Booksellers Discuss Range of Topics at ABA Town Hall at BookExpo

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The American Booksellers Association hosted its semiannual Town Hall meeting at BookExpo 2018, where booksellers were invited to share their thoughts about the association and the book industry at large.

The Town Hall meeting on Thursday, May 31, was facilitated by ABA President Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, with three locations in the Seattle area, and ABA Vice President/Secretary Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The two were joined by members of the ABA Board of Directors, including Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri; Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York; Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, California; Christine Onorati of WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey; Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island; newly elected board members Kelly Estep of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky; Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.; and Angela Maria Spring of Duende District Bookstore in Washington, D.C.; and outgoing board members Jonathon Welch of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York; and Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas.

Four members of ABA’s Diversity Task Force — Angela Maria Spring; Hannah Oliver Depp, communications manager at WORD Bookstores; BrocheAroe Fabian of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books — introduced themselves and encouraged booksellers at the Expo to come to them with ideas and questions. Depp informed booksellers that they could continue the conversation via the group’s Facebook page as well as during the Expo, at the Children’s Institute Consultation Station in June, and via e-mail.

Starting off the questions from the audience, Gayle Feldman from The Bookseller asked the Board if there were more booksellers in attendance at BookExpo than last year following the reimagining of the event by Reed, with the help of ABA, to deliver more value to booksellers. ABA CEO Oren Teicher said that approximately 150 additional booksellers and 35 additional stores were represented in 2018 over 2017.

“We worked hard with our friends from Reed to try to grow and create programming that works for our members,” said Teicher. “While many attendees come from the Northeast, we’re working hard to try to make it more of a national show. But we have seen a growth in participation and we hope that’s in response to the new, innovative programming Reed has added this year.”

The first question from a bookseller was asked by Depp, regarding the conversation around supporting booksellers’ career progression, specifically booksellers who want to open or buy a store.

“One of the things I’m deeply concerned about is longevity for future booksellers, for both recruitment purposes into our stores as well as for those of us who want to own our store someday or who may want to buy our store if the owners are going to retire,” she said. “I was curious what the board is working on and looking at because I know it’s a concern for many of us.”

Fiocco told Depp that this has been a topic of conversation among the board members, particularly concerning people who are trying to access the money to start up a business while paying off student loans.

“There are groups that we’ve identified that might be able to facilitate lending,” said Fiocco. “Nothing is final, but it’s something we’re working toward. I would also mention the changes in the Dodd-Frank law this last week. That, actually, should loosen up some restrictions on medium-sized banks,” she said. This loosening could potentially be beneficial for booksellers looking to access capital to start their own stores.

Sindelar mentioned the opportunities that ABA has created for emerging booksellers who want to be owners someday, including scholarships to Winter Institute. “The nature of that event — getting frontline booksellers in the same room as veterans and learning from each other — is very much about career development in our eyes,” he said.

ABA has also been advocating for publisher policies that support new and expanding stores, as well as looking to see if they can work with other trade organizations to make health insurance available to booksellers, which would ease financial burdens and serve to make bookselling a more sustainable career.

“Access to capital has always been the big, tough problem for indie bookstores,” said Teicher, noting that Dave Grogan, ABA’s Director of ABFE, Advocacy and Public Policy, has been working with the Small Business Administration “to ensure the interests of really small businesses” are being considered.

Next, Fabian, who announced plans to launch her own bookmobile this spring in Wisconsin, asked the Board whether they have considered reaching out to like-minded companies in various industries that might be open to creating mutually beneficial partnerships with indies. Actress Reese Witherspoon recently announced that she had partnered with Audible, said Fabian, but her company may have worked with if they knew it was an option.

“Has the ABA given any thought to working across industries to identify people who are at the forefront of that industry?” she asked. “To say, hey, in the future if you are ever thinking about this, we would love to make contact with you? I think identifying those companies and the people, whether it is millennials or older than millennials, whoever is doing that sort of work, could really help move the ABA and our stores forward into that sphere.”

Sindelar cited a couple of examples this year where publishers failed to collaborate with indie bookstores on pre-orders, in the cases of the rollout of Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt & Co.) and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver Presents A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller (Chronicle Books). Other comments from the board came from Onorati, Graham, Spring, and Brechner. Spring sounded a hopeful note, saying that the upcoming generation of booksellers will be helpful in the effort to partner with these types of progressive or innovative businesses.

