Spotlight on ABA History: “More Than Merchants: Seventy-Five Years of the ABA” [2]

Bookselling This Week is launching a new occasional series, “Spotlight on ABA History,” which will feature excerpts from Bookselling in America and the World, an anthology edited by Charles B. Anderson, as well as pertinent summaries from the anthology.

The cover of Bookselling in America and the World

Published in 1975 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the American Booksellers Association, Bookselling in America and the World features four main articles that discuss all aspects of the bookselling world as it existed from 1900 to 1975.

Editor Charles B. Anderson served as president of the ABA Board of Directors from 1958 to 1960 and was the owner of Andersons [4] bookstore in Larchmont, New York.

Here, readers can enjoy an interesting excerpt from the chapter “More Than Merchants: Seventy-Five Years of the ABA,” written by Chandler B. Grannis, the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly from 1968 to 1971.

This chapter discusses issues of pricing policies and agreements made between publishers and booksellers during the early years of the ABA, which are currently illegal under legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Robinson-Patman Act.

Most good booksellers take satisfaction both in their effectiveness as merchants and in something beyond that: their function in bringing books to people, serving their communities as centers of entertainment, information, and culture. Similarly, the American Booksellers Association can take pride in its record both as an effective business organization and as a vital aid to the entire world of books.

Here is a most remarkable trade organization. It is remarkable for its durability; there has never been any question of that. In its early years the ABA depended upon the dedicated efforts of a relatively few people, and its continuing durability is a natural result of its leadership. It is one of the nation’s oldest trade associations in point of continuous operation and support.

From the very beginning, ABA officers, boards of trade and directors have represented an unbroken line of some of the most capable men and women in book retailing. This leadership has come from all parts of the country and from the different kinds of bookselling. Many of these people have been outstanding personalities — and virtually all not only successful in their own work, but willing to donate time, talent, and money in the service of all American booksellers and therefore of the whole industry.

With able and persistent leadership and a sense of cohesion among members, the ABA has proved able to change with the times. ABA meetings and activities have mirrored the cultural trends and public events of 75 years. The organization has grown in size and in even more important ways. For what emerges from a look at the ABA’s history is a story of growth from largely parochial — though utterly vital — concerns to a concern for the industry-wide relationships; from concentration on the plague of price-cutting to a focus on methods of selling; from simple, traditional modes of operation to sophisticated management techniques and merchandising. It is a story of the growth of professionalism, a development in attitudes and skills which determined the growth of the association, and which changed, and continues to change, the face of bookselling in America.

The American Booksellers Association came into being after exactly a century of failed efforts to form some coherent, lasting organization of the retail book trade. Its nearest predecessor, the American Book-Trade Association, had been set up in 1874, but neither the leaders’ vigor nor the trade’s willingness to work for a common, sustained program was sufficient under the chaotic conditions of the era. The ABTA fell into silence and ceased activity after three years.

Heart of the Matter: Net Prices

Almost a quarter-century later a new generation of bookmen — and some old hands, newly hopeful — made, under new conditions, a new try. In the nation at large, the economic robber barons and their political allies were being challenged, and reform was beginning to sweeten the air. In the book world, publishers had reached a stronger consensus than ever before about the need for stability in prices and distribution and were ready to form their own organization. Across the sea, the book trade of Great Britain, bedeviled by under-selling as were the Americans, tried out and then established in 1899 a net price system: sellers who violated “net” or “fair” (publishers’ specified minimum) prices, were cut off from supplies. The British example heartened American booksellers and publishers.

If the ABA has a single, distinct anniversary date it is probably November 15, 1900 — as the late book industry historian John T. Winterich pointed out in his delightful account written for the ABA’s 50th anniversary book (“The First Half-Century of the ABA” by John T. Winterich in ABA Almanac 1950). It was on that day that an organizing committee of six booksellers sent out a letter to the trade, in the name of an organization they were forming, to be called the American Booksellers Association.

Chairman of the committee was Charles W. Burrows of Burrows Brothers, Cleveland; members were W. Millard Palmer of Lyon, Kymer & Palmer, Grand Rapids, Michigan; Clarence W. Sanders of St. Paul (Minnesota) Book & Stationary; William T. Smith of Utica, New York; Albert C. Walker of Scrantom, Wetmore, Rochester, New York; and as secretary, John W. Nichols, formerly of Harper & Brothers’ educational department. In March 1901 they announced completion of organization plans, and called a convention for July 24 in New York City, at the Earlington Hotel, 55 West 27th Street (reservations $1.50 a day, “two beds in a large room, with bath”).        

