Wi15 Town Hall Addresses Bookseller Questions About Bookshop, ABACUS, Children’s Bookselling

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The American Booksellers Association hosted a Town Hall meeting at the 2020 Winter Institute on Thursday, January 23, and invited booksellers to share their comments, questions, and concerns about the association and the book industry at large with the ABA Board and staff.

ABA's board of directorsThe Town Hall meeting was facilitated by ABA President Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and ABA Vice President Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. The two were joined by fellow members of the ABA Board of Directors, including Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon; Kelly Estep of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky; Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri; 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; Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Books in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington.

Fiocco began the meeting by explaining to attendees how the ABA staff, the Board, and bookstore members work together. “The idea is that the Board is up at 30,000 feet scanning the horizon, trying to figure out how to prioritize needs and resources, while the staff makes it happen,” she said.

Fiocco asked members to inform the Board and ABA staff of any big-picture topics, such as retail or technology trends, that members think are missing from discussions. In addition, Fiocco invited members who have ideas about areas of focus or improvement to e-mail ideas@bookweb.org.

Before diving into questions members had submitted before the Town Hall and opening the floor up for discussion, Fiocco talked about the main topics the Board has been working on over the past year.

Notably, Fiocco addressed ABA’s leadership transition and congratulated incoming ABA CEO Allison Hill on her appointment, saying, “We’re so excited to have Allison joining us.” Fiocco also congratulated Joy Dallanegra-Sanger on her promotion to ABA COO and PK Sindwani on his appointment to CFO. ABA’s new leadership team, Fiocco said, will “lead us to new heights.” Further, Fiocco took the opportunity to commend former ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who retired in November. “Oren left us in a really good place,” she said.

Additionally, Fiocco spoke to the topic of health insurance and explained to members that the Board recently had heard a presentation from a health insurance solutions company. While the group “has a great deal of promise,” she said, “we have to be honest: It is expensive no matter how you slice it.”

Board member Estep added that there is no easy solution to the issue, noting that the expense of health insurance is a national problem. However, she said, the Board’s perspective is focused on “having someone that can help this industry and a lot of us business owners and employees navigate through that process in a more streamlined way — being able to get more information about what is available.”

Fiocco said that the Board is also looking at different options, such as a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA), which would allow booksellers to give a set amount of money to employees for medical expenses. The Board is trying to be creative and keep costs down, Fiocco stressed.

The Board has also invested time into working on Bookshop, she said, which the start-up has said will launch at the end of this month. Bookshop, an online bookstore dedicated to supporting independent bookstores, aims to target customers who would otherwise shop at Amazon by creating an accessible, personal, and socially conscious platform for book buyers. Fiocco encouraged booksellers to attend the Winter Institute session on Bookshop immediately following the Town Hall.

Publisher relationships is another topic the Board focused on this past year. Fiocco said the Board is “trying to redefine how we work with publishers” and noted that while Hill is not yet in her position as CEO, she is already brainstorming about the issue.

Further, Fiocco said, there continue to be improvements with ABA e-commerce platform IndieCommerce, and she reported that Batch for Books, a new electronic invoicing system created for booksellers and publishers in the U.S., continues to make progress. Batch for Books offered an education session at Wi15 as well as one-on-one appointments with Batch representatives.

Additionally, Fiocco encouraged booksellers to participate in ABACUS, ABA’s free annual financial survey, which provides detailed information about where a bookseller’s store falls across a range of areas, including profitability, productivity, and financial management. Fiocco stressed the importance of collecting this data in ABACUS by referencing Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ryan Raffaelli’s Wi15 keynote speech, in which he emphasized the importance of data collection for the future success of independent bookstores.

Fiocco reassured booksellers that the ABACUS report is not as complicated as it seems, and that staff from Industry Insights, the third-party organization that coordinates the data and ensures reporting stores’ privacy, will assist booksellers when filling out the survey.

