A Report on the 2020 ABA Annual Meeting

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On Thursday, June 11, the American Booksellers Association convened online for its Annual Membership Meeting. Visit BookWeb.org to watch a recording of the event

The meeting began with the Report of the President, presented by Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and president of ABA. Fiocco began by reading a statement from the board that acknowledged current events happening in our country.

“We are saddened and horrified by our country’s violence towards people of color, especially Black Americans,” she read. “We are heartened by the folks working to combat racism, and use community power to push for a fair, kind future. We are eager to promote education and empathy through reading, with the commitment of our fellow booksellers. We have made some progress to support Black and people of color, bookstores, and booksellers, but it is clear to us now the way we’re approaching this has not worked.”

“ABA should not be a ‘come to us’ organization,” she continued. “We should make it attractive and viable for people of Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to become booksellers and owners. We need to change the ABA from within, show where we want to go, which is a true representation in everything we do. We cannot change what some owners think and do, but we can break down barriers to membership and service for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. We agree to hold each other accountable, to listen, and to help each other grow. We admit we are not perfect. But we are forging ahead with new determination and a new chief executive officer.”

Since taking office last June, Fiocco said, she has worked with past president Robert Sindelar and the CEO Search Committee to hire new ABA CEO Allison Hill, who officially joined ABA on March 2. Last summer, Fiocco also testified in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the ABA to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in regard to tariffs on books printed in China. She participated in interviews with National Public Radio, Xinhua News Agency of China, and many other news organizations.

In the interest of achieving open discourse and transparent government, Fiocco also held weekly meetings with ABA’s CEO, ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, and ABA Vice President Bradley Graham, and has provided weekly updates to the full board. Board meetings were held in June 2019, October 2019, January 2020, and one is coming up in July 2020. She also worked with various ABA committees, including the Education Committee; the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI); and the Booksellers Advisory Council (BAC). The Board had made the decision to make the BAC and the DEI staff-run committees, and that transition is still being finalized.

In May, Fiocco, Graham, Hill, and Dallanegra-Sanger met with more than 20 publishers to discuss ABA members’ needs. This year was different due to the COVID-19 outbreak, with publishers responding with relief programs for booksellers.

Graham reported on ABA’s finances, sharing that the COVID-19 outbreak has taken a “huge toll” on not only member stores, but the association’s budget, which is more than seven million dollars annually.

“Revenues are down more than 20 percent of what had been budgeted because of several particularly big hits,” said Graham. “Among them, the cancellation of BookExpo, the reprogramming of Children’s Institute into a virtual event, decrease in publisher support, and a drop in membership and marketing income.”

Additionally, in an effort to ease some costs on members, ABA granted four months of dues relief to members, waived four months of subscription fees for stores participating in IndieCommerce, and dropped the commissions the ABA had collected from IndieCommerce users for credit card transactions through the ABA’s Authorize.net account. ABA also contributed $100,000 to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

In total, ABA revenues are currently off nearly $1.4 million from what was budgeted.

The pandemic also allowed ABA to save in some areas, Graham noted, including travel expenses and membership and marketing expenses.

“Looking ahead, some tough choices were made for the ABA in deciding how best to use its staff and its financial resources,” Graham concluded. “One of the biggest, of course, will be how to help all our stores recover from the devastation of the pandemic. Another is what additional investment can be made in assisting Black-owned bookstores and mentoring booksellers of color. The third is the future of educational programming, and the broad range of ABA activities in this area. And a fourth budgetary focus will be how to improvise and more equitably finance IndieCommerce, especially since the pandemic has shown how vital the internet capability is to so many of our stores. These are just a few of the critical budgetary considerations facing the ABA.”

Hill began her report by acknowledging that the past three months has not been what she or anyone else could have anticipated. “I feel honored to be leading the ABA at this extraordinary time and I feel very lucky to not be doing it alone,” she said, thanking the ABA staff. “In all my years as a bookseller, I don’t think I had any idea how hard this group of people was working on my behalf.”

She went on to acknowledge current challenges in not only the bookselling industry, but the country as a whole.

Said Hill, “The last 90 days have been a period of crises for our industry like we’ve never seen before. The first crisis was this unexpected pandemic, though I have to say if anyone should have seen this coming it’s a group of booksellers who are used to reading dystopian novels. The second crisis, though, was hundreds of years in the making, the tipping point for our country around racism and around police violence. It has been heartbreaking and hard these last few weeks for our country. It has been challenging for our booksellers of color. But, most important for me to acknowledge, is that it’s been especially hard and painful for our Black booksellers and our Black-owned bookstores. And I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that.”

Hill also noted that the past year has been a period of immense change for the ABA, stating that the association has worked through changes in CEO and CFO. She thanked COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, “who steered the ship during this time.”

This year, she said, ABA held a Winter Institute in January, which was a highlight in terms of diverse and robust programming, but also “a low point.”

“It shined light on some of the cracks in our industry,” Hill said. “We heard from booksellers of color who felt unheard and unsupported in the discussions around American Dirt. I bring it up today because that’s what we do to move forward — we acknowledge what we’ve accomplished, we acknowledge where we’ve failed, and we do better moving forward.”

Hill noted that ABA is looking at how the association can do better, which includes making an actionable commitment to diversity and antiracism, in addition to prioritizing transparency and communication within the association as a whole and continuing to provide education to members.

Hill concluded by stating that, as stores begin to reopen in various ways and forms, ABA is looking beyond the immediate question to what comes next. “There are three immediate focuses,” she said, naming education, technology, and the fourth quarter. “We all know that the fourth quarter is always important, but this year it’s more important than ever. We’re looking at marketing campaigns, we’re having discussions about supply chain, we’re talking to wholesalers and publishers, and we’re talking about what kinds of education, best practices, and support you’re all going to need to make the fourth quarter as successful as possible.”