The following is a message from Bradley Graham, President of the ABA Board of Directors and co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.
The ABA’s charter assigns the Board of Directors three main missions — set policy for the Association, monitor the performance of the CEO, and scout ahead for industry trends. With that in mind, the directors have done quite a bit in recent months, including: authorized more funds for a major upgrade of IndieCommerce; set new social responsibility criteria for the ABA’s investment portfolio; made antiracism considerations a priority for the ABA; affirmed the importance of stores having resources to support their freedom of expression; emphasized the role bookstore staff play in ensuring the sustainability of their stores; and engaged with publishing executives to secure better terms and service for indie bookstores. Additionally, the Board has taken steps to enable it to function more smoothly and effectively and communicate more often with Association members. Here’s further detail on recent key actions and deliberations.
IndieCommerce: As part of its future think, the Board has spent considerable time on e-commerce. The surge in web orders that many indies experienced in the past year-and-a-half (thanks to the pandemic), plus projections for further e-commerce growth in retail generally, indicate bookstores will need significant improvement and assistance in this critical technological area. ABA’s CEO Allison Hill and the IndieCommerce team conducted an extensive analysis of the Association’s current platform, consulting with two dozen experts and engaging in a thorough discovery period. The Board, after vigorous discussion of the ABA staff's recommendations, voted to commit three million dollars to an upgrade already underway. Thanks to the recent growth of ABA’s investment portfolio, this decision was financially feasible for the Association and, the directors believe, a good investment in the future. ABA staff have been updating Association members this fall in a series of IC 2.0 sessions.
Socially responsible investing: Believing in the importance of applying ethical, environmental, and social justice considerations to ABA investing, the Board decided in April to start screening the Association’s investment portfolio according to a set of socially responsible criteria. This decision was based not just on values. It also reflects a financial judgment that abiding by such criteria will be critical to the sustainability of bookstores. A requirement added to the ABA’s investment guidelines now says: “The investment managers are asked to base investments on valuations and earnings growth and to also consider company performance with regard to socially responsible investing criteria, as determined by the Board under periodic review and in a manner consistent with the Association’s Ends Policies. The investment managers are asked to bring existing or potential investments in companies that do not perform well based on these criteria to the Board’s attention for review.”
Ends Policies changes: The Board is responsible for writing the Ends Policies that the CEO then interprets to determine how to manage the ABA. These policies have undergone some important revisions this year in the following three areas:
- Emphasis on equity and representation. In January, to affirm the importance of social justice considerations, the Board added a sentence to the Ends Policies declaring “a commitment to antiracism, inclusion, representation, and diversity.” In August, the Board altered the wording slightly, dropping “inclusion” and “diversity” and adding “equity” and “access.” The revision, intended to emphasize fair and just treatment as well as broad accessibility and empowerment of everyone, was made at the recommendation of ABA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. In view of this policy and recent events that fell short of it, CEO Allison Hill made the decision recently to begin screening of ABA box mailings, applying U.N. criteria for hate speech. The Board supports this decision.
- Support for freedom of expression. For years, the ABA’s advocacy on First Amendment issues and its participation in free speech coalitions has been carried out largely through the American Booksellers for Free Expression, which was founded in 1990. ABFE’s efforts have included helping stores deal with protests about curation and events, countering censorship legislation, resisting efforts to block or label literature as “bad for kids” and the like, and increasing public awareness of censorship through support for such activities as Banned Books Week. The Board discussed at length how to reconcile such traditional support for freedom of expression with the new commitment in the Ends Policies to antiracism, equity, access, and representation. Recognizing the importance that many member stores continue to place on receiving help from the ABA if their own freedoms are threatened, the Board decided last month to amend the Ends Policies with a sentence ensuring stores “have the resources in support of their right to freedom of expression.”
- Recognition of bookstore staff: Another critical issue taken up recently by the Board is how to recognize and better serve the interests of bookstore staff. The Association itself was created by and for bookstore owners, but store employees also receive support and opportunities through the ABA’s programming, networking, and fundraising, participate on the Board, and are present in significant numbers on such advisory bodies as the BAC, ABC, DEIC, IC Task Force, and Education Task Force. To codify the importance placed by the ABA on serving not just owners but also bookstore staff, the Board decided last month to add two sentences to the Ends Policies. The first states that the Association will work to ensure member stores “understand that the welfare of all booksellers is essential to sustainability.” The second provides that “all booksellers have the necessary resources to enable them to succeed.” More must be done in recognition of the vital role played by bookstore staff in the bookselling ecosystem, but the Board considers this change in the Ends Policies a first step.
Publisher discussions: The Board’s vice presidents — Christine Onorati and Kelly Estep — and I joined CEO Allison Hill and COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger in Zoom calls with top executives at many publishing firms. These annual get-togethers are intended to highlight bookseller concerns and suggest ways of strengthening the partnership between independent bookstores and publishers. This year we focused on some very practical issues that emerged in an ABA survey of booksellers — notably, damages, B2B sales, virtual events, Batch, and diversity in books and sales forces. Plus, of course, the need for terms that support a sustainable bookstore model. The survey enabled us to highlight best practices for the publishers and give each a sense of performance relative to industry leaders.
Governance policy review: In response to an outside assessment by the Governance Review Committee, the Board has tightened some of its policies and practices to ensure it functions in a more focused and disciplined way. This has included clearer procedures for reporting and monitoring potential conflicts of interest among Board directors, for assessing the CEO’s performance, and for evaluating the Board’s own performance. These and other revisions to the ABA’s governance documents were approved by the Board last month, and a copy of the updated Governance Policy Manual will be posted on the ABA’s website today.
Bylaws changes: The Board has proposed several changes to the Bylaws for the membership to vote on, beginning today. One change clarifies the reference to “core member” that appears in the Association’s governance documents. Another clarifies that member dues are set by ABA staff and confirmed by the Board. And the third shifts the Governance Review Committee from doing assessments annually to every other year, which is in fact what’s been happening for a number of years.
Membership figures: Now that ABA membership renewals have closed, it’s possible to provide updated figures which, I’m delighted to say, are significantly higher than those in my report at the annual meeting last May. At that time, the Association was in the middle of its rolling renewals process — delayed due to the pandemic. Further, the ABA this past year took a close look at how membership numbers had been reported in previous years and made changes to ensure the numbers are accurate. Prior to 2020, membership figures included stores that had not renewed their membership in the previous year or two. Those stores existed and were part of a growing indie community, but they weren’t ABA members. As of January 1, 2021, the ABA counts only dues-paying members in its ranks. In May 2021, I reported 2,100 locations and 1,701 companies. The figures now are 2,496 locations and 1,910 companies.
Board communication with membership: This remains a very uncertain and difficult time for many of us in the book business. Expectations that the pandemic would have passed by now have given way to fresh worries about virus variants and reimposed mask mandates. Heading into a holiday season, there’s concern, too, about the supply chain amid warnings of printing delays, material and labor shortages, shipping disruptions, and rising costs. As always, we on the Board want to hear from you. To provide more opportunities for this, several “office hour” Zoom sessions have been scheduled for the fall, similar to the ones held last spring. The next two are: October 27 (3-4 pm ET) and November 9 (4-5 pm ET). Each session will be attended by three directors and will be open to any ABA member who’d like to participate. So please join in. Also, remember that nominations to serve on the Board are currently being taken. You can use this form to nominate another bookseller or yourself before the October 17 deadline.