The American Booksellers Association hosted a virtual town hall meeting yesterday which attracted some 300 booksellers. The event, originally scheduled to be held during BookExpo America, was moved online due to the pandemic. Over three hours on Zoom, the ABA board and CEO Allison Hill answered questions from members.
The conversation focused on what Hill described as two milestones: three months ago when the lockdowns started and stores had to adjust and reimagine the way they do business and three weeks ago when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, an event which forced many stores to more closely consider their relationship to communities of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
"I started this job on March 2 and the first three months are not what I expected," said HIll. "I imagined the first time I would have the opportunity to speak to everyone would be at BookExpo, but we are here on this call. I feel honored to be leading ABA during this extraordinary time and not to be doing it alone. The last 90 days we have seen a crisis that was unexpected: the pandemic. The last three weeks was a crisis that was hundreds of years in the making: the tipping point for our country around racism around police violence, which has been heartbreaking and challenging for booksellers of color."
The conversation was free flowing and addressed a number of issues. In no particular order or priority, here are some touchpoints. Please note: due to the length of the session, not every individual question or response is addressed below and some questions and responses have been condensed or paraphrased for space. A recording of the event is available behind the ABA's membership paywall.
Assistance for bookstores
Jamie Fiocco, ABA board president and owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., addressed the hardships facing booksellers and praised publishers for responding with relief programs for booksellers. Chris Morrow, ABA board member, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., and board member of the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc), pointed out that during the pandemic, they have distributed half a million dollars to booksellers, and over $2.1 million to bookstores. "They have done just an incredible job," said Morrow, who pointed out that the money distributed in the last few months was more than they'd given away from 2012 to 2019.
Priorities during the pandemic
The organization is prioritizing three areas in the near term: indie commerce. education, and the "fourth quarter," meaning the period leading to the holiday shopping season. Hill said ABA was making changes, "some that you like, some that you will not like." For starters, this year's ABACUS survey has been suspended, will not take place this year and is being revised to reflect new realities. "We know that last year's sales figures won't be relevant now," said Hill.
IndieNext and galleys
Another change was the ABA's decision to forgo printing the Indie Next list so long as bookstores were closed, but stores have asked the ABA to once again begin printing the list. Likewise, the ABA will continue to work with publishers to come to a solution for providing bookstores printed galleys, which most publishers have stopped doing during the pandemic. "I have emphasized to publishers that it is important to experience the physical book, because that is what we are selling," said Hill. One solution may be to provide galleys on request via POD.
Supply chain issues
Hill said that the ABA was also in conversations with publishers and Ingram to ensure there would be sufficient supply of hot books to the indie channel leading up to and throughout the holiday season. Likewise, the ABA acknowledged that as booksellers were increasingly dependent on fulfilling online orders, there was an increase in reports of damaged books in shipments. "Everyone is very aware throughout the supply chain about these issues and are trying to address them," said Hill. "In reporting problems, please be as specific as possible, and we will try to address them and get ahead of any issues before the fourth quarter."
Promoting indie stores
Prompted by a question from Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C., about a marketing campaign for indie bookstores, Hill said that they were looking at options for marketing opportunities to raise the visibility of indie bookstores. "The Save Indie Bookstores was the first marketing campaign, then Read Indie Forward was the second campaign, a third will be a back-to-business campaign, and then, possibly a fourth quarter campaign focused on pushing customers to 'buy early, buy local," Hill said.
The underlying fear, acknowledged several times, was the possibility that a second wave of Covid-19 infections might force stores to close again to customers later this year, perhaps even during the critical holiday shopping season. To try and get ahead of this issue, the ABA is working to enhance its IndieCommerce site and has hired additional staff to assist with issues. The 4.5% processing fee for IndieCommerce orders that was initially waived, but has since been reinstated, is also under review with the possibility of a tiered fee system dependent on store size.
