American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher broke with tradition at this year’s annual meeting. Rather than report on association activities during the past year, he addressed the elephant in the Javits Center, e-books and the turmoil that bricks-and-mortar booksellers are feeling. “As I hardly need to remind everyone here, these are not normal times in the book business. We are living through a period of unprecedented change and staggering challenges. It can no longer be business as usual,” he said.
Teicher noted that the slide in the number of indie bookstores has halted, with more than 400 new stores opening since 2005, and that bricks-and-mortar bookstores remain the essential showroom for ensuring the sale of a broad spectrum of books. Although e-books have reached a tipping point and outsold other formats for the first time in February, “ABA in no way believes that print books are going away,” he said. “Nothing can replace the physical book.”
But things must change, said Teicher, noting that industry practices go back more than half a century, predating I Love Lucy. Referring to ongoing discussions with publishers, he said that the ABA is making progress in working together to create a new, sustainable business model. As a chilling reminder of what’s at stake, he cited statistics after digitalization in the music industry, which has seen a 64% drop in sales from its peak year in 2000, and much of that loss is due to the closing of physical stores.
The bookstore’s role as showroom remains vital, although the scope has shifted outside the store’s physical walls to include staff picks on bookstore Web sites, Facebook, Twitter, e-mails, school visits, and off-site events. “The simple fact is that to most consumers, if you don’t exist online you simply don’t exist,” Teicher said. And he hinted at several new initiatives for selling digital content online beyond Google.
“Simply writing off bookstores as a relic of an antique era is not only shortsighted, it is a prescription for an impoverished publishing community,” said Teicher. The ABA is considering a variety of new models, including consignment, extended dating, forgoing returnability, and co-op. “I’m absolutely convinced,” he said, “that we will be able to fashion new business models. We’re ready to test some of these new models starting now.”
“We’re still here,” the headline of an ad campaign produced by Northern California booksellers, served as an underlying theme for Teicher’s talk and was also the message of the outgoing ABA president, Michael Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco. “Not only still here,” he said, “but our membership has continued to increase for the past two years.”
That change is necessary to accomplish booksellers’ continued existence also arose in the Town Hall. Christin Evans, co-owner of Booksmith in San Francisco, quoted Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads [on Facebook].” She said emphatically: “We need to change this equation. I think we can do better. It’s been 10 years since the launch of e-commerce; three years since the launch of IndieBound; and six months since Google Books. None of these could be considered a success. The ABA today will need to reinvent itself to be more nimble, welcoming, and sustainable.”