Topics of Diversity and Profitability Take Front Seat at Wi13 Town Hall

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The American Booksellers Association hosted a Town Hall meeting at the 2018 Winter Institute on Wednesday, January 24, and invited booksellers to share their comments, questions, and concerns about the association and the book industry at large with ABA.

ABA Board of Directors
ABA's Board of Directors

The Town Hall meeting was facilitated by ABA President Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, with three locations in the Seattle area, and ABA Vice President Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The two were joined by members of the ABA Board of Directors, including Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.; Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri; Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas; Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York; Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, California; Christine Onorati of WORD in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey; Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island; and Jonathon Welch of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York. Sindelar also invited members of the Booksellers Advisory Council to stand and be recognized by their colleagues in attendance.

Issues discussed at the Town Hall included ABA’s actions on diversity since the 2017 Winter Institute Town Hall meeting in Minneapolis, ABA’s bookseller forums on BookWeb, the challenge of pre-orders, thoughts on list pricing, and concerns about bookstore profitability, among other topics.

The decision for ABA to form a Diversity Task Force and to increase the number of members of the ABA Booksellers Advisory Council was announced during last year’s Winter Institute, where diversity was a prominent issue at the Town Hall and where author Roxane Gay delivered an inspiring keynote speech. The nine-person task force, which has so far met twice in-person and has had several conference calls, took the stage to thank the ABA Board and staff for their quick action on an issue that so many booksellers were passionate about.

“The first thing the task force did when we met at BookExpo was to take a really good, hard look at the ends policies,” said task force member Hannah Oliver Depp of WORD. “We noticed right way that diversity was actually already part of the ends policies of ABA, it was part of our mission, but it was either a neglected or not quite understood or fully explored part of our mission. So that became the first part: how can we help our membership sell more books by increasing awareness of diversity hiring and increasing our understanding of just what [diversity] meant.”

To this end, Depp said, members of the task force reached out to booksellers whom they knew had either been working on diversity for years already or were very interested in the issue. They also looked at their own work as booksellers. To get even more feedback from booksellers, they sent out a survey, which elicited many thoughtful answers on how ABA can address the issue. The task force is currently creating a list of diversity resources for booksellers, which they will be sharing over the next few months.

Diversity Task Force member Melanie Knight said the morning’s keynote with Junot Díaz brought home some of the recent progress ABA has made in increasing diversity, but also highlighted how much more needs to be done.

“Just like Roxane Gay said last year, we had to have [Junot] here telling us basically some of the same things that [she] said,” said Knight. “For me, personally, it was upsetting because she said it and I didn’t want to believe her when she said it; she said this will happen again next year, it will just be a different face, so I think that we really need to take that into consideration.”

“But I do believe I have seen more people of color [at Winter Institute] this year, so we have done some work toward that, but it still needs to happen,” added Knight. “I would love to see more than one person of color being our keynote speaker; that would be great. I’m extremely fired up and I hope you guys are, too.”

After the 2017 Winter Institute, the Board increased the number of booksellers on the Booksellers Advisory Council with the aim of creating a more diverse body, and worked to develop a host of diversity-related programming, including the session “Bookstores: An Inclusive Place for Dialogue and Discovery,” which was presented at 10 spring forums. At the Town Hall, the Diversity Task Force also invited ABA members to voice their feedback about the continuing diversity initiative. Depp, who is also the co-founder of Indies Forward, informed booksellers that they could continue the conversation via the group’s Facebook page, as well as during the institute and via e-mail.

After the task force took their seats, the floor was opened for questions. Noëlle Santos, who will open The Lit. Bar in the South Bronx in spring 2018, credited two ABA offerings with helping her as a provisional bookseller: ABACUS, a yearly confidential survey that gathers key information on bookstores’ financial operations, helped her pitch herself to local landlords and potential investors, while ABA’s bookseller forums have been invaluable for immersing herself in the world of bookselling prior to opening a store.

