Friday, July 14, 2006

Guest Blogger: My Gripe With The ABA

In response to my challenge, bookstore owner Dave in New Jersey has agreed to guest blog today. The opinions expressed here are his. Register your agreement, disagreement or further thoughts on this subject in the comments. Let's get a conversation going.

My Gripe With The ABA

WHAT IS THE ABA?
The American Booksellers' Assocaition, Inc. (the ABA) describes itself on its website as "a not-for-profit organization devoted to meeting the needs of its core members of independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations through (a) advocacy, (b) education, (c) research, and (d) information dissemination". That sounds pretty darned good! This description is consistent with virtually all of the marketing and communication the ABA presents to the independent bookseller community. The bold/italics are mine. I use them to point out why I joined the ABA in February 2005, just a couple of months after opening my store.

The ABA's by-laws (a binding legal document) state that "the purposes of the Association...include, but are not limited to, professional advancement, education, and advocacy on behalf of professional booksellers, such as the following: (1) serving as the voice of professional independent booksellers and advocating on their behalf; (2) providing professional independent booksellers with access to the information and services they require; (3) providing opportunities for peer interaction; and (4) promulgating policies and conducting activities for the betterment of all those individuals and firms involved in aspects of the professional independent bookselling industry. The bold/italics are, again, mine. I use them to point out the verbage in the by-laws that provide the legal basis for the ABA to serve constituencies other than "its core member of independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations".

SO WHAT'S DAVE'S GRIPE (IN 100 WORDS OR LESS)?

While the ABA would like us to believe that it is "devoted to meeting the needs of... independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations", its actions suggest otherwise. In fact, an ABA membership is probably not a worthwhile investment for most independent bookstores with retail storefront locations.

WHAT DOES AN ABA MEMBERSHIP COST?

That's a damn good question. The annual cost of an ABA membership is based upon sales. The minimum annual cost is $350. That's for first year members, and for stores doing less than $50K annually. A store doing $250K pays $535.

WHAT VALUE DOES AN ABA MEMBERSHIP PROVIDE?

Fortunately for us, we don't have to argue about the benefits that member receive...because the ABA has listed them for us at http://www.bookweb.org/join/422.html! So let's get started...in the order listed by ABA....

1. "For new ABA bookstore members, we will pay regional bookseller association dues for one year."
Okay, annual dues for NAIBA are $75. This is somewhat offset by the one-time sign-up fee of $25 for all new ABA members. So what you have is a one-time $50 savings.
2. "Low-Cost Group Programs. All ABA members have access to a wide range of business management services which include: LIBRIS Casualty and Property Insurance, Bank of America Credit Card Processing, FedEx Small Shipment Freight Program, and other services. The savings you may realize from these business services can substantially offset your ABA membership dues. You can't lose when you take advantage of these programs and choose ABA as a partner!"
When I joined the ABA, I looked into all of these opportunities. The good news is that these programs really exist. The bad news is that you can often get better prices (and service!) at other suppliers...or even THESE suppliers. The really, really bad news is that you could actually end up paying substantially MORE than you should be paying for some of these services! Take the BOA credit card processing. How can the ABA possibly recommend that program with a straight face?! That program alone would create about $500 annually in additional EXPENSE for every $100K in credit card sales! So how do we value these programs? What would you pay for a partial list of service providers and suppliers that does NOT represent the best value out there? ZERO!! (Actually, less than zero, but let's move on...)
3. "ABA Book Buyer's Handbook. Updated on an on-going basis online. Available only to ABA members, the Book Buyer's Handbook features publishers' discount schedules, returns policies, trade terms, and more."
We should take a vote on what this thing is worth. I'd give you $20...tops.
4. "Timely News and Information. Get breaking news via Bookselling This Week Online delivered directly via e-mail.
Try Shelf Awareness...it's better and it's free. And if I really want Bookselling This Week Online, I can access THAT for free at http://news.bookweb.org/ This is worth ZERO.
5. "Members' Web Site. You'll find a wealth of information and resources on our Web site http://www.bookweb.org/ <./">http://www.bookweb.org>./ Network with other booksellers by using our Idea Exchange or ask ABA a question."
The Idea Exchange at the ABA website has value. In my opinion, you really can't underestimate the value of talking with other booksellers. So what should a subscription to a great message board cost? $5 annually? Let's call it $25 just to make sure.
6. "National Marketing Program. BOOK SENSE--Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds -- is an integrated national marketing program developed by ABA to strengthen the competitive position of independent storefront booksellers. More than 1,200 bookstores in 50 states participate in, and take advantage of, a national advertising campaign, national gift certificates, and two consumer book reference lists that have captured the attention of publishers and the press: the Book Sense Picks: Independent Bookseller Recommendations List and the Book Sense Bestseller List. The Book Sense marketing program is free to ABA members that meet certain criteria. BookSense.com: Member stores with Book Sense have the option of offering their customers a dynamic e-commerce service through the capabilities of http://www.booksense.com/ <,/">http://www.booksense.com>,/ which has been especially designed for independent bookstores. Each bookstore has its own Web site, supported by BookSense.com, which offers the consumer all the services required for a pleasant and efficient experience shopping for buying books online."
Aaah, Booksense...where can I even begin? Whenever I hear the words "Booksense" and "independent" in the same sentence, I think of Monty Python's "Life Of Brian". There's a scene where Brian is exhorting the crowd to think for themselves and be individuals..and the zombied crowd responds by chanting in unison, "Yes, we are all individuals." I don't want to bore you, so I'll sum up the biggest reasons for my disgust in Booksense for you as quickly as possible. (I'll assume that readers are familiar with this program).