All the arrangements had been made by Mr. Nichols, “to whom,” reported Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1901, “the credit for forming the Association is so largely due.” PW added: “The plan of organization is far-reaching and carefully thought out.” Part of the plan called for local and state associations “in harmony with the suggestion of the Publishers Association,” so as to facilitate application of the net price plan. Signing up 748 booksellers as members, at dues of $2 a year, the founding group formed an advisory board of 50, representing all states except North Dakota, and named Henry T. Coates of Philadelphia as president, with Secretary Nichols as manager, at a small fee. In May the organization issued, for booksellers to give to patrons, a pamphlet about net prices, showing that the net price plan was meant to bring about “a one-price system,” which would mean “a fair price” to the purchaser.       

Meanwhile, leading publishers had formed, early in the year, the American Publishers Association, and had agreed, effective May 1, to establish net prices on such books “as the individual publisher may desire” (excluding schoolbooks, adult fiction, and new editions), and to sell them only to booksellers who would maintain those net prices for a year.       

Soon came the ABA’s first convention, with much discussion of price-cutters and the meaning of net prices, and a banquet boldly billed as “first annual”; the ABA founders clearly intended their association to endure. The Convention voted support for the net price plan, but insisted it ought to cover fiction. Some booksellers, in fact, had told the ABA they would not join until fiction was protected. At any rate, in a resoundingly named “Reform Resolution No. 1,” the ABA members agreed not to deal with publishers who declined to join in on the net price plan; not to supply any dealer denounced by the publisher as a violator; and to expel violators from the ABA.   

Banquet festivities at that first convention took the form of 16 toasts, which, while doubtless warming (in Manhattan in late July without air conditioning) had serious intent. The subjects as listed in the elegantly printed banquet program were: The Bookseller and the Librarian. The Middle West. The Two Big B’s — Books and Boston. The Net Price System. The Western Publisher. Bookselling as a Profession. The Bookseller in New England. New Books on the Pacific Coast. Books in the Department Store. The Greek Lamp in the West. (At this point the score was West 3, New England 2). Local Associations. The Bookseller in the Sunny South. What Profits It? The Things We Hope For. The New York Booksellers Association. The Secretary.          

At the 1902 convention, held at New York’s Herald Square Hotel 11 months later, the ABA’s second president, Clarence E. Wolcott of Wolcott & West, Syracuse, New York, said the net price system should be extended beyond its initial limited range to cover new copyright fiction (new “serious” books being already protected); and the purchaser’s discount on fiction should be limited to 10%. But he felt that in the first year of the ABA it was important to simply have checked the downward tendency in book prices (as against list prices, he meant), and to have brought about some harmony within the trade.          

It was in 1902, also, that a session with distinguished authors was for the first time a feature of the ABA convention, thanks to a publisher’s hospitality. Colonel George M. Harvey, the managerial dynamo who had become head of Harper & Brothers, invited the convention — about 60 men — to visit its pressroom, there “to see the actual manufacture of books” and to hear informal remarks by Mark Twain (he appeared again in 1908 as banquet speaker), William Dean Howells, John Kendrick Bangs, and Hamlin Garland. The remarks consisted of rather ponderous banter, and were not memorable except that they marked a mutual recognition of the interlocking interests of author, publisher, and booksellers.

It was in this same year that the net price system received its great challenge, a suit against the publishers by R.H. Macy & Co. to restrain them from boycotting non-complying retailers. The case was to drag on from appeal to counter-appeal for 12 years, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the publishers and awarded damages of $150,000 to Macy’s.

The long litigation and the defeat did not end the application of the net pricing idea in one form or another, and in fact the fight for price stability provided the booksellers for many years with a unifying theme under the ABA.

As always, a few active members worked hard for the many. Although membership by 1904 had reached 850, only a relatively small number of booksellers contributed in 1905 to cover the deficit caused by ABA’s share in the repeated litigations.

Convention attendance jumped up and down a good deal. After good initial turnouts, attendance was down to 36 in 1907, and then moved up: 59 in 1908, 88 in 1909, 254 in 1911, 294 in 1912. (Membership was to fluctuate widely for decades; in Depression year 1934, it was about half the 1904 figure.)

Pressure for a higher level of net prices was continuous. The 1906 convention celebrated publishers’ granting of a two-year term for price protection, but called for a net price of $1.20 on $1.50 fiction. The call was repeated in 1907 and 1908 and 1909, since publishers persisted — though they gave in eventually — in holding a net price of $1.08. This price was “absurd” according to one bookseller, because it made it “necessary to keep a customer waiting while he (the bookseller) goes to the back of the store to get the two cents change.” The price was still absurd when the $1.50 novel cost the dealer 90 cents, so the gross profit was 22 cents, but the cost of doing business was 28 cents; result, a loss of 6 cents. The 1907 session called for a publishers’ discount of one-third off list — a demand that was still being pressed at the 1913 convention.

