Technology + Tech-Savvy Development = A Much Improved ABACUS

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California bookseller Amy Thomas has written an open letter to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association membership explaining why she believes the new ABACUS project is so important to her business, and to independent booksellers. The deadline for reporting for ABACUS Year One is March 31, 2003.

By Amy Thomas

Dear Fellow Booksellers,

In 1995, I completed the purchase of the bookstore group where I had worked for many years. I knew a lot about running the stores from a managerial point of view, but, with the exception of a few seminars I attended at trade shows, I didn't know much about reading and understanding financial documents, much less about using them to help me guide my business. That year, I participated in the ABACUS study, administered by ABA. The ABACUS report collected data from 330 stores from around the country, and, when it was published, provided a fascinating financial picture of our industry. In addition, ABACUS prepared a confidential report for each of the participating bookstores, showing how they stacked up against other stores of their general size and makeup.

The form was rather long and very detailed, and just completing it was an education for me. I began to gain a real understanding of, and familiarity with, all kinds of financial relationships in my business. The reports that were developed by ABA, both the general report and my own confidential business profile, made for compelling reading and helped me to identify areas of the business that needed attention of one kind or another.

Unfortunately, those reports were only published many months after the close of the reported fiscal year, and so were of limited usefulness to me in terms of making important business decisions. I read them eagerly and tried to glean as much as I could from them, but the time period that they described already seemed rather distant, and it was difficult to remember all of the events that may have affected our numbers for that year.

The report raised dozens of questions, which is one of its most valuable features, but coming so long after the event it was time-consuming and difficult to answer those questions with accuracy. Was it in that fiscal year that we changed distributors? Did we go nonreturnable with a few important accounts that year, or was it the year before? What month did we buy that last round of computers? Why was the travel figure so high? It was not always easy to see how certain events or changes in our way of doing business affected our bottom line, unless we had made careful notes somewhere. And if we had made careful notes, we had long since forgotten where we put them.

The massive competitive challenges that surfaced during those years found the ABACUS reporting base dwindle, and the study was discontinued in 1999. In spite of its deficiencies, it was a unique tool that I had come to count on to help me analyze my business, and I missed it greatly. I also felt that it was an excellent tool for ABA to have when planning its own strategies and achieving its mission to serve the bookselling community.

I am very happy to report that ABA has re-instituted the ABACUS study, only this time they have technology and tech-savvy on their side. They have not only created a streamlined online worksheet. (It took me about an hour to complete, but that included correcting some posting errors that were revealed when I started crunching the numbers -- I told you that just completing it was an education in itself.) They have also eliminated the main drawback to the original model. ABA has said that it will be able to publish a final report 60 days after the end of the reporting period. In other words, with a data collection deadline of March 31, we can be looking at, and working with, a published ABACUS report at BookExpo America. (For more about the special ABACUS session at BEA, click here).

ABA currently has more than 100 stores in their database, a total that they believe is large enough to be helpful in analyzing trends and patterns, but not yet large enough to be indispensable. It is often said that small businesses have, potentially, the competitive advantage of being flexible, of being able to make swift, strategic changes to respond to a changing marketplace. ABACUS 2003 promises to be a timely, comprehensive, and statistically accurate report that could help us make truly strategic and helpful changes to our businesses.

The deadline for submitting data to the ABACUS project is March 31; so, I urge you to gather your financial documents, sit down in a quiet spot with a calculator, and complete the ABACUS survey. It will be good for your business, and I believe that what is good for your business is good for mine, as we work to maintain our place in the marketplace of ideas.

Amy Thomas is the owner of Pegasus Fine Books and Pegasus Books Downtown in Berkeley, California, and Pendragon Books in Oakland, California. This letter was originally published in the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, and BTW is grateful for permission to reprint it here.

The deadline for reporting for ABACUS Year One is March 31, 2003. Instructions and an online form for submitting data are available at http://www.bookweb.org/read/5786. Questions about ABACUS should be addressed to ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz at avin@bookweb.org.

In addition, those member bookstores that have submitted data to the project will receive a bonus. Participating stores will be presented with their own store's results compared to relevant "data slices" from ABACUS. For instance, stores will be able to compare their results to stores in the same sales range, or region of the country, or profitability range. Participating stores do not have to be at BEA to receive their data -- all submitting stores will receive this information.