|Ending the Core Constituency ABA Strategy
||[May. 23rd, 2006|11:00 pm]
Last week, after reading Laura Miller's "Reluctant Capitalists", I sent her a series of emails about a subject I felt her informants had elided during their explanations to her of the vicissitudes of the book industry over the last few decades. Now, having spent several days pitching "Rebel Bookseller" on the floor of the BEA show in D.C., I'm now feeling more convinced than ever that the American Booksellers Association has got to once and for all back away from its official 1997 policy of serving its "Core Constituency" of existing storefront retail booksellers, and switch back to its much broader 1980s strategy of bolstering independent bookselling across the culture (meaning: ABA needs to revive an aggressive Prospective Booksellers School program, taught not by professional consultants like Donna Paz but instead by currently active, working bookstore owners and managers).|
Here are the emails I sent to Laura Miller:
I'm finally reading your book. Enjoying it very much. I also think you're being too nice to the ABA -- and that the people currently leading the organization didn't explain the internal fight in the early 90s that led that policy in '97 of Serving The Core Constituency. In my opinion, this battle went the wrong way, and the result is in significant part the further degradation of the winners themselves!
In 1984, the winners of that battle with the alternate slate of board members brought in their own new Director for ABA -- Bernie Rath, from Canada. When he came in, ABA had $200,000 in its bank account. 13 years later, when he was pushed out, ABA had $40 million on hand.
How did this happen? Bernie was FIXATED on making the association financially secure. He settled on Real Estate as the way to make this happen. He told me personally, in 1989, that his model was the Boy Scouts who had bought their Manhattan building in the 1920s or something and so were rich. Bernie wanted the ABA to stop renting and to own a building of their own.
Because Reed Exposition approached him almost immediately after he became director, with an offer to buy the convention, Bernie decided to sell to them, but only after he'd done "improvements" and the show could command a premium price. There was a problem of course: How do you make a trade show more profitable in an industry where all the publishers are increasingly able to sell directly to a few growing chain stores? The trade show was essentially worth less and less every year because publishers didn't need any more to sell to thousands of individual booksellers.
So -- Rath decided in order for the ABA to sell the show for a lot of money and buy property, there had to be more independent booksellers attending the show -- proving thereby to publishers the value and need to buy and pay for larger booths. The value of the show hinged on bookseller attendance.
He dramatically expanded the ABA's existing Booksellers Schools, and in particular developed a new kind of school, the Prospective Booksellers Schools, and ran 6 per year around the country. These schools encouraged the always latent, romantic desire of career-changers to explore the possibility of owning their own bookstores. People came out of the woodwork to attend these schools -- they were more heavily attended than the regular ABA booksellers schools by far. And -- they really worked. A lot of people who weren't properly qualified did in fact open bookstores which proceeded to do poorly. That is -- the Prospective Booksellers Schools gave attendees the false impression (as a group) that opening an independent bookstore was easier than it really is. Of course, there were a lot of great bookstores opened by people who went to a Prospective school -- but there were a lot of stores that anyone could see would fail.
Nevertheless, from a sheer numbers standpoint, the results were amazing. Several thousand independent bookstores opened in the late 80s, and -- attendance at the annual convention, which was promoted at the schools, absolutely skyrocketed. Rath was indeed able to charge ever rising prices to publishers, and book sales did jump sharply across the country. The secret negotiation with Reed was going well and the show was set to be sold.
Meanwhile, Rath lost control of the ABA's agenda. Many longer established booksellers found to their dismay that they were now losing slivers of market share to upstart competitors who would obviously go out of business in a few years but in the meantime were taking their profits down. The prospective booksellers schools became contentious. And here is where the story at you have narrated it kicks in. The lawsuits were NOT something Rath wanted to do, but he did use the money from the sale of the show to execute the 1994 lawsuits as he was directed to do. He was gone by the time of the 1998 lawsuits (also executed with the money made from selling the show). ABA was also able to use the show sale profits to buy the property Rath had found them.
The core constituency formula sealed the fate of the prospective booksellers program. There has been no big outreach campaign since the early 90s -- and THIS IS THE REASON for the sharp decline in bookstore formation.
IT IS MY BELIEF that THIS is what's now responsible for this very 'core constituency's decline today! Because all those new bookstores caused trouble not only for the ABA stores -- but ALSO FOR THE CHAINS.