A Turn Toward Wider Interests

Booksellers’ interests were not quite as narrow as the endless reports of price and discount discussion might suggest. They expressed concern over ABA members who were victims of the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. They kept up their program of sedate entertainment at annual meetings. In 1907, for example, they visited the Doubleday, Page plant, met the discoverer of the North Pole, Commander Robert E. Peary, and were regaled at their banquet by the “Purple Cow” poet, Gelett Burgess, presented by his young publisher, Ben W. Huebsch. Meantime, some members were feeling concern — to quote a PW editorial, May 18, 1907 — that only “an old guard of 30 or 40 men” were devoting themselves to the ABA. (PW hoped that the 400 who have not as of yet contributed their share to the support of the Association will be roused out of their torpor….”)

The most significant widening of concern was shown when the ABA began to talk about better sales methods, staff training, promotion, and good management. For example, in 1906 there was some discussion of circulating (i.e. rental) libraries, “novelties” (sidelines), and second-hand books, all as adjuncts to the selling of trade books. R.E. Sherwood, an ebullient young New York dealer, gave what was probably the ABA’s first talk on innovative merchandising, with what PW called “an unvarnished account” of his “circus methods” of promotion. Perhaps these methods didn’t catch on, for a year later one speaker was castigating the book trade for parochialism: “The bookseller is not in touch with the larger reading public.”

There was progress, however, in another direction: in 1907, the first woman to hold a prominent place in ABA affairs, Mrs. Grace E. Going, was appointed office manager. Her salary was $6 a week.

The 1910 convention marked ABA’s first strong emphasis on practical operations and selling techniques. The next year PW said that it was precisely because “net reform” had become a reality that booksellers could turn their main attention for the problems of buying to those of selling. President Walter L. Butler of Butler’s, Wilmington, Del., reported what was on members’ minds as they had written to him: the hope for price maintenance contracts; annoyance at publishers charging for postage; the need for uniform discounts on library sales. The next year, he said members were writing to him to express “a very positive conviction that the library business should be handled by the legitimate retail bookseller.” Another 1912 speaker, a Doubleday executive, came up with a ringing new slogan — one that has been ringing ever since: “Few Books and Better.”

At the 1913 meeting the ABA made an important and memorable move: it named a committee for a booksellers’ school. This led to a New York course the next year “to improve the efficiency of booksellers’ clerks,” a course that the ABA held on the cooperation with the Booksellers’ League of New York; it was led by a young editor at the Century Company named Van Wyck Brooks. This was followed by a course in Philadelphia the next year, and by successive training programs, through the years, to be reviewed on a later page.

A lot had been said about returns in previous years, but it remained for W.H. Arnold of H.B. Claflin Co., New York City, to make in 1913 a concrete, practical proposal — a 90% returns system for books in stock one year. PW later said this plan was as important as the new price system. The 1913 meeting was important in still another way, for it voted to initiate a joint publisher-bookseller board of trade. The was the first of a long series of liaison groups. They have had varying life-spans, varying restrictions on subject matter, varying responses to the legal interpretations of the times, but they have been recognized as a vital necessity in trade relations.

Also considered in 1913 was the “reprint menace.” John Kidd of Stewart, Kidd, Cincinnati, said reprints would not be so menacing if publishers would avoid issuing any low-cost reprint for three years after original publication.

The next several years confirmed ABA’s breakaway from obsession with net price. Major attention in 1914 went to market expansion (83% of potential buyers of books had inadequate bookstore service or none, the ABA was told), and an address on “Bookselling as a Profession for Women” by Georgiana Hall of Wanamakers, a veteran “book salesman,” as she expressed it in the semantics of the day. The next year, there was much talk of the potentials (and pitfalls) in cooperative advertising, and one landmark proposal, a plan for a “Juvenile Book Week,” was presented by Franklin K. Mathiews, chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America. Such considerations were followed up at the 1916 sessions, held in Chicago. (This was the first annual meeting outside of New York; more than half those present had never attended an ABA convention before, PW said.) At the 1917 meeting, “new channels” in bookselling — that is, specialized selling — were recognized. Several women managers of the new “personal” bookshops gave talks, and Bertha E. Mahoney of Boston’s pioneering Bookshop for Boys and Girls led a stimulating discussion.

Meanwhile, beginning July 1916, the first ABA Bulletin was published for a couple of years in Detroit while Ward Macauley of that city was president of the ABA. The Bulletin stressed sales methods, service, price maintenance, and “a library in every home in America.”

Watch upcoming issues of Bookselling This Week for more from Bookselling in America and the World.