With Halloween, the New York City Marathon, and Election Day in the rearview mirror, I know it’s that time of year when indie booksellers are finalizing their plans for the always-important — and busy — holiday season. Despite the changes in our business, holiday sales continue to represent a significant percentage of annual sales for most stores, and all of us at ABA know how hard you are all working in preparation for the upcoming season.
While we entered the final quarter of the year with no lessening of the myriad challenges we face, we’ve also seen some significant progress in creating a 21st-century business model for indie bookstores, which features a vast array of new frontlist and backlist programs offered by our publishing colleagues. I urge you to review and evaluate these programs as soon as possible. They can make the difference between profitability — or not.
Six years ago, at ABA’s annual meeting at BookExpo, I broke with that meeting’s tradition to address more directly the state of indie bookselling in the U.S. I exhorted our partners in the publishing community to take out a clean sheet of paper and to ask themselves: If we were to design a business model that would give all stakeholders in our industry the best possible opportunity for success, what would it look like? How could booksellers and individual publishers work together to update a business model that had not changed in decades with the goal of creating a business environment where everyone grows and prospers?
Change did not happen overnight — but after sustained dialogue initiated by ABA, and experimentation among booksellers and individual publishers, new policies were introduced and companies’ operations were improved. Now, on the cusp of the 2017 holiday season, the national business landscape for indie booksellers is far better than in 2011, with growth in the number of new store openings, established stores opening new locations, and a modest increase in sales in the indie channel — facts that are all the more welcome when contrasted with the significant decline in sales for so many other bricks-and-mortar retailers.
These gains for indie bookstores are the result of countless hours of hard work and innovation on the part of you and your colleagues, work that I believe is being conducted in a significantly improved trade environment for both established and new stores. Recognizing the very high barrier many stores face in lessening the occupancy or compensation pressures on their bottom line, it has been through our ongoing discussions with individual publishers that ABA has been able to help facilitate changes in terms of sales and operations that have delivered solid gains in the cost of goods sold and gross margin for indie stores.
And, as I am pleased to report, the numbers from the upcoming ABACUS report bear this out. The new report, which will be released in a few weeks, will show an average year-over-year improvement in gross margin of almost a full percentage point. This continues the heartening trend we have seen following the recent changes in publishers’ terms and operations. Over the past five years, the ABACUS numbers regarding gross margin have improved by 2.3 percentage points. For many years, ABA education has focused on making significant improvements on the business expense lines that have the most impact on your store’s profitability — and the cost of goods sold is key. An improvement of potentially more than two percentage points to the bottom line can be the difference between a bookstore’s profitability or losses.
Which brings me back to my exhortation to you regarding the new and very favorable vendor terms that are part of Indies First, as well as publishers’ backlist offers and offers for new stores.
So, here’s my challenge to every ABA member bookstore: Review the offers; use the new Backlist Buying Calculator to evaluate the bottom-line benefit to your store; look over the bookseller and publisher suggestions of proven university and small press titles (there are more than 30 university and small presses offering special offers in conjunction with Indies First); and remember what your ABA President, Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, wrote about these offers: “If you looked at the Indies First offers from publishers a few years back and decided they were too much work for not enough payoff — you need to look again.... The Indies First offers currently on BookWeb.org are dramatically different from the offers that appeared when this program first began.”
ABA’s work to help to create a new bookselling business model for the 21st century is far from over. We understand that there is still significant work to be done. But there have been real improvements in the Indies First special terms over the past few years — and the most important factor in realizing further gains will be an increasing level of participation among indie bookstores nationwide. When you utilize these offers, you improve your store’s operations and increase ABA’s ability to work on your behalf for even more changes that will help you and publishers sell more books.
Make no mistake, our publishing colleagues realize that online retailers can’t match physical bookstores as the prime venue for discovering new titles and new authors. They know that it’s within the four walls of your bookstore that buyers can browse in an unparalleled way and find and purchase their next great read. From the publishers’ perspective, these offers and fundamental changes are helping to sell more books in more stores, and are maximizing the value of the indie channel and helping to strengthen the industry as a whole.
But this progress can’t continue without your participation. The challenge is on us to take full advantage of these new special programs and offers. I look forward to the day when these frontlist and backlist terms become industry norms, and when “special” has become a book industry standard.
My colleagues and I were delighted to see so many booksellers at the recent trade shows. And in the weeks ahead, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me with any comments, feedback, or questions.
Oren J. Teicher
CEO, American Booksellers Association
P.S. On a personal note, I want to express my heartfelt appreciation to the literally hundreds and hundreds of book industry friends and colleagues who reached out to me following the unexpected passing of my wife, Alison, in early October. No one was a more enthusiastic indie bookstore champion than Alison. She loved our visits to stores all across the country (and around the world), and she thoroughly enjoyed seeing so many of you at ABA events over the years. I have not yet been able to acknowledge all the cards, e-mails, contributions, notes, etc. sent in her memory, but I want to assure you that they have been most comforting and my family and I are most grateful. The support I have received from the ABA Board, my staff colleagues, and so many of you has been an immeasurable help during these most difficult days. Thank you very much.