Over the last 13 years, the American Booksellers Association has made children’s programming part of Winter Institute, its premier educational conference. But at this year’s record-breaking gathering in Memphis (January 22–25), which drew 1,000 book people—among them 680 booksellers from all 50 states—children’s concerns were more integral than ever before.

More children’s houses, including first-timers Holiday House and Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Tex., contributed to up numbers in the publishing sector in 2018: 93, up from 89 in 2017. “With Holiday House’s renewed commitment to independents, WI13 was the perfect venue to meet passionate new booksellers, visit with old friends, and introduce our authors and their books to a dedicated, book-loving community,” said Theresa Borzumato-Greenberg, v-p, marketing at Holiday House. “What energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.”

In addition two of the most talked-about sessions were rooted in kids’ books. A keynote by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz on his first picture book, Islandborn (Dial, Mar.), drew tears and a standing ovation as he focused on the need for diverse books now, and a panel called Sensitivity Readers and Free Expression, the subject of a recent blog post by panelist Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Me., and a PW Soapbox by panelist Dhonielle Clayton, COO of We Need Diverse Books.

Winter Institute’s growth forced ABA to move the event to a conference center for the first time, although a few sessions were also held at the Sheraton Hotel. The mood was upbeat, with Ellen Richmond of Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Me., speaking for many booksellers when she singled out this year’s “great energy.” Many booksellers had had particularly good years in 2017. “For more than five years now,” Teicher noted at the institute, “our channel has seen sustained growth—the result of your clear focus on ongoing professional development, tireless work, and continued entrepreneurial innovation.” He acknowledged that some stores continue to face challenges, particularly as retail dollars continue to shift online. But he assured booksellers, “Our advocacy on your behalf regarding a level playing field will continue as a major priority for 2018.”

Diversity and Sensitivity

The need for more diverse booksellers and publishers was among the other priorities that emerged over the course of the four-day conference. As Hannah Oliver Depp of Word Books in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., a member of the ABA Task Force on Diversity formed following last year’s gathering, noted, “We’ve made a lot of progress, and we have a lot further to go.” It was a point underscored by the programming, which included sessions on hiring for diversity and inclusivity as well as handselling diverse books.

In Díaz’s powerful talk, which he titled “In the Time of the Wolf and Fox I Dream of Books”—the “wolf” being conservative whites and the “fox” liberals—he criticized the book industry for being a business where predominantly white gatekeepers publish predominantly white authors. He called on booksellers and librarians, who are on the front lines, to “stop talking about diversity and start decolonizing our shelves.”

Talking about the impact of “super white books” on him as a teenager, Díaz said, “What really killed was the erasure. Kids like me did not exist in the literature. What kid doesn’t want to see themselves represented in the literature they’re reading? Where somebody like me took part in an amazing adventure, where somebody like me was the hero?” Rather than finding comfort in books, he said, “[the] unrelenting whiteness was devouring me.”

In the session on free expression, Clayton also noted that the publishing industry’s gatekeepers are predominately white, while society is becoming increasingly multicultural. She argued that sensitivity readers are necessary to read certain manuscripts—specifically by authors writing about people of color who are not people of color themselves—to ensure that books with diverse characters and story lines are authentically and respectfully represented.

“If you want to do it right and tell the truth, then you need to hear from people like me,” she said, citing the controversy surrounding A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a 2016 release from Scholastic that came under fire for its presentation of slavery and was subsequently withdrawn by the publisher.

Brechner noted that “the free expression of ideas is the lifeblood of bookselling.” He advocated for a “robust critical exchange” regarding controversial books. “Books have the right to succeed or fail in a critical marketplace, not through a fear of suppression,” he said. “Books have a right to fail, to be bad.”

Other Challenges on the Horizon

For many booksellers, including those who had their best year ever in 2017, the need for a sustainable bookstore model is the biggest challenge confronting them. “You can’t keep surviving against the odds,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. It was a concern voiced by Alison Reid, co-owner of Diesel Books with stores in Larkspur and Los Angeles, Calif., at the Town Hall meeting. Booksellers should be able to pay their staff a living wage and not have to work long hours or take a second job to do so, she said. “I know publishers who make good profits,” she continued. “It would be nice if they could give us extra percentage.”

Amazon’s growing dominance in many aspects of people’s lives, not just books, was also a significant concern. At the Town Hall, Brechner noted that one of the most threatening aspects of Amazon’s dominance is the erosion of list price. “One thing I hear,” he said, “is, ‘What are you charging for this book?’ We’re in a competing narrative with Amazon. There’s a narrative we need to share. The antitrust laws are just paper, or whatever, without the will to do something about it.”

But as booksellers consider new models, keynoter Amy Webb (The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream), founder of the Future Today Institute, advised them to take into account technology and an automated future. While she recognizes the imperfection of algorithms, by telling the story of her mother-in-law purchasing David Wisniewski’s Golem for her seven-year-old daughter from Amazon, she said that she and her mother-in-law still shop on Amazon. “I’m pro independent bookstores, said Webb. But I’m also a pragmatist. While I know you’re doing well today,” she said, “my concern is that things change and I am not entirely convinced that you’re prepared for the next 10 years or for the next 20 years.”

Among the signals that Webb advised booksellers to consider are that their customers want community, but they want to dictate the terms, which is the appeal of online communities like virtual book clubs or spinning classes. She also called for booksellers, as well as publishers, to understand that artificial intelligence is going to change how people read and write books. “AI,” she said, “isn’t a tech trend. “It’s the next era of computing. We are the transition generation.”

Book Talk

But Winter Institute is about more than just education. More than 130 authors participated in this year’s conference through programs like Indies Introduce Authors, the Author Reception, and the Small Press Lunchtime Author Reception. Publishers’ dinners and after-parties, like Scholastic’s “An Evening of Words and Pictures,” also featured children’s and YA authors

Based on signing line length, some of the hottest books at the institute included Oliver Jeffers’s Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (Philomel), Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ghost Boys (Little, Brown, Apr.), and debut author Tomi Ayedemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (Holt, Mar.). Emily Hall, owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., called the Ayedemi novel “a game changer.” National Poetry Slam champion Elizabeth Acevedo, won over booksellers with her reading from The Poet X (HarperTeen, Mar.), a debut novel set in contemporary Harlem, during the live radio broadcast of “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour.”

Other popular children’s and YA authors included Cassandra Clare, who came to promote the final book in her Dark Artifices trilogy, Queen of Air and Darkness (McElderry), due out in December. Judith Lafitte, co-owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans, said that she can’t keep Clare’s books in stock because they fly off the shelf. Another of Lafitte’s favorite big books at the conference was Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After (Little, Brown, Mar.). Holly Weinkauf, owner of Red Balloon in St. Paul, Minn., was excited to meet Neal Shusterman, author of Thunderhead (Simon & Schuster). And Samira Ahmed, a Winter/Spring 2018 Indies Introduce author for her debut novel Love, Hate and Other Filters (Soho Teen), beamed throughout the Author Reception after learning earlier that day that her book was about to debut on the New York Times Young Adult Hardcover list at #8.

Next year, Winter Institute 14 will take place in Albuquerque, N.M., from January 22–25, 2019.