Next, Spring, who chairs ABA’s Committee on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (formerly a task force) gave an overview of the committee’s work and described the committee as a channel for the Board to hear issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. She went on to note that the committee works hand in hand with ABA staff to be a resource for them but also to provide resources to membership. While it is still a work in progress, said Spring, diversity is an issue the ABA Board and staff care deeply about. Members can contact the Committee on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at diversitytaskforce@bookweb.org.

The Board then addressed previously submitted questions from members, who were invited to write to townhall@bookweb.org or add comments to a sign-up sheet by the Wi15 Welcome Desk. The questions ranged from a desire for greener industry practices to the lack of a sustainable business model for booksellers due to small margins.

Additionally, one question targeted prisoners’ lack of access to books and specifically how this varies state-by-state. Board member Brechner told members of his own experience with this in Maine, where Amazon was the only bookseller allowed to ship books to prisons. Brechner is currently working with local legislators to address this problem and said this is an advocacy issue ABA can research. While there is an opportunity for education sessions on best practices for providing prisoners with reading material, Brechner reiterated that there are also obstacles to implementation on a state level. (An upcoming episode of ABA’s podcast, Counterspeak, will look at prisoner access to books and how indie bookstores can get involved.)

Fiocco also noted written-in comments about providing support for booksellers of color and the LGBTQIA+ community as well as the possibility of expanding Winter Institute to allow more booksellers to attend. She commented that the original idea of Winter Institute, which has now grown to 800 booksellers, was to have “an intimate meeting” for members. She said that there have been discussions about making Winter Institute locations more predictable and having larger session rooms to accomodate more booksellers.

Fiocco also addressed a comment regarding Christian bookstores that have been closing and asked members to provide ideas on how ABA can offer more support for these specialty bookstores.

As the floor opened to questions from booksellers, Len Vlahos of Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, stepped up to the microphone to ask the Board to amend ABA’s Ends Policies to reflect the need to have a more sustainable business model in the book industry. Nancy Bass Wyden of Strand Book Store in New York City also had concerns about the sustainability of the bookstore business model operating with such small book margins.

Gibram Graham of The Briar Patch in Bangor, Maine, voiced his concerns about ABA’s partnership with Bookshop as a new online sales solution and its conflict with ABA-run sales site IndieBound. Graham spoke about what he characterized as an insufficient buy-in from members and compared Bookshop to “Amazon light.” He also referenced the former Borders Group’s partnership with a third-party online sales solution in the early 2000s, saying “That partnership with Amazon proved to be one of the company’s worst decisions. I’d hate to see any of us meet a similar fate.” Graham asked ABA to come to a full stop on Bookshop and work toward a different solution.

Fiocco addressed Graham’s concerns by acknowledging a lack of communication on the new partnership. IndieBound helped to prove, said Fiocco, that people who were not already purchasing from independent bookstores would buy online from the indie channel. However, ABA doesn’t have “the capacity to make [IndieBound] the frictionless online experience that people who shop online want,” she noted.

ABA’s partnership with Bookshop is based on the understanding that the new site will pull sales away from Amazon and not compete with independent bookstores, Fiocco said.

Board member Mulvihill added that the decision to partner with Bookshop was not taken lightly and involved input from the Booksellers Advisory Council, a group of more than 25 independent booksellers. Mulvihill noted that Bookshop is a B-Corporation and is therefore structured to benefit independent bookstores. Further, three of seven board members are independent booksellers, and there are legal clauses that Bookshop can never be sold to certain parties, he said.

To address concerns about Bookshop directly, Bookshop founder Andy Hunter came to the microphone to explain that “the only reason we are doing Bookshop is because we feel the status quo is not going to work in the next decade.” Hunter invited booksellers to Bookshop’s education session on how Bookshop benefits independent booksellers to learn more.

Lia Lent of WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas, expressed her desire to be a voice for booksellers unable to attend Winter Institute due to caps on attendance. “I don’t think we should have to beat the buzzer to try and get into this conference,” said Lent. Inspired by the previous discussion about ABACUS and the need for aggregated data, Lent offered a solution: Let booksellers who participate in ABACUS “get first dibs on registration.”

