ABA Town Hall at BookExpo: Booksellers Talk Healthcare, Finances, Publisher Relationships

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On Thursday, May 30, the American Booksellers Association hosted its Town Hall meeting at BookExpo 2019, where booksellers were invited to share their thoughts about the association and the book industry at large.

Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music asked the ABA Board about healthcare at the 2019 Town Hall at BookExpo.
Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music asked the ABA Board about healthcare at the 2019 Town Hall at BookExpo.

The Town Hall meeting was facilitated by outgoing ABA President Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, with three locations in the Seattle area.

Sindelar was joined by Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut and Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, who is leaving the board after six years of service, and by former ABA Vice President/Secretary and incoming ABA President Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and incoming ABA Vice President/Secretary Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.

The other ABA Board members present were Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri; Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York; Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, California; Christine Onorati of WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey; Kelly Estep of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky; and the board’s newest members, Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon, and Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington. Board member Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Bookstore in Washington, D.C., was taking a maternity leave with her newborn.

Starting off the questions from the audience, Dick Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, New York, asked whether there is any hope that ABA will introduce a health insurance proposal in the next couple of years, and suggested that perhaps ABA booksellers can solve this in collaboration with publishers and their employees. The item has come up at multiple Town Hall meetings, he noted, and ABA has continued to assure members that the association is exploring the issue with its industry partners.

Sindelar acknowledged that the association’s language on health insurance in the handout provided to Town Hall attendees was optimistic but cautionary for a reason. The handout, titled “Key Issues Raised at Previous Town Halls and Action Steps Taken,” also included updates on ABA’s work on diversity issues, pre-order campaigns, and advocacy matters.

In answering this question, ABA CEO Oren Teicher told attendees that, “There is nothing ABA would like better to get done than to be able to provide health insurance for members, and I can assure you that we are doing all we can. We’re working with a really interesting coalition of other book industry associations: Kent Watson of PubWest has been helping us lead that effort, along with our friends at the Book Industry Study Group and the Authors Guild. The challenge we have had historically is that we need to put together a large enough group of people in order to be able to provide health insurance in a cost-effective way. We’ve made progress….We’re optimistic but we also want to be honest. We know it’s complicated; we know the cost of health insurance is high, and for us to be able to get into this business, we really want to do something that is cost-effective.”

Teicher also thanked booksellers who filled out the recent health insurance questionnaire that was sent out to ABA members, the results of which will help ABA in exploring possible solutions.

Suzanne Droppert of Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Washington, then asked the Board for an update on Batch, the U.K.-based electronic invoicing system. Sindelar said that right now, ABA is working with Batch to test the system in the U.S. for a rollout in the near future.

Fraser Tanner, managing director of the U.K. company, said Batch is working hard to make the system available to U.S. stores for an eventual rollout. “We’re still working on this. We’re still finalizing or arrangements around the banking; we’ve got a lot of support from three major companies that supply you,” Tanner said. “What we are probably looking at is easing ourselves into this and then eventually everybody will have the opportunity to join the system as we go live.”

Next, John Sepulveda of Ada’s Technical Books in Seattle, Washington, asked how bookstores can make sure profit margins stay consistent as the minimum wage continues to increase in more and more states across the country. Sindelar noted this is a huge challenge that bookstores are facing, but one ABA has been paying close attention to.

“Obviously, major metropolitan areas like Seattle are dealing with that right now, but it is something that is spreading quickly as the cost of living is increasing faster than our sales, and our margins on our book sales seem to have a finite amount of movement,” Sindelar said. “It is the lead point in our conversations with publishers about the future of our business, and looking at the ABACUS numbers, while we have been making progress on the margin amongst indie booksellers, payroll is creeping up, too, and almost at the same rate. So we are challenging publisher partners to say, What can we do about this together?”

Sindelar said ABA uses ABACUS, the yearly benchmarking survey that gathers key information and insights on bookstore financials, to illustrate to publishers a sense of the economic realities of bookstores, so that they can see what it takes for booksellers to do business. Fiocco also urged member booksellers to participate in the ABACUS survey because “it allows us to put data in front of the publishers and anybody we work with to help us with margin. It’s a massive tool for illustrating to our partners exactly what we’re facing.”

