Not only is this year’s Winter Institute the biggest one yet, with over 1,000 attendees (over 680 of whom are booksellers), it’s also, arguably, the most glamorous.
The premier educational conference of the American Booksellers Association, which is being held this week in Memphis, got a dose of star power when actress and producer Sarah Jessica Parker gave the conference's opening keynote on Tuesday. The Sex and the City actress was interviewed by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul and discussed, among other things, Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth, which launches in June with Fatima Farheen Mirza's debut novel, A Place for Us.
“Sarah Jessica Parker is a book person: she is one of us,” Paul assured those in the crowd, should any of them had doubts about the actress' literary leanings. Parker, who is honorary chair of the American Library Association’s Book Club Central, spoke about her mother’s deep love of reading and how it turned her and her siblings into lifelong readers. “Books for [my mother] were the most important thing; they were a source of comfort to her,” Parker said. “I am so grateful that she made us read.”
Parker’s favorite books are those that transport her. “I’m always looking for things I don’t know. I like global voices. I’ve always enjoyed escaping," she explained. Noting that she believes in this political moment that it's especially important for people to find stories that "connect us,” Parker said Mirza’s novel is an example of the kind of read she is hoping to find. About an Indian Muslim immigrant family in the U.S., the book, she went on, is "important" and "timely." As for Mirza, she said: “We feel so strongly about this book and her career.”
Giving a shout out to indie booksellers, especially her local bookstore in New York City’s West Village, Three Lives & Company, Parker said, “I think of them as the beacon in the community.”
In a session immediately afterwards, Paul was questioned by ABA CEO Oren Teicher about changes in the New York Times’s book coverage at a time when there’s been a dramatic reduction in book coverage by the media.
Citing things like the 2009 closing of the Washington Post Book World, Paul said "it’s incredibly sad” to see print book review coverage shrinking, and shifting online. Nonetheless, she bristled at the insinuation that the books coverage in her own news paper has been cut back in any way. “We’re the only newspaper with three staff critics, a publishing reporter, and a children’s editor," she said. "We got rid of unnecessary and unintentional duplicate reviews. We’ve hired six to eight people in the last year and have one more hire to go. We’re able to make decisions in a strategic way.”
Likening her department to booksellers, Paul said the group is "trying to figure out how to meet our readers where they are.” She also said she's determined to cover the small books that may not be heavily promoted, and to find undiscovered voices. “What people are craving is immersive storytelling, that long form storytelling.”
Other sessions covered best practices for booksellers, from how to work with self-published authors to how to inspire literary citizenship. Business guru Daniel Pink also returned to Winter Institute for a fourth time to talk about the insights from his newly released book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and to spread the message that the hidden patterns of the day profoundly affect our mood and performance. Going off script, Pink, who lives in Washington, D.C., said, “I’ve never been as concerned about the country. The good news is you.” He cited bookselling for making a difference and providing a bulwark of ideas.
For many, like first-timer Kaitlyn Filler of Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., the opening keynote, and day, “was a great introduction and good conversation about the power of books.” Plus a preponderance of booksellers, like Mary Williams, general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, had good years and were upbeat about the future. As Teicher noted, “the indie resurgence is alive and well.”
An earlier version of this story stated that the New York Times has an editorial "editor." The paper has an editorial "reporter." It did not cut all duplicate reviews, rather "unnecessary and unintentional" duplicate reviews.