The American Booksellers Association held its 2023 annual meeting May 25, drawing 120 indie booksellers and others. Attendance peaked at 130 participants during the community forum that immediately followed the 18-minute membership meeting.

Christine Onorati, outgoing board president and the owner of WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., opened the meeting by summarizing the board’s accomplishments during her six years of service. Noting her goal when she joined the board in 2017 was to “empower the next generation and give them the tools to succeed," Onorati expressed pride that 50% of the 2023 Winter Institute attendees were first-timers: “It brought a new energy to the event that we all felt. I saw the future of the industry and it was a glorious sight.”

Announcing that Tegan Tigani, the children's book buyer at Queen Anne Bookshop in Seattle will be the next board president, Onorati noted that Tigani is the first board president who is not a bookstore owner. “We feel this is a tremendous affirmation of the steps we have taken to support and affirm booksellers, as well as owners, in this organization," she said.

After Onorati’s presentation, board co-v-p/secretary Kelly Estep, co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore and Carmichael's Kids in Louisville, Ky., presented the association’s financials and current membership numbers. “I am happy to report the ABA’s financials for 2022 were sound,” Estep said. “The association was on budget last year.” Benchmarks were met, including the ABA holding three years' worth of liquid reserves and 72% of the ABA’s budget going towards programming.

The ABA’s budget is $9 million and it employs 39 people. It has an investment portfolio of $26 million. In 2022, the association made a $2.6 million capital investment in IndieCommerce 2.0. ABA’s revenue is projected to be approximately $8 million in fiscal year 2023, but it is expected to spend almost $9 million due to the rising costs related to Winter Institute and Children’s Institute, plus inflation.

Membership Is Up

As of May 15, Estep said, ABA has 2,185 bookstore members operating in 2,599 locations, a 9% increase over the previous year.

During her CEO report, Allison Hill noted that many stores are experiencing sales that are above pre-pandemic levels, and that many stores have expanded, and even added multiple locations. "There are also stores that evolved from pop-ups into bricks-and-mortar stores," she said.

Noting that the ABA’s membership has risen 34% since March 2020 and that 173 stores opened in 2022, Hill said that the statistics confirm her assertion that “the future is indie. ABA wants to not only support you in that future, but help make it possible. At a time when too many individuals are focused on taking books out of people’s hands, your work putting books in people’s hands is more important than ever.” The ABA subsequently informed PW in an email that since March 2020, 475 stores have opened; 140 of them are BIPOC-owned. To date in 2023, 56 stores have opened and there are 198 bookstores scheduled to open within the next two years; 30 of them are BIPOC-owned.

On the subject of book banning, Hill promised that the ABA will make “an announcement next week about an important next step to protect people’s right to read."

From 'Town Hall' to 'Community Forum'

Following the annual meeting, the newly-named community forum commenced. “Historically, this has been called ‘town hall,’” Hill told attendees, whereas “community forum” emphasizes “working together.” The forum shapes ABA governance and policy-making at meetings like Children’s Institute in Milwaukee, June 5-7.

During the open session, CEO Andy Hunter expanded on remarks to PW at Winter Institute that Bookshop is working on a system to allow indies to more effectively sell e-books. He told the forum Bookshop is working with digital services company Postlight to develop an iPhone/Android e-book app and web-based experience, integrated with IndieCommerce and Bookmanager. “We’re planning to give a full profit margin for e-books,” he said. “I want to give Amazon a run for their money so that indies can capture their fair share of the e-book market.” He anticipates a launch in “early 2024.”

Many booksellers asked for guidance in dealing with book bans. Elizabeth Jordan of Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio pointed to Texas’s HB 900, which passed the legislature on May 23 and is expected to soon be signed by Governor Abbott. HB 900 “requires that book vendors rate and review books sold to public school libraries for sexual explicitness,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t just affect us, it affects Scholastic, Barnes & Noble—I hope every book vendor in Texas will keep that in mind.”

Referring to petitions against HB 900, Hill observed, “Thousands of people said, ‘This is not okay with us,’ and representatives said, ‘We don't care.’” Seconded by David Grogan of American Booksellers for Free Expression, Hill said ABA planned a hire “to assist with strategy” and reminded the assembly to watch for next week's announcement.

What Booksellers Need from Publishers, and Vice Versa

Hill said ABA’s annual meetings with “about 20” publishers are wrapping up. Topics included industry-wide diversity issues as well as censorship threats. Talks also addressed the need for better terms and for publishers to make it easier for booksellers to work with them. “This channel has consistently talked to publishers about needing better terms, to be sustainable,” Hill said.

In addition, Hill and COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger spoke to the rising cost of running the institutes. “Just to give you an idea, the cost of Winter Institute from Baltimore, January 2020, to Seattle 2023 went up 50%,” Hill said. “We want to make sure we’re offering value to everyone and that the publishers are in a position to financially help support these important events going forward.”

Driving this point home, Hill got on what she called her “soapbox” to say that while booksellers need publishers to rethink terms, publishers benefit from data. With publishers facing their own increased costs and layoffs, she said, “it’s going to be a challenging couple of years.” She urged members to utilize Batch for Books and provide data to Above the Treeline and BookScan.

Hill also called for members to submit ABACUS financial reports, promising this year’s version would be “much shorter” and “more actionable.” She and ABA CFO PK Sindwani hope to collect data from at least 1,000 participants, to identify needs and design bookselling tools. Collaboration proved to be a throughline of the community forum.