ABA Town Hall meeting, which preceded the Annual Meeting, Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco, quoted Jeff Hammerbacher, the former data manager at Facebook, that the best minds of our generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. “We need the best minds thinking about reinventing indie bookselling,” Evans stressed. “My message is, I think we can do better. I hope this isn’t heard as criticism, but as constructive feedback.”

Evans said she believed that IndieCommerce, IndieBound, and Google Books — “all of which took considerable resources” — could not be considered a success. She said she believes that “ABA will have to reinvent itself to be more nimble … to achieve the collective goal of sustainability.” She added that she hoped the association would “change its culture” to better welcome new ideas from outside sources and potential partners.

In response, Anderson thanked Evans for her input but said, “Many in the room would say that IndieCommerce, IndieBound, and Google eBooks was money well-spent. When it comes to the issues that we face … ABA has a much more open environment. It’s the wild, wild West out there … but I think we should be optimistic. There is opportunity; there are initiatives we can take back home. This trade organization is like no other. Its representation of its members and its advocacy is unparalleled.”

In other Town Hall comments, Donna Paz of Paz and Associates encouraged the association to consider a national marketing campaign, and Deborah Hill Gary of the children’s bookstore Color Book Gallery in Philadelphia urged the association to work to ensure that even “micro” bookstores could find value in ABA’s services.

Regarding media coverage of indie bookselling, Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books, noted that the Saint Louis Independent Booksellers Association grew from efforts by a group of St. Louis retailers who came together to help a struggling a bookstore. The story was picked up by the media because it was competitors coming together to help one another. “The media also takes the sensational, and that is, we helped each other … it doesn’t have to be negative.”

In concluding, Steele went back to the discussion prompted by Evans and stressed, “We do succeed and fail by our own decisions. I realize that if I want changes, I need to be the leader.”