A Letter From ABA CEO Allison Hill on the Challenges of 2020 and Plans for 2021

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Dear Booksellers,

It may seem strange to wait two months into the new year to review last year, but in many ways 2021 didn’t start until this month, when — thanks to more government relief, a flood of vaccines, and signs of spring — 2020 finally appeared in our rearview mirror.

I’ve said many times that my plan for my first year at ABA, like so many people’s plans for 2020, was thwarted by the pandemic. Instead of the answers I came in with, I let questions guide ABA’s efforts this past year.

There’s so much that happened this year beyond the below — advocating for bookstore support and relief with publishers; lobbying for small business COVID relief; and all the work we did within ABA to change our own culture, empower staff, reconsider vendor relationships, and re-negotiate agreements — it was quite the year. Like many of you, we approached much of last year with a head-down-keep-moving mentality, so it feels good to stop, look up, and take inventory. I hope you have a chance to stop, look up, and take inventory of 2020, too. There is reason to celebrate, and it’s time to look up and look ahead.

Here are the questions we asked ourselves that guided our year:

Here are the questions directing ABA’s work in 2021:

How can we best support member bookstores when they’re feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and scared?

We realized quickly that one of the most important things we could do for you during the pandemic was to create constant communication, provide opportunities to come together, and share resourcesDaily updates for nine months that transitioned into twice-weekly updates. COVID-focused issues of BTW. A coronavirus resources page on BookWeb. Regular member Coffee Breaks (now called ShopTalk). We allocated additional ABA staff to membership with direct outreach to stores, and dedicated staff to researching national and local resources, grants, and relief.

How do we shift from making diversity, equity, and inclusion something we do to who we are?

Here are some of the ways we made the shift this year:

  • We addressed microaggressions in the industry (including cultural appropriation in cover art; the use of the term “illegal alien” in marketing materials; and code of conduct violations in our membership) and in doing so created opportunities not only to “fix” the immediate problem but have proactive and productive conversations about the bigger goals of antiracism, inclusivity, and representation in our industry as well as the work and partnerships required to meet those goals.
  • We addressed institutional racism and exclusivity by making ABA’s language more inclusive and accessible; making the inner workings of ABA more transparent, like with BTW articles explaining all of the ABA acronyms; and making the board nomination and election process more transparent and inclusive by explaining and marketing the process to as many booksellers as possible and illustrating the workings of the board and board service. As a result, we had the highest number of board nominations and the most diverse group of board nominations in ABA’s history. We also changed the way ABA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee is formed, moving away from ABA appointments to member nominations and self-nominations, with the outgoing council selecting the incoming council.
  • We supported BIPOC members by creating monthly meetups for BIPOC booksellers to have a space to come together by themselves, plus quarterly forums for BIPOC booksellers to come together with me and other ABA staff to answer questions, offer support, and hear about their experiences and needs. We waived dues for new BIPOC bookstores and conducted outreach to BIPOC bookstores, whether they were ABA members or not. At the request of BIPOC booksellers, we conducted de-escalation training to support them around aggressive and/or racist customers.
  • We institutionalized representation. For example, as a result of procedural changes in the way we worked with publishers to bring authors to Winter Institute, 65 percent of authors in attendance identified as BIPOC.
  • We conducted antiracism training for the ABA board, booksellers, and bookstore owners.
  • We institutionalized an ABA land acknowledgment by adding permanent conference language and committing to making a donation to the American Indian College Fund at each conference.
  • We offered American Sign Language and closed captioning to our conference programming wherever possible.
  • We created representative programming by including panelists who identify in all different ways for general panels, and creating panels around subjects such as neurodiversity at work or LGBTQ+ romance.
  • And we did our own work: We conducted antiracist training for staff; formed a staff committee to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion projects; reviewed ABA policies and procedures through this new lens; implemented best practices for more diverse hiring; and conducted quarterly staff discussions on topics such as antirascim, supporting nonbinary individuals, supporting people with disabilites, and using inclusive language. ABA’s senior management team and the team as a whole are both more diverse at the end of this year than they were at the beginning.

How can we offer more education?

We shifted our focus from three yearly conferences to an ongoing schedule of educational programming that included monthly Marketing and Technology Meetups, frequent webinars on time-sensitive topics like COVID labor law and small business relief, perennials like Indies Introduce, consumer-facing virtual reading series on When They Call You a Terrorist and Punching the Air, an antiracist reading series and an antiracist book club for members and their customers revolving around the book Stamped, to name a few, in addition to a virtual Winter Institute and Children’s Institute.

What bigger-picture initiatives would lift all boats?

We launched a national conversation about the costs and consequences of Amazon. The #BoxedOut campaign resulted in hundreds of articles and media broadcasts about the indies and why shopping local matters, as well as a significantly improved list of media contacts interested in independent bookstores. The advocacy team, Molly Bond and David Grogan, researched and wrote a brief titled American Monopoly: Amazon’s Anti-Competitive Behavior Is in Violation of Antitrust Laws, which provides a legally grounded argument as to why Amazon is a monopoly, and mailed it to attorneys general in the hopes that it will provide critical details outlining Amazon’s illegal conduct to assist the investigations in California, New York, and Washington, and persuade other AGs to launch investigations a well. 