First, bookstores cannot fulfill their obligation to Booksense without promoting the Booksense.com website. The Cards, the lists, the newsletters...it's all over them. This is all fine and dandy if you want to be part of the Booksense.com program. But what if you don't? Do you advertise for Amazon in your store? Hell, I don't advertise for the guy with the bookstore in the next town...and I like that guy!!

Second, the Booksense.com program itself is seriously flawed. The web presentation sucks. The technology sucks. And the service itself costs MUCH more than competitors (yes, there's a separate fee for Booksense.com). In fact, Booksense itself can't seem to figure out what the benefits of the program are. When it was first introduced, it was supposed to generate internet sales for participants. In the last year, Booksense has repositioned it as more of a marketing tool (why? because the sales never happened). Yes, it's working for a few (VERY few) bookstores, but if you feel a need to be on the internet (and it certainly might make sense for your store), this is probably your WORST choice.

So let's see...if I "take advantage" of Booksense.com, I overpay for an inferior website. And if I want to support independents via Booksense participation, but don't want to pay for Booksense.com, I have to direct my customers to my competitors' internet site! So far, Booksense is worth ZERO!

Of course, there's the infamous white box. I think Romeo said it best....junk mail by any other name...

7. "Educational Opportunities <.">http://www.bookweb.org/orgs/>. Throughout the year, and culminating at the annual ABA convention held in conjunction with BookExpo America <,">http://www.bookweb.org/aba/convention/>, ABA offers educational programming that will help you be a better bookseller and a better businessperson. ABA holds the Winter Institute <">http://www.bookweb.org/education/institute/> -- an education event in January free to ABA member booksellers. Every Spring, ABA also offers education sessions at its Spring Forums. Every Fall, in conjunction with the regional bookseller associations, ABA sponsors a series of educational programs at each show."
(Full disclosure: I never attended one of these programs).