Bob Baird of The Book Bin in Corvallis, Oregon, stood up next to say that, in addition to the minimum wage increase, the Oregon legislature recently passed the gross receipts tax, which will add another half a percent to the store’s costs. “What we really need is for publishers to stop putting a pre-printed price on the books so that we can do what everybody else in the world does and raise prices to compensate,” he said. “We can’t do that right now and so we’re really stuck.”

Mulvihill said stores in California are facing similar forces, since the state legislature is considering eliminating paper receipts, which will force retailers to e-mail or text customers their receipts — not the easiest thing to do given the state of most POS systems. Mulvihill then asked for a show of hands — and received a divided opinion — about whether booksellers in the audience were in favor of keeping a price pre-printed by the publishers on the book or allowing booksellers to set the price.

Onorati told booksellers to make sure they keep having these conversations with their publisher partners and sales reps. “What your publisher partners have to know, is that the more socks we bring in, the less room we have for their books, and that is a real quantifiable topic to bring up,” said Onorati. “It’s important to just keep saying to our sales reps, look around, because we can’t raise all our book prices. They can send notes to their bosses to let them know that this is a conversation we need to keep having.”

Matt Norcross of Mclean & Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, said he is increasingly concerned with direct-to-customer marketing, such as Random House’s new loyalty program. Norcross said that when he complains to publishers, he is told that he is the only one complaining and that they are not hearing it from ABA; the board stressed that this matter remains a high priority in conversations with publishers.

“I’m asking you all to continue to have those uncomfortable conversations,” Norcross told the Board. “It’s undermining us, it’s confusing the customer, and it’s hurting the local stores that [publishers say] they love and never want to see go away. It’s a problem.”

ABA Board member Kenny Brechnber of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers answers an audience question.
ABA Board member Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers answers an audience question.

Kira Wizner of Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, New York, added that these direct-to-consumer sales by publishers are also happening at author events in conjunction with organizations she has partnered with, with some of these groups buying directly from the publishers. “I did the math on this the other day and I’ve lost $252, but that’s important. It took me seven e-mails back and forth with my rep, and it happened again and again. I think talking to our sales reps, as much as I love them, [isn’t all that is needed]. It’s the people all the way up at the top,” she said.

Fiocco told booksellers that ABA has been talking to publishers to try to address problems regarding direct sales programs, and acknowledged the truth of Wizner’s statement, adding that, “it’s not only that $252 dollars that you miss out on, it’s the relationship that you could make with the venue that you could have been selling books at. It’s a bigger problem than each individual incident… It’s events, it’s direct to consumer, and it’s B2B, and these are conversations that we are having. So please keep giving feedback to us and your reps.”

Graham added that in order to better make the case to publishers that this direct marketing behavior is hurting bookstores, ABA needs to see how often this is happening and where this is happening, so a central database could be a solution. “In the meantime, I encourage anyone who has encountered problems like this to e-mail Jamie or me or both of us, and we’ll begin to keep a list,” he said.

Sheryl Cotleur from California’s Copperfield’s Books, with locations in Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties, then asked how ABA booksellers can get involved with the ABACUS survey. The Board called upon ABA Senior Strategy Officer Dan Cullen, who is the point of contact for ABACUS at ABA.

ABACUS is probably the project I am most passionate about at ABA,” he said. “It has great utility for every bookstore, no matter what your size or location is, no matter how long your store has been in operation.”

ABA manages the confidential survey, a free member benefit, with the help of data company Industry Insights, said Cullen. To participate in the survey, booksellers can retrieve the ABACUS portal link on BookWeb.org to create an account and then fill out the survey, which gathers information from stores’ tax returns and basic P&L sheets. This year’s deadline is June 12, but may be extended.

“[Filling out ABACUS] is the most profitable hour of your business life that you can take because the report will pay off dividends every year,” Cullen said. “It is a roadmap to your profitability; it benchmarks your store in relevant and accurate ways and it allows you to assess where you are and show you what you need to think about to get to where you want to be. It’s like adding a CFO to your staff. And the more people we can add to the ABACUS community, the richer the number of questions that we can ask.”

