The Power of "We": ABA President Russ Lawrence on Harnessing the Collective Smarts of Booksellers

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Russ Lawrence

Seven years ago, I participated in the first meetings of the American Booksellers Association's newly formed Booksellers Advisory Council. The Book Sense program was just beginning to find its legs, and the whole concept of booksellers uniting in common cause and sharing information was something new, something that led to a surprising degree of tension in the room. I undoubtedly contributed to that tension, being fiercely independent, proud of it, and loud.

Great, passionate debates filled those first sessions. We'd seen a decade of slaughter, as first the chain stores, and then the online revolution had thinned our ranks. Owners were on edge, not knowing from where the next threat might arise, and many were in no mood to give their competition any kind of an edge, even if that "competition" was an independent colleague halfway across the country.

That seems hard to believe today, seven years into the Book Sense era, but independent booksellers have always been ... well, you know how we've always been. Autonomy was something to guard to the last pen nib, and store sales data was kept in the safe, in the back room, behind a stack of publisher invoices where nobody was likely to look too hard.

Slowly, though, and with plenty of encouragement from key, farsighted booksellers and ABA, we began to see the possibilities if we started talking to each other and sharing information. We built systems to guard the privacy of our information, so that individual store data couldn't be identified, but an aggregate database began to grow, tracking sales information via the Book Sense Bestseller List, store financial data through the new ABACUS study, and even store favorites through the Book Sense Picks lists. The benefits also include our own weekly [Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association] bestseller list.

Now, through tools like Above the Treeline, we have even more powerful ways of looking beyond our own inventory and sales data, to find books -- and sales -- we might otherwise have missed. With permission, publishers can even virtually stroll our aisles and look at our shelves, to find those gaps we might have overlooked. They just don't buy us lunch any more.

This is the new age of collaboration. The same "open-source" movement that begat the free Linux computer operating system and the user-built, online "Wikipedia" is once more transforming the way we do business. Consumers are already taking charge of the marketplace, through websites that rate products, through blogs and MySpace postings, and through other means I'm not hip enough to know about.

I'll be the first to admit that this is a scary thought, but I also recognize an opportunity. This kind of collaborative business environment has the power to level the playing field in ways our industry hasn't begun to imagine, but which the digitally literate are inventing while you read this. It also has the power to disrupt the entire publishing/bookselling world, no matter how big or small a player you are.

I'm not making any predictions about what comes next. I'd like to suggest, though, that as opportunities arise, we should be willing to consider the possibilities of harnessing our collective smarts in new ways. Through sharing and collaborating -- with each other, our customers, or our vendors -- perhaps independent booksellers can find new ways to leverage what we do best.

I'm still fiercely independent and proud of it, but my view of what that means, and how we can work together, is expanding dramatically. If you're the person with an idea about how to get this party started, I'm listening!

Russ Lawrence is president of the American Booksellers Association and co-owner of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana. This column originally appeared in the newsletter of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.