With BookExpo America a month away, Oren Teicher, American Booksellers Association CEO, was optimistic about the state of independent bookselling. A realist, Teicher said, "We don't by any stretch minimize the difficulty of operating an independent bookstore in 2011. But there are a number of opportunities that not only allow us to hang in but do well." Among them is that after a decade and a half slide, ABA's membership has stabilized. Teicher expects that by BEA, there will be 1,500 member stores doing business at 2,000 locations. Last year at this time, ABA reported 1,410 members, almost identical to the 2009 figures of 1,401.
E-books, which had been a cause for concern when $9.99 or less seemed like it could become the industry standard, have turned more into an opportunity. Although the Google e-books partnership with ABA IndieCommerce stores has not led to many sales yet—142 stores sold at least one e-book in March—Teicher is hopeful that could change since the last of the big six publishers, Random House, has moved to the agency model, which gives independents tools to compete with large retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. "It allows us to sell e-books at the same price our competitors do and focus on what we do well, curating content," said Teicher, who would like to see all publishers adopt the agency model. "As we've been saying for quite some time, it doesn't matter what the format is; it's our ability to put the right book in the right hands."
Although Teicher does not wish any bricks-and-mortar store ill, with the closing of hundreds of Borders stores he sees a chance for both new and established independents to serve those customers. "Certainly the change in the retail landscape does provide an opportunity for us," he said. "It's not good when any stores close, chain or independent. We're working on an effort with vendors to help stores that may want to open in that market or to expand." The program, which is still being finalized, will be unveiled at BEA.
In addition, Teicher is heartened by what IndieBound and the local first movement have accomplished. "The evidence and studies we've done after the last few holidays show that stores with aggressive local first movements are doing better than other stores," he said, "and that bigger is not necessarily better or cheaper. The popular presumption for the last dozen years has been David and Goliath, with Goliath pushing Main Street out. But Main Street is hanging in." Noting an affinity among independent businesses, Teicher said, "All our successes are inextricably linked. Hardware stores say they're not selling nails. They're selling knowledge about how to use nails. And we're not selling books. We're selling knowledge about books."
As for the BEA show itself, Teicher said that it's too soon to know how many booksellers will attend, observing that many wait until the 11th hour to decide. Although this year's ABA hotel, the Holiday Inn on West 57th Street, is only 60% full, he anticipated that it will be sold out by mid-May. "January and February were tough months, and business has not been all that great. To a degree, that's put people's discussions on hold about BEA," said Teicher, adding, "It's no secret we've told our good friends at Reed that their decision to keep the show in New York was a disincentive."
ABA continues to refine the programming for BEA, including more children's programming following the merger of the Association of Booksellers for Children with ABA earlier this year. "A lot of the ABC programming is going to continue almost exactly the same: the author tea and the silent auction," said Teicher. ABA is also working to get the ABC children's book catalogue ready early in the holiday season, and it will be available to more booksellers than in years past.