The American Booksellers Association has released the findings of an internal review it conducted after two July incidents led to backlash from members. In an email to members on August 5, ABA CEO Allison Hill explained how the cover for a Candace Owens book appeared on the Indie bestseller list instead of the correct cover for a book with the same title, Blackout, authored by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. Hill also described how a copy of a title that booksellers called anti-trans, Irreversible Damage, was mailed to members in the monthly promotion White Box.

Both incidents drew strong criticism from members on social media, and the ABA quickly issued statements acknowledging the mistakes and committing to an internal review. In the August 5 letter, Hill wrote that the ABA’s audit found that the posting of the incorrect cover was a mistake due to staff changes and training, while the mailing of Irreversible Damage occurred because of the absence of internal review for titles included in the promotional boxes. She also outlined steps that the organization is taking in the short and long term to address member concerns raised by both incidents.

Hill’s letter is included, in full, below:

"Dear Booksellers,

I wanted to share an update following my July 14 email about the incidents surrounding Blackout and Irreversible Damage and what we’ve been doing the past few weeks in response.

We began with an investigation of the incidents and an audit of all ABA procedures and programs, and we listened to more than 100 members — those both directly and indirectly impacted — to help inform our plan as we move forward. I’d like to thank members of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; the ABC Advisory Council; the Booksellers Advisory Council; the ABA Board; and ABA staff, as well as the many individual booksellers and bookstore owners who engaged with us and helped us with these efforts.

Here is what we know:

Blackout: A staff person was filling in on creating the bestseller list while the staff person typically responsible was on vacation. Rather than pull the cover image by ISBN as they had been trained to do, they pulled the image by the title, Blackout, and didn't realize they had pulled the wrong cover image — same title, different book. They did not check the cover image against the title and author listed. They were not familiar with Candace Owens’ face, so they did not recognize her on the cover of the wrong book. A second employee, new to copyediting, was charged with proofreading the bestseller list before it went out but they didn't check to ensure that the correct cover image was used. It was a terrible mistake with terrible racist implications. However, based on our investigation and the demonstrated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitment of these individuals, we have no reason to believe the action was malicious in intention.

The employees are very apologetic and very committed to vigilance going forward. They have been held accountable and have agreed to training, both on procedures as well as on DEI, and we have added layers of checks and balances to this process.

Irreversible Damage and ABA’s Box Mailings: The box mailing has been an effective mailing service for publishers, ABA, and booksellers. Publishers pay ABA to include titles in the box, and ABA sends it to eligible bookstores. Until now, no one has ever reviewed or screened the titles submitted by publishers. It has been a pay-to-play program.

Bookstores that report sales and submit Indie Next List nominations are eligible to receive the boxes. The policy to not review or screen titles submitted is in line with many members’ preference to not have ABA decide what books they have access to, preferring to review books themselves to determine what they read, buy, sell, and promote. (We've heard from members — those impacted both directly and indirectly — over the past three weeks who still feel that way despite being horrified by this book.)

Ironically, ABA is paid by the publishers for this mailing service but ultimately loses money on this program; we consider it a service to members. Regardless of all of this, when we included this book in the box, we violated our commitment to equity and inclusion and we caused harm.

We will wait to institute a new permanent box mailing policy until the Board reviews the ends policies at its August meeting. We can then interpret the ends policies and implement new processes surrounding box mailings if applicable. In the meantime, the September box mailing books will be screened and flagged by a team of staff members who are charged with bringing titles to senior staff’s attention that meet the United Nations’ criteria for hate speech — “any kind of communication in speech, writing, or behaviour that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are” — and thus violate ABA’s commitment to equity and inclusion.

For now, we will begin implementing checks and balances, including conveying our expectation to publishers that books submitted for the mailing adhere to our equity and inclusion policy. Beginning in November, transparency will include a note in all boxes that describes how the box mailing works. This information will also be available on BookWeb.

ABA has done significant DEI work these past 18 months. Yet we also caused significant harm with these recent incidents. That these two things can coexist is difficult to understand, but it demonstrates how layered DEI work is and how vigilant we have to be. We’ve discovered cracks in what we believed was a solid foundation on which we built our work. We are determined to address those cracks, build more checks and balances, and institutionalize our efforts.

We’ve spent the last few weeks building a plan with those goals in mind and are taking the following steps forward.

Planned improvements:

  • Conduct an in-house audit of all ABA systems and programs (in progress), reviewing everything through a DEI lens and ensuring that strong checks and balances are in place;

  • Publish a new page on BookWeb that offers information about all ABA programs and services to ensure full transparency to membership (September);

  • Create a new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access Membership Manager position that is responsible for outreach to and support of marginalized members, as well as West Coast members in general. (Membership team members have responsibilities in addition to supporting specific regions.) The job listing will be posted next week. This position will support BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, Two-Spirit, and Disabled members; conduct outreach to ABA members and non-ABA members of those communities; convey the needs of marginalized members to ABA staff; communicate educational programming ideas to support these communities; participate on ABA’s DEI Committee; and help review scholarship nominations for ABA conferences;

  • Add a new Copyeditor position (job listing will be posted next week) responsible for copyediting and proofreading all content and communication for members, reviewing for conscious language and an awareness of equity and inclusion issues;

  • Initiate a beta Advance Access program (a galley-on-demand program) for marginalized voices — waiving the promotional fee and subsidizing shipping costs for small presses (in development). This will hopefully get more galleys by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, Two-Spirit, and Disabled individuals into booksellers’ hands and create a flywheel effect: As publishers see the demand and the subsequent sales of these books, the hope is that they will print more of these galleys for wider distribution and publish more of these authors in general;

  • Beginning in October, hold a quarterly LGBTQIA+ forum between members and ABA staff for booksellers and bookstore owners in the LGBTQIA+ community to have the opportunity to communicate concerns and express their needs (similar to the already existing quarterly BIPOC forum);

  • Add an annual session on Queer history and activism to ABA’s staff equity training calendar (slated for fall);

  • Purchase 100 copies of Blackout for its authors, Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon — 600 copies total — to distribute as they wish (in process);

  • Donate $5,000 to the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (in process). This organization, suggested by members impacted by the recent incident, provides legal support for name changes, advocacy for health insurance coverage for the needs of trans individuals, and pursues legal cases seeking to expand transgender civil rights.

Again, thank you for your engagement and ideas. We believe that these steps will build on the progress that’s already being made, reduce the risk of incidents happening again, and institutionalize DEI work for the association. Our commitment is strong and we’re dedicating resources necessary for improvement. We know it will take time to rebuild trust within our community. We hope our progress will be evident as we show receipts going forward.

ABA is continuing all of our support of independent bookstores. We know that our primary responsibility is to help your stores survive and thrive and our main focus continues to be on education, advocacy, ecommerce, and resources for all of you. We are currently putting the final touches on Children’s Institute, planning Winter Institute, working on an ABA strategic plan, moving forward with IndieCommerce improvements, lobbying for antitrust regulation, and looking at ways to more effectively communicate with all of you and get you what you need. We appreciate your support as we move forward.

Allison Hill, ABA CEO

*This article has been updated.