“If you are a provisional member, get lost in those Bookseller Forums. They’re a powerful resource,” said Santos. “The conversations in those threads have helped me to navigate everything from choosing a POS to how to manage school sales to which credit card processers I should probably stay away from.”

Santos and her mentor, BookBar owner Nicole Sullivan, then announced the new Facebook group they’ve created to serve as a more casual supplement to ABA’s bookseller forums. The Indie Booksellers Facebook group, which has no official affiliation with ABA, will allow booksellers to crowdsource solutions, share information, and offer support to one another, Santos explained.

Next, Kira Wizner, owner of Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, New York, mentioned the challenge of pre-orders. Publishers, she said, often encourage authors to have a pre-order button on their website, and many tend to link to Amazon. The result, she said, is that publishers will use data from the online retailer and other larger outlets as a resource for evaluating early sales.

“These numbers from these bigger places have an impact on gauging interest and even first printings, so how can we report to publishers so that [indie booksellers’ pre-order] numbers matter?” said Wizner. Sindelar assured her that this topic has come up in dialogue with publishers, who are motivated to work with ABA on finding solutions to fix the gap.

Rebecca George, co-owner of Volumes Bookcafé, suggested that recent book formatting trends in publishing, such as matte covers, which are easily scratched or fingerprinted, or the use of certain materials that warp in humidity and sunshine, have made it hard to keep certain books in good shape, causing her store to lose money. Sindelar told George that this topic will also be part of the Board’s ongoing dialogue with publishers.

Alison Reid, co-owner of DIESEL, A Bookstore in California, then spoke up about some of her concerns regarding the sustainability of indie bookstores when long hours and rising rents and wages have become the norm. These conditions, she said, add to the disparity in profitability between publishers and indie bookstores. Reid asked whether the Board, when they meet with publishers, can emphasize the reality of bookstores’ economic straits. Morrow assured Reid that the Board has been working on these issues with publishers, and going over ABACUS results with publishers has helped clarify the situation for some.

“There is a structural imbalance when large publishers are making 15 percent, which turns out to be tens of millions of dollars, and we are expected to do what we do and, if we’re lucky, we’re making 2 percent,” said Morrow. “That’s not a long-term recipe for sustainability.”

Although indie booksellers have made some progress toward rectifying the problem thanks, in part, to ABA’s effort and ongoing discussions with publishers specifically around co-op and backlist programs, Morrow said, this is an industry issue that will need to be discussed and addressed over the coming years.

Brechner, one of the ABA Board’s new members voted in last year, noted that what he has been hearing from customers has brought home just how much competition with online sellers is affecting the consumer mindset. “One thing I’ve been hearing is, ‘What are you charging for that book?’ which is a new way of thinking and indicates to me there is an erosion of the integrity of list pricing,” said Brechner.

Sindelar said that when the Board meets with publishers in April, they will be sure to bring up some of these important issues. In addition, ABA held an education session at Winter Institute for publishers on ABACUS and bookstore finances, and will be hosting another in New York City on March 13 (watch Bookselling This Week for details).

Doug Robinson of Eagle Eye Bookshop in Decatur, Georgia, mentioned what he called “the looming problem of list pricing,” as the list prices of hardback novels are nearing the $30 mark and even hardcover children’s story books are nearing $20. Sindelar said the Board will try to emphasize the economic diversity of the indie bookstore channel to publishers, some of whom may not often think about less affluent markets.

Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Bookstore in Washington, D.C., raised the topic of immigration. In an impassioned speech, Spring said indie booksellers should be aware that they may already have immigrants working for them, and they should support those vulnerable people, whether that means calling their representatives in government or hitting the pavement for candidates that value immigration issues.

“I’m coming to you as a member of the immigrant community and a member of the Puerto Rican community. I want you guys to think about my face and I want you to think about every single community in this country,” said Spring. “I ask you all, I ask the Board, I ask the members, to please find a way to make your store welcoming to our communities.”

