Guest Blogger: Response to Dave about ABA and Book Sense

At my request, HarperCollins VP for Independent Retailing Carl Lennertz 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 continue the conversation.

Response to Dave about ABA and Book Sense

Dave makes some thoughtful, reasoned comments about his concerns about ABA and Book Sense. Full disclosure: I worked at ABA for 4 years on the Book Sense project.

I’m not going to go point for point on the ABA issues; my brief was solely Book Sense. All I want to say is that I bet the hardware, video and music stores wish they had such a strong association, especially the past 10 years, and that the ABA has been a very strong voice in Washington, DC for the independents. As for the value of education, the Thursday before BEA starts has been the single most important day of the year for booksellers to share ideas the past 25 years. Every innovation in the business has been introduced on that day, to the benefit of all booksellers. I do find that booksellers who don’t value that day are the ones that didn’t attend, to their great detriment. Ditto the ABA Winter Institute this past January: The booksellers who were there learned so much and gave each other such an energy boost. It is so important for booksellers to come together to feel a part of something bigger and not feel isolated in their towns. That notion of a collective and of a collective power is at the root of Book Sense and of the independents remaining a player in bookselling and publishing.

Which brings me to my first real beef with Dave’s perspective. Jumping ahead a bit, his comment about the part of that forces him to promote other stores is very telling. He says he doesn’t even promote the store in the next town. That’s a real shame, because together, he and his neighbor could leverage their proximity into a greater voice in the area, recommending customers to each other and bringing more authors to the area. In fact, NYC is the last remaining city in the land in which the indie booksellers don’t work or converse together. All the stores in Boston, DC, San Francisco and Seattle – to name the 4 other cities with the greatest concentration of indies – have worked together for years to make each other stronger.

And here’s the key point: They did this without any loss of individual identity. They only became stronger in concert with each other.

And that’s at the core of Book Sense. Having a voice on the national stage – with the publishers, authors, the media, and readers and book buyers – without sacrificing a shred of individual or local identity. There is power in #’s; there is a loss of power if stores stay on their islands.

The Book Sense Picks and Bestseller List put the indies back on the map in the halls of publishing. It gave the indies a tangible measuring stick that everyone from a marketing VP to a publicity assistant could use every single day. Before Book Sense, each store was seen as a single identity that just couldn’t match up to the collective power of any chain.

And the beauty of it all is that it wasn’t some artifice laid on top of the stores; they were organic programs that got all their strength and information from them. The Book Sense Pick program is just a national staff picks section. And once gathered, the information and the message went back out to the stores – so they could discover books they may have missed. And the bestseller list gave every store invaluable knowledge about books that were taking off elsewhere. AND the Pick and Bestseller news went to the publishers – who could now put indies back into the sales & marketing discussion every day; to the authors – who were thrilled to appear as a Book Sense Pick or on the local or national list; and to the media – who had been in love with calling indies beleaguered, dying, Mom & Pop dinosaurs, and overnight, began writing about the resurgence of the indies. And all because Book Sense just gave the stores a way to pool their resources and report on the things they were doing in their own stores every day. But now they had a national voice. AND that national spotlight only shone a light back on every store’s individuality.

I could ramble on some more, going point for point with Dave. And will be happy to over the coming days and weeks if he’d like. He seems like a really smart guy. I just wish he’d share some of his smarts with his fellow booksellers to the benefit of the greater good AND his own business.


Anonymous said…
Ah, Carl, Carl, Carl...if only I was the really smart guy you seem to think I am....

I've kinda said what I have to say about Booksense and the ABA (maybe WN can provide a link back to it), and so I'll keep this short.

A little knowledge, Carl, can be a dangerous thing. Regardless of your book-related experiences, no person can really understand the challenges faced by independent booksellers...until that person has owned an independent bookstore (or managed one for an extended period of time).

With only a little knowledge, a person may be tempted to assume that all indies face the same set of problems. And that person would be RIGHT...but only to a limited degree. For examples, all independents really do need an effective voice in Washington. And we all could use easily accessible, inexpensive resources for educating ourselves and our staffs.

But our Little Knowledge people may soon find themselves making assumptions that are NOT universally correct. For example, they may assume that "the Thursday before BEA starts has been the single most important day of the year for booksellers to share ideas the past 25 years." I'd guess there are far more booksellers that get great ideas from the internet (including the message board maintained by the ABA), or by simply walking through other bookstores...and that many of these ideas are every bit as good (if not better) than those shared on that Thursday.

