A Letter From ABA Board President Robert Sindelar on BookExpo: Looking Back and Looking Forward

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Robert SindelarDear Fellow Booksellers,

I’ve been back from BookExpo for almost two weeks. I meant to write to you immediately upon my return to reflect on the amazing week many of us had in Manhattan. But as you can imagine, the day-to-day life of Third Place Books quickly enveloped me and I am just beginning to review my BookExpo notes. Yet, having had a little distance from the show, I feel like I have a better sense of what my real takeaways are.

Looking Back

This was the year of BookExpo “reimagined” and I, along with many other booksellers, were anxious to see what that looked like. Overall, it felt to me like a significant step forward for indie booksellers.

  • A Full Day of Education and Interaction

The Wednesday with Meet the Editors, Publicists Speed Dating, the Celebration of Bookselling Lunch, the Editors’ Buzz, and other events was so packed that at the ABA Town Hall on Thursday some booksellers shared concerns that they couldn’t attend all the sessions they wanted to (these concerns were heard and noted and will be worked on for next year). Clearly, there are still improvements that can be made to that day’s schedule, but the message that this was a day for and about booksellers was loud and clear.

  • A Meaningful Show Floor

While many booksellers and publishers I spoke with mentioned the show feeling a bit smaller and quieter, most of them were sharing that as a positive thing. There was a strong sense of quality over quantity on all aspects of the show floor, which made each interaction with colleagues more meaningful and productive. Plus, in conversation after conversation, I was actually talking about books.

My favorite moment took place in the ABA Member Lounge. Tommy Orange was finishing up signing copies of There There. A publishing colleague (not from Penguin Random House, so without a vested interest in this book) who has been attending these shows for as long as any of us and who, if anyone, has the right to be a bit cynical about our business noticed I was holding Tommy’s book. She began to gush about what an amazing novel it is and how it had moved her deeply. When I pointed out that Tommy was right there and she could go say hello, she rushed over with as much enthusiasm and sheer unguarded fandom as I have ever seen in a reader.

To gather together and be reminded that the right book can generate that kind of emotion and excitement is what a national trade show should be all about. We seemed to make progress in that journey this year. I’m looking forward to all of us helping to build on that foundation next year.

Looking Forward

These past two weeks, I have heard from more booksellers and publishers than I have since joining the ABA board five years ago. Colleagues have been wanting to talk about two things: Batch and pre-orders.

  • Batch

Booksellers are asking when Batch will launch and when they can sign up. Publishers are asking if it’s really happening and should they sign up. The fact that this project will launch in early 2019 is amazing. I am convinced that when publishers and booksellers look back in 2025, they will have no idea how any of us conducted successful, profitable businesses without it. I am so grateful to the hard work of the ABA staff and the tireless efforts of my predecessors on the ABA Board for getting us to this point.

  • Pre-Orders

After talking at the ABA Annual Meeting at BookExpo about the huge potential importance of pre-orders for indie bookstores and the challenges that ABA, booksellers, and publishers must tackle to allow our channel to participate in a meaningful way in this part of the business, I have heard thoughts and feedback from dozens of booksellers and publishers.

These reactions are a healthy mix of skepticism, anticipation, and encouragement. Through all of those conversations, a few things continue to become clearer with every step: publishers and authors are positioning their books earlier and earlier in the marketplace; successful campaigns are sending those titles to the top of bestseller lists that are not ours; each of these transactions is further cementing the consumer thinking that a book that’s not physically on a shelf in a physical store will not be obtained through a physical store; and without action, this trend will only get worse.

ABA has formed a task force of booksellers to focus on sets of best practices for marketing, capturing, and reporting pre-orders. Publishers are eager to continue to provide signed copies, add-on gifts, and unique indie editions as well as physical and digital assets to help us in this process. ABA will be bringing education about pre-sales to the fall regional shows and Winter Institute 2019. If we are going to make a change in this trend, this is the time. It is the right time to seize this opportunity and continue to demonstrate to our publishing partners that the independent bookstore channel’s reach and influence continues to grow.

On this topic, as well as any other matters related to ABA, I am always eager to hear from you.

I hope you all have a successful and bustling summer in your stores.

Robert Sindelar
President, American Booksellers Association
Third Place Books
Lake Forest Park and Seattle, Washington