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

Bookselling This Week’s occasional series “Spotlight on ABA History” features excerpts from Bookselling in America and the World, an anthology edited by Charles B. Anderson, as well as pertinent summaries from the anthology.Bookselling in America and the World cover image

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 another 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 excerpt discusses ABA’s operations following World War II, among other topics. It also discusses issues of pricing policies and agreements made between publishers and booksellers during the early years of ABA, which are currently illegal under legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Robinson-Patman Act.

Booksellers can read the previous entry in this series here [5].

Postwar Energies: Cooperation and Conflict

A big agenda had piled up during the war period. After 1945, many things happened fast. The ABA board decided early in 1946 to cut loose what had become a burden: it sold the American Booksellers Service Co., including the latter’s principle activity, the Consolidated Warehouse. The purchaser was Barney Lobell, who had been manager of the warehouse; he carried it on successfully as a private corporation. The ABA, while continuing the order distribution service, mat service, sale of book tokens, and sale of bookselling supplies, could now begin giving its energies to the meeting of new needs.

One of the needs was for a periodically issued Basic Stock List and ABA President George A. Hecht of Doubleday Book Shops headed up a committee to compile it. Another need was to assess the market ahead, and this was done at the first postwar convention, May 1946, in New York; expansion was predicted, based on higher college enrollments, population growth, and new reading tastes developed in part by Armed Services Editions. A further need was to revive the monthly ABA Bulletin, which was done in July. The Bulletin continued until, in February 1973, it was superseded by the weekly ABA Newswire as a regular means of communication. Now the Bulletin is reserved for discussions of specific information and appears sporadically.

In the fall of 1946, to help reestablish contacts broken during the war, the ABA set up six regional meetings, held in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The meetings gave members a chance to meet Mr. Goodkind and some of the new officers and to speak their minds.

The 1947 convention at the Hotel Astor in New York was in one way a very decisive one, for it introduced an informal trade show called a “Buyers’ Book Browse.” It was the forerunner of the now formidable annual ABA Trade Exhibit. The ABA also announced a group insurance plan for members; revived the Joint Board of Booksellers and Publishers; started a new Gift Certificate Plan; and attained a membership of more than 1,000 book retail firms. (The Joint Board did not last; worried about anti-trust considerations in 1949, the publishers terminated it.)

Meanwhile, some ideas put forward at the 1946 conventions were percolating. Speakers at a major panel had insisted that the bookseller’s problem was not competition from other bookstores; the main things needed were the enforcement of fair trade and the granting of higher discounts by publishers — 40 percent on one copy being mentioned frequently. And new outlets should be encouraged; in a nation spottily supplied with bookstores, the presence of more well-managed stores would encourage more buying of books.

In line with this thinking, Mr. Hecht proposed that the ABA supply a “packaged bookstore” — standard plans, estimates, fixtures and basic stock for prospective book retailers. The packaged bookstore was first demonstrated at the 1948 convention in Chicago, along with display “assemblies” at various prices. This was the era when American store design was beginning its greatest revolution, and Doubleday’s “modern,” functional, colorful, self-service design was introducing a bright new look into the entire retail book trade.

Changes were obviously coming upon the trade, perhaps a bit too fast for easy adjustment. Mass paperback lines, beginning to grow in number after the war, were becoming more interesting to general booksellers, but troubling, too, because of their low unit sale, 25 cents. On the other hand, rising prices of hardcover trade books were also disturbing. Some listeners at the 1947 convention were unhappy when Bennett Cerf of Random House said bluntly that cost increases made the price hikes necessary.

Even less popular was Mr. Cerf’s report that 40 to 50 leading publishers had found themselves dependent on subsidiary rights, and specifically on book club sales, for their profit margins. This was received rather badly in view of a revelation at the same meeting by ABA president Joseph A. Margolies of Brentano’s, New York. Mr. Margolies reported that, by taking full advantage of book club offers, he could buy books from clubs at an overall sum below the cost of buying at publishers’ wholesale prices.

Pricing and club problems were especially irritating in what seemed by 1948 to be “a tight market.” The ABA’s response, however, was not solely to lash out at enemies, but also to encourage more effective bookselling. Conventions now included very well-attended workshop meetings on better store operation: staff training, stock control, selective buying, and — a new point of emphasis at the 1949 meeting in Washington — the choice and handling of sidelines. At several meetings, successful ways of promoting and presenting children’s books were featured, and in 1949, ABA President Robert B. Campbell reported progress on a basic booklist of children’s titles.

Even though, on some issues, the ABA and publishers were at odds, cooperation was also going on. Mr. Hecht in 1948 proposed that publishers adopt in their advertising the slogan “Books Are Wonderful Gifts” to help lead customers into bookstores. This request was followed. At this time, too, the ABA was making one of its attempts to develop a uniform returns plan, and although publishers felt they could not join in a single policy, they cooperated to make possible a Returns Calendar, published in the ABA Bulletin from December 1948 until 1963.