Mulvihill told booksellers he recently heard from a bookseller who got her rent reduced after showing her landlord her ABACUS results, and Kleindienst recommended that booksellers e-mail or call their ABA Member Relationship manager if they have questions about the survey. “You will be able to figure out stuff about your store in comparison to the rest of the stores so you won’t feel crazy about your finances as much as you probably do,” she said. “This is a really powerful tool for ABA to take to publishers. It has opened their eyes a lot in terms of things like extra points when they can see what it really costs us to do business.”

Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, D.C., next told the board that she was stunned at the difficulty of opening her publisher accounts in the context of her new store, despite having worked as a bookseller for the previous 10 years. She noted it would be easier if publisher applications were more accessible, but said she was glad that there had been significant publisher outreach regarding new terms in the wake of Baker & Taylor’s decision to leave the retail market. Sindelar reminded booksellers that these post-Baker & Taylor offers can be found in the ABA Book Buyer’s Handbook, along with many others, and asked ABA staff to look into putting links to actual publisher applications online.

Next, Steve Iwanski at Turnrow Book Co. in Greenwood, Mississippi, stood up to make an appeal on behalf of indie bookstores like his that are not in cities with an international airport or are in flyover states that tend to get less attention from New York City publishers.

“One of the lessons we all learned in 2016 is that, unfortunately, there is a disconnect felt between regions like that and places like New York City. It’s a sad truth, but places like that need bookstores more and more. The areas that are called book deserts, or food deserts, where 80 percent of the people live below the poverty line — we need bookstores, too,” he said.

While he emphasized that publishers’ publicity departments need to do more to set up author tours in these book deserts, Iwanski thanked ABA for the association’s efforts to help aspiring booksellers open stores in areas without one.  

In response to this appeal, Philbrick, who is on the board of The Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc), said Binc recently formed a task force that is addressing ways to support stores in these underserved areas. Added Graham, “One of the great successes of the past few years has been the increase in the number of stores across the country, and this has led to the headlines we are all reading, that independent bookstores are back, to stop worrying about them. We are trying to adjust that message now, particularly in discussions with our publisher partners.”

“Even now, with all these new and young stores opening, we can’t just assume that once they are launched they are going to go on and be successful. There needs to be a sort of nurturing of these fledgling stores. it takes time for these new stores to take root,” Graham said. One solution, he said, could be having publishers extend their programs for new stores.

Brechner added that existing stores in rural areas need to work together regionally to map their own area-specific touring routes. “We’ve got to build out a different touring model so it works,” said Brechner. “There is nothing more valuable in a rural area than getting authors in schools.”

Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore asked the Board about making publisher account applications more accessible.
Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore asked the Board about making publisher account applications more accessible.

BrocheAroe Fabian of River Dog Book Co. in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, who has been in the bookselling industry for 13 years, told the audience that she currently hopes to open a book truck but can’t get a loan. She encouraged ABA to do more to help new stores that have alternative models, so that publishers take these models seriously.

“I also think we need better programming, better hand-holding for new stores,” she said. “Despite having been in the industry as long as I have, I didn’t receive hand-holding and I think we need it. I think for new stores, the provisional membership, the first three years — they need hand-holding from a member services person…to help them through the process of what the industry is, how to go about opening your accounts, how to set up things in a smart way, and how to be part of our industry.”

Fiocco said ABA is working on testing some programs that offer mentorships and other forms of hand-holding for new stores and for sustaining stores long-term, and Binc executive director Pam French reiterated that her organization recently created an official task force to look into ways of expanding Binc’s mission. Right now, this task force is looking specifically at finding ways to support emerging markets and book deserts and how to partner with ABA and other industry partners to make that happen. She noted that they are not accepting applications yet, but will keep booksellers updated.

Along with health insurance and new bookseller models and pop-ups, another topic submitted by booksellers prior to the meeting was that of Chinese tariffs. On tariffs’ effect of increased costs, Teicher said ABA is “working closely with our colleagues at the Association of American Publishers (AAP) on coming up with an industry statement that makes the case that for us to continue to be able to import books from China really matters.”

Finally, Maryelizabeth Yturralde of Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, California, and Creating Conversations in Redondo Beach, California, offered a plug for the newest national themed event created by booksellers, Bookstore Romance Day. The first annual event is scheduled for Saturday, August 17, and was modeled after Independent Bookstore Day.