The Winter Institute is free. If you want to pay the airfare, you get two days of education/comraderie/information. Hard to put a price on this. Bookselling is a tough business. The ABA should be doing free education constantly. It should be held in locations all over the country. It should be available on-line. That's what a "strong" organization would be doing.
8. "Networking Opportunities <.">http://www.bookweb.org/orgs/>. The annual ABA Convention, held in conjunction with BookExpo America, a preeminent international event in the world of books, provides a unique opportunity to network with your colleagues, as well as attend panels, workshops, and roundtables focusing on the latest industry developments. ABA sponsors
"Hotel ABA," an exclusive hotel for ABA member booksellers attending BEA. ABA also holds special events and sends Board members and staff around the country to provide a forum for booksellers to network and speak their minds."
Networking opportunities are important and valuable. But is this something that booksellers need to pay for? I mean, booksellers simply FIND eachother at the BEA with or without the ABA...(usually, it's the seventeen people closest to the alcohol). Hey, W.N., how much did you charge people to attend that networking opportunity in Brooklyn back in June (sorry I missed it...had a vacation coming up and had to get a bunch of stuff done)? You charged ZERO as far as I know.
Our total value so far...$95 in the first year ($45 thereafter) plus the Winter Institute if you want to pay the airfare.
9. "Valuable Research Information. Members have access to ABA research surveys and publications that can make a difference between red and black ink on their bottom lines! Each year ABA gathers financial data from member bookstores for the ABACUS Study <,">http://www.bookweb.org/education/abacus/>, which provides operational benchmarks for independent booksellers by measuring business operations by sales volume, store size, region, and more."
Now THIS is valuable. I'd pay $100 annually for this. Our total value so far...$195 in the first year ($145 thereafter) plus the Winter Institute if you want to pay the airfare.
10. "A Strong Voice in Washington and in the Industry. Critical decisions that could drastically affect your business are made constantly in Washington, D.C., and in the publishing community. Having ABA as your advocate assures you and your fellow booksellers that a strong, unified message will be delivered, whether the issue is the tax code, the First Amendment, or the equitable treatment of all book retailers by publishers."
Is the ABA an effective advocate of independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations? It's no secret that we've lost a ton of market share to Amazon and eBay. And it's no secret that virtually all of those sales go untaxed, creating a competitive advantage for those corporations. This also, obviously, reduces state government revenues and increases individual tax burdens. The ABA has been ineffective in reversing this favoritism. And given the extreme consolidation - vertical and horizontal - in book publishing, distribution, and selling, shouldn't someone be raising anti-trust questions?

Next up...the publishers. Independents create TREMENDOUS value for these big publishers. In an industry that creates over 500 new products EVERY DAY, where would the publishers be without our marketing and advertising efforts? How many Book Club favorites were created by Independents? How many books are sold every day because an employee at an Independent said "You've gotta read THIS one!"? Would Harry Potter have become a the Phenom that it is without the excitement generated by Independents throwing parties in the middle of the night? And yet, publishers are increasingly selling books directly to consumers are only slightly higher prices than Independents are paying. And yet, the publishers continue to provide corporates with favorable advertising arrangments (a rose by any other name....). And yet and yet and yet. Every day, inch by inch, the corporate publishers seem more and more interested in competing with us, rather than partnering with us. An "strong" advocate - one that could do a good job communicating the value of Independents to publishers - would have been able to prevent Scholastic from selling Harry Potter 6 on its website at a 40% discount on the day it was released.

11. Although, the ABA website doesn't mention it, ABA members do save $85 on BEA registration.

So where does all this leave us?

As a one-dimensional financial proposition, and given how poorly the ABA does at making free education available to those who need it, a bookseller's decision to join the ABA really comes down to how many people you're gonna send to the BEA. A store doing just $250K annually would need to be sending 5 people to the BEA to make up their annual ABA fee.

As a multi-dimensioned proposition, however, the ABA is ineffective in helping independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations. In my opinion, the ABA seems to be in the business of preying on the insecurities of small businesspersons trying to survive and thrive in an awfully difficult market.

When I was a member of the ABA, I took advantage of the message boards to direct a few questions to the organziation. The president's response didn't anwer my questions, but did crow about how the ABA's endowment had grown to over $20 million. I'm almost 42 years old: I've learned not to take seriously guys that brag about the size of their endowment.


Dave in NJ

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not sure which side of the argument this helps - from today's PW Daily email:

"Although all the details have not yet been worked out, the Bookseller Hotel for next year’s BookExpo America in New York will most likely be in Brooklyn, a borough away from Manhattan’s Javits Center. ABA COO Oren Teicher said that with the cost of hotels in Manhattan skyrocketing, the association has been able to strike a deal that will keep the stay in NYC comparable to what booksellers have paid the past several years. Teicher noted that ABA’s Booksellers Advisory Council has repeatedly said that every effort to minimize the cost to booksellers in attending BEA is critical in attracting participation. “We’re confident that the overall Brooklyn package will combine a good deal with some exciting opportunities to showcase a part of New York that many of our members will be less familiar with, but which has a rich literary tradition,” Teicher said."

