On Thursday, June 11, the American Booksellers Association hosted a virtual version of its Town Hall, where booksellers were invited to share their thoughts about the association and the book industry at large. Visit BookWeb.org to watch a recording of the event.
The Town Hall meeting was facilitated by ABA President Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Fiocco was joined by ABA CEO Allison Hill and 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; Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon; and Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington; and Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
This Town Hall saw a number of discussions surrounding diversity, antiracism, inclusion, and free speech.
With conversations surrounding diversity, Jenny Lyons of Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury reminded attendees that “saying ‘people of color’ doesn't actually include Black people or Indigenous people. That's why [we should say] BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.”
Michelle Malonzo of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona, kicked off the discussion with questions on how ABA is going to support Black booksellers and Black-owned bookstores; how ABA plans to support BIPOC booksellers who are facing discrimination, gaslighting, or microaggressions in their stores, as well as how ABA plans to hold owners accountable; and what ABA is doing to address the lack of diversity and inclusion on the Board.
Fiocco thanked Alonzo, noting that this is something the Board is currently addressing. While she used to say that the association could only work with the nominations for the ABA Board it receives, Fiocco said, she realizes now that if “folks can’t even get into the industry, they can’t ever be nominated to be on the Board.”
“We realize there are barriers,” she added. “It’s everything from institutional knowledge to debt to being able to have capital to open a store, or to have a store that’s able to pay booksellers enough so they can make a living out of it, and not just have it be a stepping stone to another job.”
She also noted that while there’s some diversity on the Board currently, it needs more. In the 120 years the association has existed, there have only been two female CEOs before Hill; the association does not have statistics on how many queer-identifying or booksellers of color have served on the Board.
Said Hill, “It feels really good to be the third female CEO of the association. I also recognize that I come to this position with white privilege that I’m very aware of and feel a great responsibility about.”
Hill added that the association is looking into why people of color haven’t frequently been nominated for Board positions, noting that the process might need to be reworked from the ground up to ensure “that we get the outcome that we wanted all along. I think the intention has been there, but it clearly hasn’t worked and it’s clearly not serving us.”
Hill also said that she’s been in conversation about funding for stores in underserved markets and how to support Black-owned bookstores with Pam French at the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.
Kathy Burnette of The Brain Lair in South Bend, Indiana, commented that Fiocco was “making it seem like we don’t have Black people on the Board because they’re poor and in debt.” Fiocco apologized, saying, “You’re absolutely right, and that’s an example of institutionalized racism. Thank you for calling me out. I should know better.”
Cristina Rodriguez of Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, Texas, asked when there would be a town hall dedicated to racial inequalities within the association, what is being done to hold bookstores accountable for supporting racist rhetoric, and whether that infringes on ABA’s Code of Conduct.
Fiocco said that while she hasn’t thought of a dedicated Town Hall on that topic, it’s a great idea. In regard to supporting booksellers faced with microaggressions in the workplace, Fiocco said that the association can provide education and antiracism training to booksellers as well as work to break down barriers so that booksellers “who have a more open mind are the booksellers employing people.”
Rodriguez responded that, in light of a recent statement from Tattered Cover, “We’ve now opened the gate for all of these bookstores to acknowledge they’re selling Mein Kampf if a customer asks, under the guise of diversity ideas, and that’s not what it is. I feel like it should be addressed in our code of ethics. Personally, as a bookseller of color, I don’t want to be in an association with bookstores that are able to give racist rhetoric a platform.”
Rodriguez also noted that while there is free expression, there’s also human rights, and that she believes a line is being crossed in the association.
Spring added that “all-siderism is racist. It’s a problem in journalism, and it’s a problem with bookstore curation.”
Brechner said that as an organization, “All we can do is lead and share and put forth our values, but if our members don’t share our values, that’s beyond what we can do.”
Rodriguez asked if there are repercussions, saying, “If we’re paying for dues, and we’re paying for these services, but then everything is protected under free speech, then what are we? What protections am I paying for as a member?”
Hill noted that Rodriguez was raising good points. One distinction, she said, is that if ABA was a company, it could set certain standards, but as a trade association, “We reflect the members...But I think you’re raising a good point: What is our expectation of each other within this organization? That might be outside the norm of the legal guidelines for a trade association, but still really important and something we need to be discussing as a community.”
