The American Booksellers Association held their annual meeting and town hall virtually on Thursday. Incoming president Bradley Graham at Politics & Prose presented membership data that revealed the significant toll the pandemic (and potentially other factors) has had on the sector. “At the latest count, the ABA has 1,700 member companies and 2,100 locations,” Graham reported.
A year ago the organization did not report membership data because of the pandemic, so the most recent comparison is from two years ago, when the numbers peaked at 1,887 members, operating 2,524 locations.
Graham said the ABA “lost 80 members unfortunately due to store closures” over the past year, but has gained 107 new members since the beginning of 2021. The decline in locations is starker, reflecting 17 percent fewer stores. Graham admitted, “These figures appear down a bit,” but said “the difference reflects more a change in counting methods than an actual drop in indie bookstores. For instance, in the past a number of inactive members were kept in the count. That’s no longer the case. There’s also been an adjustment in criteria for membership.” While that might address some of the decline in member numbers, it’s hard to square with the bigger drop in operating locations.
On the data alone that puts member locations back to where they were when reported in mid-2014 (2,094 locations), and member numbers back to where they were when reported in mid-2015 (1,712 members). And, as we regularly remind readers, those numbers do not represent only “indie bookstores”: The ABA membership comprises a broad assortment of airport, specialty, gift, online, religious, new/used, used-only, and museum stores (including a number of National Historic Sites and Parks), and actual chains such as Half Price Books and Hudson. We asked the organization for more clarity on the exact numbers as well as the changes in counting methods, but have not heard back.
In other data, ABA revenues were down approximately $700,000 for the fiscal year, a decline of about 11.5 percent. A year ago, revenues were “off nearly $1.4 million from what was budgeted.” The cancellation of Book Expo accounted for $400,000 in lost income, and with additional reductions from the absence of a physical Winter Institute (which cost less, but also brought in less revenue).
As the organization’s ceo Allison Hill said in prepared remarks, “Whether your sales were devastatingly down or, in some cases, surprisingly up most of you still reported working harder and with more expenses and more uncertainty than at any other time in the history of your stores.”
Looking forward, she said, “This year we’re looking at bigger levers to push. We’re having conversations with publishers as strategic partners. We’re working on a strategic plan for the association. We’ve been talking to economists about our model and what it would take to support a livable wage and long-term sustainability. We’re working on the future of ecommerce and what the most robust solution for the stores looks like.”
The Town Hall portion of the gathering as usual provided a window into the issues of most concern to booksellers. The biggest need (or ask) — felt more profoundly than ever following the impact of the pandemic on physical retail contrasted with publishers’ growing sales and profits — is for more margin, comparable to what Amazon and the big chains get.
Outgoing board member Pete Mulvihill at Green Apple has carried the banner of “10 more points” for years, and told members: “There have been some good changes in co-op. One of the major publishers just added two points during the pandemic and is keeping it. Rapid replenishment really changed our margins; we could get books directly from publishers a lot faster. So I feel like there has been a little bit of incremental improvement. But I’m with Alison [Reid, at Diesel, who posed the question]: Give me 55 points…. I think that the board knows it and I think Allison [Hill at ABA] and our staff know it. And I hope that any publishers in the audience hear it loud and clear.”
Board member Christine Onorati at Word bookstores emphasized that leadership and the board discuss this with publishers regularly: “We’re talking about publishers as our strategic partners, and how can we be partners if we are left behind here?” Outgoing board president Jamie Fiocco at Flyleaf Books made the situation plain: “Quite frankly without puzzles last year, they saved my store’s bacon, and that’s ridiculous.”
As anticipated, booksellers expressed continuing concern about Ingram Publisher Services consolidating all of their clients’ inventory into the single facility in Jackson, TN — particularly from stores on the West Coast, which anticipate longer shipping times. IPS field sales managers Leslie Jobson and Johanna Hynes addressed the group, and made clear that IPS has made a number of changes in their plans already in response to bookseller feedback and will continue to do so.
Also of note was the ABA’s exploration of a new show following the end of Book Expo (which had its roots in the annual convention originally run and owned by the ABA). Hill said, “At this point is that we are in a discovery period,” talking to both publishers and booksellers. “We’re really trying to figure out whether or not there’s something that would meet everyone’s needs, and that would allow us to reimagine this. I don’t think we are interested in Book Expo 2.0. I think we’re all just recognizing that there may be another opportunity to come together and work with publishers and authors and all kinds of other opportunities that those events represent so we’re still in discovery, we’ll keep you posted.”
More bookseller insights of the same nature were illuminated in another recent virtual panel, the BISG’s Retail Confidential on May 18. (They will make the video available later after a member viewing period.) Mark Laframboise at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC underscored that, “When it comes to dating or discount, we prefer discount…. Anything we can do to get a couple of points” is worth it, including agreements to pay early in exchange for extra discount. Emily Crowe at An Unlikely Story in Plainville, MA agreed, and raised an important point about how extended dating isn’t always helpful: “When it comes to either discount or dating, we would always fall on the line of wanting discounts.” Because of her store’s volume, “We would run into credit limits…if we get six months to pay for something.”
While she noted with gratitude recent extensions in discounts and dating, she said there’s a better way of enacting those revisions in terms: “It has made us realize something: Our vendors have the ability to hard code our account for these things, so stop making us use a special offer code when an order. Just make it automatic; don’t make us jump through the hoops.”
Separately, Crowe said one of the biggest issues for her is that, “We’ve had an enormous increase of damages in the last 18 months [in shipments], and that costs everybody, time and money…. Our book receiver spends more than 10% of our time communicating with vendors about damages.” Laframboise confirmed, “We see damages all the time, too,” and except for PRH, it’s often hard to report those problems back to publishers. “Batch was supposed to be the answer to all of that; a uniformity of being able to pull down invoice data, report damages and everything else, but Batch useless unless everybody is on, so we’re sort of at a standstill.”
Another issue that clearly points towards a need for better technology is customers who want to buy ebooks and digital audiobooks in-store, but there’s no simple way to process those transactions. Ikwo Ntekim at Greenlight Bookstore’s Fort Greene location confirmed: “What I’m seeing most on the sales floor are people who want to buy ebooks and audio books at the register, and they don’t want to go online through a third party. They want to do it at the register… We are seeing a lot of folks [who] don’t want to use Audible, I want to shop local, I want to give my money to the independent bookstore, and we’ve just got to make that as easy as possible for folks to give us their money.”