As the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Discovery Show was wrapping up at the Spartanburg Marriott in Spartanburg, S.C. this past Sunday, booksellers were hustling to pick up remaining galleys and finished copies that exhibitors were otherwise unwilling to give away until the end of the show. “I’m going to take anything that is not nailed down,” joked one Louisiana bookseller, who asked not to be named, but had already filled their hotel room and SUV with generous heaps of ARCs. “It’s really important for me to get these, because to be honest, sometimes I cannot get a hot book in stock and if I have a good customer who I don’t want to disappoint by telling them as much, I can slip them a copy of the ARC with a wink, and they are so grateful.” Any of the books that were left at booths were likely purchased by Shane Gottwals, president and CEO of Gottwals Books, who was walking the floor buying up remaining stock, which he planned to load into his truck — parked conveniently in front of the hotel for much of the show — and deliver them to the Southern chain’s headquarters in Warner Robins, Ga.
Among the hot issues discussed at the Discovery Show in particular, and the SIBA Town Hall specifically, were questions about distribution in the wake of the demise of B&T’s wholesale business (Ingram promises to improve services and is revamping the way it reports inventory and shipments), how the American Booksellers Association planned to handle administration of Independent Bookstore Day (no changes have been announced just yet), and how to combat the trend of big retailers ignoring lay-down dates and embargoes. “Take half of the time you put into crafting a carefully worded, angry Facebook post about [someone breaking the embargo] to the private bookstore listserv and report it to the ABA instead,” advised Kelly Justice, SIBA board member and owner of the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va. “Document, document, document,” said Oren Teicher, ABA's CEO. “And we will report it to the publishers.”
One piece of news from the ABA had booksellers a bit on edge: the Thursday announcement about the ABA’s collaboration with Andy Hunter of Catapult in the 2020 launch of a new web site called Bookshop.org, which intends to be an online shopping portal that will help combat Amazon by offering consumers an option to buy books online that will in return credit indie booksellers with the sales. While the details of the launch and the function of the site remain vague, booksellers nevertheless had questions. “I’m a little concerned about this,” said E.R. Anderson of Charis Books and More in Decatur, Ga. “We have spent more than 10 years building our online presence and working with IndieBound and are very committed. Now this comes along and it looks like it could take sales away from us and we’ll suffer.” Anderson raised the question of how an algorithm could discern which store to credit a purchase to in a market like Decatur or Atlanta, which has multiple stores in close proximity. “It’s a work-in-progress and we’re still working on the details," said Teicher. On a positive note, booksellers did praise the fact that the ABA had promised to offer child support at the next Winter Institute and begin testing BATCH consolidated invoicing.
Teicher, who is retiring at the end of the year, noted that he won’t be the person to see these projects through, though he gave no indication who his successor might be. SIBA too is looking for a new executive director as SIBA’s Wanda Jewell announced her retirement earlier this month after 30 years on the job..
Whoever takes Jewell's role will be inheriting a robust organization. At the Town Hall, SIBA announced it now has 161 core members, which is 10 more than 2018 and 23 more than 2017; in addition, several new stores are expected to open in the region, including Thank You Books in Birmingham, Ala., opening soon. Kimberly Daniels Taws, SIBA board president and owner of The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C., said that the board had hired a consultant to assist with the search for a new ED and was actively accepting applications. “Even if someone doesn’t think they can fill Wanda’s shoes, we still want them to apply,” she said, in a nod to Jewell’s long tenure.
If one listened closely to the undercurrent of conversation at this year’s show, it was clear that Southern booksellers still felt a modicum of frustration about being overlooked at times by New York publishers. “I never knew I even had the option to see a rep,” said a bookseller from Tennessee who asked not to be identified. “I thought it would be phone reps forever.”
Of course, the very point of the show is to put booksellers in front of reps and several publishers and their reps were impressed with the traffic. Steven Wallace, marketing and sales director for the University of Georgia Press, is a veteran of many SIBAs and noted that the traffic on the show floor was “non-stop and didn’t let up for a second” on Saturday, the day dedicated to vendor interaction. Wallace credited the fact that SIBA opted this year to host nearly all its education sessions on a single day, Friday, and leave Saturday and Sunday exclusively for author and vendor-oriented events.
Elizabeth Venere, marketing manager for Little, Brown, who was attending SIBA for the second time, noted, “There’s been a great energy this year.” She added, “I think it really has a lot to SIBA being the first show of the year. People are really excited to talk about 2020.” The Discovery Show drew 507 total attendees, of which 210 were booksellers representing 75 different stores. In addition, 77 companies exhibited at the show and there were 143 authors were on hand to sign books and schmooze. “The attendance is one of the highest we've experienced, surpassed only slightly by our show in Savannah in 2016,” said SIBA’s Nicki Leone. “It represents a 22% jump over 2018 in Tampa, which had been dampened by Hurricane Florence, and a 13% gain over our show in New Orleans in 2017.”
With SIBA in Spartanburg for the first time, local publishers took full advantage of the opportunity. Suzanne Axland, director of marketing and sales at the University of South Carolina Press, said it was the first time the publisher had taken a booth at SIBA. “We’ve been in a bit of a transition, moving more toward the trade, so this is a nice reintroduction for us,” she said, adding the company had also landed their author Mary Whyte, the artist and author of We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America, in one of the enviable author signing slots. “It was a great experience for us and to have face-to-face time with the booksellers is invaluable. We’ve even had some orders.”
A local literary non-profit, the Hub City Writers Project, hosted a pre-show party at the organization’s bookstore, Hub City Books, printed T-shirts emblazoned with the motto, “Read, Write, South,” and threw another party on Saturday night for several of the authors with forthcoming books from their publishing house, Hub City Press, including Carter Sickels, author of The Prettiest Star, a novel about transgender life in Appalachia, and Watershed by Mark Barr, about the impact that a contentious dam has on community in rural Tennessee.
"It's been an absolute thrill to help host SIBA in Spartanburg this weekend,” said Meg Reid, director of Hub City Press. “For us it's been a unique opportunity for the booksellers to not only hear about Hub City Press's upcoming titles, but also check out our independent bookshop."
On reflection, the weekend was a perfect swan song for Jewell, who was not only honored by the prominent display of a life-sized portrait of her standing in a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “This is the part where I save the day,” but she was presented with two cakes, given a crown and serenaded by the SIBA board with a rendition of Kool & the Gang’s Celebration updated with SIBA and Jewell-specific lyrics.
Asked how she felt about moving on and if she had a highlight in all the years of her career, Jewell chose a moment from this year’s show. “Putting together the Herstory Comes Alive panel with Sharon Robinson [the daughter of Jackie Robinson and author of Child of the Dream, Scholastic Press] and Peggy Wallace Kennedy [the daughter of George Wallace and author of The Broken Road, Bloomsbury] together in conversation is a real, forgive me, crowning achievement," Jewell said. "To think that kind of conversation could happen at our trade show makes me very proud. It may be one of the best things I've ever done."
Next year’s SIBA Discovery Show takes place September 11-13 in New Orleans.