One of the results of the current vitality and growth among indie bookstores is that a number of new booksellers and store owners have entered our profession in recent years. And, as was the case regarding the ABA Endowment (which I wrote about last month in Bookselling This Week), there are some longstanding ABA programs whose origins and history may not be fully known by members who are newer to our ranks.
One of those programs, I believe, is our e-commerce platform, now known as IndieCommerce. This month I want to share a bit of the backstory relevant to the creation of our e-commerce service for indie bookstores.
The roots of IndieCommerce go back more than 15 years, when ABA began developing a national rollout of Book Sense, which included a national marketing program (Book Sense) and an e-commerce product (BookSense.com). At that time, it was becoming increasingly clear that online shopping would only continue to grow, and that a critical component of a national marketing campaign would need to include a way for stores to sell books on the Web.
Our friends at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA) took the early lead through their work in creating the Book Sense brand. Book Sense showcased the unique attributes of indie bookselling, and, for the first time, it provided to both the publishing industry and consumers a clear narrative of the national influence and clout of the diverse, locally based network of ABA member bookstores.
Together ABA and NCIBA expanded Book Sense from its California origins with a successful national launch, which included the first viable e-commerce solution for independent bookstores. After a beta test, BookSense.com launched in November 2000. ABA made the substantial capital investment of $2 million in BookSense.com, funds that were a direct result of the association’s antitrust settlements of the 1990s. At the beginning, ABA partnered with Baker & Taylor to provide bibliographical data for the program, and, subsequent to the initial launch, moved to Ingram as a source of book data.
The idea at inception was for the bookstores that made up the BookSense.com user base to cover the program’s operating expenses. However, over the years, while user fees have covered the operating expenses of BookSense.com and its successor, IndieCommerce, ABA has made another capital investment in excess of an additional $1 million to improve the e-commerce product.
As technology changed and evolved, ABA determined that moving our e-commerce service to an open source platform was appropriate, and in early 2009 IndieCommerce moved to Drupal. And since 2012, our partnership with Kobo has allowed IndieCommerce stores to offer their customers the opportunity to purchase e-books from indie stores when those book buyers want to read digitally.
Because Drupal is an open source software package, it is extremely important to keep up with updates released by Drupal, especially given the extent of change between Drupal 6 and Drupal 7. The migration was a major project, and one that we know we could have done a better job of communicating with you about. We do understand how frustrating the migration was to many users, but it was absolutely essential to our being able to continue to offer stores a reliable website. The migration was completed in July of 2015, and in addition to the move to Drupal 7, the IndieCommerce team created a completely new book data processing system and made significant changes to our infrastructure.
From the beginning, this development of BookSense.com and IndieCommerce has been guided by the needs and insights of indie booksellers. On a yearly basis, ABA convenes a Digital Task Force, composed of member stores, to review and critique the e-commerce platform and to prioritize the development of improvements, enhancements, and new features. More than 150 individual booksellers have participated in these task force meetings in the past 15-plus years. In addition, through a number of user surveys additional, critical input has been garnered for the IndieCommerce development team.
For a number of years, booksellers have reaffirmed that education should be ABA’s number-one objective, and we have kept that in mind regarding IndieCommerce, where, again, collaboration with IndieCommerce users has helped ABA immensely. Educational sessions highlighting the best practices and professional development necessary to operate successful individual store websites have been presented at fall regional trade shows, ABA’s Spring Forums, at BookExpo America, and, for the past 10 years, at the Winter Institute. In addition, a number of stand-alone IndieCommerce workshops have been offered, which have provided focused, hands-on learning experiences.
Most recently, we have introduced new learning options for IndieCommerce. Last month, we launched the IndieCommerce Video Training Center on BookWeb.org, where users can find videos on a wide variety of topics, with more on the way. In addition, training webinars have begun for interested users. So far this fall we have presented two webinars, with an additional three scheduled. Each webinar is 60 to 90 minutes long and lets IndieCommerce staff interact with up to 30 users. The webinars focus on a key topic and offer a chance to discuss any topic of a bookseller’s choosing. Registration for the third webinar, to be held on October 21, will open next Wednesday.
I started this letter with a look back to the origins of ABA’s work regarding an e-commerce business solution, but I want to close by looking to the future.
While operating an e-commerce service in the context of a not-for-profit trade association will always be a challenge, ABA understands that stores rely on IndieCommerce. In today’s business environment, we recognize that having an e-commerce enabled website is an indispensable part of operating a successful retail store.
At the same time, we appreciate that in an e-commerce environment nothing can remain static, and that ongoing development is essential. We know our IndieCommerce record is not perfect, but we do believe that it is an effective, useful, and indie-focused business tool — and ABA is committed to making it even better.
Development will continue to be an ongoing project, and I encourage you to watch BTW over the upcoming weeks for more news about the rollout of new features and enhancements that have been in the works since the successful migration to the new Drupal 7 platform. At the same time, we’ve embarked on a new series of means to communicate with IndieCommerce stores to do our best to keep you informed.
I hope the above is helpful and should you have any questions about IndieCommerce — or any other ABA program or issue — please do contact me.
Oren J. Teicher
CEO, American Booksellers Association