Allison Hill assumes the role of CEO of the American Booksellers Association on March 1, taking over from Oren Teicher, who retired in November after 10 years in the job. Hill is moving to the position from Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., where she was president and CEO.
Unsurprisingly, Hill credits a book with leading her to pursue the job. “Two years ago, I was reading Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett, which asks you to use design principles to envision three different paths to your future,” Hill said. “One path was to own Vroman’s one day, one was to leave the industry entirely, and the third was to be CEO of the ABA. And here we are today!”
Hill, who is from suburban Detroit, has held numerous positions in publishing and bookselling, on both coasts. After graduating from Tufts University in the early 1990s, she went to work for Simon & Schuster in the textbook division in Boston, where she focused on rights and licensing and became a series editor responsible for putting together multicultural anthologies for universities. “That was a very interesting and gratifying job,” she said.
Looking for a change, Hill took a part-time sales job at Waterstones, which then had three stores in the Boston area. “I said, ‘I’ll do this while I figure out what I’m going to do next,’ ” she recalled. “But I fell in love with bookselling immediately.”
Hill eventually rose to the position of assistant manager of the Waterstones flagship store but left before the chain shut down U.S. operations. “It really was a special time for bookselling in Boston, with Waterstones, Doubleday [Book Shops], Rizzoli, and so many others that are now gone,” she said. “I am still in touch with many people from that time, many of whom still work in books.” She mentions Sara Hinckley, senior v-p of books for the Hudson Group, as a fellow Waterstones veteran and someone with whom she’s collaborated, having put Vroman’s pop-up stores inside Hudson outlets at LAX airport.
When Hill headed to California, she thought she was done with the industry. Then she walked in to Book Soup in West Hollywood to buy a book. “Someone came over to ask if I needed anything,” she said, “and I replied, ‘I think I need an application.’ ” She was hired as general manager.
In 2004, Hill was recruited to become general manager of Vroman’s, made v-p and COO in 2007, and was named president and CEO in 2013. Under her watch, Vroman’s was the recipient of Publishers Weekly’s Bookstore of the Year Award in 2008. She’ll remain a member of the board of directors and a shareholder of the company while working at the ABA.
Hill said that despite her long pedigree in bookselling, she hasn’t previously been too involved with the ABA. She is the former treasurer and v-p of the now-defunct Southern California Independent Booksellers Association and is a former member of ABA’s Booksellers Advisory Council. She is also the most recent past president of the Independent Booksellers Consortium. She acknowledged that her experience has primarily been working with larger-format stores, which are a minority among ABA members.
“The demographics of bookselling are changing, and our growth as an organization has been driven for the most part by the opening of small stores,” Hill said. “It’s both a very exciting and a very challenging time for the organization right now. I think we need to change the conversation we are having in bookselling. As an organization we have to ask who we are and what we do best. I think it’s pretty clear now that we are not, at the end of the day, just in the business of selling books.”
Hill explained that with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other retailers offering books, people go to independent bookstores for something specific. “The question I like to ask my staff at Vroman’s is, ‘What is it that we offer that others don’t?’ and ‘What are customers in the market for?’ That’s a question I plan to pose to the ABA as a whole.”
The short answer, Hill said, is that booksellers are “in the business of community.” To develop this further, booksellers need to seek out opportunities “to reinforce that value and ensure we are meeting the community’s needs,” she added. She views bricks-and-mortar bookselling as a “delicate ecosystem” that balances the priorities of booksellers, publishers, and customers.
As for the competition, regarding Amazon she said only, “I’m not sure that the typical Amazon customer is our customer.” As for B&N, she said that James Daunt taking over leadership of the chain is a net positive for bookselling. “It infuses new energy into the ecosystem. And regardless of how he chooses to proceed, and regardless of whether we think of each other as partners or competitors, the reality is that we’re all in this together.”
The first thing Hill plans to do in her new job is to try to find out just how many ABA stores are truly profitable, how many are just getting by, and how many are at risk. “Then I want to address the ways in which the business model might be—I lack a better word here—broken,” she said. “I think you’ll be hearing a lot about our conversations with publishers—not to ask them for things, but recognizing what both parties bring to the table. I think that will be an important shift in the dialogue.”
In the meantime, between now and March 1, Hill has one other goal: move her life across the country from Los Angeles to Westchester County, N.Y., where the ABA is based. “I’ve bought long underwear and a winter coat,” she said, adding, “And so the adventure begins!”