The Journal of Rational Recovery -- May-June, 1994
Used with permission; all rights reserved

"Recovery" Bookstores
Dropping Like Flies

by Chaz Bufe

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Every year the American Booksellers Association (ABA) annual convention and trade show features a "recovery roundtable." I attended the "roundtable" at this year's ABA (May 28-31, Los Angeles CA), and found that the mood among "recovery" (i.e., 12-step) booksellers was grim. It was very grim, according to several of those attending. Participation in the roundtable has been falling every recent year, as the number of "recovery" stores has fallen nationally. One graphic illustration of this decline was a statement by a store owner who publishes a newsletter for other "recovery" store owners: he stated that four years ago his circulation was 250; today it's under 100.

The panel moderator then underscored this by stating that two "recovery" stores had recently gone under in one month in Phoenix, the ninth largest metropolitan area in the country, leaving that metropolis with only two "recovery" stores. She later polled attendees and discovered that approximately one third of the participants were store owners; one third were publishers' representatives; and one third were authors attempting to hawk books. In years past, she stated, attendance at the roundtable had been much higher (this year it was only about 30 people), and a large majority had been store owners.

So what's happening? Why are "recovery" stores going to hell in a hand basket? One participant cited what I considered a surprising reason for the decline in "recovery" stores: the growing reluctance of insurers to continue to pay for 12-step "treatment." This surprised me until he then stated that treatment centers funnel business to 12-step stores by referring clients, reading lists in hand, to them. With the declining number of inpatient "treatment" facilities, coupled with shorter stays, that source of sales is drying up rapidly. No one disagreed with him.

Several other store owners then cited another surprising (to me) reason for the decline in 12-step stores: Hazelden's publishing activities. It seems that Hazelden has been gobbling up its faltering competitors and instituting what several store owners termed 'monopolistic' practices. A number of store owners voiced complaints about Hazelden's discounts, Shipping terms, and ordering system -- all of which, they felt, made it difficult for them to make a buck.

Following about an hour of this weeping, wailing, and moaning, Hazelden's sales director spoke briefly and then fielded complaints for another half hour. What he said was not of much interest, but the handout he gave to participants contained several bits of intriguing information. It states, "There are "22 million alcoholics in the United States, " that "12-step membership has been flat during the past three years," and that there are currently 2,700,000 12-step individuals." The Hazelden document unfortunately gives no indication of the sources of this information.

The "22 million alcoholics" figure can be discarded out of hand; given the nebulous nature of the term "alcoholic," there's no way to make an accurate count. This can be seen in the widely varying figures, ranging from 10 million to 25 million, thrown around by 12-step "experts," The 12-step membership figures given by Hazelden are another matter. This is their own turf, and so one suspects that their estimates here are more valid than their "alcoholics" figure. If Hazelden is correct about 12-step membership, the low figure cited means that only about one percent of the American public belong to 12-step groups; and the statement that 12-step membership is "flat" means that the number of 12-step members relative to the general population has seen declining for the post three years, given the approximate one-percent annual growth rate in the U.S. population.

Another intriguing bit of data in the Hazelden report is that "utilization rates average 50%" in alcoholism treatment programs, and that "average length of stay is [down to] 5-7 days nationally." These low utilization and "stay rates" are undoubtedly due in large part to the reluctance of insurers to pay for 12-step "treatment," and they go a long way toward explaining why the number of 12-step inpatient treatment centers has been plummeting over the last few years.

This, coupled with the "flattening" of 12-step membership, and the steep decline in the number of "recovery" stores, indicates that the 12-step "treatment" industry is reeling. It's not down yet, but if insurers grow even more reluctant to pay for useless "treatment," it'll soon be prostrate on the canvas. When that day arrives -- and it seems to be coming fast -- it'll be time for something better to take the place of 12-step "treatment." And I think we all know what that "something better" will be.

Chaz Bufe is the owner of See Sharp Press, Tucson, Arizona

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