ABA CEO Update on This Spring’s Forum Discussions

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Dear ABA Member Booksellers:

Our 2012 Bookseller Forum Tour ended last month, and before too much time goes by I wanted to share with the full membership some of the things we heard — and learned — as we traveled the country.

While it’s a fact that substantial technological and economic forces are roiling our industry, it’s equally true that the insights, ideas, concerns, and opinions articulated by booksellers are powerful and essential components to everything that the American Booksellers Association contemplates doing on behalf of member bookstores. And, very few things that ABA does can match the effectiveness of the Spring Forums in helping us hear the voices of members directly and clearly.

This year, over the course of the forum season, ABA met with almost 400 booksellers (representing approximately 300 stores), and, in a heartening sign, among those attending each of the 11 forums were prospective booksellers and/or booksellers who had recently opened new stores. At each of the meetings, ABA presented an educational session that reviewed the best ideas from the Winter Institute’s “Best Practices” sessions, and we are grateful to the Ingram Content Group for its support of the Spring Forums, which help further ABA’s educational programming for member bookstores, and to all nine of the regional trade associations, with whom we worked to organize the forums.

The forums themselves have no formal agenda or set topics for discussion, but, instead, are opportunities for attendees to discuss whatever is on their minds. This year, however, two topics definitely took center stage.

The first, not surprisingly, was the question of how ABA and indie booksellers would adapt following Google’s decision to end its e-book reseller program, effective January 31, 2013.

Here’s the answer we shared with booksellers at the forums: We are working very hard to ensure that ABA will have an even more robust e-book solution in place for bookstores well in advance of the end of our agreement with Google. Like so much else in our industry, the e-book landscape has changed rapidly, and we now have many more options than we did when the Google eBook program launched in December 2010. We expect that the post-Google e-book solution will involve one or more partners who will have a better understanding — and be more in sync with — indie bookstores and the overall book industry. Without in any way minimizing the difficulties this change might present member bookstores, we believe that this development actually offers us an opportunity to fashion a more multifaceted and competitive e-book program for booksellers.

In a related issue, at all of the forums we asked the attending booksellers whether or not they would want to sell an e-reader and/or tablet if it was a competitive product in terms of price and features. At all the meetings, the booksellers were almost evenly divided as to whether they would want to sell a device. This is not surprising given the complexity of the issue, and it further convinced us that, if possible, ABA’s e-book solution for members should have as many options as possible. We can’t yet assure you that that will be the result, but it is an important goal that we are working to achieve.

The other top-of-mind topic for booksellers at the forums was the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) actions in regard to the agency model for the sale of e-books. DOJ filed its civil suit on April 11, and the implications of its actions were among the first things discussed at the subsequent forums.

In a letter recently e-mailed to member bookstores, I detailed just why ABA believes DOJ’s actions are bad for booksellers, bad for our industry, and, most importantly, bad for readers and consumers. In short, we strongly believe that the agency model has made the e-book market not less but, rather, much more competitive. There is more — not less — competition among retailers, and more — not fewer — examples of marketing and promotional efforts among publishers that have reduced prices. For DOJ to overturn a business model that has been central in fostering a more competitive, diverse retail environment is highly confounding and certainly not in the best interest of consumers.

At the last few forums, we were able to update booksellers about how to make their views heard regarding DOJ’s action.

There is federal legislation — often referred to as the “Tunney Act,” after the law’s sponsor, former California Senator John Tunney — that allows interested parties to make their views known about proposed DOJ settlements in antitrust matters. A federal court must approve the proposed settlement, but, before that can happen, the Tunney Act requires DOJ to accept comments from the public, to publish the comments, and to submit a written summary of the comments to the federal court charged with considering approval. A judge then determines whether the remedy being proposed is “in the public interest.” Notably, the law requires that these letters be published, summarized, and considered by the court.

At all of the forums following DOJ’s filing of the civil suit, we urged booksellers who agreed that the preservation of the agency model is essential for our industry to share those thoughts in a public comment letter as soon as possible. (The contact information for your letters is available in my letter to member bookstores.) As I noted at the forums, it’s often the case that we underestimate our capacity to affect public policy. But let’s remember the many times (most recently in the fight for sales tax equity) when booksellers expressing their views in a clear and concise manner have helped achieve important policy changes. This could be one of those times. If you have already written, thank you; if not, please do so.

There were a number of other topics discussed at the forums, and one heartening point of discussion was that against the backdrop of industry and economic challenges — and very hard work — many booksellers are continuing to see an uptick in sales over last year. (Understanding, too, that the opening months of last year were not anything to write home about!)

We were able to share with booksellers at the forums that total IndieCommerce sales — of both print books and e-books — were continuing to grow, and that member in-store unit book sales as tracked by Nielsen BookScan were continuing to show solid gains over 2011. (An increase of approximately 10 percent for the most recent four-week period.) Obviously, that number is an average that doesn’t take into account the specific challenges and sales dips that face individual stores, but, overall, it is a relevant and important indication that our channel continues to offer a unique source of title discovery and consumer experience for readers and book buyers.

At many of the forums, we had good conversations about the increasingly influential Local First/Shop Local movement, and about the many ways indie booksellers are reaching out to partner with other local businesses, often using the customizable IndieBound marketing materials available in the DIY section of BookWeb.org. Part of this local outreach is also resulting in some creative, and profitable, publishing services offered by indie booksellers to local, self-published authors.

The Winter Institute-related educational session in conjunction with the forums provided a great segue to discussions about ABA educational offerings, and attending booksellers shared a number of very helpful ideas for session topics as well as feedback about what was working, and what might be improved. We also shared the latest news about ABA’s Day of Education and the ABC Children‘s Institute at BookExpoAmerica. And our discussions with booksellers at the forums also looked ahead to the fall regional trade shows — how they are evolving to meet new needs and a changing industry, and how ABA might better complement the regional trade associations’ work in this area. We continue to believe that our collaboration with the regional bookseller associations is a critical way in which — working together — we can help stores operate more successful and profitable businesses.

We heard from booksellers about trade practice issues, which in some instances continue to present challenges to bookstore profitability and growth. And we assured member booksellers that ABA is continuing to do everything we can to assist publishers in testing new business models.

If you weren’t able to attend one of the spring forums this year, I hope this overview has given you an update on the main issues and topics that were discussed. And if you have any questions or feedback, please, e-mail or call us. (Nathan Halter in the GLIBA, MIBA, MPIBA, PNBA, and SIBA regions; Kaitlin Pitcher in the NAIBA, NCIBA, NEIBA, and SCIBA regions).

If you were at one of the forums this year, thanks again for your hospitality and warm welcome. And if you couldn’t attend this year, we hope to see you in 2013!

Warm regards.


Oren Teicher, CEO
American Booksellers Association