Rodriguez said, “If you’re reflecting the majority, the majority of this association is white. I’m personally telling you I, along with other BIPOC booksellers — to think about going to the next Winter Institute and to hear the things that bookstore owners have said, I don’t want to go because I don’t feel safe. So, now you have somebody as a bookseller telling you, I don’t feel safe in your association.”
Spring also addressed a question from Burnette in the video conference chat asking who ABA’s conversations about diversity and inclusion are happening with. Said Spring, “Everyone, including the Board and ABA....We need to be listening to the Black community and other minority communities, and hearing what they need before we can incorporate it. That goes across the board for every industry, for anything that anybody does.”
On the topic of free speech, Peter Glassman of Books of Wonder in New York City noted that he disagrees with suppressing voices, saying, “These things grow in the darkness even more than they grow in the light.”
Gina Lewis of Pegasus Books in Berkeley, California, asked if there was a way for the Board to commit to addressing BIPOC feelings of a lack of safety.
Fiocco said that the Board’s next meeting is in July, during which the Board will be taking a look at ABA’s ends policies, and this topic will be discussed. “Again,” she added, “we can’t tell members what to do, but we can certainly empower folks within the industry.”
Caitlyn Morrissey of Bank Street Bookstore in New York City asked if perpetuating racist logic in one’s capacity as a bookseller should be grounds for expulsion from ABA. “You can’t ask BIPOC members to step up and take part when there is no expectation that they will be safe,” Morrissey added. “Otherwise you are asking these booksellers to do the labor of giving us diverse input while putting themselves at harm.”
Fiocco apologized, noting that she doesn’t have a good answer for that. “I understand that it’s a problem,” she said, “and it’s unfair for people to again and again give input but not have a safe harbor.”
An anonymous attendee asked if the Board believes hate speech is covered by free speech. Brechner noted that, technically, hate speech is free speech in terms of the First Amendment. But free speech isn’t mandating stores to carry certain titles or accept things they don’t want to accept. “It’s an active affirmation of making decisions, and it protects your ability to curate and make decisions that other people don’t agree with,” he said.
Cohen added, “We should also recognize that we even have the privilege to talk about this and argue about this amendment at all because there are a lot of places where we can't do that in this world.”
Kleindienst added that as an organization, a conversation of belief is different than one about policies.
Glassman also asked how booksellers can “attract job applications from people of color,” and Hill noted that she’d make a note of this for an education topic.
Mariana Calderon of Second Star to the Right Books in Denver, Colorado, said that instead of thinking about how to encourage diverse applicants, those hiring should think about how to make sure their stores are safe for BIPOC.
Onorati agreed, adding that “you have to provide a place for your employees to feel safe. Decide what kind of mission your store has and what you’re about...it’s more than just hiring a BIPOC to stand behind your counter. It goes deeper than that.”
Kleindienst noted that “a predominantly white bookstore looking to hire more people of color definitely first has to do its homework. Consider who you’re in relationship with in your community. If you’re not in a relationship with BIPOC people, then don’t expect to just put out a classified and get a response.”
Stephanie Heinz of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, noted that many BIPOC authors state they are told there is not a market for their stories, especially when those stories are not focused on the pain or oppression of marginalized groups. She asked what ABA can do to help unify the voices of booksellers who want to speak against that harmful rhetoric.
Hill noted that publishers have had their own failings in this area.
Tigani added that Indies Introduce can also be used to prove how excited booksellers are to sell diverse titles, as the lists are “wonderfully representative.”
An anonymous attendee asked what ABA’s definition of diversity is.
Fiocco said that, at this point, she believes it’s a trite, hackneyed word. In the past, she said that “diversity” meant male/female, where the bookstore was located, its size, and what types of books were sold, but that’s clearly limited. In July, she noted that’s one of the things the Board will be looking at. “We’re trying to get away from putting the tag ‘diversity’ on something. We’re trying to incorporate it into everything we do and think and feel,” she said.
Hill also noted that the term antiracism must go hand-in-hand with diversity.
Spring added that when the Diversity Task Force first met, no one could come up with an actual definition for diversity. “It’s kind of a nothing word,” she said. “I would like to invite everyone to move on from that word and say what you actually mean.”
Danny Caine of Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, also noted the massive racial inequality in the book industry, asking if there is a stronger action to take than efforts already underway.
