As IOBAns on our internal Announce List know, I was recently elected president of the organization. The board of directors consists of a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer who are elected every year, and six members at large who serve staggered terms of three years each. We also have eight standing committees (Bylaws, Education, Ethics, Finance, Internet, Membership, Public Relations, and Standard), but some of these were dormant and even vacant. My first goal of dual service whereby board members also chair committees has already been realized. The advantage of this is that board members are more fully invested, and frankly it is easier to find ten motivated people than it is to find eighteen. If you want to give back to the organization, you start off by joining the committee of your choice, you may chair it some day, and after that the sky is the limit (or such sky as a small trade association has to offer at any rate).
Small can be good, but so can big. I am firmly in the camp that believes IOBA should have 500 professional members by now, rather than 250 to 300. Part of the reason for slow growth has been inertia on the part of the leadership fed in part by apathy on the part of the membership, and we had a couple of withering internal debates some years ago, but it is mostly related to the stormy seas of online bookselling in general. We have also fumbled the annual renewal process on occasion, in terms of effective and timely announcements and reminders. 300 seems to be a magic number for independently minded bookselling organizations such as ours. The only one that has cracked it lately has been the search service Biblio. If ABEbooks can attract 13,500 booksellers, many of whom are of professional caliber, IOBA should be able to reach 500.
Membership will be my first priority. The Membership Committee does the most everyday work in IOBA. They vet and they vote. In the very beginning vetting was unnecessary, as most of us were the same professionals that helped companies like Interloc, Bibliofind, and ABE pioneer online bookselling to begin with. When the floodgates opened, however, standards suffered as we took pretty much anybody without review. Many of those were “instant booksellers” and they have long since departed. We now go about this differently. The Membership Committee basically requires the following. Primary online business is selling books, a minimum of 200 books listed, no more than 10% of total stock should be priced under $5, should own at least 90% of books listed (this bars “megalisters” while recognizing that some specialty stock is ordered directly from the publisher), a standard satisfaction guaranteed returns policy, and full and accurate descriptions (no boilerplate) of the actual book in hand. Automated pricing and similarly lazy or eyebrow-raising practices are frowned upon. Specialization and having your own website are considered a plus. Most successful applicants spend one year at the Associate Member level ($30/year) and then move up to the Professional Member level ($60/year). The first step may be waived at the discretion of the committee co-chair, and needless to say we are very desirous of adding top shelf booksellers to our ranks.
For borderline entry-level booksellers, we want to formalize a mentor program, to be administered through the Education Committee. The Membership Committee will recommend mentoring in those cases where the applicant may be able to meet the standards within a reasonable amount of time. There is also an expectation that they will maintain these standards, adhere to the IOBA Code of Ethics, and grow as professional booksellers. We don’t mean to be elitist with all of this, but IOBA was formed over a concern for slipping standards, and it is natural that we would institute our own. For a refresher on what IOBA is all about, it’s right on our home page in five short paragraphs.
I mentioned apathy on the part of the membership, and I would like to clarify. Most IOBAns are not at the very top of the food chain, with decades of experience, a bricks and mortar presence, and tens of thousands of stellar books in stock. We have some ABAA and ILAB members and many highly accomplished and specialized bricks and clicks and internet-only dealers, but as a trade association of independent online booksellers, many of whom are relatively new to the profession and want to better themselves in the modern absence of traditional apprenticeships, we take more of a big tent approach. There has been board discussion in the past about requiring all members to participate at some level, kind of like some food co-ops do. I don’t favor this, as it would require a lot of administration and would engender headaches and departures. Board members and committee chairs have consistently noted signs of apathy over the years, and such discouragement often leads to inertia. From my perspective as editor of the Standard, for example, I spend over 150 hours per issue and get perhaps one response (this is not a plea for feel good feedback…just an observation); or I email IOBA members several times asking for a profile or other contribution and don’t even hear back (I am tempted to order a book from them just to get their attention). Others joined only because of the ability to sell through IOBAbooks, and when that did not produce enough profit they packed up and left. Varying levels of participation is a common occurrence in most organizations, and indeed throughout history. The 300 Spartans were awesome, but they got a little help from a pan-Greek army and untold numbers of everyday citizens you don’t hear too much about.
Speaking for myself, this general malaise isn’t ideal, but it does not bother me greatly. We are all busy, and the more time you save for selling books the better chance you have of staying in business. To me it is all about the IOBA logo that can be displayed on your website and elsewhere. That logo stands for something. It is reassuring to colleagues and to book buyers. The logo alone is worth $60/year, even if the organization is not always incredibly vibrant or active. Luckily the founders erected a pretty good framework, and there are always some dedicated members who step up and give of their time and talents. I am not especially well suited to be president of my own sock drawer, let alone a disparate group of booksellers, but one reason I took it on is that I feel we are at a sink or swim stage. We can slide into murky depths at under 200 members or barely tread water at under 300 members, but please consider joining and/or giving back to the association if you are in a position to do so as we gear up for the goals and challenges ahead. Let’s reach a nice island (with modern amenities, and not Fantasy Island either) and IOBA can be our port in the storm now and our naval station later.
This year I will mainly be concentrating on infrastructure. The website, internet applications, membership issues, defining the roles of the committees and populating them with volunteers and, either this year or next, revising many of the bylaws. IOBA does seem to have a short institutional memory due to high turnover at the top, and I would like to get some pages up in the Members Section that will explain how certain things are done, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel so often. I’m also interested in improved internal and external communications; advertising and promoting and internationalizing IOBA; and improving IOBAbooks.
Now that I’ve aired our organizational laundry in public, let’s get back to finding and selling and reading and loving books.
In this issue, U.S. overseas internet book buying; a shape shifting eBay experience; an interview with book fair promoter Bruce Gventer; a wall-mounted hard drive; and Joe Perlman scales New Hampshire. Quirky QSLs qualify for the ephemera column; and the book review is murderous this time around. Tool Box content includes book hunting, insurance, and contact info. IOBA Bookseller Profiles hail from Lehigh Acres, FL; Spring Hill, KS; and North Yorkshire, England. And Addenda.