At the opening of the New England Independent Booksellers Association's annual meeting and town hall on September 25, Beth Wagner, NEIBA board president and manager of Vermont’s Phoenix bookstores, warned her virtually assembled constituents: “the path ahead will not be easy.” But in a meeting that touched on the many issues and challenges that booksellers face today, attendees staring down the bumpy road ahead did so in good spirits, taking up a message of resilience and looking forward to 2021.
NEIBA executive director Beth Ineson praised members for the adaptations they made this year in response to the pandemic. “What you have all done this year is nothing short of incredible,” she said. Despite waiving member dues, Ineson reported that the organization was able to come in on budget for the year, managed in part by moving offices, which reduced rental costs by half, and then negotiating those costs down by another 60% due to the pandemic.
Ineson said that the group has made strides in reaching members via digital engagement, including with the virtual fall conference that culminated in Friday’s meeting. Based on the success of those programs, Ineson said that online programming sessions will remain a part of a hybrid model for the organization in the future: “They’ve been too successful to let them go entirely.”
In addition to increasing digital tools for booksellers, the organization is also exploring creating a 501(c)3 to exist alongside NEIBA’s current 501(c)6 structure, if it's feasible. Ineson explained that the existing structure prevents NEIBA from providing direct financial support to members as she would like. “I’m excited about the possibilities,” she said. “We may not be able to pull it off… [but] I feel like I owe you all to think this all the way through.”
The meeting also marked changes in the group’s leadership, including the departure of former board president Laura Cummings of White Birch Books in Conway, N.H., and board member Stephanie Schmidt of Water Street Books in Exeter, N.H. Incoming board members are Kelsy April, manager of Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, R.I., and Casey Gerken of Innisfree Bookshop in Meredith, N.H.
Diversity and access were among the most pressing issues discussed at the meeting. “NEIBA membership must increase diversity,” Wagner said bluntly. “Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan.”
That idea extended to author representation as well, with Print Bookstore bookseller Stephanie Heinz pushing for publishers to be required to display books by BIPOC authors during regional bookselling conferences as part of their contracts to participate. Harvard Book Store bookseller Read Davidson, who cochairs the group’s New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, also asked the organization to increase education around disability access and inclusion in the bookselling community, which Ineson said the group was eager to take up in subsequent meetings.
In response to a member query about opening more membership opportunities to frontline booksellers, Ineson again championed the value of digital access to major events like the fall conference. This year’s attendance was 450, up from 377 last year, Ineson said, noting that the increase was due in part to hosting it online. “We’ve been able to have a ton of folks come who wouldn’t have been able to before,” she said.
Joining the meeting, American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill praised the optimism of the group. “I have to say, it is such a heavy time right now, and this meeting is filled with light,” she said.
Hill provided updates to members about the ABA’s new “October Is the New December” initiative, aimed at getting customers to spread out their buying in advance of a holiday season that booksellers fear will be plagued by shipping and printing disruptions. “There is no doubt in my mind that you are going to see delays and you are going to see disruption,” Hill warned. “It is inevitable.”
With an uptick in bookseller complaints about shipping issues in the last month, Hill also encouraged members to reach out about any issues with distribution from Ingram, the primary wholesaler for many booksellers. “I meet with Ingram all the time, so it’s really helpful if I have specific examples,” she said. “They’re moving really fast like we are, so they may not recognize that there is a bigger problem.”
ABA is simultaneously looking beyond the holidays into next year, with plans to increase education and diversity initiatives, updates to the IndieCommerce sales platform, and improved outreach to members, Hill said. Those include a planned rollout of a newly updated iteration of Bookselling This Week, the ABA’s weekly member newsletter.
During the town hall portion of the gathering, members called widely for mentorship opportunities and more education about core business issues. Ineson and Hill were both receptive, detailing clear plans on multiple fronts for the year ahead. Hill also emphasized the need for booksellers to join a push that ABA will make in 2021 related to the sales data booksellers collect. She stressed the need to provide data to publishers that improves booksellers’ competitive standing in the marketplace in the face of increased online sales competition.
“It’s pretty clear that one of the things the publishers value the most is data, and that we, as a channel, ABA, needs to do a better job collecting data that will make us a more valuable channel,” Hill said. “That will then hopefully mean that [publishers] don’t have to find these other ways of getting what they need.”