Dan Wickett - EWN

Anonymous said...

Yea...figures...

Hey, Oren, why bother with Brooklyn? You could always...

(a) encourage booksellers to stay in Newark and take the PATH. It's no further than Brooklyn and MUCH cheaper!! (Those crime statistics must be exaggerated, right?)

(b)or, crack open that gigantic endowment you guys love so much...maybe that way booksellers can stay in Manhattan at a reasonable price...

Dave in NJ

Book Nerd said...

Okay, I was planning to hold back and let some other folks talk, but I have to mention one thing early in the conversation. The unfairness of online chains not charging sales tax is something the ABA is aware of and has been working, along with lawmakers, to change; here's a recent article about the progress made:
http://news.bookweb.org/news/4214.html

The ABA doesn't always win its battles, but it has done a lot of advocating for independent booksellers. Let's not forget those successful lawsuits against publishers who were giving chains unfair discounts in the 1990s.

Isn't this what you're asking for? And if they're not as effective in advocacy as you'd like them to be, how can opting out and choosing to go it on your own be the answer? I totally agree with you that independents are important to publishers. Is there an alternative to the ABA that will give indie bookstores a collective voice in the nationwide book industry?

Anonymous said...

I haven't suggested that the ABA is unaware of the issue, or that the ABA hasn't "been working on it." I am suggesting that the ABA's efforts have been ineffective. I mean, seriously...how hard do you think Bezos laughed at Oren's letter?

I am asking for an EFFECTIVE advocate...one that can help drive solutions. This is not a new issue. It's been around for a long, long time. It has come up for votes and renewals in Congress more than once.

And the "successful" lawsuits? That money still finds its way to the chains...except now they call it "placement".

The alternative? How 'bout replacing the current ABA management with a group of people that can get the job done?

Andy Laties said...

Dave,

You've got the elements for a great Alternative Strategic Plan for ABA. Why don't you work it up -- in "positive" form, and try gathering some people together who support your ideas, and propose yourselves as an Alternate Slate at the next ABA board election at the next BEA? It's the Board and the volunteers around the country who are responsible for setting ABA policy, and it's these people who hire the managers. Throwing the managers out isn't the issue. You want to change policy, you have to change the board.

Hey, wouldn't you love to get the chance to deploy that $20 million the way YOU want it deployed.

What would you do?

Andy Laties said...

Dave,

I posted this text back on May 22 in response to complaints about Booksense -- I don't know if you read it:


On the value of Booksense: I think it may be important to remember that the program has both an Offense and a Defense to it. As a marketing concept it's Offense: that is, a way to Sell More Books. That's the theory anyway. That's what most booksellers think it's all about. So, the complaints refer to this aspect: It's not so great at Selling More Books, or some such. However: in fact, Booksense also importantly emerged out of the period when ABA was suing the big publishers, and one of the subjects of those lawsuits was unfair distribution of marketing payments throughout the bookselling industry. ABA said big publishers were giving disproportionate marketing dollars to mega-corporate chains. But the big publishers responded that they were TRYING to give money to small indie bookstores, but that these bookstores weren't applying for the co-op dollars being made available! That is: A new book is published. The publisher decides, "Let's push the hell out of it!" They decide to spent $100,000. They WANT to spread the money across the industry proportionately, so they consult their lawyers and decide to spend $60,000 with chainstores through an offered co-op advertising pool, and $40,000 with indies through a co-op ad pool (assuming that's the proportion of control of market-share in the industry: 60%/40% let's say). They tell the few large chains, and the chains take the money, and promote the book somehow. They tell the two thousand indies how to apply for chunks of the indie-money pool, and LO AND BEHOLD many of the indies essentially say "That's a bad book and just because you'll give me a couple hundred bucks I ain't gonna promote your stupid book!"

