Michael Tucker has spent the past 10 years actively involved in the American Booksellers Association, first as a Booksellers Advisory Committee member, then as a Board member, and most recently, for two terms as ABA president. Here Tucker, the co-owner of San Francisco’s Books Inc., talks about his experience as president and some of the accomplishments, challenges, and surprises of working on behalf of “incredibly diverse and brilliant booksellers across the country.”
As you look back on your tenure as ABA president, how would you characterize the overall experience?
Intense, challenging, and, in retrospect, really fast. With an economy that has remained enormously volatile and challenging, ABA had to move survival of membership to the top of the list of priorities, and to the degree that we can measure the success of that shift in priorities, ABA membership has increased over the past two years.
For me personally, it has been a remarkable two years serving with an outstanding group of booksellers and Board members. The opportunity to work with Oren [Teicher, ABA CEO] and Len [Vlahos, ABA COO] and the incredible ABA staff, as well as booksellers around the country, has been a wonderful experience. I had never had that level of contact with booksellers around the country before. The accessibility and open lines of communication between ABA members, the Board, and ABA staff has really served to assist membership in a huge way in the last two years.
What do you see as the association’s major accomplishments during your time on the Board?
In my six years on Board, the most outstanding and overarching accomplishment has been ABA’s educational programming. I came on right after education became the number-one focus of the strategic plan. My first year on the Board, Mitch [Kaplan, then-ABA president] proposed, and Avin [Domnitz, then-ABA CEO] executed, the first Winter Institute. The education at the Winter Institute, BEA, the spring Booksellers Forums, and the fall shows all serve to meet many of the ongoing needs of our membership. Another accomplishment is that the Booksellers Advisory Council (BAC) meets after the Winter Institute and BEA to provide feedback not only on the recently concluded programming but also to enable the Board to take the temperature of general membership across the country.
We’ve also moved rapidly on the technology front and have kept pace with enormous changes. When we started, a lot of people didn’t even know what a modem was. So we’ve come leaps and bounds from where we were.
The launch of IndieBound and promotion of the shop local message continue to raise our profile within our communities and with our publishing partners. In terms of programming, those have been high points.
Are there things you had hoped to accomplish that haven’t come to fruition?
When I first began my term, I sat down with Oren and formulated an agenda, and we accomplished our agenda and then some. The Google eBooks™ launch has been tremendous, but I’m eager to see the association continue to move forward in this area to enable member stores to sell e-books in a more consumer-friendly way.
Were there aspects of your tenure as ABA president that surprised you?
Although I served on the Board for four years before I became president, I wasn’t aware of the 24/7 nature of ABA staff. The work being done on behalf of membership is really awesome. I was also surprised by how many changes were coming at the industry. So, the Board responded — we changed our meeting schedule from four annual meetings to include monthly meetings via conference call, in addition to weekly calls with the president, the vice president, and Oren and Len. That was just to keep pace. It was busy — busier than one would anticipate.
What do you see as the major opportunities for independent booksellers in the years ahead? The biggest challenges?
Going back to the subject of ABA educational programming, as a group we’re nimble enough to support some of the best practices that we share through ABA. Sharing those best practices is a tremendous value of our organization and helps our ability to survive and thrive.
There’s a need for what we provide to the community, and that’s not going away. The need in the marketplace for curation is heightened by the demise of some of the big box bricks-and-mortar stores. We are seeing a bit of a renaissance where the large chain stores have closed. There’s still very much a need for that great good place, for what we do with libraries, book clubs, and with all sorts of events, not just author events. We’re not selling sweaters; we bring something to our community that is of tremendous value.
Our publisher partners recognize that and are clearly supporting the independent channel. They know that there is this need for discovery, as we move into an era where e-books and online selling are an unsatisfactory menu for discovery. Algorithms don’t really help for finding your next great read.
But readers sometimes come in and then go buy that book somewhere else, which leads us to some of the challenges. The challenge is to incorporate the changes that we’re being exposed to through education quickly enough.
We’re in a very tough economy, where there’s little disposable income and where we have the expenses of the overhead of bricks-and-mortar locations, with low margins. We’re working with publisher partners to try to help strengthen our viability as the industry moves forward. They clearly recognize our value, and if they want us around we’ll all have to figure out a way to make that work. The good news is that I have never seen this much collaboration and cooperation between bookstores and publishers, and I’ve been in this business a lot of years. Indies are the heart and soul of how books and authors reach the public and the community in a localized way, and publishers recognize that.
What more do you think ABA can be doing to help booksellers meet those challenges?
ABA needs to be as nimble as its members. We saw over the last couple of years a reorganization of the structure of ABA to do just that. There will always remain the need to communicate, to be transparent, and to respond to the needs of the membership. And that’s a two-way street. Members should talk with Board members, talk to BAC members, and talk to ABA staff. The more the association hears from members, the more effective it will be.
Anything you’d like to add?
I started with the Booksellers Advisory Council 10 years ago, and up until that time I really had no contact with ABA. I’ve since met incredibly diverse and brilliant booksellers across the country. After meeting so many of them, I have tremendous confidence that we’ll be fine. The demise of independent booksellers has always been something people talked about. It didn’t matter what it was — first it was paperbacks in the 1950s, since then it’s been discounting, big box stores, the online competition. But we’ve always been able to continue what we do and do it well. We connect with readers, we connect with authors, and we connect with the community. Seeing what we do from a 30,000-foot vantage point, it’s pretty damn impressive. We’ve got tremendous strength, and we need to leverage it and work together as a group. Nobody holds a candle to what ABA is, what booksellers collectively represent.
And we’re pretty funny, too. I’ve loved being able to work with so many brilliant booksellers. Some people have said that it’s like herding cats, and it is. But having said that, I like cats.
What will you do with all of your free time once you leave the Board?
I’ll be going back to tend to my much neglected herds on my farm in Virginia. But I don’t think Oren will let me go, he stopped just short of having me wear an ankle bracelet.