Despite a number of distractions—heavy downpours that made getting to evening events difficult, the size of the exhibit floor, pending tariffs on books imported from China, and Baker & Taylor’s exit from the retailing wholesale market—the 2019 edition of BookExpo settled down to talk about books due out this fall and winter. And, according to booksellers interviewed by PW, there is quite a lot to be excited about in the upcoming season.

Indie booksellers were raving about what Paul Yamazaki, adult book buyer at City Lights Books in San Francisco, described as a “rich season” of releases, with plenty of offerings in both fiction and nonfiction to please even the most discerning reader. Literary fiction with plots that could have been ripped from the headlines is especially hot this year, and one novel in particular is resonating with most of the booksellers PW queried: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron), the tale of a Mexican bookseller and her young son’s attempt to flee to the U.S. to escape a vengeful drug lord. Store owner Jonah Zimiles of Words Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., called American Dirt “a stunningly powerful novel.”

Other novels with topical themes that booksellers are anticipating include Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Doubleday/Talese), the sequel to her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Luisa Smith, buying director at Book Passage in the Bay Area, said that “this is the book booksellers are most excited about.” Smith was also buzzing about Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (Riverhead), which she called “Woodson at her most brilliant.”

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (Knopf), a debut about female spies during the Cold War, is “so, so deserving of all the hype—it’s smart and suspenseful,” according to Anmiryam Budner at Main Point Books in Wayne, Pa. She also praised two other debuts with topical themes: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (Morrow), inspired by the #MeToo movement, and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Putnam), a novel about a wealthy white woman and her black babysitter that Pamela Klinger-Horn, publicity/events manager at Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, Minn., predicts will be “one of the most talked about novels of 2020.”

And City Lights’ Yamazaki said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer (One World), which deconstructs the myths of the Confederacy, is “an amazing piece of American literature.”

Novels with magical elements were also pulling in booksellers. Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., is eager for Erin Morgenstern’s sophomore effort, The Starless Sea (Doubleday), recalling that the store sold hundreds of copies of Morgenstern’s debut, The Night Circus. Ann Patchett’s dark fairy tale The Dutch House (Harper), about two siblings cast out from their home by their wicked stepmother, was also blowing away booksellers.

Several forthcoming biographies and memoirs were also exciting booksellers this year, such as Edison by Edmund Morris (Random House), clocking in at 700 pages. Smith at Book Passage declared it to be “comprehensive and stunning.” She was also celebrating the upcoming publication of the memoir that Prince was working on when he died in 2016, titled The Beautiful Ones (Random/Spiegel & Grau), calling it “one last gift from one of the greatest artists of all time.”

Though there is an outpouring of compelling works this fall and winter, the most intriguing book, which was mentioned by several booksellers, may be Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton (Grand Central), due out in August. Narrated by a crow after what Budner described as “a viral zombie apocalypse” has killed off humanity, it is, according to Holman, “the human apocalypse as only a crow can tell it.”

There is no shortage of children’s books that booksellers are looking forward to this fall and winter, either. Several attendees shared their enthusiasm for a new handbook dedicated to inspiring a lifelong love of books: How to Raise a Reader (Workman), by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo, both editors at the New York Times Book Review.

On the picture book front, Elizabeth Bluemle, owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt., raved about A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Holiday House/Porter), about Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech for the 1963 March on Washington.

Spencer’s New Pet by Jessie Sima (S&S) was a top pick for Sara Grochowski, children’s book buyer at McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich.

Maggie Pouncey, co-owner of Stories Bookshop + Storytelling Lab in Brooklyn, touted Alma and the Beast by fellow Brooklynite Esmé Shapiro (Tundra). “I love the wonderful whimsical weirdness of this picture book,” Pouncey said. “Shapiro is such a talent.”