Hill noted that she will be focusing on communicating the steps the association is taking in real time along the way, and Fiocco added that recent reports about ABA’s meetings with publishers in Hill’s email updates to members are one example of how ABA is being as transparent as possible.
Abby Glen of Shelves Bookstore in Charlotte, North Carolina, asked if ABA had resources to support new bookstore owners, including Black bookstore owners.
Hill said that as of right now, the ABA doesn’t have great support for Black-owned bookstores.
Senior Membership Manager Daniel O’Brien noted that ABA recognizes that all members have their own individual scenarios, so the membership department takes an individualistic approach to helping owners with whatever they need. “The first step is communicating with us directly to give us an idea of where you’re at and what you need,” he said. “The next thing we’ll probably do is point you in the direction of our educational resources...and we also have open forums. As an industry that really thrives on mentorship, I will try to pair you with a bookstore owner who might help you along the way.”
Onorati noted that booksellers should also reach out to their reps and anyone else they work with in the industry.
An anonymous attendee asked what steps are being taken to address pay across the business, stating that homelessness is a problem in the industry.
Mulvihill noted that while the association cannot discuss terms at the Town Hall, the business model booksellers work in is extremely difficult. “I just want you to know that the ABA is relentlessly driving that message to our publishing partners,” he said.
Hill added that she would encourage communication between owners and booksellers on this topic. “If bookstore owners can share a pie chart of their financials and show where all the money goes, I think it really helps to understand that this is a problem in the industry, and it is a problem with the model,” she said, affirming that the message is being sent to publishers.
An anonymous attendee asked how ABA is working to be fully inclusive of people with executive functioning challenges and alternative communication approaches, such as those who are highly direct due to being autistic.
Hill noted that ABA recently looked over its Equal Employment Opportunity statement and added the word “neurodiversity.” Said Hill, “I think that [statement] is something that bookstores can be looking at, too, in terms of communicating to applicants that they are a welcoming environment and that they can be supportive around those kinds of situations.”
BrocheAroe Fabian of River Dog Book Co. in Portland, Oregon, asked about the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, and Fiocco clarified that it is being transferred to staff administration so it can have direct communication with ABA staff.
Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City, Utah, asked if ABA has a DEI policy on the books.
Hill said that it’s one of the things the association is working toward right now. Since the DEI Committee is in a state of transition, it’s one of her intentions to regroup and utilize the committee to do exactly that.
Following the conversation surrounding diversity, attendees also asked about the Board nomination process.
Jake Cumsky-Whitlock of Solid State Books in Washington, D.C., said that a more open and transparent nominating process is necessary.
Fiocco said that this is something the Board is working on and they will report back on that.
An anonymous attendee said that the time commitment in being a board member is a huge barrier to most who are considering self-nominating, especially those from small stores, rural areas, or with financially strained families.
Fiocco noted that this is also being addressed. While compensation is difficult, it’s on the table, and given the COVID-19 crisis, the Board has learned that it can meet virtually.
Hill added that there have been discussions of holding a webinar and some education around what being a Board member looks like.
Supply Chain, Publisher Relations, and Fourth Quarter
The issue of supply chain, particularly regarding both the holiday season and the COVID-19 outbreak, was also discussed.
Jennifer Sauter-Price, founder and executive director of Read Early And Daily, expressed concerns about damaged shipments and supply chain issues.
Fiocco said that this was discussed in publisher meetings, and publishers have been asked to address these situations.
Hill added that she’s followed up with Ingram after receiving this question. Ingram made changes after last holiday season in terms of their operational workflow, and continues to do so right now. “They are definitely very focused on trying to improve some of what’s happened during the crisis; some of the damages have to do with shipping vendors, and then some has to do with publishers and Ingram,” she said. “But everyone is very aware. The best thing you can do is communicate with us when you experience it and give us as many specifics as possible, so that we have examples to bring to [publishers and wholesalers] as they try to get ahead of what we know will be increased demand going into the fourth quarter.”
Carol Price of BookPeople of Moscow also expressed supply chain concerns, noting that during the COVID-19 crisis, it has been difficult to get customers their books in a timely way.
Hill noted that while Ingram has done an extraordinary job “keeping the machine running,” required social distancing measures have slowed down the system. “Publishers and wholesalers are all having these same conversations about how to improve the supply chain, and how to prepare for what could be the next wave of the virus,” she said.
ABA is also looking into what additional consumer direct options could be added to the e-commerce system so that stores aren’t solely dependent on one vendor for these orders.
