WI14: Five of ABA’s Past Presidents on Changes to Bookselling in the Past Decade

We asked five former presidents of the American Booksellers Association who remain active in bookselling to look back on the past decade and identify changes that have had the biggest impact on indie bookselling in general, and on their stores in particular. Some cite a single change in strategy, such as adding more events. Others cite several changes, such as rethinking remainders, gifts, and social media. Taken together, their responses show why indie bookselling is thriving.

Betsy Burton (2015–2017), co-owner of the King’s English Bookshop (Salt Lake City, Utah)

Events: “We have held readings at the King’s English for over 40 years, but in the past decade we have increased our focus on events by both local and nationally known authors—to the point that they are part of the store’s lifeblood. Whether they feature adult or children’s authors, such events anchor us in the minds (and hearts) of the public, placing us at the very center of their community. And we believe that is exactly the place we need to occupy if we are to continue to grow and thrive.”

Becky Anderson (2011–2013), co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops (headquartered in Naperville, Ill., with four stores in the Chicago metropolitan area)

Communication and events: “What goes hand in hand with increases in events is the way in which we communicate. Our social media presence has increased tenfold, as has the way in which we connect with all types of organizations within our communities. That would be school districts, not-for-profits, institutions, service clubs, political/resistance groups, and so many others. Face-to-face events with readers is a huge way we connect and build a wider community. The simple and most important thing we do is be present for our booksellers, our customers, and our communities. Face-to-face interactions that offer support, information, and the best-curated recommendations for readers of all kinds.”

Michael Tucker (2009–2011), president and CEO of Books Inc. (headquartered in San Francisco, with 11 stores in California)

Remainders, gifts, and social media: “There is not one thing that has had the single biggest impact. Gift sales went from under 5% to over 20% of revenue. Remainders got boring, so we got really into curating and getting British imports. We have done well and increased sales on the website, and we have had close to 1,200 events with all stores this year. What surprises me now is the reach for our social media, which has had a huge impact on marketing.”

Direct shipping from publishers: “I was skeptical because we are on the West Coast. One-day or two-day deliveries seemed a stretch. But publishers have done a really fine job and direct sales and better margins that go with it have been huge for us.”

Gayle Shanks (2008–2009), co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore (with locations in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz.)

Local First: “I think the ‘local first’ movement has reminded the public that without supporting local businesses, there will be no retail, and without retail their communities will be without jobs, a tax base, literacy programs, and an educated workforce.”

Sidelines and gifts: “We have always carried gifts in the store, integrated into the book sections and in small areas of their own, but in the past 10 years we’ve increased the gifts tenfold, and the higher profit margins on those gifts has enabled us to give raises, keep books on the shelves longer, and maintain profitability.”

Mitchell Kaplan (2004–2006), president of Books & Books (headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla., with seven stores in and around Miami; one in Key West, Fla.; and another in the Cayman Islands)

“Scan and pay,” or consignment: “We’ve increased sales with participating publishers by 100%, 200%, and 300%.”

ABA: “I cannot imagine where we’d be as indies without the American Booksellers Association having our backs. To be a small business owner over these last 36 years, and being buffeted by all the changes I’ve seen, and having to weather it all alone would be something hard for me to contemplate. The ABA has helped us fend off the vagaries of the marketplace that have defeated so many other indie entities.”

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A version of this article appeared in the 01/14/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Five of ABA’s Past Presidents on Changes to Bookselling in the Past Decade

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