The American Booksellers Association held its annual meeting and community forum on May 23, with 128 individuals and store locations in attendance. ABA’s present membership includes 2,433 bookstore companies with 2,844 store locations, representing “an 11% increase in membership year over year,” according to ABA board VP and secretary Cynthia Compton, owner of the Indianapolis metro area’s 4 Kids Books and Toys and MacArthur Books.

ABA board president Tegan Tigani, children’s book buyer at Queen Anne Book Co. in Seattle, led the meeting and moderated the forum. Topics included the ABA’s updated IndieCommerce 2.0 software, its financials and investments, and a renewed call from some members for a ceasefire in Gaza. During the forum, the ABA surveyed attendees about challenges facing their stores, and more than 30% of respondents cited concerns with “cash flow” and paying staffers “a living wage.” Fewer than 6% perceived a “labor shortage” or identified “rent/landlord issues” or “free expression/book bans” as primary concerns.

In her remarks, Tigani acknowledged such industry challenges as stores struggling to “have enough booksellers on the floor” and staffers needing to “double down on their side gigs to pay rent. It’s hard to keep creating the alchemy of people and books that makes our business,” she said. She saw positives in “the diversity of bookstores, booksellers, and bookstore owners,” the profitability of Independent Bookstore Day, and such technologies as Batch and Edelweiss, which “help streamline tasks.”

Tigani expressed appreciation for the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation and Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan, an antitrust advocate working on behalf of small businesses including indie bookstores. Tigani thanked outgoing ABA board member Kelly Estep, of Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Ky., and encouraged attendees to follow ABA advocacy associate manager Philomena Polefrone's series of interviews with book industry activists, known as Free Expression Friday. She also previewed proposed revisions to the ABA bylaws, to be approved by the membership in the coming weeks.

Board VP and secretary Compton delivered a financial update and membership report. Compton called the ABA’s financials “sound” and said that the association “received a clean report from an independent auditor.” At the end of fiscal 2023, the association’s endowment was $25.9 million, and it now stands at $27.4 million, Compton said. During 2023, the association’s operational revenue was $7.1 million and its expenses were $8.5 million; 76% of its budget went to programming including Winter Institute and Children's Institute, comfortably meeting a benchmark goal of 70%.

The ABA’s capital investments in 2023, approved by the board, included “a $200,000 investment in to create an e-book option for independent bookstores, and $524,836 for the continuation of the IndieCommerce upgrade.” During the community forum, some attendees questioned whether these investments served the membership equitably; the ABA has so far spent $3.3 million on upgrading to IndieCommerce 2.0.

ABA CEO Allison Hill was unable to attend the meeting and will include her remarks in the official annual report, to be emailed to members next week.

Booksellers Weigh In During Community Forum

It was clear during the Thursday afternoon community forum that the ABA staff and board did not want a virtual repeat of the last in-person community forum held during Winter Institute, when dozens of booksellers stood in lines to take turns castigating the organization, primarily for not taking a stance on what is going on in Gaza.

“Because we have limited time together and we want to cover as many topics as possible, we're going to try to limit questions and comments on any one particular topic to just three of them," board president Tigani explained, "so that we have time to cover as many topics and hear from as many voices as we can.”

As was to be expected, the ABA’s resistance to bookseller demands that it take a public stance on Gaza came up. David Nurick, a bookseller at Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton, Mont., read an open letter to the organization written by what he described as a collective of like-minded booksellers. “We think it is crucial that the ABA speak loudly. Instead, there's been silence,” he said. “This is not acceptable. Booksellers are in a unique position to promote and amplify voices from all parts of the world as institutions across the globe crack down on freedom of speech and expression, punishing those who speak out against the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians. Demand an end to the violence and promote empathy for all people. It is the right thing to do and we are demanding that the ABA step up and advocate for what's right with us as they have with LGBTQIA+ issues and book banning.”

John Evans, co-owner of Diesel Bookstore in Los Angeles and Del Mar, Calif., followed up on Nurick’s open letter by suggesting that the ABA “at least advocate for the rights of booksellers, students, faculty, citizens to have free speech, to carry books, express ideas, etc., in our stores.” Tigani responded by noting that the ABA “is committed to supporting freedom of expression and the safety of our booksellers as much as we can," and that commitment is stated "in our ends policies.”

A few booksellers expressed concerns with Robert Sindelar, a managing partner at Third Place Books in Seattle, brought up the way Bookshop divides shares, suggesting that the ABA might encourage Bookshop to consider ABA membership dues in determining shares. Linda Sherman-Nurick, co-owner of Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., wrote in an email that many indies prefer not to use, that “some of us see it as a direct competitor.”

Other booksellers complained of publishers not taking the needs of indies more into consideration in their decision making or, as Diesel co-owner Alison Reid put it, showing “disregard for us as customers.” In an email sent to Tigani, Sandy Cararo, the owner of the Book Dragon in Staunton, Va., complained of publishers shipping books early to chain stores, enabling those stores to start selling those books “when we haven’t even received ours.” She added, “Big box stores should receive their books last.” Cararo also complained of big publishers not holding accountable those bookstores that not only disregard on-sale dates but “brag about putting them out early.”

Noting that ABA executives and board members regularly meet with publishers, Tigani said that “the strict on-sale date has been one of the big themes” during these meetings, and that the organization has brought these issues to the attention of the Book Industry Study Group.

Describing Amazon as “the elephant in the room,” board member Raquel Roque, a buyer at Books & Books in Miami, said she has been present for publisher meetings, and “when you ask the publishers how much percentage is the independent book business, they give you a percentage so low that it just freaks the heck out of you.... 75% of their income depends on Amazon." She added: "You can't blame them, because it's survival of the fittest,” and yet “a lot of the work that we do really helps Amazon sales later on.”

“We’re small and mighty, Raquel,” Tigani responded. “Thank you for always being part of that strong, strong commitment to the books and to the readers.”