Whether intended or not, resilience—in the face of two blizzards—served as the subtext for the American Booksellers Association’s eighth annual Winter Institute (Wi8) and the National Association of College Store’s 90th annual meeting and Campus Market Expo (CAMEX), held in Kansas City, Mo., the last weekend in February. Educational sessions stressed reinvention and innovation, whether it was Malcolm Gladwell at Wi8 talking about how we have gotten the David and Goliath story wrong for centuries—the underdog is the more powerful innovator, who can afford to break the rules—or NACS president Mary Ellen Martin, director of store services at the University of Maine-Farmington, announcing that the group is about to launch a new program for independents, indiCo.

Changes in selling and how best to address them was the theme of Wi8’s other plenary speech, delivered by Daniel Pink, author of To Sell Is Human. “Sales isn’t what it used to be. It’s not Glengarry Glen Ross anymore,” he said, referring to the disappearance of the hard sell. He observed that now it’s “serve first, sell later.” Pink advised booksellers to embrace their role as curators and suggested they ask touring authors for book recommendations and make t-shirts for staff emblazoned with “Ask me what I’m reading.”

Other educational sessions offered nuts-and-bolts ideas for improving public relations, author events, and buying sidelines. Children’s sessions, such as “Nonfiction Buying with Core Curriculum in Mind,” featuring Kenny Brechner (owner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine), ABA president Becky Anderson (co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill.), and Richard Buthod (sales manager of Turtleback Books), were particularly popular. An American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression panel on “Banned Books, Censorship, and YA Literature,” moderated by ABFFE director Chris Finan, with panelists Laurie Halse Anderson, Sherman Alexie, and bookseller Mitchell Kaplan (owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.), also earned high marks. “Censorship happens because people don’t know how to read,” said Alexie. He contended that challengers to his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian either claimed the book contained objectionable content, which it didn’t, or did not understand the context in which he used offensive language.

Wi8 also provided the first opportunity for Kobo to address booksellers since it signed an agreement with ABA last fall.

Kobo chief content officer Michael Tamblyn addressed the Institute as a whole to discuss the program and noted that 450 booksellers, up from 390 under Google, are selling Kobo e-books. Neil Strandberg, ABA director of member technology, led a separate bookseller conversation with Mark Williams, v-p of sales & business development at Kobo. He promised booksellers that Kobo will build in longer lead time on promotions in 2013, ship better displays, and make sure that product is available earlier for the holidays. Jeremy Ellis, owner of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, was one of several to complain about margin and about his customers migrating directly to Kobo. “I’m going to lose money on e-books, but I’m in the 21st-century,” he said. Williams explained that it’s inevitable that a few people will become Kobo customers because of customers signing up for Kobo accidentally or from another glitch. To lessen those chances, Strandberg suggested that booksellers welcome new Kobo customers with an e-mail to help tie them to the store.

But Winter Institute has never been solely about formal educational sessions. It also fosters connections between publishers and booksellers. “It’s the best chance you have to do one-on-one with publishers,” said Bill Cusumano, adult frontlist buyer for Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., who also looks for ideas to tweak the store. He’s planning to follow up on a tip from Cathy Langer at Tattered Cover in Denver on a better way to put out shopping baskets.

George Gibson, publishing director of Bloomsbury USA, told PW, “I actually think it’s more important than BookExpo. It’s our best opportunity to break out a book.” With 60 authors signing at the Sunday evening author reception and another five the next day at the small press reception, he’s clearly not alone. While there were many outstanding books and authors at the show, if length of line were the sole criteria for most popular author, Dave Eggers would have won the title hands down. Some booksellers waited as much as an hour for signed copies of A Hologram for the King and a 35-page sampler of his forthcoming Visitants.

CAMEX 2013

While Winter Institute is limited to 500 booksellers, NACS encourages as many of its 3,000 collegiate members as possible to attend. Despite differences in scale, both gatherings offered bestselling authors and smaller educational sessions for coping with a changing marketplace. College stores must confront increased competition for textbook sales, the rise of digital books, and the continued decline of trade titles. Yet they continue to find ways to stay relevant. As opening mega-session speaker Jeremy Gutsche, founder of TrendHunter.com, noted: “When you realize your marketing world is in turmoil, it lets you do things differently. Use this sense of urgency to adapt.”

To symbolize the need for change, Martin and other NACS volunteers wore lobster pins. “A lobster,” she said, “becomes most vulnerable when it sheds its skin.” NACS may not be molting at a lobster’s pace in order to grow, but it is in the midst of so much transition that CEO Brian Cartier termed it “an extreme makeover.” On April 1, NACS will replace its NACS Media Solutions subsidiary with indiCo, which will focus on retail innovation, merchandising strategy, and data analytics. To ensure its success by giving it a strong base, Cartier announced that the association signed a letter of intent to purchase the assets of Connect2One, a 600-store buying group owned by Nebraska Book Company.

According to NACS CIO and v-p of NACS Media Solutions Mark Nelson, “indiCo is going to put the right resources in place to more effectively drive the innovation that has to happen. We need clearer pictures of what’s going on in the industry. Even NACS’s measures aren’t the best way to measure things.”

But data, or its lack, is only one set of pressures affecting college stores. Others come from the fact that instructional materials are now viewed as cost reduction areas, as speakers noted in a session on “Course Materials in a Digital Age.” “In many cases,” said Jay Dominick, v-p and CIO of Princeton University, “textbooks are seen as a problem that needs to be solved rather than learning systems.” And the solution doesn’t necessarily include the school store. “I’m under an NDA,” said Frank Lowney, project coordinator of digital innovation group of Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, whose unit is exploring making textbooks available to students when they register. “You see a technology that circumvents the campus store. The campus store is not in view.”

Campus stores are experimenting with innovations that go well beyond texts. Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has begun offering a tablet rental-to-ownership program with refurbished iPads and Kindle Fires. At a session on “New Formats for Campus Retail,” Ali Sadeghi, general manager of University of Arkansas Bookstore in Fayetteville, discussed a newly created campus mall. He not only invited Wal-Mart to come, but moved textbooks and supplies for class (“the things that people have to have”) out of sight, and saw sales double from $10 million to $20 million. Others like Buz Moser, executive director of business services at Wake Forest University Stores in Winston-Salem, N.C., are boosting sales by making space for pop-ups, like one from 310 Rosemont, which brings in upscale clothing.

Unlike the Institute, the heart of CAMEX is the trade show, with 700 exhibitors—and a major reason that ABA chose to co-locate this year. Of the roughly 200 ABA booksellers who shopped the show, most found the opportunity worthwhile. “Indeed no man could count such a journey wasted,” said DDG’s Brechner, quoting Lord of the Rings. He was pleased to find kid-friendly items like t-shirts, with covers of out-of-print books, puppet pens, and sea-life puppets. Sarah Goddin, manager of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., said that she spent nearly three hours making sure she checked every booth. She bought fair market bags, pens made from recycled water bottles, and notebooks.

Next year, Winter Institute moves to Seattle at a more customary early winter time slot, January 22–24. CAMEX will head South to co-locate with Ed Expo, the trade show of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, which will be held March 7–11 in Dallas.