The independent bookselling community has been counted out more than once over the past three decades as the arrival of superstores, online retailing, and e-books have each led to predictions that most independently owned bookstores would become extinct. To be sure, since 2008 the Great Recession, the exponential growth of e-books, and intense discounting from online retailers put independent booksellers under severe pressure. But in 2010, the American Booksellers Association saw its first increase in membership in many years, and by 2013 the sector had recovered enough that independent bookstores are once again seen as critical to the success of the book industry. For their role in leading the resurgence of independent bookselling, ABA CEO Oren Teicher and the ABA board have been chosen as PW’s Person of the Year.
In an interview at ABA’s headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., Teicher, whose ties to the association go back to 1990, said the ABA and the book industry look little like the business he first joined 24 years ago as ABA associate executive director/director of government affairs and head of the First Amendment Foundation. He credited the comeback of independent bookselling to a number of factors, starting with what he calls the “democratization” of technology and the widespread embrace of shopping local. With access to less expensive technology, booksellers can now make their backoffice operations more efficient using such tools as sophisticated point-of-sale systems and digital catalogues and analytics on Edelweiss. In addition, booksellers are using technology to reach their customers, selling books around the world through their Web sites and Facebook pages. In addition, the deal with Kobo gives booksellers a chance to offer their customers digital reading devices and e-books. Teicher acknowledges that in the past, many booksellers were leery of technology, but he said that today all resistance has faded. “Booksellers know if you don’t make technology your friend you are swimming upstream,” Teicher says.
Teicher was an early advocate of the shop-local movement, along with many ABA board members, including Steve Bercu, CEO of Austin’s BookPeople and the current ABA board president. Both men credit the growing support of shop-local efforts by consumers as key to the rebound of indie bookstores. Bercu, who is president of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, notes that when he helped found the group 12 years ago there were only a handful of similar organizations; “now,” he says, “there are hundreds of them.”
Bercu believes that communities across the country realize that it is independent businesses that set their town apart from other places. “The scale of the world has driven localism back,” Bercu says. “Nobody has to go to bookstores to buy books, and yet people do. Humans want interaction.” Many of ABA’s programs, starting with its IndieBound online community, Teicher adds, are aimed at making booksellers a central part of their communities.
For Teicher, building shop-local movements involves a strategy that Teicher believes is crucial to the success of indie bookselling: forming partnerships within the book industry and outside of it. “We have worked closely with publishers, wholesalers, authors, and librarians as well as colleagues in other indie retail businesses,” Teicher notes. A recent example of the collaboration is the newly formed Alliance for Independent Business, which ABA helped to create along with six other organizations. By promoting Sherman Alexie’s Indies First initiative, the ABA was able to help connect about 1,000 authors as hand-sellers at indie bookstores on Small Business Saturday (November 30).
Teicher and Bercu also point to the success of the Winter Institute as another example of fostering collaboration and education. What began as an experiment nine years ago has become so popular that next January’s institute sold out in less than a month. “The peer-to-peer interaction is great for booksellers, and [Winter Institute] has also proven to be a place where publishers can showcase their books,” Teicher says.
In recent years, publishers have also been much more receptive to working with booksellers to find new ways to sell books. Madeline McIntosh, president and COO, Penguin Random House, called indie booksellers “terrific collaborative partners.” Discussions with large and small publishers have resulted in improvements in co-op advertising, extended dating, consignment, and incentives for stocking backlist. “All of these things have a cumulative, positive effect on a bookseller’s business,” Teicher observes, adding that one of the most effective changes made by publishers—and one he’d like to see other publishers adopt—is Random House’s rapid replenishment holiday program.
Teicher stresses that, in working with publishers, “we aren’t looking for charity. We want to sell more books, and publishers have realized that given the important role bricks-and mortar stores play in discovery, they need indie booksellers to survive.” Publishers do indeed see the importance of indies to the future. Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins, says that while indie bookselling has experienced highs and lows in the past, “Now we are enjoying an indie revival which we couldn’t be happier about. This generation of independent booksellers is a critical force in our industry as they skillfully help their communities hear about and read our authors’ books.”
Teicher admits that some trends beyond the ABA’s control have benefited indies. “It would be naïve not to acknowledge that Borders going out of business has helped some indies,” Teicher says, as has the fact that big box stores have cut back on the space they devote to books. The key for indies, Teicher says, is that now many store owners are in a position to take advantage of changes in the marketplace. “I think it is fair to say that all our members are far more skilled business people than was the case in previous years,” he says. The new owners who have bought or opened stores have brought a new entrepreneurial spirit that has made its way through the business, he adds: “The people coming in have brought new ideas, energy and enthusiasm that have become very infectious.”
Partnering with other parties has been important to the indie rebound and so has cooperation within the ABA itself. Teicher says he sees the association’s role as providing members with the tools and initiatives they need to profitably operate their stores. One way to do that, Teicher says, is to “create critical mass” by doing things that members can’t do themselves, citing as one example ABA’s e-commerce platform IndieCommerce, which will be upgraded early next year. Other initiatives such as IndieBound, the Thanks for Shopping Indies holiday discount program, and regional bestsellers lists help member stores differentiate themselves as retailers and booksellers. Teicher says the improved caliber of booksellers has also paid dividends for the ABA. “The association is well served by its volunteer leadership,” Teicher says, noting those volunteers devote hundreds of hours to developing strategies that will benefit all members. That passion for bookselling also extends to the ABA staff, he notes, whose commitment has helped its members grow.
Bercu is equally impressed by the dedication of Teicher and the ABA staff and how they have responded to the new challenges in the industry. “It would be hard to imagine anyone devoting so much of his life to ABA as Oren does. That could also be said of much of the staff,” Bercu says. “They are in constant motion, meeting with members all over the country, and they are in constant contact with publishers, promoting our interest in all aspects of the book business.”
The resurgence of independent bookselling has not lulled Teicher or the ABA board into a false sense of security. “We can’t take the gains we’ve made for granted,” Teicher says. While booksellers will continue to evolve, Teicher believes the main mission of indies will be to sell print books, with e-books part of the overall mix. And he has no doubt that indies have room to grow. “There are several hundred communities that could support an independent bookseller,” he says.
Bercu is also confident about the future, likening the state of indie bookselling to where the shop-local movement was a decade ago. “I think [the resurgence] is just starting in the book world. We’re where we were 10 years ago with the business alliances. Things got bigger exponentially. You’re going to see more and more stores.”