Incoming American Booksellers Association board president Bradley Graham, the owner of Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. called to order the organization’s annual meeting on Thursday afternoon. For the second year in a row, the gathering was virtual; it drew about 250 participants.
Graham’s update on the ABA’s health in fiscal year 2020-2021 was a bad news/good news report: the ABA lost 80 members due to store closures during the pandemic, but membership increased in the year, as new stores open up. Graham noted that “there’s quite a bit of diversity” among the 107 new member stores: “23 are BIPOC-owned stores; five self-identify as LGBTQ-owned stores; 18 are online-only; eight are pop-ups; two are mobile; and one is events only. So clearly, the profile of indie bookselling is changing and expanding.”
The ABA currently has 1,700 member bookstores in 4,100 locations, down from 1,900 member bookstores in 2,500 locations “a couple years ago,” he added, noting that the difference has to do more with counting methods than with a drop in membership. Inactive members are no longer included and there now is different criteria for ABA membership, taking into account nontraditional business models that may not conform to traditional bricks-and-mortar stores.
Graham then addressed the ABA’s finances. Thanks to a surging stock market, the ABA’s investment portfolio has ballooned to $32 million. As the pandemic forced the cancellation of revenue-producing events, the ABA “braced for a huge financial hit." Although the ABA lost $600,000 in revenues due to Winter Institute going virtual in 2021, and another $400,000 due to the cancellation of Book Expo, “the damage was not as bad as expected.” IndieCommerce orders peaked with a 787% spike in 2020, and continue to be up from 2019’s numbers. Plus, the virtual WI 2021 had higher-than expected registrations, sponsorships, and partner support.
“Revenues for the fiscal year are down only $700,000, or about 11.5% from pre-pandemic levels,” Graham noted, adding that ABA was able to provide rebates on dues to members last year, and will provide a rebate this year of one month’s dues.
Booksellers Speak Up At Town Hall
The ABA Town Hall immediately followed the annual meeting. Judging by the tenor of the questions directed towards the board and staff, while some booksellers are mostly concerned about the bread-and-butter issues, such as publisher terms and supply chain problems, others are focused on how booksellers will network with each other and publishers in the post-BookExpo era.
Alison Reid, the co-owner of Diesel: A Bookstore in Los Angeles and Del Mar, Calif. asked what could be done to persuade publishers to give indie booksellers bigger discounts, pointing out that “there are large profits being made while they are giving deals to others,” but indies continue to struggle to pay employees a living wage, cover rent, and provide health insurance.
“In every conversation that we have with publishers as board members,” Graham responded, “terms, discounts, we mention it and push. It’s one of the major things we’re pushing for.” ABA co-v.p./secretary Christine Onorati, owner of WORD in Brooklyn and Jersey City added that in discussions with publishers about strategic partnerships, board officers have raised the question of how such partnerships can be maintained to ensure indie booksellers don't get "left behind."
Several West Coast booksellers expressed concerns regarding Ingram’s April announcement that as of June 1 it will make its Jackson, Tenn. facility the sole shipping point for titles distributed by Consortium, PGW, Two Rivers, IPS, and Ingram Academic. Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, Calif. asked the ABA if it had raised this issue with Ingram, pointing out that the move seemed to be an “underhanded way to compel many stores to buy books at wholesale prices.”
ABA CEO Allison Hill acknowledged that ABA had been caught unawares, having learned about the consolidation at the same time as booksellers. Hill then asked that Ingram field sales managers Johanna Hynes and Leslie Jobson step onto the virtual stage to address bookseller concerns during what turned out to be a lively 10-minute back-and-forth between them and booksellers, a number of whom expressed their misgivings about this consolidation.
Hynes and Jobson tried to soothe bookseller concerns by emphasizing their commitment to independent booksellers, and insisting that it was done to streamline Ingram’s distribution apparatus five years after the wholesaler added distribution to the services it provides booksellers after its acquisition of the Perseus distribution business. “I think it’s actually going to work out well,” Jobson said, “We have a lot more inventory, we have a smaller unit minimum, and we’re working on a rate policy to all parts of the country, to make it all quicker.”
“This is an attempt to segregate the two divisions [wholesale and distribution] of the company,” Hynes added, “To move them into separate spaces, to make it more efficient for people to do business. We’re here to sell books, just like you are.”
“We will absolutely do whatever we can to get our publishers’ books to our market, which is only the indies,” Jobson said. Hynes maintained that the consolidation is still being finessed, and that changes will be made as needed. She said that the consolidation is effective as of June 1 to ensure that everything will run smoothly by the busy fourth quarter.
Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books in the Seattle metro area responded by writing, “When data shows six months from now that West Coast bookstores are spending more money on IPS books and have fewer stocked, they will change it back or improve?” For his part, Graham pointed out to Jobson and Hynes, “I think one lesson to be taken away is before you do something like this, maybe check it out with us.”
A number of booksellers also asked what the ABA will do to facilitate in-person gatherings for booksellers to network, now that Reed has canceled BookExpo. Pointing out that while ABA “sat the dance out this year and people stepped into that space,” Hill said that the ABA is surveying booksellers and conferring with publishers. While Children’s Institute held at the end of summer will be virtual, Hill promises that WI 2022 will be an in-person gathering in Cincinnati. And Hill said ABA is likely to add some online programming to the in-person event a few weeks after the show in order "to reach as many people as possible.”
“I don’t know what PW and Edelweiss have planned for the future,” Hill said, referring to the separate virtual conferences run by the companies this spring. “Next spring we won’t be doing anything; I know that.” She disclosed that ABA is contemplating organizing an event to take place in spring 2023, “not necessarily replacing BookExpo,” she said, “But what are the opportunities, what are the needs, and how could we help facilitate what people need?”