Booksellers gathered in Toronto over the weekend for the third annual Canadian Booksellers Association National Conference. The three-day event focused on practical ways for booksellers to compete in the current market, and delegates previewed two new innovations from separate Canadian firms—Transcontinental Printing and Enthrill Entertainment—that promise to help bricks and mortar stores participate in the sale of e-books.

Although the CBA created the conference following the closure of BookExpo Canada in 2009, organizers have not aimed to build a replacement trade show. Smaller and less expensive, it has been increasingly focused on professional development for booksellers.

Both presentations on e-book innovations came from Canadian companies. As announced just before the conference, Quebec-based Transcontinental Printing is now offering English Canadian bookstores access to an e-book distribution system that Transcontinental has already been using for clients in France, Italy and Quebec for a couple of years. The system will enable bookstores to sell e-books in Transcontinental’s digital warehouse via their own websites, and the company was demonstrating how it works at a display table during the conference’s exhibitor showcase on Saturday afternoon.

Calgary-based Enthrill Entertainment offered booksellers a preview look at a project that will officially launch in about six weeks. Co-founder Kevin Franco presented the company’s idea of selling e-books in bricks and mortar stores using cards that replicate the book’s cover and contain an access code that allows the buyer to download a copy of the book to the device of his or her choice. Franco pitched the cards as the tangible element of e-books that has been missing but needed to allow bookstores to participate in e-book sales. Enthrill is just beginning a market evaluation process, making cards for a limited number of titles in a variety of genres available in 100 to 150 stores to test the waters of what type of books sell best in this format. The cards would allow bookstores that don’t even have their own website to sell e-books.

Susan Chamberlain, owner of The Book Keeper in Sarnia, Ont., who won the bookseller of the year award during the CBA’s Libris Awards ceremony on Saturday evening, said she loved the idea. “People are used to seeing cards,” she said. “They’ll get that.” Mary Lumsden, who co-owns Mill Street Books in Almonte, Ont. with her husband Terry, said she thought the concept was particularly good for giving e-books as gifts.

Aside from these tech presentations, this year’s conference, held at the Radisson Admiral Hotel in downtown Toronto, focused on practical and concrete ways for bookstores to increase sales and survive in the market. Talks by retail consultant, Bob Phibbs, author of The Retail Doctor series, and by retail makeover consultant Barbara Crowhurst bookended the conference. Both challenged the booksellers to improve their customers’ experience in the stores and offered advice on ways to build relationships. In one of three Saturday afternoon breakout sessions, digital marketing consultants from the WSI Retail Group tutored attendees on online fundamentals such as using Google Places to ensure customers can find their physical location and building pay-per-click campaigns. The other sessions focused on event planning and publishing local, short-run books.

The conference kicked off in a new way this year with a day-long bus tour that took about 40 booksellers to several Toronto bookstores to exchange ideas on topics such as displays. The tour also included a stop at Random House of Canada’s Toronto offices and that of distributor North 49. A bookseller-sales rep speed-dating luncheon event popular at the two previous conferences was staged again. This year’s lunch event with authors attracted some prominent names—Johanna Skibsrud, whose novel The Sentimentalists won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and whose publisher Gaspeareau Press won the Libris Award for small press of the year; Neil Pasricha, whose meditations on simple pleasures in The Book of Awesome is now on the New York Times bestseller list; David Chilton who has is publishing a sequel to his bestseller The Wealthy Barber; and Jeff Buick, who has written 18 books but just released his first transmedia novel, One Child, in 2010, and is also one of the founders of Enthrill.

The CBA managed to attract more participation from publishers, particularly the large houses, this year, but bookseller attendance was down somewhat from last year with booksellers from about 65 stores participating. CBA president Mark Lefebvre said he thought the lower numbers were a reflection of the tough economic times for CBA members who may have felt they just couldn’t afford the trip to Toronto this year. “As an association, we’re looking at ‘What are the things we can do to help make that difference?” He said they would work with publishers to look for creative solutions, so the industry can still gather at the event. He described the Libris Awards as “a celebration of what it is we do and how we work together. We spend a lot of time working at different tasks to keep this industry going, it’s really nice to take the time to appreciate each other.”

Emma Donogohue won both the author of the year and her novel Room, published by HarperCollins Canada, won the fiction book of the year award. The non-fiction book of the year was The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant, published by Knopf Canada.

Other winners were:

Children’s Picture Book of the Year: A Porcupine in a Pine Tree by Helaine Becker, Illustrated by Werner Zimmermann (Scholastic Canada)

Young Readers’ Book of the Year: Pluto’s Ghost by Sheree Fitch (Doubleday Canada)

Editor of the Year: Adrienne Kerr (Penguin Group Canada)

Sales Rep of the Year: Debbie Brown, Kate Walker and Company

Distributor of the Year: Penguin Group Canada

Publisher of the Year: House of Anansi Press

Campus Bookseller of the Year: University of Toronto

Specialty Bookseller of the Year: The Flying Dragon Bookshop, Toronto