As your new ABA Board President, I’ve been thinking about where independent bookselling is today and what the future may hold. Honestly, I bet it’s been possible at any given time in ABA’s nearly 120-year history to say “independent bookselling is at a pivotal time.” I believe we’re still here because we’re a fierce bunch: leaders, thinkers, activists, organizers, collaborators, and builders. We do not give up easily, and a challenge is often an opportunity for positive change. We’ve always been strong because of our diversity; we’re nimble and resourceful, and each day we give a nod to tradition and embrace the future. It’s fantastic to hear the success stories — retiring owners selling to younger booksellers, new stores and new store formats opening up — but at the same time, there are a lot of us struggling to make a living in bookselling despite doing “all the right things.”
Yes, it’s true that our overall numbers have grown for the last nine years and our business as a channel is up with nearly every publisher, but the second-largest wholesaler has exited the retail business and many booksellers are struggling in the face of rising minimum wages, rising rent, online competition, and just plain slim margins. While some bookstores that aren’t financially stable may bristle at hearing the overall positive industry news repeated over and over, it’s important to share that information with the general public, the media, and the business world to compete with the overwhelmingly negative news that’s dominated talk of independent bookselling since the movie You’ve Got Mail released in 1998.
As ABA president, I want to work with the board and ABA to figure out how to make independent bookselling an attainable, sustainable, and profitable business model. We need to develop and make folks aware of the tools and trading terms booksellers need to make a better living. As we heard so clearly at Children’s Institute last month, we need to raise the profile of children’s bookselling and we need to embrace alternative bookstore models like nonprofits, pop-ups, and bookmobiles. But here’s the deal: It’s got to be a partnership. ABA can create the most effective programs and resources, but if members don’t know they exist they’re useless.
As ABA members, we need to take it upon ourselves to participate and communicate — communicate with the board and ABA to provide constructive feedback on which tools are working, which tools are missing, and what the best way(s) are to deliver them. Participate in ABA programs, especially ABACUS, but also in others like pre-orders, Indies Introduce, and online education.
Let’s aggregate our data through ABACUS. If we could double the number of stores reporting their financials to ABACUS we’d not only be able to slice and dice the resulting (anonymous) info in more ways (think: data on pop-up stores, micro-stores, nonprofits, children’s stores, and bookmobiles) but we’d be able to articulate more specifically where and when we need better trading terms.
Publishers are experiencing their own pivotal time, dealing with major changes at Barnes & Noble on top of the usual pricing pressures from Amazon and having to work even harder to win and keep authors who have a lot of options these days. Let’s make it easy for them: let’s back up our discussions with individual publishers with data. We’re not asking for a handout; we’re asking for better terms and programs so we can sell more books. We’ve already done this with rapid replenishment and pre-order campaigns — let’s keep on working together and let ABA data be the new disruptor the bookselling world cannot ignore.
Finally, I’d like to thank outgoing President Robert Sindelar for his leadership and commitment to the ABA Board. Robert set a tone of respect, service, and long-range planning that we will continue to observe. I look forward to working with him for a bit longer as we co-chair the CEO Search Committee with some other fine booksellers from across the country. It will be difficult to replace Oren Teicher, but he has earned his retirement and the search committee is working hard to find a CEO who will continue his good work. We have a lot of challenges before us, but I’m honored to be part of such a capable team as ABA and our board of directors. Our contact info is on BookWeb.org; please, let us hear from you!
Chapel Hill, NC