“As the next generation, we know how to use our footprint online much better,” she said. “We are operating in that sphere that we grew up in; that is ours. If you look at what the Parkland students are doing with their movement, that’s us. We’ve got this. I know it’s hard right now. We’re going to keep working on it, but we can do it.”

Brechner made more of a “retro point,” as he called it. “There are a lot of things of value that will not grow back given changing circumstances and economic and technological conditions,” like downtown business districts that lost their independent businesses, he said. “And I think that’s part of the issue with digital streaming…That would be the end of our industry in a sense. We are dependent on not having exclusive content. That would be bad for a lot of reasons and that’s the kind of messaging we need to be on point with, too.”

Sarah Bagby, a former ABA Board member and the owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas, stood up to thank the board for all that they have done to bring the Batch centralized electronic invoicing system used in the U.K. to publishers in the U.S. At the annual membership meeting following the town hall, Teicher announced that the board voted unanimously this week to contribute financially to bring Batch to the U.S. by 2019.

“We still write so many checks and this speaks to the inefficiencies that a business can manage,” Bagby said. “When it gets down to it, we are all businesses. We have to operate, we have to look at every one of our costs. I want to encourage everyone who doesn’t know about Batch to look it up.”

Kira Wizner from Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, New York, told the Board that she would like to see each of her staff members feel as though they have a personal relationship with ABA, rather than just the store being a member. Said Wizner, “I think that would help with what we were talking about with the longevity of booksellers and feeling like they are part of an industry.”

Koehler told booksellers they should have each member of their staff sign up to receive ABA’s Bookselling This Week newsletter and create their own log-in on Kleindienst added that at her store, they also train staff to operate their own Edelweiss account.

Wizner also made the point that when it comes to indie channel messaging, it would be helpful if more publishers knew the degree to which some bookstores struggle to make ends meet. Philbrick told Wizner that the recent rollout of ABACUS education specifically for publishers has helped many see what short margins booksellers actually work under.

Added Kleindienst, “[When people ask] I will say that we’re doing better, even if I am wondering about a certain bill I have to pay. This is a really fraught time and our bookstores are still really important community anchors. For us to be able, right now, to say we are doing well is really important. People need the safety of our space; they need our leadership, in a way, and the reassurance that we are here.”

Questions about ABA’s new Code of Conduct surfaced at the Town Hall when Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York, speculated about what would happen if someone overhears and reports something that sounded inappropriate. She noted her concern that it is unclear who would be the arbiter of defining what harassment or an obscene joke is. “Who is going to adjudicate this?” she said.

Kogler also expressed concerns that an unintended consequence of the code is that it might prevent people from exercising their right to free speech if they feel they would offend.

Devising ABA’s code of conduct was done quickly, said Sindelar, “out of urgency and importance and seriousness to address issues that we saw happening elsewhere in the industry.”

“It was done quickly with the knowledge that it was, by its very nature, imperfect. But it was better to have something than to be silent. This is something we are all still discussing, and I encourage you all to share your thoughts,” he said. “There was no unanimity amongst this board [on the content of] the code but there was unanimity in the fact that putting something out was very important, and if we had waited for us all to agree on it we still wouldn’t have put out anything because we’d be quibbling over all of those issues.”

Fiocco also acknowledged that the code was a work in progress and encouraged booksellers to share their opinions with the Board on what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s a living document,” added Kleindienst. “Your feedback is important and it needs to be elastic. I think of it in terms of my own store…It extends back to thinking about ‘in our house,’ what is acceptable behavior?”

Regarding Fabian’s question on influencers in other industries, John Bennett of Fieldstone Books in Wyckoff, New Jersey, suggested the Board look to former ABA presidents Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Florida and Chuck Robinson, former owner of Village Books in Washington, who have experience and contacts in media and film, to consult on the issue.

Bennett also brought up the issue of diversity. In 2003, he said, he resigned from the ABA Board in part because he was disappointed with the low level of diversity amongst its members. While he believes that ABA has done a great job adding more women to the board, he said he would like to see more people of color as well.