Our Little Knowledge people may also assume that business practices that are effective in, say, Seattle, would work in New York. Or that all independents in NYC "don’t...converse together" or learn from eachother. Or that Dave in NJ, who admitted that he never advertises for other bookstores, doesn't recommend other bookshops where appropriate.

Carl, I congratulate you for being part of the Booksense team. (I also like your blog). You helped create a product that makes sense ("booksense"...get it?) for some independent bookstores. But, please, can't you...or ANYBODY at the ABA...acknowledge that Booksense is NOT an appropriate fit for MANY booksellers? Ferchrissakes, it's like trying to deal with an alcoholic who refuses to admit my - I mean his - problem.

You know, almost every article that discusses the decline of indie bookstores bases its claim on declining ABA membership. I honestly believe that ABA membership is declining much more rapidly than the indie population (that is, successful bookstores leave the ABA). I also honestly believe that non-ABA bookstores are more profitable than the average ABA bookstore (you know, the ones with annual LOSSES equaling 2% of their revenue). Of course, I actually made the jump and opened an independent you know I must believe in all kinds of crazy stuff....
Anonymous said…
One more thing, I'm intrigued by your closing statement: "I just wish he’d share some of his smarts with his fellow booksellers to the benefit of the greater good AND his own business."

Gee whiz, Carl, I can practically hear the "I-tried-my-best" exasperation in your, not your voice...your very soul.

Haven't I been sharing, Carl? In fact, I'd guess that I share with my fellow booksellers - and listen to them - a heckuvalot more than the average ABA member. And 90% of the time I find myself in agreement with my really...what are you trying to say?

I remember, back in the days when I had a corporate management job, that unpopular opinions and observations were often marginalized by claims that the messenger "didn't have good team skills", or "didn't communicate well", or "didn't share his/her expertise effectively". You ever run into a situation like that, Carl?
Anonymous said…
Carl --

Back when I was a teacher in the ABA schools I used to tell attendees that they wouldn't learn anything from me or my fellow instructors. They would only learn from each other -- during casual conversations that took place, very likely, outside of class time. My task was simply to provide a context for those discussions.

I think it was a disastrous decision for ABA to "professionalize" its educational activity by outsourcing it to former booksellers and pro business consultants. And I think that the weakness with Booksense is in fact also with its professionalism. You are very happy about this professionalism! You're right that the best thing about Booksense is its inclusive, personal quality. But you point to its professionalism -- which lends it credibility among the employees of corporate publishers -- as being its strong point. That is -- Booksense takes the homegrown, personal, quirky "amateur" aspects of indie bookselling and packages them all together into a presentation that looks professional to all those "professional" publishing people working in New York. And you think that it's this professionalization of the quirky that is Booksense's great virtue. It makes the "weak" voices into the "strong" voice.

However, I believe in paradox. I believe in the Power Of The Weak. I believe that when you make a weak voice strong, you've destroyed the essence of that voice. I believe that the task is not to strengthen the weak voices, but to improve the likelihood that LISTENERS will learn to love hearing weak voices.

I think, as I said in a previous post, that Booksense's great virtues are different from those you've touted. I like that Booksense assists employees from publishing houses in pitching marketing dollars equitably among the various sectors of the bookselling industry, enabling them to observe the Robinson-Patman Act. I like that Booksense helps smaller publishers to have a crack at a breakthrough marketing opportunity. But I don't think Booksense primarily achieves its central objective of making each indie bookstore using it more successful. If it did do this, then the stores using Booksense would have become SUBSTANTIALLY more profitable over the past ten years.

The only thing that will ever make a difference in this country is an aggressive effort to recruit players from all sectors of the book industry into opening their own indie bookstores. Booksense is NOT about increasing the number of indie bookstores. That's its central flaw.
Anonymous said…
Dave, you did give a lot of yourself with your original posting. I wasn’t being dismissive when I said you put forward a lot of food for thought. We just disagree on the basic point of how booksellers should or should not work together. As for ‘Little Knowledge’, I’ll take that shot as what I deserve for my exasperated end to my posting. I did work in bookstores and I get it.

As for your ‘communication skills’, I’ll say two things: 1 – You communicate very well, but again, we just disagree on the central issue, and 2 – I don’t think I’ve ever met you at a BEA, reg’l show, Book Sense forum or anywhere. These are places where we heard lots of complaints about Book Sense over the years, got to reply, see all sides, AND made changes based on bookseller feedback. And if we’d ever met, you’d know I’m not some corporate-speak guy.

