Over the past 11 years, the American Booksellers Association has transformed Winter Institute into one of its signature educational conferences. This year’s institute, held in Denver from January 23 to 26, was no exception, with its mix of big-picture topics, such as minimum wage and online retail, and micro workshops on holding author events and inventory control. Above the Treeline used the occasion to unveil Edelweiss’s new format, aimed at helping booksellers determine which books are publishers’ lead titles in a given season. A pilot program will launch shortly, with a full-store rollout this summer.
ABA CEO Oren Teicher was pleased by the sustained energy of the conference, right through the final educational session: a debrief, facilitated by Ed O’Malley and Matt Jordan of the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, to help booksellers turn ideas into action plans. “I’m pleased with the way [the debrief] worked out,” Teicher said. “The most astonishing thing was that the energy in that room was as high as it was at the opening party on Saturday.”
This year, the ABA bowed to bookseller pressure and raised the cap on attendance from 500 booksellers to 625. In addition, the 2016 institute drew 108 authors, 40 international guests, and 175 publishing folks. Despite Winter Storm Jonas, which caused thousands of flight cancellations on the East coast, only 30 booksellers and a handful of presenters were unable to travel to Denver.
Raising the number of booksellers by 20% in no way diminished satisfaction with the conference. “It was a great Winter Institute,” said Pam Cady, manager of general books at University of Washington Bookstore in Seattle. “I thought everyone was jazzed. [The ABA] did a really good job; it was very thoughtfully laid out.” Rob Dougherty, manager of the Clinton Bookshop in Clinton, N.J., added, “I like the fact that there were more booksellers. But I hope the institute doesn’t get too big for networking.”
For many booksellers, the excitement about attending the institute was heightened by a particularly strong 2015. “The good news,” Teicher announced at the institute, “is that overall sales across the network of independent bookstores in 2015 were up 10%—8% on a per-store basis.” Sales at more than 500 independent stores were over $500 million, a figure that excludes nonbook items. “Independent bookstores once again fulfilled their mission to put the right book in the hands of readers and book buyers while growing their businesses in what obviously remains a challenging environment,” he said.
“Looking ahead,” Teicher continued, “we know that it’s not a time for complacency.” For many, the biggest challenge is Amazon, whose presence was felt in many sessions, beginning with a featured presentation on the first day with authors Douglas Preston and Richard Russo, moderated by Teicher: “Authors, Agents, and Booksellers—United for a Fair Marketplace.” The session provided an update on last summer’s letter-writing campaign by various book-related organizations, including the ABA, which called on the Department of Justice to investigate Amazon’s control over access to information.
Keynote speakers such as Martin Lindstrom, author of Small Data, encouraged booksellers to find ways to differentiate themselves from Amazon. “Discovery is booksellers’ secret weapon,” he said. The megaretailer was the central focus of a presentation by Dan Houston and Matt Cunningham of Civic Economics and Stacy Mitchell, codirector of the Institute for Local Self-reliance in Portland, Maine, which released a joint report from the ABA and Civic Economics at the session titled “Amazon and Empty Storefronts: The Fiscal and Land Use Impacts of Online Retail.” The report determined that the failure of 23 states plus Washington, D.C., to collect the full sales tax on Amazon sales resulted in a $625.4 million loss in revenue in 2014 for state coffers. The report also found that since the growth of Amazon and other online retailers has resulted in a reduction in demand for retail space, about 100 million square feet of retail space has gone undeveloped—the equivalent of more than 30,000 traditional storefronts, which the report estimated would have employed 136,000 workers and generated $420 million in property taxes. The combination of lost sales tax revenue and property taxes has led to a $1 billion “tax gap” on state and local governments, the report stated.
Despite the report’s conclusions, not all booksellers regard the online giant as a threat. Peter Makin of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich., said that Amazon takes away the “cheap end” of the economy, and his store is more upmarket. “I focus on what we are good at and what [Amazon] cannot do,” he said, singling out expensive sidelines such as $200 packs of colored pencils. He’s sold 150 packages.
Other booksellers pointed to the softening of the e-book market and the fact that print is back as signs that they can prevail over Amazon. In a session titled “Overall Trends in Book Retailing” with Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book, and Peter Hildick-Smith, founder and CEO of Codex Group, the latter offered some sobering statistics: “The e-book share decline masks the fact that online sales are now up to two-thirds of book sales,” Hildick-Smith said. In 2010, 72% of books were purchased in physical stores; that figure is now down to 33%. At Barnes & Noble at least 30% of revenue comes from nonbook/merchandise.
McLean painted a rosier picture. “I want to celebrate you guys,” she said. “In terms of bricks-and-mortars, you’re the only ones growing. Although you compete with Amazon for the objects they sell, you’re not in the same business. They’re in the convenience business, and you’re in the community business.” McLean encouraged booksellers to take advantage of the trend in coloring books to seek out opportunities in comfort and peace categories.
One place to trump Amazon that the ABA has begun promoting is backlist. Over the past few months it has added “The Revisit & Rediscover List” to the IndieNext lists for adult and children’s titles. To further emphasize backlist titles as a way for bookstores to distinguish themselves, the institute held a Backlist Book Swap Party on the opening night, something it plans to do at future gatherings. Booksellers were asked to bring a copy of a favorite “under-read” book and leave it for someone else to discover. The ABA is working on a way to share those titles as indie favorites.
The ABA took advantage of the Denver location to pay tribute to the contributions of Tattered Cover Book Store owner Joyce Meskis, whom Teicher credited at the opening night reception at Tattered Cover’s Colfax Avenue store as “the creator of the modern bookstore model.” Two days later, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, whose own book The Opposite of Woe (Penguin) is due out later this spring, made a surprise visit and presented Meskis with an official proclamation that made Jan. 25, 2016, Joyce Meskis Day. “The more Joyce Meskises there are in the world, the better place this will be,” he said.
The 2017 gathering will keep the winter in Winter Institute. It will be held at the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, January 27–30.