This weekend, 250 members of the publishing industry made their way to Portland’s Benson Hotel for PubWest’s annual conference. The theme of the show—“Better Together: 40 Years of Publishing Expertise”—celebrated the organization’s 40th anniversary in helping book publishers and related businesses succeed.
Executive director Kent Watson said that this was the largest number of attendees at the conference in the decade that he has been in his role, significantly up from 180 attendees at last year’s meeting in Santa Fe. Watson credited the uptick to the marketing committee’s outreach as well as peer-to-peer engagement. This year had 66 first-time attendees, including Cynthia Sherry, publisher of Chicago Review Press, who said of the conference: “I feel like everyone here is so generous with their knowledge, more so than any other trade show I’ve been to.” At last year’s PubWest conference, Laura Stanfill, founder of Forest Avenue Press was a first-time attendee. According to Watson, in the year that has elapsed since, Stanfill has brought many new members to the organization, and he cited her energy as an example of how to get the word out and build excitement for the organization going forward.
The increase in attendance came even though the event was occurring almost simultaneously with the AWP being held in Washington, D.C. which prevented some publishers, like Stanfill, from attending PubWest. While this year's AWP conference got overtly political, with 300 attendees marching to the U.S. Capitol in protest, PubWest was largely celebratory and any reference to the current political climate came in through asides and jokes.
The 2017 Jack D. Rittenhouse award, given to individuals who have contributed to the community of the book of the west, was presented to Chuck and Dee Robinson, cofounders of Village Books in Washington. Kalen Landow of The National Book Network presented the award, telling the audience that author Sherman Alexie once said of Village Books, “There is a bookstore I wish I could ask to dance.” While the Robinsons recently transferred ownership of the store to three long-time employees, Dee Robinson called owning the bookstore “the richest of lives.”
The keynotes chosen were all hilarious - from lexicographer Erin McKean who managed to give a side-splitting talk about dictionaries to author Jennifer Worick (Thing I Wanted to Punch in the Face) and Ron Charles, books editor at The Washington Post’s Book World. Charles assured the audience that even though Amazon’s Jeff Bezos now owns the Post, he has “never ever heard from anyone at Amazon” and a publisher in the crowd shouted jokingly, “Neither have we!”
The conference closed with a keynote from Miriam Sontz, CEO of Powell’s Books in Portland, where many of the attendees had been spending their free time, just a few blocks from the conference hotel. Chuck Robinson introduced Sontz, calling her the "E.F. Hutton of bookselling, because when Miriam talks people listen." Sontz told the room of publishing members that “we are fighting the same battle” of selling books, and that her career has been wonderful due to the friendly congenial nature of the kind of people who are drawn to the field. “I’ve been in the book business for over 35 years and I’ve only met two assholes.”
From the organizational standpoint, there were some changes to the board. After serving two years as president of PubWest, Katie Burke of Pomegranate Communications is handing the role over to current v-p Bill Fessler, publisher at American Traveler Press, and Per Henningsgaard, director of the graduate program in Book Publishing at Portland State University will serve as the new v-p.
The organization’s PubWest501 initiative--online educational training sessions related to publishing--is still in development. In partnership with Portland State, PubWest hopes to release its first educational video at the end of this year, giving publishing employees the change to learn about aspects of the industry. Burke said of the timing, “We want to get it right and it’s going to take time.”
Fessler reported that membership is “extremely strong” with 227 company memberships.
PubWest 2018 will be held at the Westin Pasadena from February 15-17.