Back and Forth: Backlist or the Body Politic? — A Letter From ABA President Betsy Burton

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Dear Booksellers:

Here’s the problem with Winter Institute this year: It was too good. I mean how do you choose what to actually commit to when you’ve been inspired by 19 new ideas, vowed to begin 10 new programs, change 12 procedures in your store — and institute two different community outreach initiatives as well? If you can’t do them all, how do you prioritize? Especially when you’ve yet to meet with and debrief the other staff members who attended, and each has ideas of his or her own…

Actually, when it came time to debrief at the end of Wi11, I did manage to decide. Torn between, on the one hand, using backlist from our Book Swap list and from the Indie Next List to rethink displays all over the store, and, on the other hand, using the new Civic Economics study on Amazon as a tool for working with our state government, I decided to write out steps for the latter but take time on the plane to think about the former. Here’s my Wi11 debrief exercise completed for the Amazon study:

           What? To combine the Civic Economics Study and slides and quotes from Stacy Mitchell’s and Joe Minicozzi’s presentations into a cogent document that can be used in work with the our state’s Department of Economic Development, with city and county officials, and with state legislators.

           Why? Because it could be the perfect tool to illustrate and reinforce the work Local First has already done and to educate new council members in city and county government as well as state staff. All of this is key to our survival because these government entities control the environment in which we do business. Education on these issues can profoundly alter their behavior and, so, our business landscape. We’ve seen this at the city and county levels and now hope to see it at the state level. And we can use this study to educate the public as well.

           What First Steps? To aggregate the information from the above three sources, to involve Local First Utah in the presentation, and to obtain appointments with those government officials to whom we wish to present the material.

           Who to involve? Staff at the store, staff and the board at Local First Utah and at the Utah Retail Merchant’s Association (the big box stores, our new best friends), and existing allies in government at the city, county, and state levels.

           Challenges? Melding the information into one compelling presentation, picking an effective presentation team, getting in to see the officials, and organizing a press conference to present the information to the public.

           Measure of success? Receptivity of officials at meetings, policy changes down the road, and a gradual shift in public perception concerning the respective impacts of Amazon and locally owned independent businesses on the economy at the state and local levels and on the character of the community.

Think — if we all did this with some measure of success? The groundswell could be huge, the press not just national and international, but ongoing as our campaigns replicated and grew….

Delusions of our collective grandeur aside, here are my plans, jotted down on the plane-ride home, for backlist — plans I’ll confess right off the bat are not just my own but the stirrings of an idea from ABA’s Board. Jonathon Welch asked one day at a Board meeting, why not figure out a backlist program? The Board jumped on the idea — and part of what I was doing when I began speculating about what we might do at The King’s English [TKE] using the debrief formula was in aid of that idea — which I love.

           What? To aggregate the Backlist Book Swap titles, the Indie Next List’s Revisit & Rediscover titles and TKE Staff Backlist Favorites; to gather blurbs from old newsletters, Indie Next Lists, and enthusiastic booksellers; and to create attractive displays storewide and include blurbs in blogs, newsletters, and book club presentations.

           Why? Because backlist is at the heart of everything we are and everything we do; it underlines our deep knowledge of books, reinforces our partnerships with authors (who greatly appreciate attention to more than just new books!) and with publishers (for whom backlist is manna). Besides, our customers love discovering the old gems on our shelves. And this kind of expertise is exactly what separates us from Amazon.

           What are the first steps? Getting the Backlist Book Swap list and the Indie Next Revisit & Rediscover titles from ABA, asking each of our booksellers to pick their 10 favorites, aggregating the lists, finding or writing blurbs, and creating displays.

           Who to involve? ABA (to obtain the Backlist Book Swap list and promotional material from the Indie Next List) and store staff — probably our marketing team.

           Challenges? Figuring out the staff to do this, giving them a timeline, and making sure it all gets done.

           Or even better, getting ABA to do it for us! The Board’s enthusiasm for the project already gave birth to the Backlist Book Swap… And every book program we do collectively, whether it involves frontlist or backlist, new authors or longtime favorites, adult or children’s books, showcases to publishers and authors — as well as to our customers — how integrally connected we are to every part of this business and how important we are to the way it works. Which means that when any of us think about the book programs ABA has built or is building, we need to think collectively — not just about our store, but about all of our stores and the presence we establish as we work together. If it’s an exciting prospect for our store, just think how exciting it can be if we’re all involved…

           Measure of success? Increased sales of backlist! Lots of love from authors and publishers. Lots of love for our customers — nationwide. Obviously there will be more to come on this subject!

When I finally got home, the three staff members from our store who also attended Wi11 sat down with me to debrief, and, as I had feared/hoped, each of them had must-do ideas: Everything from BookPeople of Moscow’s practices of creating blind dates with gift-wrapped ARCs (we’re calling ours “Take a Blind Date to Bed”) and donating wrapped ARCs to hospitals on a re-circulating basis, to creating nooks in the store with seats below thought bubbles (courtesy of Changing Hands), to planning great new things for Independent Bookstore Day (thanks, Green Apple), to book pairing parties and online content (courtesy of our own Kenneth Loosli) and monthly Book Swap Nights (thank you, Booksmith). All that, and we volunteered to beta test the latest version of Edelweiss, vowed to use Above the Treeline more effectively (which involves envisioning a new yearlong inventory plan), and ….

Are you all in this same quandary now that Winter Institute is over? Is it actually worse (by which I mean better) this year than in the past, even with the help of the debrief and the postcard reminder that we mailed to ourselves? I think the answer is yes. So many good ideas. So little time!

And who do we have to thank? Well, obviously the amazing staff at ABA, but also all of us who shared ideas on panels and roundtables and in conversation. Taken together independent booksellers are the most extraordinary group of people — not just smart, but also incredibly knowledgeable; not only imaginative, but also actively creative; not only collaborative, but also community-minded, driven by the hounds of hell (Amazon by another name), yes, but also by their own joy in talking about, thinking about, and just holding, smelling, reading books.

So thanks to all of you — including Tattered Cover’s immortal Joyce Meskis! — for making Winter Institute the most electric, useful, joy-filled four days in memory.

Betsy Burton
President, American Booksellers Association
The King’s English Bookshop
Salt Lake City, Utah

Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, watch for the release of the Backlist Book Swap title list and videos of both the “Amazon & Empty Storefronts: A Civic Economics Study” and “The New Localism” sessions and the featured talk by Joe Minicozzi, “City Growth and Downtown Math,” as well as Wi11’s plenary presentations. In addition, ABA is developing the education session “Indie Bookstores and the New Localism: What You Can Do” for its spring 2016 Booksellers Forums as well as an action kit that will help booksellers understand the implications of the new Civic Economics study, “Amazon & Empty Storefronts.” The kit will provide resources and data that will empower booksellers to communicate the “new” localism message to colleagues, customers, community members, elected officials, and the media.

Author’s Note: As usual, ABA is way ahead of me, which is a good thing! —Betsy