As for Andy Laties’ posting, I can’t agree that ‘weak’ and ‘amateur’ are perspectives that will increase business, or that most booksellers want that adjective or noun attached to their stores and life’s work. One of Book Sense’s strengths is that it put local independent businesses in a professional, strong, equal light with a shopper that was, more and more, shopping at the well-run, well-stocked, well-staffed chain stores. And all without sacrificing any of each store’s funkiness, localness, pick your term. We said, in effect, small is good, but we are a collective. Shop with us. No pity.

Book Sense’s goal was to work with the indies in a very competitive marketplace. To supplement the store’s own marketing, to give stores a national voice with the media, authors, agents, publishers, and the public (and not just publishers, as you say, but this is certainly key, no?). Did it work? Jury is still out, but the marketshare decline stopped, independent stores have gotten tons of free, positive press since Book Sense started, publishing resources for indies have been maintained, and the gift cards are doing well. And I don’t get your closing comment about increasing the # of stores. That was never a goal, but certainly a benefit of late. There are some stores opening around the country, and most sign up for Book Sense right away. And I can’t tell you how many booksellers said they would’ve closed without Book Sense, or at least thrived with the benefit of more reading copies, author attention, gift card sales, and – a biggie – a tangible feeling that they are not isolated, that they are part of something bigger and good, that they benefit from the collective good will and idea sharing.

- Carl
Book Nerd said…
I think it's hard to measure the concrete benefits of a program like Book Sense. As Dave points out, such a program doesn't necessarily make sense in every store. If you have an extremely loyal, reliable customer base who are deeply attached to your quirky way of doing things and are unlikely to shop anywhere else, if there's no local competition from a chain store with a bestseller list, if you don't need electronic gift cards, or a website with inventory, or lots of reading copies, or a chance to participate in a collective discussion with publishers... then sure, Book Sense probably isn't for you. It is voluntary (and costs money), and I think everyone in this discussion would agree that you have to make decisions based on your own store's particular issues.

But the fact that ABA membership and Book Sense membership exists as an option for independent bookstores is huge. Being an independent bookstore and also part of a nationwide trade organization is, as Andy puts it, having the Power of the Weak. Our individuality makes us valuable, and our collective voice forces (or allows) publishers and customers to recognize that value. It strikes me as a very American, paradoxical way of doing things -- and opting out is just as American.

But if you want to change the way the collective entity operates, I think it has to be done from the inside -- or else you have to get an awful lot of outsiders together, and then you become a new collective entity. From all reports, the ABA is remarkably responsive to the suggestions and input of its members -- probably more than many trade organizations, and especially because nearly all of its leadership are former bookstore owners themselves. They do have a great deal of knowledge, both of what it's like to be on the inside of a store (though in their own particular circumstances) and what they've heard from the thousands of indies who participate in forums and discussion. It seems to me the ABA is constantly doing everything in its power to adapt to the needs of its members. If it doesn't always hit all of those needs -- that's kind of in the nature of the world.

I admit I've had my own qualms about the financial cost of belonging to ABA, and maybe that's one thing we can continue to press for -- transparency in accounting so we can decide whether it's actually necessary for struggling bookstores to cough up the full membership fee in order for the ABA to stay afloat. Maybe a more flexible sliding scale is appropriate, or maybe the fee could be waived for a certain amount of volunteer work with the ABA. If there are specific problems with the organization, it's up to members to address them. If you think the problems are too deeply entrenched to ever be solved, pulling out is probably your only option. But there are a lot of stores that don't feel that way.

As Carl points out, the "tangible feeling that they are not isolated, that they are part of something bigger and good," as cheesy as it sounds, is enough motivation for many stores to pay the costs of membership. I feel that in some ways, that fee is an act of good faith quid pro quo for the benefits EVERY bookstore, member or not, gains from the presence of the ABA on the American book industry scene. The forums, the advocacy, the increased visibility -- these are all things we have to thank the ABA for, whatever our gripes may be. With the help of fiercely independent booksellers like all of you, I think we can continue to make it better, and make us all stronger.
Larry Portzline said…
I can safely say as a consumer, as someone who's visited a lot of bookstores around the country, and as someone who talks to a lot of other booklovers -- Book Sense makes a difference. I know many people who pick up the Book Sense Picks and Bestsellers at their local indies and who look for the Book Sense sign when they're visiting a bookstore out of town. It represents quality to book consumers, the vast majority of whom are savvy enough to know that the store hasn't gone "chain." The program may not be the right choice for every store, but it certainly seems effective to this consumer.

