Independent booksellers have long had an outsized impact on books from indie publishers and university presses. “Very simply, the independent booksellers are our best friends in the business: 25%–30% of our sales are in the independents,” says Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions. “They’re tastemakers—they’re very opinioned and vocal.”
Although Reynolds acknowledges that Europa’s success with bestsellers like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog isn’t due to indie support alone, he credits indies with getting the 10-year-old press off to a strong start. He hasn’t forgotten the extraordinary handselling effort of San Francisco’s Books Inc. on behalf of Europa’s first book, Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. It sold 1,200 copies at its San Francisco International Airport store. “That kind of support in the early days kept us in business,” Reynolds says.
Europa is returning to Winter Institute for the fifth time this year, and at a higher sponsorship level. “I [first] went to Winter Institute without knowing anything about it,” he says. “I heard about it from a few booksellers. I thought, that sounds nice—a bookseller jamboree.” One of the things he has come to appreciate, he notes, is that Winter Institute offers a level playing field for publishers. There are no booths—just the Galley Room: a room stacked with galleys from the sponsoring publishers.
Seven Stories Press, which will attend Winter Institute for the fifth time this year, saw the value from the start. “The first book we launched [there] was Russ Kick’s The Graphic Canon, which went on to become a major success for us that has worked well across all accounts; but it sells like a good steak, not like candy,” says publisher Dan Simon. He questions whether Kick’s books would have done nearly as well without the Winter Institute push. “Winter Institute created a sophisticated awareness of what Russ and Seven Stories were doing with these books in the minds of 500 of our country’s best booksellers, right at the outset.”
One of the reasons Seven Stories initially came to Winter Institute was to support the ABA and the independent bookselling community in general. Since then, Simon says, “we haven’t looked back.” He also notes that Winter Institute has preserved its original vision, unlike BookExpo America, which has undergone a transformation to accommodate consumers. “The paradox is that the more Winter Institute resists big changes, the more its importance will grow. A key is that the number of participating booksellers and publishers is limited. You can only have those quality interactions if it remains small. Smallness is everything. The way I look at it is, Winter Institute is issuing a challenge to publishers to bring out really startling new books.”
The high cost of attending the institute, particularly for smaller presses, has kept many publishers away. “We put it off and put it off. As a small press, we have to count our nickels and dimes,” says Donna Spurlock, director of marketing at 26-year-old Charlesbridge in Watertown, Mass. “We didn’t start going until 2012.” But she’s glad that the press began to participate: “We’ve gotten so much out of it,” she says.
Two books by debut authors that Charlesbridge offered in the Galley Room at earlier institutes—Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi and Flying the Dragon by Natalie Diaz Lorenzi—both made the Indies Next List. But that’s not the only reason that Charlesbridge continues to return. “The atmosphere is intimate and congenial, and you can go to education programs with the booksellers,” Spurlock says. “You can have a much more relaxed conversation [than at BEA].” That connection is particularly important for a publisher that looks at an author’s local bookstore as the place to launch his or her books. Spurlock regards it as “kind of a reverse of buy local.”
Nanci McCloskey, Tin House’s director of rights and publicity, says she felt so contagiously excited during her two previous visits to Winter Institute that she was offered jobs by two booksellers. “It’s so valuable and it’s so expensive—I gulped when I wrote that check out,” McCloskey notes. “I learn so much, and I come back energized.” She says she realized after attending the conference that she has to have her own bookseller connections and not just rely on Tin House’s distributor (which is W.W. Norton, as of July 2015). McCloskey adds that at the institute she can talk with booksellers directly about what works and what doesn’t. As a result, die cut covers and bellybands are now out at Tin House. She credits Winter Institute with helping launch Lacy Johnson’s memoir, The Other Side, which came out last July and continues to sell 200 copies per week.
For Graywolf marketing director Erin Kottke, Winter Institute has become “one of those conferences that’s nonnegotiable.” She values being able to interact with so many booksellers in one place, and, she adds, “it’s fun.” She credits the 2011 conference with launching Geoff Dyer’s essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. She presented it at Speed Dating, and sales took off. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“There’s a natural fit between independents and Graywolf,” says Kottke. “Because we only publish 30 books a year, we have the advantage of pitching many of these books at Winter Institute. We try to identify lead books that just need a few key supporters.” Those indie supporters have become even more valuable now that their word-of-mouth gets national and, in some cases, international attention through social media.
Both Emily Hamilton, assistant director for book publishing and marketing director at the University of Minnesota Press, and Gianna LaMorte, assistant director and sales manager of University of Texas Press, are looking forward to attending Winter Institute for the first time this year, and to reprising a panel about how indies and university presses can work together that they presented at the annual American Association of University Presses meeting. “What booksellers and small publishers like ours need is meaningful information, something concrete and actionable to bring back home,” LaMorte says.
LaMorte is such a big fan of independent bookstores that she arranged for the entire staff of UTP to tour BookPeople, an Austin-based indie store, and do a q&a with buyer Elizabeth Jordan. “I wanted the staff to understand that independent bookstores are vital to our business,” LaMorte notes. “I also wanted the staff to see what happens to our books after they leave our warehouse.”
LaMorte says she is looking forward to telling booksellers at Winter Institute about Kristin Hersh’s Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, about the author’s relationship with songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Publishing Don’t Suck “is the highlight of my career, the thing I am most proud of,” LaMorte says. “And I really hope this doesn’t sound corny, but the only hands I trust that can get this book out into the world are the hands of independent booksellers. I just think they’ll get it.”