An anonymous attendee also expressed concerns about reprinting issues, and Hill noted that ABA might need to help bookstores learn best practices for how to buy, anticipate buying, and recognize shifts in consumer trends, so that booksellers are in a position to get ahead of what might happen with printers.
Laura Taylor of Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Florida, asked if ABA can get more authors to support buying from indies directly.
Fiocco said that it was a big initiative, but it got derailed this year due to COVID-19. “It’s something we want to continue pressing publishers for,” she said.
Glassman also asked if the ABA has reached out to the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, children's book authors and illustrators, or other author groups about remembering to link all their websites and social media posts to IndieBound and other indie bookstores.
Fiocco and Hill said that those were great notes, and that they’ll take them back.
An anonymous attendee asked if ABA has any information regarding publishers’ future lists, and whether or not publishers anticipate a drop in acquisitions.
Hill said that while she doesn’t have specifics, publishers are trying to figure out what position they’ll be in after the crisis and how demand is going to change, in addition to how consumer demand, trends, and bookstores are going to change.
Additionally, an anonymous attendee asked if booksellers can expect any resources for selling Christian church supplies now that Lifeway is closed.
Fiocco noted that it’s another education topic and something to incorporate into ABA’s discussions with publishers.
Concerning the fourth quarter, Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, South Carolina, asked if ABA has considered putting together a marketing campaign for indie bookstores to run this summer as things reopen, and again during the holiday season.
Hill noted that there will be two campaigns moving forward, one focusing on “back to business” and another centered on “shop early, shop local.”
Another attendee asked if publishers will continue producing printed ARCs.
Hill said, “We’ve communicated with them how important it is for booksellers to experience the physical book because that’s what we’re actually selling. We all recognize that there may be some excess and that it is expensive, but we’re hoping publishers can see that there is a compromise there that would serve everyone.”
An anonymous attendee also asked about including stores in decisions that affect them, citing the recent move of the print Indie Next List to digital as an example, through surveys. The Indie Next List is returning to print beginning in August.
Hill said that, given the circumstances, the ABA has had to move very fast as of late, but this is a good point.
Tonya Mills of the Book Bungalow in St. George, Utah, asked if, given the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19, was the ABACUS bookstore financial survey cancelled this year?
Hill confirmed that there would not be an ABACUS survey this year. ABA is also taking a moment to consider expanding ABACUS following Ryan Raffaelli’s keynote address at Winter Institute. In the meantime, she said, “We’ve had discussions about sending some sort of survey to all of you in the near future, and we’re looking at questions that we could ask that wouldn’t be a huge time investment. I think that information would be valuable to all of you, to see how you’re doing compared to other stores like yours, and what kind of benchmarks there are that can be used right now to help you.”
Susan O’Connor of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, expressed a need for ABACUS information, and Hill confirmed that ABA was not permanently shelving ABACUS.
Fabian asked about making capital available to booksellers, and Fiocco noted that the association is continuing to investigate options. Fabian also asked about mentorship opportunities, which, Fiocco noted, will be addressed, but given COVID-19 and other issues, is not at the top of the list.
IndieCommerce was also a topic of conversation, with attendees asking about features and rates.
An anonymous attendee noted that IndieCommerce is “clunky” and that their store has a number of booksellers working full time to fulfill orders and are still many days behind. The attendee has tried calling ABA for assistance, but they haven’t received a response.
Hill noted that she’s concerned to hear they haven’t gotten a response, asked the booksellers to reach out to her directly, and added that improving IndieCommerce is a top priority. She said ABA is working to more effectively communicate to members when improvements have been made, since many of the bookstore requests received are about functionality that already exists or issues that have been fixed. Overall, Hill urged members to reach out to her or IndieCommerce with concerns.
An anonymous attendee asked if, with increased web orders for IndieCommerce, the 4.5 percent fee for orders placed through the store website for stores using ABA’s credit card processing will be reduced.
Hill noted that IndieCommerce has been supported in great part from that fee, and that fee is what’s helping support IndieCommerce operations. But ABA is seriously looking into how it funds IndieCommerce and what may need to be changed, which includes possibly moving away from credit card processing in general. [Information about changes regarding IndieCommerce and IndieLite costs to bookstores was shared in ABA’s June 16 email update.]
