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