Throughout their five day fall independent bookselling conference, members of the New Atlantic and Southern Independent Booksellers associations (NAIBA and SIBA) have spoken frequently of community. But from author presentations on forthcoming books to brass tacks business education sessions, the second New Voices New Rooms combined gathering of the two associations was also a display of solidarity.
Attendance at the conference was 709, up 13% over last year, with attendees logging on from 18 states. All told 86% of SIBA’s membership was in attendance, something which the organization’s executive director Linda-Marie Barrett attributed to the associations’ commitment to making the conference free for booksellers, and to a year of close planning with NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler. Simply put, Barrett said, “We’re thrilled.”
The result of a week of bookseller interactions was on display during the NAIBA annual meeting Thursday when booksellers took a sober, clear-eyed, yet confident look at their collective ability to navigate an upcoming holiday season where supply chain issues threaten to create substantial disruptions.
NAIBA board president and Greenlight Bookstores co-owner Rebecca Fitting told her fellow booksellers that they would only succeed by starting to plan for disruptions right away. “If you and your stores haven't already shifted into holiday planning mode, I urge you to actively start thinking on it right after the conference,” she said. But with the right preparation she said, “I think that your stores can be poised to have great holiday seasons. I think we're creative. The supply chain issues and ongoing shifts in people's shopping patterns can continue to benefit their stores.”
Hachette v-p Karen Torres offered an industry-wide perspective on the issues facing the industry, emphasizing advice that Fitting also dispensed to booksellers, including early ordering of a wide range of titles—including bestselling backlist books—and immediate outreach to credit reps to discuss advanced ordering timelines. “This isn't one publisher’s problem. This is across the board,” Torres emphasized. “This is why you want to know your credit rep, and this is why you want to think about having those dialogues.”
To meet growing bookseller needs at moments like this, NAIBA is hiring a new relationships manager, reflects the growing number of member stores as much as any challenges in the trade. After hovering around 140 member bookstores for a number of years, the association’s membership now includes 178 stores. “It's been incredibly busy,” Dengler said, noting that she is making introductions between new bookstores and publishers every week. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a year like that,” she said.
SIBA Booksellers Look Ahead
SIBA’s annual meeting and town hall was a celebration of the organization’s resilience in its second year in a row of hosting a virtual conference as well as its flexibility. Barrett noted that representatives of 131 SIBA bookstores, i.e. 86% of SIBA’s current membership, had by Thursday afternoon engaged with New Voices, New Rooms, a 31% increase over last year’s virtual gathering.
“One of the things that I’m most grateful for,” said John Cavalier, the owner of Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, La. and SIBA board president, who presided over the meeting, “I loved that everything was pre-registered this year. I put all of my links into my Chrome browser, so I could click onto them whenever I wanted to.”
SIBA's current membership is 152, “roughly the same as it was two years ago,” Cavalier said. He noted that last year, because of the pandemic, SIBA automatically added to the rolls any name that was in the organization’s database, ballooning the numbers for 2020. Cavalier reported that SIBA “is very much in a healthy financial condition and expected to meet all budgetary targets in 2021.” SIBA has as of Dec. 31, 2020, $200,000 in total assets, with $348,000 in support and revenue and $312,000 in expenses. Cavalier was especially pleased to announce that SIBA’s PPP loans have been forgiven.
In terms of programming, SIBA has also replaced The Lady Banks’ Newsletter with the Southern Booksellers Review and its Okra Picks of seasonal recommendations with Read This Next! seasonal recommendations.
“We feel that [it] is much more contemporary and inclusive and reflecting more that the tastes of our booksellers are global and not necessarily confined to the South,” Barrett explained of the Southern Booksellers Review. “The Okra Picks were books written by [Southern authors] or about the South; Read This Next! are books that our booksellers are most excited about, regardless of where they’re set or who has written them. It’s what Southern booksellers love, but their tastes extend way beyond our borders.”
ABA Plans Antitrust, and Sales Data Push
Leadership from the American Booksellers Association was on hand at both annual meetings, with ABA CEO Allison K Hill reiterating concerns about supply chain issues to members. Hill also shared longer-term strategic thoughts about the direction of the organization, after nearly two years of dealing with the imminent issues faced by members in the pandemic.
The organization plans to advance its ongoing antitrust organizing efforts with Congress in the first quarter of 2022, while also developing ways to gather more comprehensive bookstore data that Hill said is crucial to giving publishers a full view of indie bookstores’ market share. “Many of the publishers don't truly understand the impact of the entire indie channel. They see one piece of it. They see their piece of it, and even then they may only see their direct sales to your stores,” Hill said. “They may or may not see the sales through the wholesalers, and they may not be adding in—those of you who run sales on Bookshop—which I consider to be part of that that whole picture of the indie channel.”
Along with tackling pressing issues and complex business challenges, booksellers also took time for breaks, author presentations, and more. Donna Washington (Boo Stew) performed a dramatic reading of her children's book, and during another interlude, Jonathan Auxler (Fabled Stables series) executed YoYo tricks. The associations also hosted their first VIndies awards ceremony, singling out the best videos created by booksellers this year.
Eagle Eye Book Shop (North Decatur, GA) won Best Animated video for "What Happens in the Bookstore After Hours"; One More Page Books (Arlington, VA) won Best Covid-related NAIBA Video for "Sea Shanty"; Givens Books (Lynchburg, VA) won Best Covid-related SIBA Video for "The Mask"; East City Bookshop (Washington, D.C.) won Best Comedy Video (NAIBA) for "Randomly Generated Book Recommendations"; Scuppernong Books (Greensboro, NC) won Best Comedy Video (SIBA) for "Poetry Night"; Charm City Books (Baltimore, MD) won Best Drama (NAIBA) for "This Shop is My Life Force."; Midtown Reader (Tallahassee, FL) won Best Drama (SIBA) for "There's No Place Like Home."; and Historic New Orleans Collection won Best Long Form for "We Are the Holy Ones." (Disclosure: One of the co-authors of this article served as a contest judge)
For Barrett and Dengler, a future seems possible where in-person fall conferences may return, but the two have said they plan to continue to collaborate on events including what Barrett called a “best of” virtual conference. “SIBA loves our partnership with NAIBA,” Barrett said, adding that she and Dengler are, “always coming up with new ways to work together.”
Whatever they do coordinate, Dengler said the same planning will go into it all. "We have an extensive survey ready to go out to find out the best time and type of event for booksellers and publishers," she said. "We will create an event to meet their needs."
For The Dog Eared Book owner Carrie Deming, that collaboration has already paid off in collaborative virtual lunch sessions and buzz panels for early looks at Spring titles for the Palmyra, N.Y. bookseller. “As far as a virtual conference goes,” she said, “this one is as close to being in person as it can possibly be.”