Sara Hines, co-owner of Eight Cousins Bookstore in Falmouth, Mass., described another Canadian picture book, The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith (Orca), as “a standout.” It’s inspired by the true story of one Japanese village’s resilience after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

The middle grade comic everyone was buzzing about is Guts (Graphix), by superstar Raina Telgemeier. Chelsea Edward, owner of Booked in Evanston, Ill., said, “Every child is coming in to ask when Guts is coming out. It’s going to be huge.” She added, “And, of course, Dav Pilkey’s new Dog Man book [also from Graphix]. We sell Telgemeier and Pilkey every day.” Middle grade fiction highlights for booksellers included My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder (Walden Pond).

Booksellers are also keeping an eye out for YA crossover hits. Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Holt), the sequel to Tomi Adeyemi’s Black Lives Matter–inspired fantasy Children of Blood and Bone, holds strong appeal for teens and older readers alike, according to Edward at Booked. And Ruta Sepetys is back with another historical novel, The Fountains of Silence (Philomel), set in Franco’s Spain.

In terms of new YA voices, Clarissa Hadge, manager at Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, said that the science fiction debut I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi (HarperTeen) “hit me right in the feels and will be a great crossover read.”

Tegan Tigani, children’s book buyer at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, is a fan of Frankly in Love by David Yoon. “I was so ready for a book that could make me laugh out loud and think about it for a long time, and this fit the bill,” she said.

Nicole Brinkley, a bookseller at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., was excited for Pet, by nonbinary author Akwaeke Emezi, the first title from Christopher Myers’s Make Me a World imprint at Random House. “It’s a brilliant, bite-size novel that fearlessly examines the world around us,” she said.

Adjusting to a New BookExpo

Many veterans of BookExpo noted the smaller size of the exhibit floor compared to past editions. There were a number of prominent publishers that didn’t exhibit at this year’s event, among them Abrams, Chronicle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Phaidon, and Quarto. Several vendors expressed disappointment at the number of publishers who were not exhibiting, adding that they count on visiting existing clients (and possibly meeting new clients) at BookExpo. A large independent publisher said that his biggest frustration was the number of would-be authors who were pitching books.

Show organizer Reed Exhibitions said attendance, excluding exhibitors, was 8,260, up about 7% over last year; booth traffic was light on Wednesday after the opening of the floor at noon. The floor was more crowded for most of Thursday, and when the show closed at 3 p.m. on Friday, traffic was fair.

One publisher wondered why, with the indie bookstore channel growing in importance, so many publishers opted not to participate as exhibitors. At the ABA Town Hall, association CEO Oren Teicher underscored the ABA’s continued growth. “In 2018, ABA saw 99 new indie bookstore members open for business in 37 states and the District of Columbia—a 32% increase over 2017. In addition, a number of member stores opened new branches, and 28 established ABA member stores were purchased by new owners.” The changes bring ABA membership up to 2,524 locations, representing 1,887 companies.

Teicher went on to note that indie booksellers are realizing higher net profits, according to the organization’s latest ABACUS membership survey, spurred in part by a rise in sales of about 5% for the indie channel in 2018 over 2017. During the Town Hall’s q&a, booksellers raised questions about various challenges facing the industry, including minimum wage hikes across the country.

Outgoing ABA president Robert Sindelar of Seattle’s Third Place Books said that the increase in profits at bookstores was actually “being eaten away by payroll.” The solution, he said, is communicating the realities of being a bookseller with publishers, who are invested in the survival of the ecosystem, so that they can work with bookstores to make them more profitable. A suggestion to move to net pricing (in which publishers stop printing prices on books, allowing booksellers to set their own prices) gained little support at the meeting.

Publishers, booksellers, and distributors made a strong declaration about the centrality of bricks-and-mortar retail to the publishing industry during a Thursday session. Readerlink president and CEO Dennis Abboud said that there is a strong ecosystem comprising the general retailers his company services and bookstores, including Barnes & Noble and independents. “We service 718 retail chains that have 80,000 storefronts and see 500 million readers each month,” Abboud noted. “When they find a book they like and want to go into the backlist, they go into their local bookstores.”

