Despite the nine regional bookseller organizations continually revamping their fall trade shows/conferences to meet their members' changing needs, bookseller attendance declined at many of this year's shows, or didn't make up for drops in 2009. Over the past five years, many publishers, which sponsor the shows, have cut back on booth space, author tours, and book giveaways. Some associations are unable to balance their budgets and are living off investments from better days. Others, like Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, cut staff, renegotiated their leases, and sublet part of their offices to stay in the black.
All of today's regionals are faring better than the Mid-South Independent Booksellers Association, which disbanded in 2005. In fact, some, like the New England Independent Booksellers Association, had financially successful fall conferences by holding smaller shows—and had similar success with selling less costly ads for their holiday catalogues—traditionally the two biggest money makers. But given that this is a time of transition as three of the nine regional executive directors have stepped down, should regionals consider joint conferences, joint programming, or merging back-end functions?
"I don't think it's a secret that all the regionals are trying to find ways to provide their members with the same services for less," says Deb Leonard, newly appointed executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. "Pretty much everything is on the table." This year, for example, GLiBA formed a consortium with NEIBA and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association to produce regional holiday catalogues more cheaply. "By streamlining all our backoffice work, we were able to make it easier and less expensive for publishers, while maintaining the uniqueness of the catalogues for our bookstores. In no way did we want our catalogues to be national," says longtime NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler, adding that NAIBA is on solid financial ground with good profits this year.
In selecting Carrie Obry to be the new head of Midwest Booksellers Association, says board president Chris Living-ston, owner of the Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., "one of the issues for the board was to have more contact with our neighboring associations, both Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes. The reality is we're all going to operate on leaner budgets than we have in the past 10 years. Working with other regionals is a no-brainer." To ensure the success of next year's show, MBA's board is looking to make it more efficient and compact, while building in opportunities for plenty of one-on-one time with booksellers and publishers by changing the venue to Minneapolis and holding it under one roof.
"The real issue," says NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer, "is that there are fewer stores with fewer staff. When you say the numbers are down, they just aren't there." As for the notion some sales representatives have put forward about merging NEIBA and NAIBA, he singles out geography as the biggest barrier. NEIBA relies on day trippers, who may not have the money for a hotel or enough staff to be away from the store for more than a day. "If you look at who goes to Atlantic City, they're not going to drive to Providence or Boston," he says. And then there are the really large regions like MPIBA, which encompasses 13 states.
Even for regions that are only half a state away, like NCIBA and Southern California Independent Booksellers Association, holding a joint show isn't necessarily a bookseller pleaser. "We did entertain a joint show one year, and our booksellers weren't into it," says SCIBA executive director Jennifer Bigelow. Regional shows have taken on increasing importance, she points out, now that sales reps call on fewer stores and booksellers have fewer chances to see physical books. But if she moved the show too far away even large stores like Vroman's, with 30-plus booksellers, wouldn't be able to support it in the same way.
Geography is destiny for NCIBA as well. "I've had my show in the same place for 24 years," says NCIBA executive director Hut Landon. "75% of my membership is within 60 miles of San Francisco. By only having three or four regional shows [instead of nine], half the booksellers who go to a regional show wouldn't go. We do a raffle at our show. It's one of the ways I can count how many orders are taken, and we had over 400 orders placed in two days. Ask a commission rep if it's worth it." Another reason to keep the shows as regional as possible is that many booksellers believe the Winter Institute and BEA are not able to provide booksellers with enough educational panels or time to compare notes.