As for booksellers working together to assist and promote each other -- locally and nationally -- I don't see how it could ever be the wrong move. I too have seen the lack of cooperation (or even communication) between many of the booksellers in New York City, as Carl mentioned, and it astounds me. There's so much more that they and other booksellers around the country could do to market themselves -- not just to people in their own towns but to booklovers who live outside their communities and may be interested in visiting (bookstores are DESTINATIONS after all). Whether it's through Book Sense, Bookstore Tourism or some other effort, there are some easy, effective ways to collaborate and bring more customers through the door. And that can never be a bad thing.
Anonymous said…
I met some amateur booksellers today. They've recently taken over a church bookstore, gotten extra space, bought up the fixtures from an indie bookstore that was closing (the shopping mall raised the rent and then brought in a Borders!). These new booksellers are selling books at cost to their customers. They're volunteering all their work. They're stocking only books they've vetted themselves. Since I run bookstores that make a profit, having such booksellers as competitors would make me pretty nervous. My bookstore can't sell books at wholesale cost, because the profit from the store is critical to people who rely on the income. But I can't deny that this amateur approach is growing rapidly. Friends of Libraries groups are increasingly opening full-time locations -- some even stock new books among the used books!

I wish there was such a thing as a "professional" bookseller. But because there's no fullscale educational opportunity -- 6-week fulltime seminar, 6-month program, 2-year major, etc. -- every bookseller is an amateur until s/he declares autonomously "I'm now a pro, dammit". It's this situation I think needs to be rectified. ABA was on the road toward doing this, and dropped the ball in a big way.

I certainly love the idea of bookstores working together to advance their common aims, however it's done. I think Booksense is just fine. It irritates me that Booksense was created at the very moment that the ABA Education Department was shut down. The membership obviously felt this was the right thing. But I think ABA was smarter to reach out beyond the membership to the PROSPECTIVE membership. For a trade organization to do so is controversial and perhaps illegitimate, however. Nevertheless, only be doing aggressive outreach in the 80s did ABA and American indie bookselling reach its 1991 zenith. The new forms of amateur bookselling are happening outside of ABA. These people should be lured in. They have different ideas. As long as ABA caters to its mainstream paradigm concept, it will be increasingly marginalized as new, creative amateurs create their own, new brand of bookselling.

I want a BIG tent.
jaunty said…
r.e. NYC Indies & cooperation:

How about this: What if we could get some of the NYC indies together to pool some coop $ & buy some full page ads in the Village Voice, Time Out New York etc... (no idea what the ad rates are-BTW.) It'd have to tie into specific titles we could all get behind in order to get the $. BUT--we could leave enough empty space in the ad to make a saucy statement of some sort. Something like-- "We're here, We're Independent & we're not going away! Come see us! Viva La Revolution! Down with the evil empire!" OK -- maybe not that exact quote, but you see what I mean...
Anonymous said…
Carl, I'm not sure that "the jury is still out" on Booksense. I agree with Andy's statement...

"But I don't think Booksense primarily achieves its central objective of making each indie bookstore using it more successful. If it did do this, then the stores using Booksense would have become SUBSTANTIALLY more profitable over the past ten years."

We haven't seen that. What we HAVE seen is dissembling and backtracking by the ABA; for example, (now it's only supposed to be a marketing tool, instead of a profit center for indies), and ABACUS (lower volume, generally unprofitable stores simply removed from certain measurements).

The ABA absolutely must GIVE UP ITS INVOLVEMENT IN THE DAY-TO-DAY OPERATIONS OF needs to focus on issues that effect us all (primarily, legislative advocacy and education).

Effective trade organizations make strong memberships even stronger...they don't try to turn weak members into strong members.
Booksense is much too focused on providing services to booksellers that never should have opened in the first place. I mean, let's be frank: if you can't figure out how gift cards, the internet, bestsellers, etc. fit into YOUR unique store, you don't have a prayer. You're dead.

