Winter Institute has long been a favorite event for small presses, one that directly results in increased sales. “In terms of bookstore marketing outreach, it is one of the most important things we do,” says Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells. He has attended the conference for the past five years and found “through face-to-face interactions, booksellers can now identify who we are and what we do well,” he says. “Also, we get to know what they like, so we don’t waste their time. We just can’t get that anywhere else.”
Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press, credits the “aha moment” for creating the Independent Publishers Caucus, a coalition of small presses, to the 2016 Winter Institute, when he realized that he wanted a similar experience for indie presses that indie booksellers get at the conference. With the support of the American Booksellers Association, IPC officially launched two years ago at Winter Institute and will be hosting a half-day of education for members at this year’s institute. “For us, as indie publishers, Winter Institute is a reminder of how much common ground there is between independent booksellers and independent publishers,” Simon notes.
“Independent bookstores are the lifeblood of our business, and there’s a tangible value to being around them,” adds Ibrahim Ahmad, editorial director at Akashic Books and a steering committee member of the IPC. “For a start: every conversation is about books.”
This year, ABA switched to an à la carte payment system to encourage more small presses to attend. “I really like the new system, because it means we get to focus on what works well for us,” says David Caron, copublisher of ECW Press. “Rep picks and having galleys in the galley room are important. It’s a way for us to start conversations. But every single part of the day is worthwhile, and it is a great chance to meet with booksellers on a human level.”
Some small publishers have gone a step further to mix with booksellers. For the past three institutes, Andy Hunter, publisher of Catapult, Counterpoint, Soft Skull, and Black Balloon, has rented a large house for staff and hosted several booksellers for free get-togethers with his colleagues from Literary Hub, for which Hunter also serves as publisher. “It’s cheaper than renting a hotel room for each of our staff, and this way we can give back to the booksellers who do so much,” he says. Hunter’s “Lit Lodge” has helped him build strong relationships with booksellers his team doesn’t routinely see. “Brad Johnson, who owns East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, stayed at Lit Lodge, and he’s become a big advocate,” Hunter says.
In the past, Hunter has joined with several small presses to host drinks at the Lit Lodge. This year, Catapult is among several independent presses that are cohosting an after-party on the opening night at the Hotel Andaluz. Other sponsors include Archipelago, Europa Editions, Graywolf, New Directions, New York Review Books, and Other Press.
University presses, including the University of Nebraska Press, University of Nevada, and Yale, have been growing their presence at Winter Institute, as well. This year, the University of Texas Press is providing one of the institute’s keynote speakers for the first time. “We were among the first university presses to go to Winter Institute four years ago,” says UTP assistant director Gianna Lamorte. “This is our one chance to stand in front of a room, say ‘These are our books,’ and dispel any myths about what we do. When our commission reps sell our books, they have another 20 publishers to plow through. Here, there is no mediation. I don’t think there is anything more important I do each year.”
While indie publishers have found a home at the institute, some worry that they could be marginalized as Big Five publishers gain more prominence. Sara MacLachlan, publisher of House of Anansi Press, has been attending for the past five years and credits the conference with helping her develop a range of bookseller connections, from Square Books in Oxford, Miss., to Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif. “We get a lot out of it, and the speed dating with booksellers has definitely increased our sales,” she says. But as the conference continues to grow in size, MacLachlan echoes a concern of some other indie presses. “I worry that it is losing the intimacy it had in the earlier years,” she says. “It’s starting to feel like BookExpo used to.”