So -- the publishers were complaining to ABA that they couldn't MAKE indie bookstores take their marketing dollars, and thus it APPEARED that they were unfairly giving disproportionate money to chainstores but this was a misrepresentation of the situation.

Now -- ABA decided that they had to provide some way for "the indies" to slurp up ad dollars that the publishers said they were TRYING to give to indies. Booksense has to be understood therefore in significant part as a mechanism by which ABA, on behalf of all its members, slurps up these dollars and attempts to deploy them to the general benefit even of those stores that decide not to promote that specific book that the publisher is paying to promote. Thus it happens, for instance, that the White Box contains mediocre books and that Booksense may appear sometimes to be generally "middle-of-the-road". In this case, the ABA is simply slurping up the dollars the publishers are allocating, and therefore helping publishers abide by the Robinson-Patman Act that prevents antitrust favoritism in ad-payments.

Approximately.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I disagree with your assertions that "Throwing the managers out isn't the issue. You want to change policy, you have to change the board." Before I note the reason for my disagreement, however, I'm going to define how I use certain terms (in hopes of avoiding misunderstandings)...

...a policy is a broad statement that defines a goal, but doesn't define how to achieve that goal.

...a process defines how goals are achieved.

Okay, now on to the meat...

The ABA's Board is responsible for three major activities:

(1) Setting policy (goals),
(2) Hiring managers to create and execute processes to achieve the policy (goals), and
(3) Providing oversight of those managers' activities.

The policy of the ABA is clear. It's in the by-laws, and has been summarized and re-communicated many times. I happen to like the stated policy. Alot.

However, as I detailed in the note that WN posted, the existing management team has been either unable or unwilling to create and execute processes that support achievement of the ABA's stated policy.

Regarding the Board's oversight function, you have to keep in mind that this isn't the Board of the United Way or General Motors. The ABA Board members aren't chief executives of other giant corporations, with large staffs to execute their instructions (and feed their egos). ABA Board members are small business owners with limited time and resources. ABA members cannot reasonably expect their Board to provide a significant level of oversight....

....and thus, an even stronger case is made for replacing the existing management team with one that (a) can get the job done, and (b) requires little in the way of Board hand-holding.

And so, I hope you can see, I really DO believe that "throwing out the managers" IS the issue. There are plenty of capable managers out there that would be able AND willing to create and execute effective processes. Of course, if the existing Board is unable to make that change (in the management team), then I would agree with you - the existing Board should also be removed.

Regarding your second note (which I did read the first time you posted it...and thanks for the historical persepctive), I just see it as another failure on the part of the ABA management team. They've got all those dollars...and are unable to translate them into effective advocacy, education, and services for the ABA's core constituency - independent bookstores with retail storefront locations.

And now I need to get going. I'm working today and I haven't opened the wine yet...

Andy Laties said...

Dave,

Very good points. In this post (link is below) to my blog (back in May), I talk about the conditions that have led to this situation where the ABA managers appear to be weakly implementing the ABA board's policies.

That is: I believe that you're correct that management is doing a weak implementation of the stated policy intent laid down in the strategic plan. But I also believe that THIS very weakness is the board's intent, and that it was a backlash against the previous period of strong independent executive management that was perceived as sidestepping the board.

http://rebelbookseller.livejournal.com/22595.html

I also agree with you that ABA needs a stronger and more autonomous managerial approach at this point. However I'm biased (from your perspective). I know and like and respect the current ABA managerial team. I'm positive that they have the skills and capacities to run many different kinds of ABA. I know they've intentionally stepped away from quite a few former activities and ceded functions to Regional associations, to outside consulting groups, and to other Business Support organizations. So -- once again, I'd say that if you REALLY want to get rid of the specific people in management right now, you should try infiltrating the board, because there are a fair number of people in my own position, who simply have a positive feeling for the current managers, since we know that they've been TRYING to downsize appropriately and yielding territory to other service providers.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I'm enjoying the give-and-take, but I'm gonna have to put off a meaningful reply until Monday...this weekend is for booktalk in the store, drinking with customers, and...and...did I mention booktalk with customers?