Faced with unprecedented ecommerce volume, how do we a) ensure the IndieCommerce machine keeps moving when stores need it most and b) improve the IndieCommerce platform quickly to meet stores’ new needs?

Over the course of eight months, we increased the IndieCommerce team by 50 percent; we added multiple servers as demand rapidly increased (we now have 20 servers); added more than 50 improvements in functionality, including bulk order processing, shipping system integration, and the ability to curate inventory by removing titles; added fraud protection; mitigated risk caused by flash sales; conducted education around new features; and addressed 17,000+ questions from store owners and staff. The IndieCommerce team also built 80 new websites for stores that didn’t have them and remedied vulnerabilities in the system, including migrating stores to their own credit card processors.

We also shifted our focus to a platform upgrade and plans for a future that we quickly realized would be far different from the past. For the first step, we spent six months conducting ecommerce research, exploring various platforms in the marketplace, meeting with dozens of technology and ecommerce experts, having discussions with potential partners, and interviewing vendors to determine the best path forward. This process was followed by an IndieCommerce/IndieLite member survey to inform our next steps. We confirmed that we are on the right path, that ABA’s price and service is competitive, and that we can deliver greater value than can be found in the marketplace, or that stores could create on their own, with the implementation of our plan for 2021 (outlined below). The plan is a multi-faceted approach to making the platform as robust as possible.

What is our 18-month plan for IndieCommerce? You’ll be hearing about this in an upcoming IndieCommerce alert as well as other communications, but here’s a quick summary of the plan so far:

Phase One: Continue to build new websites and improve the functionality of the current platform, while spending eight weeks in discovery with vendors for a platform upgrade. The vendors are already underway diving into our system to emerge with a plan. This phase will also include member input and input from store customers. The IndieCommerce Advisory Committee received an overview of the plan and will continue to offer input as we move forward.

Phase Two: As demand remains high, it will continue to be critical to support the current platform, including a new customer support system to expedite customer service emails, and we’ll simultaneously begin moving forward with upgrades. The upgrade of IndieLite stores will occur first (this will allow us to work out the kinks with less complex sites); we’ll redesign our server architecture to improve performance/speed; the shopping cart will be redesigned with the customer experience in mind; new modern templates will be created; and Apple Pay, PayPal Express, and Google Pay will all be added. In the meantime, new design themes/templates will be created for the current platform, functionality will continue to be improved, and full POS integration will be prioritized for current IndieCommerce users. (Some of this work is already begun in Phase One.)

Phase Three: By the fall, IndieLite stores will begin training to prepare for the holiday season on the new system. (This will give our team a chance to train as well and prepare for the larger rollout.) The IndieCommerce team will prepare the IndieCommerce stores, still on the old system albeit further improved, for the holiday season and work to ensure that all stores are knowledgeable about the functionality of their site.

Phase Four: We will begin the upgrade for the IndieCommerce stores in January 2022, though the word “begin” is misleading as much of the advance work will already be done, allowing us to move more quickly. Customization and store readiness will both be factors in the speed of this phase, but we hope to have all IndieCommerce sites transitioned by summer. 

What does this mean for all of you? In the end, you’ll have a faster website with more modern designs and a better consumer experience that’s integrated with your POS. But it will take time. For those frustrated by our timeline, I will share that every vendor we spoke with stressed that this is the timeline that it takes to do what we need to do. One of them said: “Nine months is a long time to carry a baby, but it takes nine months to grow a baby.” And just to be clear, this isn’t something that more time or money will expedite. Believe me, I’ve asked. We will do whatever is necessary to speed up the timeline while simultaneously continuing to support and improve the existing platform.

Watch for more details, FAQs, and ongoing updates in future issues of BTW and IndieCommerce alerts.

What questions are directing ABA’s work in 2021?

How can we institutionalize diversity, equity, and inclusion as an industry?

  • Lobbying publishers for metadata about the ways that authors self-identify so that stores can conduct diversity audits of their inventories to improve their store's representation.
  • Exploring barriers to capital for diverse bookstore owners and potential bookstore owners with the goal of creating capital opportunities for diverse individuals in the industry and supporting underserved markets.
  • Working to further institutionalize representation of authors, sales reps, and editors in our industry.
  • Collecting member demographic information through our revised membership renewal application to include demographic information so we can know who our members are and figure out how to support and serve them.

How can we communicate more effectively with members? How can we deliver content, education, and communication to you in more useful and effective ways?

  • Revamping our communication plan to change the format and schedule of BTW and updates.
  • Reimagining the way we deliver education to provide more accessible education in alternative formats.
  • Reimagining BookWeb.

How can we best prepare stores for the future?

  • Conducting an economic study of our industry to explore ideas like net pricing, removing prices from books, customers’ willingness to pay, and how to achieve livable wages.
  • Conducting Brian David Johnson’s futurecasting to examine trends, imagine the future, and implement the plan to get there.

And more! As you can see, we’re full steam ahead. Watch BTW and ABA’s updates for news as we work toward these goals in 2021. And please don’t hesitate to reach out. I can be reached at [email protected] or you can send questions or comments to us at [email protected]. I also want to say thank you personally to all of you for the opportunity to work for you, and thank you to my team at ABA for everything they do.