The 37th annual New England Booksellers Independent Booksellers Association conference, held in Providence, R.I., from September 30 to October 2, was like the YA version of a bestselling adult title. All the important elements were there: educational sessions, meals with authors, and exhibits. It’s just that they had been slimmed down, along with the show’s footprint, which fit on a single floor of the Rhode Island Convention Center for the first time. Earlier in the year the board changed the name from fall “trade show” to “conference” to reflect a shift in emphasis away from the trade show floor.
Fewer booksellers could afford to attend the show, much less dinner, breakfast, or lunch with authors. Attendance at the children’s opening night dinner with Jennifer Donnelly, author of Revolution (Random House); Jon J Muth, author/illustrator of Zen Ghosts (Scholastic); and Jerry Pinkney, illustrator of Three Little Kittens (Dial) was down nearly 25%. According to executive director Steve Fischer, slightly fewer booksellers attended the show than last year, 410. Although the vendor count rose by five to 80—with new exhibitors including Vineyard Stories in Edgartown, Mass., which publishes for both adults and kids, and Zoobies, an all-in-one plush toy, pillow, and blanket made in Provo, Utah—the number of exhibitors dropped from 350 in 2009 to 285 this year.
The importance of children’s books was underscored at the opening luncheon honoring NEIBA Book Award winners. There NEIBA president Dick Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., gave the president’s award to 92-year-old Maine children’s book author and illustrator Ipcar Dahlov. In the past few years Islandport Press in Yarmouth, Maine, has begun reissuing Dahlov’s picture books and will also publish a new board book later this year. Islandport founder Dean Lunt read Dahlov’s acceptance speech in which she said, “Fine art is as necessary for children as love.” Jon Muth, too, read a note, this one from Mo Willems’s dog, about how Willems’s and Muth’s City Dog, Country Frog, which received a NEIBA children’s book award, made him laugh, cry, and bark.
Many of the educational sessions on Thursday and Friday, including two directed specifically at children’s booksellers, drew SRO crowds. A workshop moderated by New England Children’s Booksellers Association co-chair Suzanna Hermans, who manages Oblong’s Rhinebeck store, offered tips on booking successful large-scale author events. “We all know events are a big part of what we do,” said Hermans, “but they are not always a profitable part of the store.”
Liebmann advised booksellers to just say “no,” if an author isn’t a good fit. “It’s not a tit for tat world,” she said. “We don’t want a C+ event. The events have to be great and the publicists have to be confident that you can have a wonderful event.” Publishers aren’t looking only at what goes through the register the night of an event, Liebmann added, but also at the number of books sold around an event, the number of staff who may have read the book because of the event, and displays. One surprise for some audience members was a shift that Liebmann described of moving away from traditional readings. Some bookstores are reporting that the audience tends to get restless. Instead they are asking authors speak for five minutes and then do a Q&A.
Mutch suggested that booksellers be creative about venue, such as hosting an author at a farmer’s market, and she encouraged booksellers to make a proposal form so it’s easier for them to submit requests. When publishers weigh requests, they aren’t only looking at their last event with the bookstore but at a store’s other successful events. And once an author is booked, said Mutch, being organized is key to having a great event.
Both Filgate and Hermans discussed ways to boost sales at events. At RiverRun, Filgate has begun experimenting with tickets that include the cost of a book and a glass of wine. At a recent Jonathan Franzen reading, she set up a backstage pass for which customers paid extra in order to get their book personalized. In advance of a Suzanne Collins signing Hermans used the store’s Web site and Twitter to let people around the country know that they could order a signed book. “It was my first experience using the Web site to really sell books,” said Hermans, who sold 50 copies of Mockingjay hand-stamped by Collins to Internet customers.
At a panel called "Multicultural Kids' Books: Selling Color in a White World," weekend storms forced Stacy Whitman, editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books to appear via speakerphone with Association of Children’s Booksellers president Elizabeth Bluemle, co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt.; Candlewick Press president and publisher Karen Lotz; and author Mitali Perkins.
Perkins, who was born in India and came to the U.S. at age seven, talked about using books as both a window and mirror. The metaphor recurred throughout the workshop as booksellers talked about diversifying their inventory and publishers their lists. It’s an issue for small fantasy imprints like Whitman’s, who questions why fantasy can’t be as diverse as realism, as well as for Candlewick, which first identified the problem 12 years ago when the company’s owners did a study showing that some people even consider the bunnies in their books too white. “It’s taken years for the list to be reflective of the community,” said Lotz. “We can do this. We have the freedom to do this.” She showed covers for books like Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon’s recently released novel, Zora and Me, and a mockup of the cover of Ladder to the Moon, an April 2011 picture book by President Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, which are more reflective of Candlewick’s goals to be diverse.
Later, at the annual meeting, Dick Hermans said, “I really believe our future rests in kids and books,” and raised the possibility of NEIBA sponsoring an All About the Books day-long conference in the coming year focused only on children’s books. As for the future of the fall conference, “whether trade shows remain a viable forum is up to publishers,” he said. Over the past five years NEIBA’s income has declined 50%. Shrinking revenue is one of the organization’s biggest challenges, said executive director Fischer, who called e-books “the other elephant in the room.”
Despite sobering statistics for the organization and many of its bookseller members, most found solace in the show. “I get discouraged [about business],” said Deborah Baker of Baker Books in North Dartmouth, Mass. “It’s a labor of love. But I’m reinvigorated by these two days.” “I always like coming here,” said Becky Dayton, owner of Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, Vt. As for Dick Hermans, “everything I’ve seen [at this conference] has lifted my spirits,” he said.