Last week at Winter Institute 14 in Albuquerque, N.M., five of the past presidents of the American Booksellers Association sat for a panel discussion moderated by ABA CEO Oren Teicher, focusing on where the industry is at the moment and where it is headed. The conversation echoed several others at Winter Institute, where it became clear that the ongoing collaboration between publishers and booksellers to reduce the cost of goods and streamline delivery times is central to the profitability of many booksellers.
Michael Tucker, ABA president from 2009 to 2011, and president and CEO of Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, with 11 stores in California, acknowledged that this key relationship is "in a better place" than it had been during the period following the settlement between the ABA and the publishers and bookstore chains for anti-trust in 2001. For several years thereafter, tensions in the industry were high. "The challenge was to open up a dialog with the publishers," said Tucker.
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore with locations in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., concurred that the relationship and the general bookselling environment has improved, but she also offered a cautionary note: "When I have to take out a case of books to replace them with tea towels or socks so i can meet the minimum wage increase or put in new floors, that worries me." She said that young booksellers in particular are vulnerable. "They say [the economics] don't pencil out."
Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops, headquartered in Naperville, Ill., and ABA president from 2011 to 2013, added that the margins for indies is just too slim, particularly compared with competitors. "Something has to change," she said. "We're not here to make the big bucks, but we want to be able to make a living."
Several times at Winter Institute Teicher and others pointed out that sales in the indie channel have been improving overall, with sale up some 5% in 2018. That said, there are still issues, particularly among the bottom third of bookstores, which are averaging a net loss of 8% per year, according to the most recent ABACUS data presented by the ABA earlier last week. One supposition is that profits are rising due to an increase in sales of non-book items and smaller footprint stores are struggling to raise profitability as a result of their inability to stock as many of these higher margin items.
Mitchell Kaplan, president of Books & Books, headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla., who held the ABA presidency from 2004 to 2006, said that the path to profits leads through community work. "We need to look at what the challenges are for small business today, whether that is rent, bad landlords, or a main street that is falling apart. We need to figure out for our communities how to sharpen what we do." He pointed to the grants the city of San Francisco recently extended to small businesses, including a handful of booksellers, as one possible model.
The Booksellers also shared anecdotes from their terms as president and highlights of author events they ever hosted. Becky Anderson's term was perhaps the most dramatic of all and included the liquidation of Borders, the period of e-book hype and the merger of the Association of Booksellers for Children with the ABA as a highlight. But it was her author events with J.K. Rowling that may be most remarkable of all. "For the first book we had 80 kids and teachers come to our store," she said. "For her next reading we had 5,000 people come, then for the next there was 50,000 and then 70,000.""
Betsy Burton, co-owner of the King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, who served as president from 2015 to 2017, said that the industry has taught her "to shut up, and instead of "charging into things," it is better to "watch and listen" first, particularly when one can avail of the knowledge of informed colleagues.
Asked for advice on opening a bookstore, Kaplan was both pithy and practical: "Make sure you buy the building," he said, adding, "You are going to make that community more valuable and you may price yourself out of it."
Finally, each bookseller was asked to name the book they were most looking forward to handselling this year.
Anderson said she was looking forward to An American Summer by Alex Kotlowitz (Doubleday, March). “It’s an important look at the gun violence that has killed over 14,000 people in Chicago in the last 20 years,” she said.
Burton credited Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums (Random House, April) with salvaging an evening’s reading one night not long ago. “I had picked up two galleys that I just threw across the room, they were so bad. Then I saw Ruth’s book there on my pile and it saved my life.”
Tucker said he couldn’t pick just one title and selected “all of Europa [Editions]’s new nonfiction,” which will be published under the new Compass imprint.
Kaplan highlighted a forthcoming book by a local writer, Campbell McGrath’s Nouns & Verbs (Ecco, April). “He is from Miami and writes in a vernacular style that is very appealing,” said Kaplan.
Finally, Shanks gave the nod to Pam Houston’s Deep Creek (Norton, January), saying “She opens herself up and tell you about life, nature and people’s reality."