Whatever,

Dave in NJ

Anonymous said...

And another thing -

We need better research on eye contact. Say a beautiful, confident mid-40's woman walks in...with her 20-something daughter who should be on a magazine cover...

...how do you allocate the eye contact? To the 20-something (who thinks you're a dinosaur), or the Mom, who just had a second drink?

I need the ABA team to give me the info I need to make the RIGHT decision....

Dave in NJ

Andy Laties said...

Right. Of course. When the chips are down in business (in other words: at all times) it's every man for himself. (Evidently in this case these two women have each other.)

My own perspective as of course you know by know is that I want to get the orgy started again. That was fun, when thousands of people were opening independent bookstores. It was uptight medium-sized and large-sized indie booksellers who led the counter-movement to slow down and choke off the recruitment work. There is no ABA, there's only us. And it's a lot more fun if there are more and more of us. Not if the most successful at this moment get to hoard "their" market share. Polymorphous perversity is what I'm calling for. (Jessica, this would be one way to spice up your next meeting, but you'd need a different kind of meeting location.)

Book Nerd said...

Wow, I feel like you guys may be entering into an entirely different realm of discussion.

What I can agree with both of you on is this: the ABA is primarily important as a venue for booksellers to get together, and as the public front of that community of booksellers. What's important is not the Association, but the community itself. For some bookstores the benefits of ABA membership may be worthwhile, for others maybe not, but ideally we can all find ways to work together within or without that organizational structure. Thanks to you guys for prying open the possibilities. I hope to hear more.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I owe you a reply...but we just finished an author event at 4:00pm and, quite honestly, I have to figure out how I'm gonna drive home without losing my license...tomorrow...DS

Anonymous said...

OK, Andy...with Monday comes clarity..relatively speaking...

Our story to date:

We agree that "management is doing a weak implementation of the stated policy intent laid down in the strategic plan".

We don't quite agree on what to do about it. You believe that the ABA Board is somehow preventing a capable management team from fulfilling its stated mission and, as such, the Board should be replaced. (If you have any hard examples of the Board preventing management from fulfilling the mission, I'm all ears). I know nothing about the dynamics between management and the Board. But, given my own experiences with the ABA management team, I'd like to see them (the managers) replaced.

Also (and this may be a new story), I don't think we're on the same page regarding the ABA's mission.

I believe that the ABA SHOULD serve a core constituency of existing independent bookstores with retail storefronts. If I'm reading your various blogs and posts correctly, you believe that a core constituency mission, even if implemented effectively, would not be helpful. Instead, you prefer the Universal-Thousand-Points-Of-Light-Overwhelming-The-Corpororate-Machine-In-A-Frenzied-Orgy approach.

I'd ask you to consider this:

(a) the best way to increase the number of bookstores is to attract new bookstore owners, and

(b) the best way to attract new bookstore owners is to make EXISTING bookstores more financially viable, and this, therefore, is what the ABA SHOULD focus on.

Let's face it...it's pretty obvious to even the most casual observers that, collectively, the Independent Bookstore Segment (independent retail bookstores with storefronts) is hanging on by a thread. Man, you can educate potential booksellers all you want - you're not gonna get see the growth you want until potential booksellers see decent profits being made by EXISTING bookstores. (In other words, who's going to show up for an orgy where no one is getting fucked?)

I think the best way for you to get what you want (Night Of A Million Bookstores) is for the ABA to EFFECTIVELY implement the EXISTING mission.

And now I probably need to go out and buy your book.

CB said...

The great thing about the ABA is the accessibility of the board members and the management. When I worked in a bookstore with Booksense we put our full trust in our booksense.com website. Yes, there were really rough patches, and yes, it will never be able to compete with the national websites. However, every time I had a suggestion for the booksense folks, it was taken into account, and more times than not, that suggestion was implemented. The result was our store saving hundreds or thousands of dollars by not having to design our own site.

I understand the frustration with the organization, and I’m curious if you’ve gone to them directly with these concerns. Right now they are getting input from a very select few booksellers who become actively involved with the organization, and no input from the many more bookstores who think of the ABA when something bad happens (like dues being due.)