Moderator and NPR correspondent Lynn Neary credited ABA for its early role as a proponent of localism, which has kept physical retail growing. ABA’s Teicher said that though retailers still face lots of challenges, indie bookstores are well positioned to give readers something that internet competition cannot. “They can sell an experience; they can sell a connection to their community; they can sell a knowledge and passion about books that goes beyond reading itself,” Teicher noted.

Tim Mantel, Barnes & Noble’s chief merchandising officer, said that the company is investing in events that create experiences for readers, citing a recent nationwide Kids Book Hangout initiative that drew 13,000 young readers to B&N locations.

All of the panelists agreed that social media and data are helping drive readers to bookstores. Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House US, said that the company is keenly aware that readers want “authentic engagement” and is investing in creating nonauthor events that bring readers together in bookstores. She added that more collaborative relationships between publishers and physical retailers have increased the importance of sales reps, who were also seen to be in the crosshairs of a changing industry only a handful of years ago.

New Spaces

Though the core floor of BookExpo was smaller than in past years, Reed made two new additions: BookExpo UnBound and the New York Rights Fair. The New York Rights Fair saw its strongest attendance on Wednesday and Thursday, with panels about Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company, film scouting, book adaptation, and the rise of streaming services filling the 200 seats of the BookExpo theater.

Exhibitors from around the world set up booths on the NYRF exhibition floor, including Actes Sud, a French company representing four children’s publishers at the rights fair. They brought author Tom Haugomat to the fair, where he was honored as the winner of the Talking Pictures picture book category for À Travers. “It was very nice for our author,” said Actes Sud’s Sophie Castille, but she hoped to have “more interaction with American publishers” on the exhibition floor next year.

BookExpo UnBound was a dedicated section for sideline vendors. Some 50 vendors offered a variety of items that Reed believed were a good fit with booksellers. Vendors had a mixed reaction to the move. Some, such as Brian Mooney, owner of Storymatic Studios, which sells boxed decks of cards to be used as story prompts, really loved the concept of UnBound. “It has been great for us, because the booksellers can come here and focus exclusively on sidelines,” he said. “The resurgence of independent bookselling has really helped us. I have six new accounts, all of which are recently opened or new bookstores.”

Another vendor reporting positive results was Denise Foster, owner of 2020 Vision, which sells reading glasses. “BookExpo has been a good show for us—it is usually our biggest show of the year,” she said. “And while we didn’t have lines of people waiting to get into the booth like we did at Winter Institute, it has been good.”

Other vendors, which ranged from stationery distributors such as notebook and pencil company Blackwing and greeting card company Avanti, expressed satisfaction with the event but were also looking forward to the weekend crowds coming for BookCon. Takehiko Yoshizaki of JPT America, which imports stationery supplies from Japan and sells to bookstores such as Kinokuniya and McNally Jackson, said that business at UnBound “was not bad, but was not good either.” He added, “I would rather be in the other part of the fair.”

Among those disappointed with the new arrangement was Vanessa Merit Nornberg, CEO of Wacky Links, a company that makes silicon-based play sets for children. “I’m good at trade shows, and this trade show has not been good,” she said, noting it was her first time at BookExpo. “Honestly, I think it’s the location. There just isn’t that much foot traffic here; it’s all over on the other side with the books.”

As for the two big nonfair issues discussed at BookExpo, booksellers and publishers alike said that they are generally satisfied with the plans that have been put in place to cope with B&T’s decision to close its retail wholesaling operation. Both agreed that the most serious issue facing the industry will be to find a way to quickly resupply western stores once B&T stops shipping from its Reno warehouse on July 15.

A number of publishers said that they have been working on plans to deal with the possibility that a 25% tariff could be imposed on most imports from China, including books, as proposed by the Trump administration. The first line of defense is to try to get books excluded from the proposed tariffs. The Association of American Publishers is holding its annual meeting June 3, with tariffs high on the agenda. At the ABA Town Hall meeting, Teicher said that the organization is working on an industry statement addressing the new tariffs, which will argue that the imposition of any tariff that increases the cost of books will not be good for the business of bookselling.