It is a truth universally acknowledged, that strong sales in the run up to the fall regionals lead to good conferences and trade shows. That’s certainly been the case so far this season, and the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s 39th annual fall conference held at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence from October 3-5 was no exception. “The show’s been very, very good. Booksellers are just feeling good about the fall. The Cape and the Vineyard stores did very very well,” says Penguin Group sales representative Karl Krueger, one of several reps to make the summer sales-show connection.
The NEIBA conference opened on a high note, which it largely sustained, with a free-ranging keynote, an “off-the-record” industry conversation led by Macmillan CEO John Sargent. In introducing Sargent, NEIBA president Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct., remarked that “[Sargent] is someone with a strong enough backbone to stand up to Amazon and the DoJ, a long history in publishing, a little Midwestern twang, and an appreciation of why indies matter.” The only complaint was voiced by the media and echoed by booksellers like Josh Christie of Sherman’s Books & Stationery in Freeport, Maine, “I’m just disappointed that I can’t talk about John’s talk.”
Big accounts like New England Mobile Book Fair, which changed hands late last year, were back at NEIBA in full force. So were big name writers, including Junot Diaz, just days after winning a MacArthur “genius” Award; Wally Lamb, winner of a President’s Award; Dennis Lehane; and husband-and-wife writing team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant. Beyond that, the show offered plenty of opportunities, more often found at Winter Institute, for conversations among booksellers. Less than a half hour before the exhibit floor was scheduled to close there were still a few dozen booksellers talking with reps and with each other. “I’m having a great show,” said Marika McCoola, children’s bookseller at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. “The conversations have been really good, and the keynote was really good. I value [Sargent’s] honesty.”
Other educational programming was more how-to oriented. In “The Best of Both Worlds: Understanding the Young Adult and Adult Crossover Market,” produced by the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, now in its 25th year, booksellers Laura Lucy, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, N.H., and Kaley DeGoursey, children’s and YA books buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Ct., joined Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sales representative Katie McGarry, and moderator Bina Williams, children’s librarian at Bridgeport Public Library, in discussing how they handle crossover books, which have seen a significant bump. “We’re seeing increases from the price [YA editions tend to be several dollars cheaper] and from nostalgia, going back to coming-of-age stories,” said DeGoursey. While Williams pointed to a complementary phenomenon, “crossing under,” books written for adults that are really YA and can be sold to teens.
At “It’s All About Customer Service: Strengthening the Brick-and-Mortar Advantage,” retailers offered suggestions on wowing customers. “For us, customer service is all and everything. We have 16,4877 sku’s in our store. I need my staff to know every one of them,” said Michael Kanter, owner of Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., who added more staff when the economy tanked. At Edgartown Books in Edgartown, Mass., manager Susan Mercier said that she borrowed an idea from her local police department to make the store stand out as a community center, “I’m encouraging the people who work for me to volunteer in the community.” Another stand-out panel focused on “What’s in it for Me? Getting on and Staying on the Publisher’s Radar Screens.” For Barbara J. Kelly, trade book manager at Portland University Bookstore, it added to making NEIBA “a great show. It reminds us that publishers really do listen.”
The last day of the show was devoted largely to Kobo. An hour-long ABA presentation by Joy Dellanegra-Sanger and Neil Strandberg elicited so many questions that NEIBA scrapped a planned “think tank” on business ideas and continued the conversation. “It was fabulous,” said Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass. “It was a very candid and upbeat session.” Dick Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, is one of many who plan to participate. “While I wish we hadn’t taken the detour through Google, the ABA has done an impressive job getting Kobo launched. It would be a real feather in our cap if independent bookstores could help Kobo establish a viable market share in e-books. Having devices to sell will certainly help us connect our customers to e-book sales that benefit us, even though we all know that won’t be a game changing amount of revenue in all likelihood.”