Last month, when PW talked with publishers about the possibility of an in-person, industrywide spring conference to replace BookExpo, one publisher, speaking anonymously, noted: “The opportunities for account-facing engagements are just not as urgent or productive as in pre-Zoom times.” Fortunately for indie booksellers and their eight regional trade associations, publishers both large and small contacted by PW were enthusiastic about networking in person in the intimate atmosphere of the regional shows.
According to American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill, the fall regionals are more important than ever after two and a half years of a pandemic and in the absence of BookExpo. “Now that the Covid dust has settled,” she says, “the fall regionals are even more critical to the bookselling ecosystem, making up one of four industry calendar cornerstones that include Winter Institute, the regional spring gatherings, and Children’s Institute.”
The increasing number of new bookstores opening across the country is another reason why the regionals matter. As Hill reported at ABA’s annual meeting in July, membership jumped nationally by more than 320 stores, from 1,701 in 2021 to 2,023 in 2022. The number of store locations grew even more in that time, from nearly 2,100 to 2,506. The regional associations experienced similar increases.
“After all of this time apart, the fall regional shows are more important than ever,” notes Elizabeth Whiting, v-p of trade sales at Scholastic. “We found that the fall regionals we were able to attend in person in 2021 were extremely impactful and critical in launching those titles. There are also so many new faces—new ABA members, new stores, new staff—we can accomplish a great deal more in person to foster those relationships.” She regards the regionals as a key opportunity to introduce new authors to independent booksellers and to bring established authors who are on the rise or trying something new.
Though June’s Children’s Institute marked the first ABA in-person conference since 2020, and Winter Institute will be back in person in Seattle in February 2023, in-person fall regionals have advantages over both. As Sanj Kharbanda, associate publisher at Beacon Press, points out, “Winter Institute and Children’s Institute are great and a significant opportunity to meet booksellers from across the country, but regionals have booksellers other than buyers and owners attending. With the number of new stores and the increasingly large number of new booksellers, I think the regionals are going to be more important.”
Though publishers have met with booksellers virtually throughout the pandemic, including earlier this month at New Voices New Rooms, connecting via Zoom is just not the same. “I think any opportunity for us to get our books and authors in front of booksellers is worth it,” notes Mary Beth Thomas, v-p, deputy director of sales at HarperCollins. “I miss all the conversations we have with booksellers while at the regional shows, and the chance for us to share what books we are excited about and hear from them how business is going. These conversations are almost impossible to replicate when we’re not in the same building.”
Similarly, says Wendy Sheanin, v-p, independent retail sales at Simon & Schuster, “the regional shows matter more than ever. If there’s anything we’ve learned from more than two years on Zoom, it’s that while there are distinct benefits to Zoom, nothing beats the energy of being in the same room. The excitement of gathering, hearing from authors at the podium, talking about books face-to-face, stumbling upon your next favorite read at a publisher’s booth—those things can only happen in person.”
Zoom gatherings didn’t work for Cindy Raiton, president of sales at Bookazine, a wholesaler based in Bayonne, N.J. “We did our best to participate in the regionals virtually,” she says, “but our business is really about face-to-face and relationships.”
Being in person is also key for Indiana-based commission rep Mark Fleeman with Fujii Associates. “Accounts keep begging for a voice in the field,” he says, “and with the lack of in-person sales calls since 2020, Heartland will be a showcase to gather information and voice concerns”—so much so that Fujii purchased 18 tables this year, a record for them.
On the show floor
As the industry struggles with supply chain issues, exhibits have taken on new meaning. Valerie Pierce, senior director, retail marketing and creative services at Sourcebooks, says, “Being able to have a dialogue about titles that booksellers need to order now because they are at-risk in terms of stock as well as conversations about potential hidden gems to replace books that are out of stock will be impactful.” Heeding comments that the press heard at Children’s Institute about booksellers wanting to learn about books earlier, Pierce plans to bring copies of new books that booksellers haven’t seen yet to ensure that the shows continue to be ”places of discovery.”
Logistics is forcing Tobi Harper, marketing director at Red Hen, to pivot on promotions for this year’s shows. “We are working hard to get galleys ready in time and are also showcasing recently released or imminently forthcoming books with final copies,” Harper says. In addition, they note that, as a small press, having a regional show every week is “a little hard for a team of 10.”
Availability also concerns Lauren Klouda, director of marketing for Chicago-based distributor IPG. She plans to bring “an eclectic mix of titles across the publishers we represent, focused more on really big recently published and shortly forthcoming fall books, as well as perennial bestselling indie backlist titles.” The aim, she continues, “is to stock bookstores with interesting curated selections in time for Halloween, Small Business Saturday, and the holiday season.”
With so much recent focus on book banning, some publishers plan to highlight the titles that have been in protestors’ crosshairs. “We put a lot of thought into our booths, curating by season and region,” says S&S’s Sheanin. “This year we will also be showing support for our books facing bans across the country, such as All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brenda Kiely, by offering booksellers posters, stickers, and buttons to use in their stores.”
For Dave Ehrlich, independent trade sales rep at Chronicle Books, which is known for its illustrated books, simply being able to exhibit in person is huge. “Our books are so visual and so beautiful,” he says, “and this is a chance to get everyone together in person and show people a lot of things they might not have seen.” Chronicle is planning to have three tables at CALIBA, where it will display books and bestselling games like Avocado Smash and Funky Fungi.
“We believe the fall regional shows can continue to play a key role in launching spring titles,” says Ruth Liebmann, v-p, account marketing at PRH. “Many of our upcoming indie favorites will be launched at the shows, including forthcoming books by Emma Cline, Nana Kwami Adjei-Breyah, and Rebecca Makkai.”
In response to Covid, PRH is planning to change things up. “Our exhibit space is going to look very different this year,” Liebmann says, “as we try new ways to build room for social distancing into our booth. As always, we’ll have lots of amazing galleys to give away, but instead of building stacks that attract crowds, we’ll be giving them away throughout the day.”
But perhaps Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Ore., sums up the value of in-person regionals best: “Last year, when they held the PNBA trade show again after a year of pandemic closures, I felt like doors were opening again—not only in the industry but in my heart.”