A March Missive From ABA’s CEO

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March 8 was a busy day this year — not only was it Mardi Gras (yes, New Orleans stayed busy even after indie booksellers left town!), but it was also the kick off of the 2012 ABA Spring Forum season. The first forum was held at Towne Book Center &  Cafe in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and this year, in conjunction with the regional associations, ABA will be hosting 11 forums, the final one scheduled for April 25 in Medford, Massachusetts.

We work with our colleagues from the regional associations and try to move the Spring Forums around the country to give the largest number of booksellers possible a chance to participate. It’s always a good opportunity to meet with — and hear from — booksellers.

This year, we will be in 10 states — from Oregon to Georgia — sharing an educational session that provides an overview of some of the best Winter Institute 7 sessions as well as hosting our traditional open forum to share ideas, discuss industry issues, and hear updates on various association projects.

There’s never a set agenda during the forum portion of these meetings — they are designed to cover a wide variety of topics and give us at ABA a chance to hear a broad range of opinions, insights, and questions.

As you read this, we will have hosted two forums, and, among the subjects covered, booksellers showed special interest in e-books and e-readers, and the effects they are having on the sales and readership of print titles. Everyone recognizes that we are witnessing a profound change in our business, but these are also events whose full implications are far from known. Change always brings uncertainty as well as opportunity, and, given that, it’s very understandable that some members have shared with me their belief that ABA must balance the need to help members have a viable online presence with a firm commitment to our core market of print titles.

Let me be very clear: We hear you! It is the unequivocal belief of your association that print and reading are here to stay. Even with the rapid percentage growth in the sale of e-books over the past 18 months, the sale of print books makes up the lion’s share of business in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and indie booksellers are masters at curating and hand-selling just those categories of titles that are showcased and enjoyed in print books rather than on e-readers or tablets.

But we understand, too, that in the today’s retail environment — where consumers no longer see distinctions between a bookstore’s physical and digital locations in browsing and purchasing — indie booksellers without an online retail presence or the ability to sell digital content will increasingly find themselves losing sales and customers, not just online but within the walls of their bricks-and-mortar stores. Where one or two years ago many booksellers justified the resources necessary to launch and maintain a web presence as primarily a marketing effort, today many ABA member stores are seeing very real growth in online sales of print books. And while e-book sales are still nascent for our channel, we have clear analytic data that show that a consumer’s ability to search our members’ retail websites for e-books is promoting the growth in online sales of print titles.

In contrast to the more absolutist predictions of some in the industry regarding the possible death of print books, in the end, I believe we will once again see that new media supplements and complements earlier media formats. There is disruption, to be sure, but not destruction. Television, as pervasive and influential as it has become, hasn’t killed movies or radio. Media co-exist, and in that co-existence, they evolve and reinforce each other.

Last month in a piece on Bloomberg.com, Ellen F. Brown noted that in 1939 word spread at the ABA Annual Convention that “some reckless publisher” would be introducing paperback reprints of popular novels priced at a quarter. Though no one called paperbacks a killer app, there was plenty of fear and anger about the innovative new format, and at least one legendary bookseller darkly noted that paperbacks were not “real books.” Some 70 years later, what was once revolutionary is now labeled by some as antique. But, clearly, our experience — both in our industry and in the larger society — doesn’t bear out such stark pronouncements.

Fully recognizing the many challenges facing indie booksellers today, as we have seen over the past several months, this is also a time of real opportunity for us. The strong sales gains in the fourth quarter of 2011 over the previous year across the network of indie stores reporting to the weekly bestseller list have continued into the new year. Each edition of Bookselling This Week or Shelf Awareness seems to feature an update on another innovative idea being implemented in a store’s sales and marketing efforts; we are continuing to see new store openings; and the entry of bright, creative young people into our ranks as booksellers is a welcome harbinger of strength and innovation.

Unquestionably, this continues to be a period of rapid and, often, disruptive change, as we all work very hard to meet significant challenges. But meet them we will, and if one of this year’s forums is near your store, I very much hope that we get a chance to see you and to hear what’s on your mind.


Oren J. Teicher
CEO, American Booksellers Association