Next, Sarah Pishko of Prince Books in Norfolk, Virginia, thanked ABA for its discussions with individual publishers regarding changes in trade terms, including credit terms, that have been beneficial to her business, and Susan Hans O’Connor, owner of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, suggested that booksellers consider their time at the institute as an opportunity to help others.

“In the spirit of inclusiveness and diversity, maybe it’s an opportunity, when we come into places and do these conferences or wherever we are, to reach out to the people who are often invisible to us and somehow bring them into our community,” she said.

U.K. bookseller Antonia Squire stood up to offer praise for Batch, the centralized online invoice payment system used by U.K. booksellers to pay publishers. Having been a bookseller in California as well, she said Batch is vastly time and money-saving. Jenny Cohen of Oregon’s Waucoma Bookstore echoed Squire, saying the system is especially helpful regarding returns. The Board responded that ABA is continuing to work with the Booksellers Association of the U.K. and Ireland regarding implementation of Batch for U.S. stores and is in a continuing conversation with American publishers about the service. Representatives from Batch attended Wi13 and met with a number of booksellers and publishers at the event’s Consultation Station.

Kristen Sandstrom of Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayside, Wisconsin, said more help with succession planning would be helpful for booksellers; Mulvihill mentioned there was a session on it that morning at Winter Institute, but offered to talk to her personally about his own experience with such a transition and noted that ABA was including this subject in its ongoing education planning.

Depp, manager of WORD, mentioned the importance of increasing access to funds for the next generation of booksellers, which has been devastated by student loans. By the same token, Winter Institute first-timer Emmanuel Abreu, a bookseller at Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in New York City, said he would love to be able to attend the institute again but doesn’t have the resources to do so. Abreu was one of four booksellers who received a diversity-based scholarship from the American Booksellers Association to attend Winter Institute and one of 78 booksellers in total to receive a scholarship.

“I love ABA for allowing me to be one of the few people who got to have the opportunity to come here basically for free, which is the only way I could get here,” he said. “I want to come back, but I don’t want to take the resources from our little bookshop. I would like to be able to gather up the resources myself, but I know it’s tough, I know it’s really expensive. But I want to see more people like myself here. Please make it easier for people like me to come back.”

The Board’s response came from Welch, who encouraged booksellers to share their ideas about creative ways that ABA could increase access to the institute for people who don’t necessarily have the resources to attend.

“The reality is, it does cost money to bring people here. It costs publishers money when they provide scholarships, it costs the ABA money [to provide] scholarships, but we need more of that, so we can come up collectively with great ways — fundraising, foundation money, whatever it is — to make that happen,” he said. “Anyone who has terrific ideas, please notify the Board; flood us with ideas about ways that we can make this happen, because I think we can make it happen.”

In the interest of making the institute a better event for people of color, Brenna Gomez, a bookseller at Bookworks in Albuquerque, suggested holding a gathering for booksellers of color and marginalized communities prior to the opening reception. In addition, Amy Kessler of Ada’s Technical Books in Seattle suggested there should be more support for booksellers with mental health issues, a disability that affects her job, she said. Finally, Steven Sparks of Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, California, encouraged booksellers to share stories about their bookselling lives with him for the LitHub column “Bookselling in the 21st Century.”

Three pre-submitted questions, which Sindelar read to the audience and subsequently answered, pertained to the United States Postal Service exclusively shipping for Amazon on Sundays, a complaint that some publishers’ co-op arrangements work against smaller stores, and future leadership of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE). Sindelar said more news about ABFE will appear in an upcoming issue of Bookselling This Week.

Philbrick closed the Town Hall with a reminder to booksellers to take advantage of and donate to the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting booksellers and book industry employees in need and the featured charity of the 2018 Winter Institute. Welch also noted that Binc recently began accepting applications for its annual Higher Education Scholarship Program, which this year will award up to $109,000 in scholarships to eligible bookstore employees and owners.