Following the Canadian Booksellers Association’s fourth national conference held June 3 to 5 near Toronto, the organization seems to have some soul-searching and tough decisions ahead. Timing its conference to suit its partner, the Retail Council of Canada, meant losing publishers and booksellers to BEA.

This year’s conference almost didn’t happen at all, CBA senior manager Jodi White told PW in the lead-up to the event. The previous year’s conference lost money after the federal government didn’t come through with promised funding for last year’s event, and there was no funding for this year either. Since the CBA could not afford to host a conference of its own, the solution organizers settled on was to combine the CBA conference with its partner organization the Retail Council of Canada’s annual gathering. The uncertainty had cost CBA planning time, but it hastily pulled together its own program, specific to bookselling, to complement the sessions and speakers offered by the RCC.

Unfortunately, the RCC was meeting on the same weekend that BookExpo America started in New York, and that time conflict kept many publishers and booksellers away. White said about 50 booksellers from across Canada attended this year, but that number was down significantly from the 2011 conference. There was a publishers’ zone set up among the other trade show booths, but Penguin Group Canada was the only publisher to staff a booth for the two-day conference. Distributor Login Canada and BookNet Canada had the only other booths.

White said that even though publishers were unable to have a physical presence at the show, she appreciated the other ways that they showed their support. Turn out for the Libris Awards on the evening of June 3, was good. Random House of Canada was a platinum sponsor and made the arrangements for Canadian literary stars Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje to attend the awards. Margaret Atwood was given a lifetime achievement award and Ondaatje was chosen as author of the year. Barbara Howson, v-p of sales for House of Anansi Press, and Don Robinson, v-p of sales for Penguin Canada, participated in a panel discussion focused on ways that publishers and booksellers can collaborate and cooperate better together.

“I’m happy with the number of booksellers and publisher support we did get. I just think we need to build on that,” said Christopher Smith, owner of Collected Works in Ottawa and v-p of the CBA. But because the retail council has plans to have its conference at the same time as BEA for at least the next two years, the CBA will have to weigh the possibility of drawing more booksellers and publishers for whom BEA is an important show.

The value of combining the conference with the RCC got mixed reviews. Chris Tabor, general manager of the campus bookstore at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. called it “a stroke of genius.” Heather Kuipers, owner of Ella Minnow bookstore in Toronto, questioned it more. “Do we need the retail experts? I think we do to some degree, but we also hear the same information every year,” she said. “Our strongest stuff comes from when we are just sitting down together asking what do you do at your store? This is what I do at mine.”

The CBA’s increasingly close ties to the retail council have been questioned over the last year by British Columbia bookseller Lee Trentadue, who was the incoming president of the CBA but resigned last November over differences in management style and what she perceived to be a loss of CBA’s autonomy and independence. She has noted that the RCC board has many executives from big companies such as Wal-Mart, Sears and Staples who don’t share the same issues and concerns as small independent businesses.

Kuipers said CBA will need to go back to its members to ask where they want to go from here. She suggested there might be ways to gather regionally but still send representatives from other parts of the country, to regional fairs, for instance. “I know the reps are happier to participate if it is a buying fair as well, so [maybe] there’s some way we can do our buying, do our networking, and our brainstorming,” she said.

Some hopeful bits of news for independent bookseller arose in a panel discussions focused on e-books and what independent booksellers could do in the wake of Google’s retreat from the field. Panelist Michael Neill, president of BookManager, an inventory software company for indie bookstores, said he hasn’t found a viable place for indie bookstores in the e-book chain yet. Bookseller Michael Hare of Owl’s Nest Bookstore in Calgary agreed that he couldn’t see a reason why customers would buy an e-book from him when it is so much easier to buy from Amazon or Apple. But many booksellers in the room felt being able to offer e-books alongside print books was essential for them to stay relevant. That gave panelist Christof Kapp, manager of digital and library services at distributor Login Canada, the opportunity to promote Login’s new e-book platform, which he promised was a low cost way for indie bookstores to “get into the game.”

Divided as the room was on how to approach e-books, those who spoke seemed to agree that there is still a future for print books. Neill provided the heartening news that not only was his family business of Mosaic Books in Kelowna, B.C. expanding to a second location in July, but that his sister Cathy Jesson, owner of Black Bond Books, has purchased one of the Book Warehouse locations in Vancouver that was slated to close.

Winners of the CBA’s Libris Awards for 2012 are:

Fiction Book of the Year: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press)

Nonfiction Book of the Year: Eating Dirt : Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill (Douglas & McIntyre and Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation)

Children’s Picture Book of the Year: Picture a Tree by Barbara Reid (Scholastic Canada)

Young Readers’ Book of the Year: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel (HarperCollins Canada)

Author of the Year: Michael Ondaatje (2011 title The Cat’s Table, McClelland & Stewart)

Editor of the Year: Louise Dennys (Knopf/Random House of Canada)

Sales Representative of the Year: Dot Middlemas (Ampersand, Canada’s Book & Gift Agency)

Distributor of the Year: HarperCollins Canada

Small Press Publisher of the Year: Nimbus Publishing

Publisher of the Year: Penguin Group Canada

Campus Publisher of the Year: York University Bookstore, Toronto

Bookseller of the Year: Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge, Ont.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Margaret Atwood