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ABA President Checks In
Kevin Howell -- 1/31/00
Richard Howorth sees a bright future ahead for the leaner, invigorated ABA board

"I think booksellers are feeling better than they have in several years," said Richard Howorth, ABA president and owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. "And I think the biggest reason is that independent booksellers and the ABA have done a pretty good job of communicating to the world who we are, what we're about and why we're important." Howorth's comments were corroborated by PW's recent post-holiday poll (Bookselling, Jan. 17) where booksellers' optimism had as much to do with strong sales as a sense of empowerment due to the ABA's high-profile Book Sense marketing program and the organization's launch of an Internet sales tax action initiative.

Howorth spoke to PW shortly after the ABA board's January meeting in Miami, where the board accepted the nominations for three new board members: Lilla G. Weinberger of Readers Books in Sonoma, Calif.; Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.; and Suzanne Staubach of the University of Connecticut Co-op in Storrs, Conn.

He spoke about:
  • The ABA board's decision to trim back from 20 members to nine.

  • How the two new advisory councils offered a new "outsiders" perspective.

  • The drop in ABA membership from 3,400 in 1999 to its current 3,200.

  • The long-delayed booksense.com, which still has no release date in sight.

  • The ABA's biggest morale booster: Book Sense.

  • The ABA sparring with politicians over the Internet sales tax initiative.

Last year's change in the ABA's bylaws ( News, May 10, 1999) allowed the organization to shrink from 20 members to a nine-member board, with two advisory councils providing input toward the Board's decision-making process. According to Howorth, this trimming has both an up and down side. "Conversations are able to move faster and we're able to cover more ground," Howorth said, noting that the drawback to a smaller board is the difficulty representing the diverse elements of their membership. "And we do have a lot of diversity out there. It's important to have a group that understands they need to represent all those groups at one time. But, I think our board d s."

As the board was pared back, the organization realized it needed to create two advisory councils. "The idea is that the board will get information from both groups to help us see the future more clearly," said Howorth. "We realized that our perspective may have been too much from inside the industry and not enough outside." To this end, the Industry Advisory Forum includes members from the National Association of College Stores and National Association of Recording Merchandisers along with bookstore owners, publishers, wholesalers and book associations. "It's also difficult to get outsiders to participate. Most are so active in their own jobs that it is asking a lot to ask them to continue contributing."

The Industry Advisory Forum worked with a facilitator from IdeaScope, an organization that helps businesses select strategic growth opportunities. New members were asked what opportunities and threats faced booksellers and how the ABA board could position itself to adapt more quickly to change or anticipate change. The second advisory board, the Booksellers Advisory Council, engages in readings and information gathering and reports back to the ABA board in an informal way.

Since 1993, the ABA bookstore membership has dropped from 5,200 to its current figure of 3,200. And although the decline continues, with a loss of 200 last year, Howorth pointed out that the ABA did not suffer a decline in is Main Store membership, "which is our most important memberships." Other members can join as associate members and provisional members. Howorth is confident that "if all the stores that have withstood the onslaught of the corporate superstore expansion and the Internet expansion have been tough enough to get through the last 10 years, they're going to be hard to get rid of now."

Equally hard, it seems, is getting booksense.com in to working shape. When the initial delay was announced just prior to the holiday season, booksellers were hesitant to criticize the delay. The overall opinion was that booksellers would rather have a Web site later without problems than one early that hadn't had the bugs worked out. "Booksense.com is still in development," Howorth said. "We had a real setback but our vision of what it should be for booksellers and how it should fit with the program has not changed. We're working on it but we don't have a date. We're not going to give a date until we have product in hand. It's wrong for us to say things to booksellers when they have to make business decisions accordingly." With classic understatement, Howorth said he's had very satisfactory communication with ABA members who were "not 100% delighted, but they understand we're doing the best we can and what we're doing is very different. If we can make it work, it's going to be absolutely terrific." Even more understated was Howorth's advice to booksellers: "We're telling them if they can wait, that's fine. But if they can't wait, we're encouraging them to go ahead and use whatever Web tool they want to build their Internet business."

Thankfully, Book Sense has built up a lot of good will among booksellers. But Howorth isn't satisfied with current bookseller's participation. Rather than see more booksellers signed up on the program; he'd prefer to see those already on the program to participate as active members. "The board has fully embraced the gospel of Book Sense," he told PW. "Book Sense is not the lone answer to having a successful store but it surely helps. You can't just put up a Book Sense sign and expect things to happen. There must be dialogue between the ABA and booksellers and between booksellers and their staff to use the tools we have a find out what new twists we need to keep things from getting stale."

One issue that's fresh is the ongoing debate, in and out of bookstores, about Internet sales tax. The ABA reacted promptly, sending out sales tax action kits to booksellers (Bookselling, August 30, 1999). "The vast majority of the membership agree with the ABA initiative," said Howorth. "It's an extremely difficult battle. It's hard to do battle with a politician telling voters they don't need to pay taxes. But where booksellers in their local communities have launched an effort to talk about the true issues, customers have been extremely positive."

Howorth believes booksellers have to get more of a say in their communities. "This issue is being tossed around like a political toy. The main thing we need to stress is that e-tailers need to abide by existing laws. The second issue is that we have to expose the unfair competitive advantage being given to one retailer over another. We can't let Internet lobbyists and politicians get away with running the discussion. Be vocal! I know we've lost so many booksellers in the last 10 years and you can't blame people for feeling burned out to have to do all this while trying to run our businesses. But that said, you really have to admire the booksellers who are still fighting."
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