Communicating With Our Community: A Letter From Outgoing ABA President Betsy Burton

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Dear Booksellers:

Trying to formulate what I hope will be a fond farewell right on the heels of our last visit to publishers (something I’ve done with Robert Sindelar for two years as president, did for two years before that as vice president with then-president Steve Bercu, just as he did with Becky Anderson, as she did with Michael Tucker, as he did with Gayle Shanks, and so on), it occurred to me that the book industry is not so much an industry as it is a community. Each part intimately connected to the others.

Certainly publishers, companies (or corporations) whose bottom lines are their central focus, have their own priorities. And so do we. So do authors. The truth is, the bottom line is crucial to all of us. But so is the book itself. Not as a “product,” as is true in most industries. But — whether as bearer of information or teller of stories or both — as the ever-changing yet never changing core of our existence.

Perhaps because of this, when publishers and booksellers sit down to talk, although all of us do so from our own points of view, we also listen. Booksellers tell publishers about a future troubled by looming pressures from increasing minimum wages, rising rents, Internet competition that always seems to occur on an unlevel playing field. We suggest possible changes to business models that would help both booksellers and publishers grow sales: a new backlist program that would allow us choice in ordering and radically improve our discount in exchange for new backlist marketing efforts on our part to increase sales exponentially for us all; new B2B and special sales policies to increase corporate and school sales across the board; BATCH, an invoice program that would save us all time and money, allowing us to put more energy into sales.

In each of these separate meetings, publishers listen to us, just as they did when we talked with them in past meetings about rapid replenishment and streamlined co-op policies. But they also explain from their point of view the hurdles to offering deep discounts, detailing their use of the profit from backlist and the ways steeper discounts would impact other areas of their business. They nevertheless hear us. When we come back to talk to a publisher a year later, they have obviously thought about what we’ve said. Not only is new understanding palpable in the air, clear in the exchanges we have individually with each of them, it is obvious from their offers. Three publishers, Harper, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, have announced backlist offers with very little restriction in terms of time or choice of titles, at increased discounts. Norton, Sourcebooks, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, and Candlewick have also created generous backlist offers — along with, of course, Workman, which has been there all along with its favorable terms for backlist. Still others are working on backlist offers, and all the major publishers have agreed to talk to their telephone sales people about B2B (and/or special sales). Some have already changed their policies, while three major publishers, along with a midsized publisher and a wholesale company, are testing BATCH right now.

All of us — both individual bookstores and ABA — will need to market the hell out of backlist under the new terms; to help in the testing of BATCH; and to use the added B2B business to reach ever further out into our communities, vastly increasing business in corporations and schools to the advantage of us all. Which is our next task. To communicate effectively, internally as well as externally, so that we do exactly that — increase sales that in turn will increase publishers’ willingness to increase terms that will further increase sales, thanks to our outsized marketing skills and our positions at the hearts of our communities. What publishers have done (or are considering doing) is an act of faith — in our abilities and in our importance to this industry as a whole. To this community.

Our job is to make it all happen. Increase the sale of books in general and backlist in particular for us all. How do we do that? By communicating. At Winter Institute, yes. And at regionals. And in annual meetings of the ABA president and vice president with past ABA presidents (usually just before going to talk to publishers so that we can hear their opinions on what we plan to say, get their suggestions). And in the regional calls the ABA president, at the behest of the Board, has been making to the regional presidents on a quarterly basis for the past two years. Who in turn communicate with their boards. Who in turn communicate with the booksellers in their regions. Who in turn communicate (their needs, their gripes, their opinions) back up to their boards, their presidents, who in turn communicate with me (soon Robert) and through us with the ABA Board. On top of that, on the bookseller/publisher front, ABA is working closely with publishers and bookstores to ensure that information about publisher programs will reach the right people at individual stores immediately!

All of this is important because none of us can do this alone. We have to do it together. By communicating. We’re sitting on treasure that can be of benefit to us all — if only we can couple the past work of authors we have long loved with the knowledge we booksellers possess to single out the best of that work together with the storefronts and community connections that help us recreate old excitement, rekindle old passion — not to mention the marketing plans of ABA to connect it all.

This is a vision your Board has had for some time now. We’ve communicated with honesty with one another, with Oren, with all of you through our calls and meetings. We’ve listened as all of you communicated with us. Tried hard to hear you and to respond. We’ve been equally frank with publishers, and with authors, who seem ever more appreciative, supportive.

Given that words are at the heart of everything we do, communication is and should be central to this community to which we all belong. The joy books give us is communal and so is the responsibility for their ongoing life. Not just a responsibility, but a privilege. To say that being a part of that community for 40 years, being part of the ABA Board for eight, being the president for two has been interesting is putting it mildly. I won’t even begin to describe it except to say that it’s been a great honor. There’s nothing I care more about (besides my loved ones) than books and this industry — this community — we’ve formed and are continuing to strengthen. All I have left to say is thank you.

Thank you to the ABA Board, a group of knowledgeable and impassioned people with whom it has been an amazing experience to work and whose vision has moved the ABA in wonderful new directions. Thank you to the regional presidents — with whom it has been such great pleasure to talk over the past two years and from whom I have learned so much. Thank you to Oren, Joy, Dan, and the rest of the extraordinarily dedicated people on the ABA staff, who daily create miracles and to whom we are all so grateful. Thank you to the publishers who see us as colleagues in a community we all love, for listening and responding in such positive ways. And, most of all, thank you to independent booksellers. It’s been among the greatest pleasures of my life to be one of you.

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