Courtesy of Publishers Weekly

By Andrew Albanese
American Bookseller Association CEO Oren Teicher used a Thursday morning Tools of Change session to offer a sort of State-of-the-Union for the independent bookselling trade—and, he told attendees, the state of the indie union is, counter to the prevailing wisdom, strong. “I know there is doom and gloom about the long-term viability of bricks-and-mortar stores,” Teicher acknowledged. “But the good news is that we are in fact in 2013 seeing a renaissance of independent booksellers in the U.S.”

While Teicher readily acknowledged numerous challenges facing bookstores, “our numbers are what they are,” and those numbers, he said, are in fact positive.

First, and foremost, sales at ABA members store are “strong,” with 2012 sales up 8% compared to 2011, based on book unit sales data tracked weekly from 500 ABA members. Online sales also rose for indie booksellers, with the 420 ABA member stores that use IndieCommerce, (the ABA’s e-commerce program), posting a 28% jump in online sales in over 2011. And, 2012 saw 43 more indie stores join ABA, the third year in a row the ABA has posted a bump in membership.

“I know everybody thinks the opposite is true, but it’s not,” Teicher said. “There are more ABA members as I stand here this year than there were last year.” The ABA now represents the interests of more than 1,600 member companies in some 2200 locations across the U.S.

On its face, Teicher’s address was perhaps the most un-Tools of Change session at Tools of Change. He readily professed himself to be “hardly a tech guy,” and conceded that among the heady, futuristic topics at ToC, ABA members may seem “a tad old-fashioned.” But ABA members are in fact “busily adapting to the enormous changes facing our business,” he said, suggesting that if ToC attendees really want to understand what is happening in the book business, they should take a close look at what is happening in the indie channel. “I humbly submit, that it is the combination of the old and the new, that we think we represents well, that is going to frame the future of the book business.”

So what’s behind the “renaissance” of independent bookstores? Teicher pointed to a few key factors. First, and foremost, that indie stores are “actively and aggressively adopting” new and “appropriate” technology. A little over a decade ago, Teicher said, the debate among indie sellers was whether to have an online presence. The talk now is how to have a more effective online presence. “We know that for many consumers, if you don’t exist online, you don’t exist,” Teicher said. In addition to the Web, he acknowledged a range of new technology from software that streamlines backoffice operations and fulfillment, to the advent of social media and more ways to connect with customers.

Teicher also said ABA members fully understood the power of e-books, and discussed the ABA’s new relationship, struck last August, with Kobo. While it’s still too early to offer numbers, Teicher did say the program was so far outperforming “earlier efforts” in the e-book arena—hardly a surprise given the dismal results of its partnership with Google. He stressed that the “overwhelming majority” of what ABA members will do is sell physical books. “But we also know that being able to say yes to our customers when they want to purchase an e-book is a huge strategic benefit.”

Teicher also applauded Kobo’s “open reading” philosophy—including Kobo’s support for open platforms and the adoption of industry standards which “ensures customers own the books they buy and are never locked into one platform, or one service.” And, he added, the deal with Kobo allows the indie stores to “keep the relationship” with their customers. “Our members are embracing technology,” Teicher stressed. “We’re not fighting it.”

Teicher also could not resist a shot at the U.S. Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against publishers and Apple. Techier reiterated the ABA’s belief that the suits were “misguided” and blasting the DoJ effort as “wrongheaded” and saddling the book business with “a flawed regulatory scheme that threatens to restore undue market power to one single seller.”

About Russ Thompson

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