The core educational mission of independent booksellers’ regional associations was on full display Tuesday at the combined fall conference for the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. In packed workshop sessions and thematic buzz panels, booksellers and editors were able to rekindle much of the educational reason for attending—and some of the interpersonal reasons as well.

Addressing Key Issues

In four 30-minute sessions, booksellers began their day with virtual roundtables in which they asked questions about some of their most pressing challenges and offered potential solutions.

Prospective bookstore owner Emily Liner was among them, coming to a breakout session for new bookstore owners with important questions about financial projections. Liner has relocated from Washington, D.C., back to her hometown in Columbus, Miss., where she hopes to open a new and used bookstore in the next year. Using the American Booksellers Association’s ABACUS financial data drawn from hundreds of the nation’s bookstores, she wondered whether it was accurate to anticipate the $300,000 in annual revenue projected in the survey. "I’ve got the ABACUS numbers, but I’m going to be a new bookstore, so I don’t know if I can anchor to those,” Liner said.

Mary Patterson, owner of the Little Bookshop in Midlothian, Va., encouraged Liner to be cautious in her estimates. “Keep your numbers super-conservative. Even though it says $300,000? I wish.”

A session on returns was attended by 17 booksellers, who shared resources and strategies for sending unsold books back to publishers. Maplewood, N.J.-based Words Bookstore managing principal Jonah Zimiles asked about how to limit the hourly wage costs attendant to processing returns while also increasing the frequency of sending them.

“I’ve been keeping track of how much time it takes us to do it, and I’m not very happy with what I’m seeing,” Zimiles said. “It costs us a fair amount of money to do returns, particularly in terms of labor. So I think it’s critically important that we learn how to do them in a more efficient manner.”

Booksellers encouraged Zimiles to increase the frequency of returns, and to consider keeping a schedule for sending books back based on section and publisher. Based in St. Simons, Ga., Righton Books co-owner Darryl Peck suggested using the U.S. Postal Service’s media mail instead of association discount shipping programs, UPS, or FedEx. “Yes, you have to use more tape because the postal service is brutal,” Peck said. “But we have saved 70% on shipping.”

Some publisher sales representatives were also in attendance, sparking a conversation about their role in helping process returns. Their presence led to booksellers wondering if publishers would pay the cost for returns of books that they oversold, with one bookseller affirming that a publisher had done so for her store earlier this year.

A session on generating revenue through subscription boxes, led by Delaware-based Bethany Beach Books manager Amanda Zirn Hudson, also drew high attendance, with booksellers sharing tips and strategies down to specific vendors and ways to develop different types of subscription programs. Hudson runs the bookstore’s subscription program, called the Book Drop, and encouraged booksellers to persist even if they only have a handful of customers. “We started at 20 subscribers,” Hudson said, standing in front of a wall of mailers awaiting pickup. “Now we’re at 1400.”

Coming Back to 'Lost Books'

Close to 50 booksellers took turns handselling overlooked recent releases to one another during an afternoon session moderated by NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler. Many of the books that booksellers talked up were spring releases that were overshadowed by the pandemic. All genres for both adults and children were represented during the interactive session, beginning with On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina McSweeney (Two Lines Press, May). Michael Triebwasser of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., described the book as a “meditation on lighthouses, a slim volume, but I took it slow, because I didn’t want it to end.”

A number of booksellers mentioned The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing by Betsy Bonner (Tin House Books, Aug.), with SIBA board president Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., declaring that it “should have been much bigger, Please read.” Em Perper, a bookseller at the Curious Iguana in Frederick, Md., added that she seconded the raves about the book, saying it reminded her of Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts. And for those wanting queer romance, Lexi Beach, owner of Astoria Bookshop in New York City, championed Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (Sourcebooks/Casablanca, July).

'Sex Sells'

This year’s Sex Sells! panel at NAIBA/SIBA’s virtual conference drew scores of booksellers, as well as numerous sales reps who sell romance books. Moderator Pam Jaffee, senior director of publicity at HarperCollins, noted that “2020 has been a pretty terrible year. And in terrible years, romance does well. It guarantees a happily ever after, or at least happy for now, ending—something you don’t get with political books.”

Other panelists included Jeanne-Marie Hudson, v-p, associate publisher, and marketing director of Berkley, and booksellers Michelle Haber, owner of Cupboard Maker Books in Enola, Pa., and Angela Trigg, owner of the Haunted Book Shop in Mobile, Ala. Trigg, who is also an award-winning romance writer, revealed that 41% of her store's sales were in trade paperbacks, and that 18% of romance sales at her store came from just five titles: The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams (Berkley) and its sequel, Undercover Bromance (Berkley); Beach Read by Emily Henry (Berkley)' Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin); and The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (Berkley).

These five titles were referenced time and again during the panel. Trigg said she uses Bromance Book Club as a gateway book for new romance readers, and said she felt “it offers a good education on the current state of the romance novel.” Panelists also noted several times that the contemporary romance novel has found new audiences in independent bookstores, in part by abandoning the traditional illustrated image on the cover in favor of simple, evocative illustrations.

Hudson said that any squeamishness a customer might have about the sex in the books could be overcome by pointing out that in contemporary romance novels, consent is central to any interaction. “It’s a big thing for romance: there has to be an explicit yes,” Hudson said, adding: “No one wants ‘throw me down’ romance now."