Board member Onorati thanked the publisher sponsors of Winter Institute for subsidizing the costs for booksellers to attend the conference and emphasized to booksellers that the fee they pay to attend the conference is a fraction of the total cost; adding more booksellers, noted Onorati, would require a bigger commitment from publishers.

Sheryl Cotleur of Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol, California, urged publishing partners to move away from plastic and metal swag and towards more environmentally friendly and biodegradable promotional materials.

The next comment came from Susan Kusel of [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey, who said she does not want the industry to relegate children’s booksellers to just Children’s Institute or to see children’s books as less important, especially as children’s books are increasing in sales. She continued, “I would encourage us all to treat them seriously, take them seriously, and to take children’s bookselling seriously as well.”

Responding to Kusel’s comment, Board member Brechner noted that gender bias prevents children’s bookselling from being as valued as adult bookselling. He commented that he is hopeful that the new female leadership at ABA will bring about change.

Board member Tigani also noted that ABA has tried to have children’s booksellers on as many panels as possible to allow membership to hear their different points of view.

BrocheAroe Fabian of River Dog Book Company in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, requested additional funding sources for booksellers as well as that ABA consider a strategic plan in addition to updating the association’s Ends Policies, in light of the CEO transition. Fabian offered a potential outline for a strategic plan with the following sections: Communications, Education and Inventory, Operations, Technology, and Partnerships and Political Advocacy. Further, Fabian asked ABA to inquire about Athena, an anti-Amazon coalition founded in part by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and pushed for more transparency about ABA’s advocacy work.

Fiocco then talked about ABA’s most recent advocacy work, including ABA’s antitrust efforts, which have garnered significant responses from a number of regulatory bodies.

Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, South Carolina, asked that when ABA puts its support behind a new technology or POS system that there also be support to integrate the system on the ground. Hendrix suggested the possibility of grants for POS development and integration.

Glory Edim, founder of Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG), a book club with the goal of amplifying diverse voices and supporting emerging writers of color, addressed how individual stores can host a book club as part of the WRBG-ABA partnership launched last year. Edim recognized the success of partnership stores such as Loyalty Bookstore in Washington D.C.; Book Soup in Los Angeles, California; and WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. Booksellers can e-mail questions and suggestions about these book clubs to WRBG@bookweb.org.

Emmanuel Abreu of Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in New York City said that this year’s institute was the first time he was pitched a children’s book that is simultaneously being published in Spanish as well as English. Abreu stressed the importance of having more Spanish books in general as his customers often ask for recommendations for Spanish books; he also said he would like publishers to be more active in pitching Spanish books.

He continued by offering comments about diversity in the publishing industry, saying, “When I hear somebody pitching me a book from a person of color and the story of a person of color, especially if it’s a folk tale, and [the people pitching the book] don’t reflect [the author or story] whatsoever, it feels like they are exoticizing the story.”

Next to the microphone was Billie Bloebaum of Third Street Books in McMinnville, Oregon, and founder of Bookstore Romance Day. Bloebaum urged the indie bookselling industry to not sideline genre fiction, as fans of genre fiction will go to Amazon if they do not feel welcome and respected in independent bookstores. Bloebaum also asked that ABA inquire with publishers to include more genre fiction in the galley room and have genre fiction authors at events.

Board member Cohen told booksellers about a Winter Institute panel on how to create new sections within your bookstore, which addressed some of the issues brought up by Bloebaum. Cohen encouraged those interested to watch the panel session on Bookweb.org when the recording of it is posted following the institute.

Heidi Carter of Bogan Books in Fort Kent, Maine, suggested that ABA put together a national advertising campaign to compete with Amazon, especially around the holiday season.

In the spirit of Ryan Raffaelli’s keynote, Veronica Liu of Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria encouraged booksellers to get involved with the 2020 census to better understand the communities that they serve. “It’s like the ABACUS of communities,” said Liu.

Board member Chris Morrow concluded the town hall by reminding attendees about the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation, which assists booksellers in need. Morrow encouraged booksellers to offer support to the Binc Foundation and to inform employees about the foundation’s work.