I do have some issues with the ABA, because I don’t think it speaks to all the bookstores, and I felt like they failed to distinguish Booksense from booksense.com. There was also a lot of confusion in trying to sell Booksense to the public at large, and I’m still not sure if customers understand how the gift cards work, although they are a great moneymaker. The inherent problem is that one organization is trying to speak for so many independent stores who all have different philosophies of bookselling. That’s going to continue to make being part of the ABA either as a manager or a bookseller very difficult.

But why would any of us chose to do something the easy way?

Andy Laties said...

Dave,

Yes, my strategy is counterintuitive. However, when the odds are stacked against you, that's the way you have to intuit.

Asymmetrical warfare is good for the "weak" players. But this isn't warfare, it's if anything PEACEfare. In other words: Satyagraha. Non-violent resistance to the takeover of OUR culture. Gandhi was able to oust the British using Satyagraha. The truth-force of peaceful resistance. We can expel the national corporate interlopers from our local lives if we focus our efforts in TIME. Simultaneously opening a couple thousand indie bookstores will bring profits to those stores because Borders will go bankrupt. (Don't know about B&N, but Borders looks like easy pickings right now for an upsurge in indies attacking their market share).

I don't think ABA has the capacity to ever again implement this approach. It was a rogue strategy, that came from the top, in the 80s. It can now only come from the bottom. From us, without "official" assistance or direction.

But the ABA should be doing outreach and recruitment as a part of their overall strategy and mission to serve the field of bookselling.

Anonymous said...

Now, HERE'S a noteworthy situation. Two booksellers who agree on the ultimate objective..but disagree on the best way to get there...but agree that the ABA isn't getting the job done...but don't quite agree why the ABA can't get the job done.

Damn, we booksellers are an opinionated, pedantic bunch.....

Anywho, Andy, thank you for the conversation. Next time you hear from me I will have read your book (gimme a week). I'll see you on your blog....

Dave in NJ

Allison said...

We have so many battles to fight as independent bookstores, why are we fighting the ABA? An organization that is trying to help us, and welcomes our input to help them do a better job of helping us.

First, let me say that my store's ABA membership more than pays for itself, through the Constant Contact rebate; Above the Treeline discount; Partnership shipping savings; educational opportunties (BEA workshops and Winter Institute, but also online podcasts of seminars that don't require me to send staff anywhere); BookBuyer's Handbook; ABACUS study; four free job postings a year in Bookselling This Week; and the ongoing, invaluable resource of being able to pick up the phone and call ABA staff and/or management at any time for referrals, resources, information, and advice. Call the ABA and ask them to help you figure out how to get your membership dues back over the course of the year, and I feel confident they'll help you figure it out.

Second, the ABA is as good as the membership's participation. In my experience, staff and management alike have welcomed my constructive feedback, and in many cases acted on my input--ranging from specific changes in booksense.com to new programming ideas and major initatives--like scholarships to BEA. So call the ABA, write a letter, submit a paper or a proposal. Ask to join the ABA Bookseller Advisory Council. Throw your name into the hat for the next publisher focus groups round. Nominate yourself for the ABA Board. Speak up at the ABA annual meetings, or regional meetings. I find management, staff and the board to be incredibly responsive.

Because I have been participating actively, I have gained insight into the workings of the organization and the industry as a whole, as well as a tremendous respect for the ABA management and staff. They work incrdibly hard and are passionate about the work they do for all of us. These are people you want on your team. It sure seems like a better idea to work with them, rather than blog against them...

Andy Laties said...

Wrestling is a form of engagement.

I worked extensively with ABA for 12 years. I co-produced two educational video, taught and led schools, wrote articles. The entire time, I was wrestling with the very people I cooperated and collaborated with. When I was a gadfly, I was offered the chance to carry out my proposed ideas. The second video, Art Of Selling Children's Books, involved a split vote in the education committee where the association's then-president, Ed Morrow, sat in on the decisive meeting and cast the decisive vote to hand me a $25,000 budget and carte-blanche to produce the film on my own, in Chicago. ABA then sold the video to the membership over a period of years -- hundreds of stores used it for staff training, and at least one store -- Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books -- set the film up on a tape loop and played it in the children's area as a marketing tool to use with customers directly. Also, when I asked ABA two years ago if I could reprint my 1987 articles -- Showcasing Your Store -- in my 2005 book, they gave me all the rights without any hesitation.

