Winter Institute, which American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher has called “some of the most significant few days in our calendar,” drew 1,000 attendees to Memphis the week of January 22, including more than 680 booksellers from all 50 states. Brandon Weimer, who bought 11-year-old Herringbone Books in Redmond, Ore., just days before the conference, and Chuck and Rebecca Osborne, who are planning an October opening for Harvey’s Tales in Geneva, Ill., were among those attending for the first time. To accommodate this year’s record numbers, ABA moved the annual conference to a convention hall for the first time since its launch in Long Beach, Calif., 13 years ago.
Growing pains were mostly felt at standing-room-only talks by authors such as business guru Daniel Pink (When) on the importance of timing. But the minor problems did little to dampen the mood of booksellers, which was largely upbeat. Many had had particularly good years in 2017.
“For more than five years now, our channel has seen sustained growth—the result of your clear focus on ongoing professional development, tireless work, and continued entrepreneurial innovation,” Teicher told booksellers. He acknowledged that some stores continue to face challenges, particularly as retail dollars continue to shift online. But he assured booksellers, “Our advocacy on your behalf regarding a level playing field will continue as a major priority for 2018.”
The conference kicked off with an inside look at one of the industry’s newest imprints, SJP for Hogarth. Actress and producer Sarah Jessica Parker, who serves as executive director of the eponymous Penguin Random House imprint, spoke with New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul about reading in general and the first book on her list, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us (due out in June), about an Indian Muslim immigrant family in the U.S. “I’m always looking for things I don’t know,” Parker said. “I like global voices; I’ve always enjoyed escaping. For me, especially now, it’s more important than ever. It’s urgent for us to look for stories ‘outside’ that connect us.”
Mirza was enthusiastic about working with an editor with Parker’s sensitivity. “I’ll always remember that first conversation with Sarah Jessica,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect. She spoke so enthusiastically and thoughtfully about the very parts of the book that were the most dear to me, and I remember thinking, ‘I trust you, and I’m so happy to embark on this milestone with you.’ It felt like the perfect fit.”
In addition to working for a playing field on which physical and online stores are treated equally, other bookseller priorities emerged over the course of the conference’s four days—among them the need for diversity in the book business. As Hannah Oliver Depp of Word Books in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., a member of the ABA Task Force on Diversity, noted, “We’ve made a lot of progress, and we have a lot further to go.”
Keynoter Junot Díaz also pushed booksellers to do more for diverse books. In a powerful address, which he titled “In the Time of the Wolf and Fox I Dream of Books” (the “wolf” being conservative whites and the “fox” liberals), he elicited many tears and a standing ovation. Díaz criticized the book industry for being a business in which predominantly white gatekeepers publish predominantly white authors. It’s imperative, he said, for booksellers and librarians, who are on the front lines, to “stop talking about diversity and start decolonizing our shelves.” On behalf of the next generation, he called for “new stories where every single one of us can find ourselves.”
Amazon’s growing dominance in many aspects of our lives, not just books, was also a significant concern. For Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett in Farmington, Maine, one of the most threatening aspects of that dominance is the erosion of list price. “One thing I hear is, ‘What are you charging for this book?’ ” he said. “We’re in a competing narrative with Amazon. There’s a narrative we need to share. The antitrust laws are just paper, or whatever, without the will to do something about it.”
For many booksellers, including those for whom 2017 was their best year ever, the need for a sustainable bookstore model is the biggest challenge confronting them. “You can’t keep surviving against the odds,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. That concern was also voiced by Alison Reid, co-owner of Diesel Books with stores in Larkspur and Los Angeles, Calif., at the Town Hall Meeting. Booksellers should be able to pay their staff a living wage and not have to work long hours or take a second job to do so, she said. “I know publishers that make good profits,” she added. “It would be nice if they could give us an extra percentage.”
But as booksellers consider new models, keynoter Amy Webb (The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream), founder of the Future Today Institute, advised them to take into account technology and an automated future. “I’m pro–independent bookstores,” Webb said. “But I’m also a pragmatist. While I know you’re doing well today, my concern is that things change, and I am not entirely convinced that you’re prepared for the next 10 years or for the next 20 years.”
Among the signals that Webb advised booksellers to consider are that their customers want community, but they want to dictate the terms, which is the appeal of virtual book clubs or spinning classes. She also called for booksellers, as well as publishers, to understand that artificial intelligence is going to change how people read and write books. AI, she said, isn’t a tech trend. It’s the next era of computing. “We are the transition generation,” she added.
Next year’s Winter Institute will take place in Albuquerque, N.M., on January 22–25.