Due to the pandemic, the American Booksellers Association’s annual Winter Institute went virtual this year. It attracted 1,971 participants, up from the 1,500 attendees at last year’s live meeting in Baltimore. The event, held February 18–20, offered panels focused on pragmatic bookselling issues such as finances, labor laws, neurodiversity in the workplace, and strategies for better engaging with e-commerce. There were inspirational talks from celebrities, including former president Barack Obama and bestselling author Brené Brown, as well as keynotes and appearances by poet Amanda Gorman, futurist Brian David Johnson, and novelists Lauren Groff, Colson Whitehead, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
As usual, promoting new books was at the heart of the conference. Publishers’ sales representatives offered their traditional “rep picks” sessions, and dozens of authors gathered in chat rooms to talk about their new books. The galley room, typically piled high with thousands of physical books, was also virtual this year and offered booksellers the opportunity to request digital and physical galleys.
Attendance was likely bolstered by the fact that travel wasn’t required and more booksellers were able to register for the modest $35 fee. Publishers too saved money on travel expenses, though several remarked that the fees for services, such as hosting virtual booths, were much the same as for the analogous services at last year’s in-person event.
Most attendees said they were satisfied with the event. “I had no idea what to expect,” noted Wendy Sheanin, v-p of independent retail sales for Simon & Schuster. “I was skeptical. But we had some great conversations that, just like at the real-life events, are the essence of Winter Institute. People showed up of their own accord, some people stayed for 40 minutes talking.” She felt that the people she interacted with were “very engaged” and that, overall, attending the conference was “absolutely worth it in terms of money, time, resources, and people hours.”
Mona Bismuth, international publishing coordinator for Other Press, who attended virtually from Paris, was particularly pleased with the Hopin platform used by the ABA. “It was my first time using Hopin, and I liked the multitask aspect of it and how well it fit with the ABA programming. I loved the poetry interludes, for example—and it allowed us to all ‘be together.’ Despite some chaotic chat moments, which could get pretty overwhelming, it was easy to catch up and get meetings going within the first hours of the show.” She added that Other Press did not have a booth but maintained an open Zoom window throughout the show, which allowed her and her colleagues to catch up with people on an ad-hoc basis.
“Winter Institute 16 was a bittersweet reminder of what we lost this year,” said Michael Reynolds, publisher of Europa Editions, who felt the virtual event was a compromise. “As a promotional opportunity for Europa’s lead titles and authors, it was not nearly as effective as meeting in person. But it was a welcome opportunity to reconnect as a community, and a vivid reminder of how important it is for us to meet in person throughout the year to talk about books, reading, and our businesses. The ABA made the best of the impossible situation they were handed.”
Several people appreciated how the ABA used poetry interludes to transition between events in the program. “From a publisher’s perspective, we often privilege prose over poetry when making financial decisions about our Winter Institute participation—what galleys to supply for the galley room, which authors to fly in and book for Winter Institute events,” said Joanna R. Demkiewicz, marketing director of Milkweed Editions. “This year, I got to watch the chat light up as folks watched torrin a. greathouse read from her collection of poems Wound from the Mouth of a Wound during a poetry interlude. Showing publishers and booksellers that poetry is a meaningful and significant genre in our industry was very cool of the ABA; I hope they incorporate more poetry in future conferences.”
Booksellers, too, were appreciative of the conference. “I commend the ABA for reinventing Winter Institute and capturing some of the magic of being there in person,” said Alana Harvey, the marketing coordinator at Schuler Books of Grand Rapids, Mich. “There were so many memorable moments. The poetry interludes were magic! Dropping into the expo booths and author rooms to have virtual conversations brought some much needed ‘face’ time.”
Mary Webber O’Malley, a bookseller with Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo., concurred. “I was thrilled with WI16,” she said.” I thought the ABA did an outstanding job of putting programming together, and the poetry interludes were completely superb. Every rep pick and author room gave me ‘the book for spring’; I lost track of the books I can’t wait for.”
A few of the titles promoted by authors at Winter Institute that booksellers were excited about included Fox & I by Catherine Raven (Spiegel & Grau, July); Graceland, At Last by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed, Sept.); Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, Sept.); and Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed (Counterpoint, Aug.).
The ABA was thrilled with the response from booksellers, publishers, and authors. “People benefited and had a great time, and we felt like we met our goals of celebrating books, creating community, and helping bookstores prepare for the future,” said ABA CEO Allison Hill. “It speaks again to the resilience, creativity, and adaptability of booksellers, that they pivoted along with us to a virtual format and made the most of it. We are so grateful to Ingram, the publishers, sponsors, panelists, and authors who made Winter Institute possible.”