I may get a chance to attend your session on Saturday -- not sure yet. In any case, I think your book is terrific and I also am sorry that no-one told you this story! I believe very few people actually know it. It was kind of a secret aspect of the ABA infighting.
She responded that she hadn't heard these stories before.
NEXT EMAIL FROM ME:
Perhaps this stuff about the reasons for the rise and collapse of indie bookselling in the 80s/90s simply doesn't strongly affect the specific theses you're looking at in your book. So it doesn't matter that it's not there. You're looking at something different.
However, it does somewhat impinge on the "authenticity" of the current indies' claims about "why" they're stating so energetically that they're such wonderful people and wonderful businesses. I think their economic self-interest in fact DID overwhelm their social motivations -- and this is proven by their move away from recruitment to the "core constituency" approach. If they really believed that indie bookstores are so great for communities, why in hell did they stop working hard to help the formation of MORE indie bookstores??
The world of online booksellers is a good place to look for arguments about ABA hypocrisy. There are a million online Amazon affiliates. The more strident of them actively despise the "core constituency" ABA strategy.
NEXT EMAIL FROM ME:
This is an entry from my blog -- about a year + 1/2 ago. It's slightly exaggerated, but lays out my ideas on the problem of Educational Outreach vs. Core Constituency as an ABA policy issue and in terms of the future of indie bookselling.
NEXT EMAIL FROM ME:
You know, a few days ago Andy Ross (who's now closing Cody's on Telegraph down) was widely quoted as saying the store had been losing money for 15 years.
15 years ago, in 1991, I attended a strategic planning session along with 60 other leading booksellers, including Andy Ross. He was arguing back then that ABA should stop focusing on its full membership (then about 5000 stores) and instead focus on the Core Membership (1500 stores doing $500,000 or more, I think).
In other words -- he was at that very moment beginning his long losing streak at Cody's -- and his feelings at that place and time reflected this. It was before the superstores were around, or Amazon. He felt small upstart stores were harming his business -- and these were businesses that would fail anyway, and in the meantime he was getting hurt . Andy was also strongly in favor of the ABA suing the publishers (I think he was heavily involved in the prior Avon suit, right?).
And yet -- now -- 15 years later, the reasons given for the closure of that Cody's store is that the neighborhood has gone downhill, the university is selling more aggressively to students, Amazon (founded in 1996!) Borders/B&N, etc.
The truth is that ABA shouldn't have listened to Andy Ross back in 1991. His personal business situation was not a good filter through which to understand the book market.
NEXT EMAIL FROM ME:
Of course it's ironic that the launch of lots of small bookstores -- which irritated Andy Ross when it "got out of hand" -- resulted in the ABA convention's jump in value, resulting in more money for ABA at sale time, resulting in ABA's being able to credibly launch those lawsuits Andy Ross wanted, with big war-chest in hand!
But in 1991, almost no-one understood that Bernie Rath's plan was to sell the convention. I remember sitting with him in a hotel coffee-shop over breakfast. He said to me: "What do think people would say if we sold the convention?" I asked him what he was talking about, and he explained AT THAT TIME -- 7 years after he'd begun this whole process -- that he was going to start floating the idea among the board members of selling the show. Richard Howorth (soon to be ABA Prez) sat down at a table near us. Bernie leaned over backwards and said, "Richard, what do you think about selling the convention?"
The entirety of Bernie's plan revolved around secrecy because he knew he'd encounter opposition from HIS OWN BOARD. Ultimately, it was because some of the money would be used for lawsuits that the Board did agree to sell the show.
I think Bernie was looking toward his own future and wanted to be able to say "From $200,000 to $40 million under my leadership." But he also did have a great plan for killing Dalton, Walden and Crown by swamping the market with small stores -- and it did have the effect of dramatically destabilizing the industry. Unfortunately for those of us not "sufficiently ambitious", a couple of indie players who had never liked the clubbiness of ABA -- Riggio of B&N, and the Borders Brothers -- simply took advantage of the situation, and the leaders of ABA were caught flatfooted.
Very very funny business. But I suppose no stranger ultimately than the Oil Industry, Arms Industry, whatever. You try so hard in your book not to personalize what happened, and to avoid a Great Man Theory -- and my gosh, having been in those rooms I don't know if I agree with you. So few people are involved.