As far as features are concerned, Glassman asked if there has been any movement to allow for individual curation of inventory on IndieCommerce. Fiocco noted that the association would follow up on that question.
Bookshop was also discussed during the Town Hall, with Willard Williams of the Toadstool Bookshops in New Hampshire expressing concerns about the service and how it might be a competitor.
Bookshop CEO Andy Hunter said the service could not replicate the in-store shopping experience; rather than competing with indie bookstores, he said it is competing with Amazon. Bookshop was created because of Amazon’s growth from 15 percent to over 50 percent of BookScan sales in the past 10 years, due in large part to its affiliate program, he noted.
With Bookshop’s affiliate program, 10 percent of each sale goes to affiliates and another 10 percent goes to the bookstore profit sharing pool, which is going to be more than one million dollars when it’s distributed in early July. (Booksellers who would like to participate in that pool do not have to partner with Bookshop. Money is being sent to any ABA member with a physical location that wants to be a part of that pool.)
Hunter added that 65 percent of Bookshop’s sales are direct bookstore sales, which the service does not make money on. It does, however, make money on the other 35 percent of sales.
“We will always change course if it seems like something we’re doing is damaging stores, but right now there’s no evidence of that,” said Hunter. “The evidence is that we’re taking market share from Amazon.”
An anonymous attendee asked if Bookshop has plans to let users include reviews on the site, and Hunter said that is being considered.
Mulvihill added that stores can use Bookshop to curate lists, but also steer buyers directly to their store.
Events and Support for Genre Fiction
Maryelizabeth Yturralde of Creating Conversations in Redondo Beach, California, asked about the status of Independent Bookstore Day, in August. She also reminded booksellers about Bookstore Romance Day, which will also take place in August.
Mulvihill said that Independent Bookstore Day will be different than it has in the past, as bookstores around the country will be in different stages of reopening.
Georgia Court of Bookstore1Sarasota in Sarasota, Florida, asked if ABA’s Coffee Breaks will continue after the COVID-19 crisis. O’Brien said they will occur weekly on Tuesdays at 3:00 p.m. ET.
Kirsten Hess asked if publishers will be planning virtual only events through the spring and summer of 2021.
Hill said that she and Dallanegra-Sanger have been discussing this with publishers, but at this point, there is no definitive answer.
Fiocco noted that publishers seem very interested in continuing to work with indies as in the past, despite events being virtual rather than in-person.
Billie Bloebaum of Third Street Books in McMinnville, Oregon, asked how ABA will support more genre fiction.
Fiocco noted that supporting initiatives such as Bookstore Romance Day is one example. She stressed that it is not an ABA program, but one ABA supports.
Hill noted that Children’s Institute will feature more genre-focused programming (including sessions on representation in young adult and middle grade sci-fi and fantasy titles). “We've had a lot of priorities the last few months, and I can't say that that has been top of the list. I can tell you that there are a lot of great readers at ABA who are very committed to that cause and are thinking about ways to support it,” she said. “So, Children's Institute will be a good example. And I think you'll see others in the coming months.”
Kit Little of Towne Book Center & Cafe in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, asked about healthcare options for ABA members.
Hill referred booksellers to an article in Bookselling This Week that detailed various health insurance options. Additionally, on June 10, ABA announced a new health insurance option for booksellers, she said, but health insurance is challenging and this option might not be the “magic bullet everyone would like.” It will be rolled out to members on August 1 for fall enrollment.
ABA’s Dave Grogan, director of ABFE, Advocacy & Public Policy, noted that he has been working with nine different associations to offer this new health insurance option to members. This new partnership will offer a number of different options for small business owners.
Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York, asked about ABA’s green initiative as it relates to the Chinese tariffs, printing in China, and the kind of paper and ink China uses.
Fiocco noted that publishers are looking at these issues. “They are on this call,” she said. “They’re hearing you.”
Amazon and The Strand
Lacy Simons of hello hello books in Rockland, Maine, expressed concern about Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden’s purchase of $100,000 in Amazon stock. She asked if this invalidates the Strand’s membership with the ABA in any way.
Fiocco stressed that while she understands her concern, ABA cannot tell Bass Wyden how to spend her money. “I’m not defending it and I’m not supporting it,” she said. “I’m just saying it’s not our place.”
Brechner also noted that while we can’t tell members how to spend their money, in ABA’s own investment portfolio, it does not purchase Amazon stock.