From the opening keynote with Zadie Smith (Swing Time) in conversation with Grub Street artistic director Christopher Castellani, to the closing lunch with Authors United founder and author Douglas Preston (Lost City of the Monkey God), the 43rd annual New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference got off to a stirring start.
The show, which was held at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence from September 20-22, launching with “a lot of energy,” as Deb Seager, director of publicity at Grove/Atlantic, put it. Other publishers agreed.
That energy was on display throughout an author reception that kept going nearly an hour after it was to have closed so that Brenden Wenzel (They All Saw a Cat.) could sign copies for a long line of booksellers.
It was also present a booth set up promote physical books that was overseen by children’s author and illustrator Peter H. Reynolds. Reynolds, along with his twin brother, Paul, co-owns Blue Bunny Books & Toys in Dedham, Mass. The brothers used NEIBA to launch their national campaign to celebrate “real” books, Long Live Books! They were selling t-shirts and posters with that message.
This year’s educational sessions went back to basics like how to sell more nonfiction, how to provide better customer service, how to be better booksellers, and how the American Booksellers Association’s ABACUS survey can provide data for improving bookstore operations. For many it was a welcome change from years past, when the emphasis was on industry issues.
“I’m glad Amazon hasn’t come up,” said Beth Wagner, book buyer at Phoenix Books in Essex Junction, Vt., and incoming co-chair of the New England Children’s Books Advisory Council. “I don’t want to talk about them. I want to talk about us.”
A number of authors took theit platform at NEIBA to thank booksellers for what they do. But one that stood out was Andrea Beaty (Ada Twist, Scientist). In an ode written specifically for the occasion, Beaty compared booksellers’ ability to match a kid with a book to “a literary tinder or a match.com." She explained: "Not to get mushy, but I think it’s true. So many books would get lost without you.” In closing she noted that the best part of the process is that the booksellers in the audience "don’t even need drones” to do this work.
Part of the upbeat feeling of the show came from the fact that most bookstores have had a good year to date. "There hasn’t been a huge book in a while, which is good because people need guidance," said Justin Ward, owner of Bridgton Books in Bridgton, Maine, who was satisfied with his summer. "I’m definitely bullish. Everybody’s coming back to print."
Although 2015 was a standout year for indie booksellers, with many seeing double-digit increases, 2016 has also been strong. ABA CEO Oren Teicher told PW that in 2016 “we’re still running at 5.5% units above last year.” He also noted the number of new stores continuing to open. Many of these new ABA members were at the show, including Chris Abouzeid of Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., and Josh Christie of Print in Portland, Maine.
Officers at NEIBA also stressed the health of the organization. “When people ask how we’re doing,” said NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer at the annual meeting, “I tell them we're doing as well as member stores are doing. It feels like a very healthy atmosphere out there. The whole narrative has shifted.”
Fischer did note, however, that one challenge remains--the association’s dependence on publishers. In particular, he's concerned about publishers buying ads in the holiday catalog, which is used by booksellers throughout the region to promote books during the all important fourth quarter.
The catalog accounts for 31% of NEIBA’s budget. This year NEIBA and other regionals had to scramble to fill those spaces. “We have large publishers not coming to the table,” said Fischer. “We made our numbers, but from fewer big publishers with full-price ads.”