“There should be a 60 Minutes story about the surprising success of independent booksellers,” said author Ann Patchett, dropping a not-so-subtle hint to television journalist Lesley Stahl as part of the keynote presentation on the second day of the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute in Minneapolis this past weekend.
Patchett and Stahl, who bantered about their respective recent books Commonwealth and Becoming Grandma, surely could see from their dais the standing-room only crowd that packed the Hyatt hotel ballroom for their early morning talk. This year’s Winter Institute drew the largest crowed yet: 654 booksellers, of which 350 were first timers. In addition, 87 publishers signed on as sponsors.
The overall message coming out of the event is that independent bookselling is thriving, particularly in light of the decline in e-book sales, Barnes & Noble’s continuing stumbles and growing opportunities for community engagement.
Oren Teicher, CEO of ABA, addressing a constituency of booksellers from abroad — including Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, and elsewhere — noted that independent bookselling in the U.S. now accounts for approximately $500 million in sales annually. Individually, bookstores typically need to generate about $750,000 in annual sales before they become profitable,” he said, adding the “the sweet spot is at $1.2 to $1.5 million."
The ABA as a whole continues to focus its activities on streamlining operations at stores, and numerous panels and events throughout the weekend offered discussions of best practices, from how to brand your bookstore to setting up a children’s writing festival to fighting off Amazon. One panel, entitled The Life Cycle of a Book, brought together the author Elizabeth Strout, her agent Molly Friedrich, editor Susan Kamil and marketing executive Ruth Liebmann, both from Random House, as well as Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Ca, and Betsy Burton of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, UT to talk about the production and promotion of Strout’s bestseller My Name is Lucy Barton. Perhaps the biggest revelation of the panel was the importance of the brief copy that will appear when a book buyer searches on a smart phone: “I spend hours working on that copy,” said Kamil, “the first 25 words of the online description of our books is what we pour over.”
Despite its focus on pragmatic matters, WI12 also served as a forum for discussing cultural politics. High on the agenda was the role of bookstores to serve as inclusive safe spaces in Trump’s America. This, acknowledged many, could only truly happen if the bookstores themselves became more inclusive of and reflective of the communities to which they might serves as havens: African-Americans, Asians, Muslims and other minority or marginalized groups.
Writer and activist Roxane Gay kicked off the discussion during WI12’s opening keynote speech by pointing out that most of the people in the room were white, as were many of the people she’d encountered on her book tours: “white women and the men who love them,” said Gay. Underscoring that “bookselling has a diversity problem,” and that it “is a problem seemingly without solution."
The speech served as a catalyst for several booksellers to take stands throughout the weekend, in panels and at the ABA’s Town Hall where booksellers made impassioned pleas for the ABA board to prioritize diversity as a topic. In response, ABA board president Betsy Burton announced on Monday morning that the ABA is forming a task force to address diversity. "We are an inclusive organization and we want to be diverse," she emphasized.
Among the 41 prospective booksellers in attendance at WI12, were a handful of booksellers from minority groups, including Noelle Santos, who is running a crowdfunding campaign to open The Lit. Bar, a new bookstore / wine bar in the Bronx, New York and spoke at the Town Hall. Another hopeful bookseller was Trenessa Williams, a college professor who is currently looking for a space to open an bookstore in Orlando, Fla. “It will be a general interest bookstore that will offer literature, history, travel books for the African-American community,” Williams told PW.
Asked about the conference’s reoccurring theme of diversity, Laura Taylor, Bookstore Director of the Oxford Exchange bookstore in Tampa, Fla., told PW that it is an important conversation to have. “Hiring good booksellers — ones who know and can talk about books — is difficult.” She added that it's increasingly important to the success of any store to have a diverse staff. "Each year brings more and more great books, from Between the World and Me and The Association of Small Bombs, to Underground Railroad and Homegoing. In fact, I don’t have enough room to stock all of the books I want to. It’s a good problem to have.”