Booksense might be able to dress up the corpse a little, but it'll rot soon enough. Bookselling is a tough, low margin business in an industry that's undergoing rapid change. Independents need to constantly - and proactively - adjust their position in this highly competitive world. Keeping up with that change is virtually impossible for a wide-audience service like Booksense...hence, we get to watch tragedies like its failed embrace of the internet as the Savior Of Indie Bookstores.

I want to see Andy's Big Tent...but I want it full of circus freaks that have all found different paths to bookselling success. I want to learn from the sideshow oddities and their rabidly loyal customers. I want to watch the clowns and hucksters and see if any of their antics would fit into my store...

...right now, the ABA's Ringleader is filling the tent with acts that should have been retired two seasons ago...let me know when the Pinhead Midget Fire Juggler shows up...
Anonymous said…
Well -- Avin Domnitz the man (ABA's Ringleader) is different from Avin Domnitz the Executive Director. I've known him since 1989. He helped me negotiate the first-in-the-nation children's museum store concession I opened on Navy Pier in 1995. Very much a Pinhead Midget Fire Juggler gig, that. I think Avin would be the perfect choice to execute a strategic expansion of ABA's mandate. I think he endorsed and helped carry out ABA's circling of the wagons in the late 90s because he felt it was the correct defensive crouch. If the membership and the larger book community demanded a different approach, he'd implement it with skill and panache. For instance, the Long Beach Winter Institute was created in RESPONSE to the upsurge in requests ABA's staff (Avin himself, in particular) was hearing from the membership, during the annual relentless barnstorming of regional association meetings. More demand for educational programming would unquestionably (WILL unquestionably) cause Avin to expand the size of ABA's educational program. This guy is superb at taking the heat from a frustrated membership and keeping a fragmented association moving forward. That's WHY we have to complain! So he knows (and the board knows) what to do next. I would definitely not attack him as an obstructionist. He's pretty good at assessing the mood of the membership. The attendance at Long Beach was a terrific bellweather. I do think that there's some footdraggin now, though. We should have 5 such meetings each year, around the country, coordinated with the regional conventions, or not. And 5 more such, aimed at employees of chain bookstores, to convince them to open indie stores near their current employers' locations...
Anonymous said…
Holy smokes, Andy, you and I should open a store right next to a big box. Call it "Slingshot Books". Turn it into a political statement. Now THAT would be a worthy Circus...

...of course, we'd end up killing eachother within a month. You'd view my pragmatic nature as the mark of a cynical downer, and I'd brand your activism as self-indulgent idealism. But, heck, we'd entertain the living daylights out of our customers...gimme a freakshow or gimme death...
Anonymous said…
What a great idea!

What's the name of your store? Where is it? I want to visit.
Anonymous said…
Interesting back and forth. Geez, I don't agree that a trade organization is only for the strong. That is very shortshighted. Guess how many thriving stores were once much smaller and in need of advice from ABA, either directly or from other booksellers at ABA or REg'l Association sponsored education sessions?
Anonymous said…
And, I will add that there was a time when ABA did probably draw back on education too much, but they reexpanded it at the same time as Book Sense was catching on, thanks to bookseller demand and feedback. They do listen.

As for as 'just' as a marketing tool, it was presented that way back when, along with the promise of some commmerce. 200+ stores got an online position and tool they couldn't afford otherwise.
Anonymous said…

You taught at quite a few booksellers schools in the early 90s. Don't you recall how for a while ABA was running six professional schools, and six prospective bookseller schools, plus an advanced school, EVERY YEAR? They have absolutely not returned to that level of activity. They got rid of the education director position: since Willard Dickerson, there's been no education director (about 1998 I think). There have been no prospective bookseller schools. No advanced schools. No professional schools. They refer people to Donna Paz's operation. This is taught not by working booksellers but by former booksellers and by retail and business consultants. There's all the difference in the world between that kind of seminar and the kind of seminar taught by working bookstore owners.
Anonymous said…
Andy, good point. It's not what it was, but I do think they've ramped it up to what the membership has said it needs. The Long Beach meeting wasn't cheap; it was partially paid for by publisher support, you know. As for regionality, the wonderful Reg'l associations have taken on much of the educational programming at the fall shows (and a spring one), with ABA having programs that day, too.

ABA can't do everything but it does a lot: legislative advocacy, marketing, service, and education, with Marketing via Book Sense one of its key programs. Which is free to booksellers by the way! (.com has a fee and there's a cost for the gift cards, but the basic program is FREE!) Such a deal.

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