Hope Springs Eternal in Booksellers’ Hearts Thanks to the 3 Bs: A Letter From ABA President Betsy Burton

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Dear Booksellers:

The world is greening up — even if it’s doing so between snowstorms in more than half the country. It’s hard not to let hope surface along with the tulips nudging their way toward the light. But our nascent hope requires planning if it’s to come to anything. Spring is always a time to plan, and at the American Booksellers Association that means (now that Winter Institute and Children’s Institute are over) getting ready for BookExpo. Setting priorities as we look forward to seeing publishers. Talking with publishers.

I want to use this space to discuss a few of the issues ABA has identified as important to work on (or, more accurately, to continue working on) with publishers and with one another. Things we truly believe that, if tackled right, will in the long run be a win-win for publishers and booksellers alike, allowing us all to sell more books across the industry. Since we’re booksellers, I’ve dubbed them the 3 Bs: Business-to-Business (B2B), Backlist, and BATCH.

Taking Backlist first, because I’ve talked about it over and over again and won’t belabor the topic, suffice it to say that if publishers can find their way to make the marvelous marketing of which we’re capable (just look at our outsized results with frontlist we’re in love with) similarly possible in working with backlist we love (which means letting us choose titles, giving us across-the-board discounts in return for said marketing), we would sell far more books than we now do. Why? Because these are books we loved and still love, have proven track records with, and would love the opportunity to relaunch. This would generate greater sales in our own stores, sure. But perhaps more to the point for publishers and for authors, our efforts would create bigger sales across the industry — just as we do with frontlist we love.

Enough said. Except that that same concept, growing sales nationwide by helping us to work our magic (helping us to help sales across publishers in other words, and in the process help authors, help the industry) is doubly true of B2B. Let me illustrate with a question: Long-term, what is more beneficial to publishers? (a) using their speakers’ bureaus to set up venues for authors at grade schools or high schools, churches or universities, libraries or corporate headquarters, where they collect all the book sales and share the proceeds with the above (or not); or (b) contacting us to set up the author appearances and allowing us to set up the events and sell the books, and giving us extra discount so that we can likewise share the proceeds.

The right answer is (b), of course. Giving us the business. Sounds self-serving? Not if you understand who we are and what we do. How much a part of our communities we all are. In the first place, we’re far better at picking out the right venue since we know the quirks and peculiarities of each (right down to the parking), and we’re far more capable of generating publicity since we know the editors at the newspapers and the interviewers on NPR and the local TV and radio stations.

But far more important, for publishers such an arrangement is a one-off. They ship the books, generate sales, and move on. The end. Given the opportunity to arrange the event and sell the books, we, on the other hand, either improve an already flourishing partnership with a school or a bank or a church or, by bringing in an author to wow a company or congregation, start a new relationship which we will grow and nurture over time, thus providing an opportunity for many more author events and many more book sales. Given the chance, we can grow a fan base for authors, grow community and corporate interest in authors as speakers, and over time grow book sales exponentially.

Why? Because each of us is a central part of our community, often right at its heart. We know our towns and cities, the media and the web of connecting not-for-profits and public and private schools, corporations and colleges. It is the chief reason (aside, of course, from our literary acumen and our marketing skills) that we are not only surviving but thriving, and why we are so good at putting books on bestseller lists despite our tiny position in the overall market. Again, B2B could be, should be, a win-win for booksellers and publishers, allowing all of us to sell more books, increase profits, and, at the same time, increase exposure for authors and their books.

Which brings me to my final B: BATCH. What is BATCH? Simply put, it’s a free uniform invoice, statement, and payment system that has been used by the Brits with great success for years and which ABA is hoping to bring to this country. What would it mean for you? With BATCH handling the bill-paying work automatically, your bookkeeper could spend about 80 percent of his or her time bookselling on the sales floor or developing new financial models or plans. And if that sounds oversimplified, it’s not. Here’s how it works: With BATCH, a bookstore would make a single monthly payment, via ACH withdrawal, that covers payments to all of the store’s suppliers, and, in turn, suppliers receive a single monthly payment from all of their customers. The program has been used in Great Britain for years with most of the same publishers we work with and we’ve begun to test it here in the U.S. The system works seamlessly across the pond, the publishers are used to it, and it reduces the endless variety of statements, invoices, packing lists, and returns credits to standard forms and instant electronic payments (but not until you’re ready, never fear!). Of all the win-win scenarios we could come up with, this seems the most obvious. Billing and payments are streamlined for all of us and the result is enormous cost-savings for all bookstores — regardless of their size — and many times that for each publisher. What’s not to like?

That’s it. The 3 Bs. I hope you like them as much as we do. Because each of them will help our bottom line and at the same time help that of publishers, not to mention authors. And in tomorrow’s world, in which rents will continue to skyrocket as space becomes tighter and more valuable and increasing minimum wages become the law of the land, who knows, perhaps these 3 Bs will save us all. Hope does spring eternal, at least in the book industry, despite the periodic forecasts of doom and gloom. One of the reasons we so love this business. 

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