Sindelar agreed with Bennett’s perception that ABA’s diversity efforts since 2003 have resulted in limited progress, but stated that, especially in the last few years, the board has been doing a lot more, including reaching out to diverse communities for feedback on ABA’s value; working to develop more diversity-related programming; and, after the Town Hall at Winter Institute 2017, creating a Diversity Task Force, which is currently working on, among other projects, increasing the diversity of panel participants at ABA Institutes. After that Town Hall, the Board also added five more spots on the Booksellers Advisory Council with the aim of creating a more diverse body.

Spring, who at the meeting identified herself as Latina and has just begun her first term on the ABA Board, said, “I would like to not be, yet again, the only non-white person in a room…On the Diversity Task Force, we are identifying and working with the next leaders, we are working on opening our stores. At my store, all I do is advocate for all voices of color across all cultures. The mission is about changing the thought process, but it’s not easy,” she said. “This is a good start and I think this board has really done a lot. I’m really excited to be working with them in the coming years.”

“Board nominees turn into Board candidates that we can work with, so we need great nominees and candidates,” Fiocco added. “That is 150 percent a goal, but it is slow, so I encourage folks to get involved in their regional organizations because that is a great way to become someone who would be a great nominee.” Booksellers can learn more about the nomination process on BookWeb; nominations for the next election will open in the fall. Watch Bookselling This Week for updates.

Welch, who served as the Board’s nominating committee chair for the 2018–2019 election, said the nominee pool has grown of late but that booksellers should continue to look around for more people who should be on the board and nominate them, which they can do at any time. In the longer term, Welch emphasized the importance of selling diverse books so that stores reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and of the world. Philbrick mentioned the new Binc/Macmillan diversity scholarship as another way to help increase diversity.

Next, Carol Spurling, owner of BookPeople of Moscow in Moscow, Idaho, stood up to say that while her store is doing well and she consistently benefits from all ABA has to offer, she was embarrassed in front of her customers this year by the difficulties surrounding pre-orders for Fire and Fury and Marlon Bundo.

“I blame the publishers for that — if they had just spent 30 seconds to see how they could avoid that situation of us not having books when everyone else had the books,” she said. “I would encourage publishers, in the same way we have encouraged publishers to do Batch and give us better terms, to [consider that].”

Josh Cook, manager of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, encouraged booksellers to talk to him about an opportunity at BookExpo to serve as stewards of their stores’ missions to further constructive discourse, alluding to the following morning’s speaking event featuring former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and his hope that fellow booksellers would opt out of attending.

“There are people, groups, individuals who do not value free expression and the free and open exchange of ideas that make up the discourse of this country, discourse that booksellers, who are purveyors of ideas, I think are stewards of. But those groups and individuals are also perfectly happy to use our platforms to spread lies and misinformation, to make bad faith arguments, to make money,” he said. “We are in this mess of a world now in part because the stewards of that discourse, not just booksellers but information and media in general, let that discourse be hijacked by those who do not actually value it. As booksellers, I believe it is our responsibility to use our platform to elevate those ideas, even those we don’t agree with, that honestly seek to participate in that discourse...and to protect our platforms from those who don’t.” He added that every store will find a different solution and grapple with that in their own way.

Finally, Veronica Liu of Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights, New York, talked about how bookstores should be aware of the problems surrounding gentrification. Opening a bookstore naturally replaces something else that was there before, she said, and can even be perceived as an act of aggression that takes away from the prosperity and authenticity of a neighborhood.

“Whatever we can do as a field to keep these roots intact will help us become better neighbors, and getting to know our surroundings more deeply so we can be full participants in the community’s issues of the day will enrich not only bookselling and not only our area’s arts and culture, but the entire system of a healthy neighborhood,” said Liu.

At the town hall’s conclusion, Sindelar answered two written questions that were submitted by booksellers in advance. The first question asked whether the board might consider reaching out to publishers about creating programming in which booksellers could have contact with the heads of houses, similar to Publicists Speed Dating. Sindelar said he would look into approaching publishers with that request.

In response to the second question, which asked for help identifying specific contacts at publishing houses, Sindelar told booksellers that they were welcome to ask anyone on the board which publishing personnel would be best to reach out to when discussing inefficiencies or advocating for better business practices and discount policies.