ABA's leadership, both volunteer and professional, is a fluid group of us. Suggestions are often accepted. And they're often ignored. When ignored, this is often because a debate has already raged for a while, and a direction taken based on a consensus decision: the "new" suggestion is on a subject that has already been argued about, so that this new suggestion isn't new to the association at all. However, as the writer above implies, additional voices can alter the balance of consensus over time and previously agreed-upon directions can change.

Back in 1985 a group of children's booksellers felt the ABA was ignoring their problems. They formed Association of Booksellers for Children. ABA responded to this challenge by creating their own internal Children's Bookseller Task Force. I was appointed the leader. Our job wasn't to out-maneuver the new ABC group, but rather to essentially acknowledge their frustration and to assist their activity through taking actions ABA was positioned (and funded) to take that would complement their round of new initiatives. ABC has been very effective, and now, 21 years later, they still exist. Many of their meetings have taken place at the annual conventions and with full assistance and a supportive attitude from ABA. Taking a competing stance, or an alternative stance, from ABA decided-upon approach is something the ABA can really benefit from. Sometimes consensus and majority-decided democratic decisions can erroneously pursue a path that the minority was right about. Or -- it can fail to acknowledge that BOTH sides are right and that two apparently contradictory approaches should be implemented! ABA needs informed dissent and activism.

Kristen McLean said...

I'd like to comment on Dave's statement below regarding ABA's educational programming:

"The Winter Institute is free. If you want to pay the airfare, you get two days of education/comraderie/information. Hard to put a price on this. Bookselling is a tough business. The ABA should be doing free education constantly. It should be held in locations all over the country. It should be available on-line. That's what a "strong" organization would be doing..[and later]..As a one-dimensional financial proposition, and given how poorly the ABA does at making free education available to those who need it, a bookseller's decision to join the ABA really comes down to how many people you're gonna send to the BEA."

I think Dave's off base here.

The ABA has been offering its hard-core business classes at BEA, and the Winter Institute, as well as at the regionals (I saw a great one on handselling at NEBA this spring), and the powerpoint presentations for several of these classes have been available for some time at the ABA's website. Now three of the classes, Cost of Goods Sold 101, Increasing Margin, and the 2% Solution, are available online in a great multi-window format that allows the viewer to watch a video of the presenter in one frame, the power-point in another frame, and key points in a third frame all at the same time. http://www.bookweb.org/docs/bookstores/BEA2005/edu_online.htm
It's as close as you can get to an in-the-room presentation. And as they move forward, I heard that more of their workshops will be available in this format.

And it's free to all members. All the time.

I recently took a day to take a really good look at all of the ABA programs that it offers to members, and let me tell you, there's a lot to digest. There is so much going on, it's easy to miss stuff. Like the on-line educational programs, for instance.

It's clear to me that Dave has come down hard on one side of the fence, and that many of his arguments could be pursuasively argued in the other direction as well.

But what it really comes down to is this....by the very nature of being an organization of "idependents", some people will find more value than others always. Some will also contribute to the system more than others in terms of getting involved.

I think there is value in ABA, and any organization like this is only as good as its members. ABA has a board of booksellers. It's their job to help shape ABA's future, so talk to them.

I also understand that there is a legitimate issue in the economy of scale between what an independent bookstore owner can expect to make, what a publisher makes, and what ABA has built in terms of its endowment. But, ABA is a non-profit who is charged with carrying out it's bylaws. There are no trips to Tahiti for the staff of ABA on your dues alone.

Could ABA improve its services? Yes.
Does the dynamism of the bookselling industry require incredible agility to stay effective? Yes.
Are the needs of independent booksellers the same today as they were 10 years ago? Five years? Last year? No.
Should ABA constantly re-visit its programming? Yes.

But, like I said. Either join and participate, or don't. That's your perogative.