Nearly 20 minutes of the Town Hall were dedicated to addressing issues related to Bookshop, with Bookshop CEO Andy Hunter offering his own comments. Several booksellers questioned whether Bookshop.org was siphoning sales away from indie bookstores at a time when they need them most. Hill replied, "From where I sit Bookshop has reached an entirely new audience that were interested in us, but didn't necessarily know how to buy from us. Bookshop pulled customers from [competitors] and maybe introduced us to some new customers."
For his part, Hunter said Bookshop was not going to ever replace the in-store shopping experience, nor was it intended to do so. "The reason it was created was to create an alternative to Amazon, which has grown immensely over the last four years, largely through an affiliate program which returned 4% of the sale of books to affiliates. We knew we needed at alternative to that which would benefit independent bookstores." Hunter emphasized that the market share that was being captured is from Amazon, not from in-store indie bookstore sales. Over 750 bookstores are on Bookshop now and 6,000 affiliates. "If we ever felt we were damaging indie bookstore sales in any way, we would change course," he said. "But there isn't evidence of that now, the evidence is that we are taking marketshare from Amazon."
On the top of the Bookshop.org it states the retailer has raised "$3,365,783.39 raised for local bookstores. Hunter said during the town hall it would be distributing more than $1 million to ABA booksellers who had signed up to receive a disbursement from the site. The distribution would be taking place in the first few days of July.
Anti-racism and the ABA
At the beginning of the meeting, Hill said, "We [the ABA] are making an actionable commitment to diversity and anti-racism. Winter Institute was a highlight because of the programming, but also a lowlight when it revealed the cracks in the organization from booksellers of color who had not felt heard in the discussions around the book American Dirt." Fiocco echoed this shortly thereafter when she said, "Diversity is not being addressed as it should be and there are a lot of barriers that need to be broken down." Throughout the three hour session, Fiocco reiterated that the ABA "has some diversity on the board, but needed do better" and that change had to happen "faster." In one discernible move forward, the ABA has decided to transition the Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion into a staff-run committee.
Diversifying the board
Booksellers were allowed to ask questions both anonymously and identified with their store. Michelle Malonzo, a buyer at Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., was among several booksellers who challenged the make-up of the board and asked how the ABA planned to make the board more diverse. Both HIll and Fiocco reiterated their desire to help more BIPOC candidates run for their board and to address any challenges they might face. "Many people do not know, for example, that you can self-nominate," said Fiocco. One obstacle for many candidates who might like to serve on the board was an inability to take off time from working in their stores for in-person meetings, something that the ability to hold virtual meetings eliminates.
Holding stores accountable
Cristina Rodriguez, manager of Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, asked the board when there will be a town hall dedicated to racial inequalities in the association and what is being done to hold bookstores accountable for supporting racist rhetoric. She cited the recent statement by Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore in response to the death of George Floyd and questioned whether bookstores selling Mein Kampf were violating the ABA's code of ethics. Rodriguez added that with the ABA harboring booksellers who offer racists and bigots a platform, she and other BIPOC do not feel safe as members of the association.
Acknowledging that Rodriquez raised good points, Fiocco replied that any statements made by stores or books they chose to sell was indeed protected by freedom of speech and pointed out the ABA's code of ethics only covered events. "But if something is harmful to human rights or civil rights, there is no contest there," Fiocco said, and added that it was good for the ABA to hear these challenges time and time again, as it motivates the organization to change in order to respond to its members concerns.
Later, Hill reiterated the ABA's commitment to speed up the association's work focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. "The plan here is not to wait a year to let you know how we did [on diversity issues]. I plan on updating you in real-time," she said.
One top priority
Acknowledging the other concerns of members — which ranged from lending more support to black bookstores, to Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden's purchase of $100,000 of Amazon stock, to the need to implement greener bookselling practices — Hill also emphasized no matter what issues and challenges may exist in the organization or the culture at large, the attention of the ABA was primarily on one paramount issue: "We are focused on keeping bookstores open," she said.