ABA Town Hall: A Range of Questions from the 'Floor'

ABA Board members at yesterday's Town Hall.

Yesterday's American Booksellers Association town hall meeting, held immediately after the annual meeting, covered a range of topics.

Ends Policies Changes & Board Communication
One of the first questions raised in the meeting concerned the ongoing conversations around the ABA's ends policies changes regarding free expression and the First Amendment, asking whether the board plans to revisit the issue and if the ABA intends to poll member bookstores about the changes. Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., and MacArthur Books in Carmel, Ind., answered that the ABA's commitment to free speech is "unwavering," saying free speech is often discussed by the board and clearly supported by the association's leadership and staff. She also referenced the work ABFE has done in the last quarter in support of free speech (which was detailed in the July 6 issue of Bookselling This Week).

In response to the suggestion of a poll, Compton instead encouraged the booksellers in attendance to communicate with board members on a regular basis, whether that is via e-mail, in person at events like Children's Institute or the fall regionals, or during the board's virtual office hours. Ongoing communication between ABA members and the board, she said, would be more valuable than a poll. Danny Caine, general manager and co-owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan., reiterated later that a town hall session is not the only time or place to talk to the board.

Consolidation & Antitrust
The topic of ongoing consolidation in the book industry among publishers, wholesalers and POS providers arose several times during the discussion. Board members said it was a "huge concern" for them and something that comes up "all the time" in their meetings. Caine reported that the board spent a lot of time during its May meeting talking about consolidation, and noted that while talking about antitrust has often been shorthand for talking about Amazon, the issue is "not limited to one company." ABA CEO Allison Hill, meanwhile, remarked that the issue of consolidation goes "hand in hand" with the association's antitrust work, and she has been in contact with publishers about consolidation in the industry and its effect on booksellers.

Elaborating on the subject of antitrust laws, Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., brought up the ABA's own antitrust guidelines that, for example, limit discussion among booksellers of such topics as pricing. She wondered if perhaps the association was "collectively overcorrecting" given the small share of the market indies have overall. Hill said she had similar thoughts when she joined the ABA and has reviewed the guidelines with the ABA's legal counsel several times. She agreed that it is "good to keep asking," and that in her understanding it is not so much about the size of the indie channel as about the potential for collusion in the marketplace.

Publisher Conversations
Noting that the ABA is nearly done with its annual round of publisher meetings and that there will be recaps in Bookselling This Week, Hill said the main thread throughout has been a "livable wage" for booksellers and the sustainability of the business. Publishers, meanwhile, generally discussed two major themes: significant concerns about the supply chain and book discoverability.

Code of Conduct
Carole Horne, formerly of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., brought up the ABA's code of conduct and mentioned social media posts by and about ABA members that violate the boundaries set in the code of conduct. She asked whether that had been discussed at all by the board; board president Christine Onorati, owner of WORD bookstores in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., said board members do take the code of conduct seriously, though they don't monitor booksellers' social media pages and the ABA does not have a hand in managing any of the Facebook groups meant for independent booksellers. 

Nomination Changes
Board members emphasized that board nominations can now be made year-round, and they encouraged as many booksellers as possible to get involved. Since the start of the pandemic the board has been rethinking what service as a board member entails and is trying to be as flexible as possible about meeting booksellers' needs. Melanie Knight, children's buyer for Books Inc. in Northern California, said that adjusting how the board works has made a huge difference in diversifying the board, and that work will continue going forward. --Alex Mutter

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