More than 700 indie booksellers gathered in Albuquerque, N.M. yesterday for Winter Institute 14, though, par for the course for this annual gathering, weather and other travel issues made it difficult for a few booksellers to get to the annual conference sponsored by the American Booksellers Association.
While several booksellers PW spoke to expressed ambivalence that Winter Institute continues to grow beyond the cap of 500 booksellers initially set in 14 years ago at WI1 in Long Beach, Calif., all the booksellers PW spoke to agreed that it is well worth the time and expense, due to the energy created by the mix of veteran and young booksellers. Of this year’s 700+ attendees, 200 are first-timers, including Megan Wells, who opened The Willow Bookstore in Perham, Minn. in November, and was being escorted at the opening night reception Tuesday evening that filled two ballrooms at the Hyatt Regency by her mentor, Jeannie Costello, a longtime bookseller at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo.
“It never gets less exciting and it never gets less intimidating,” said Emily Hall, the owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., who has been attending Winter Institute since 2015, after buying the bookstore from Vicki Erwin five years ago this week. “[Erwin] told me it was the most important industry event for me to go to.”
But, two Pennsylvania booksellers expressed concerns that younger booksellers might be “dazzled” by the big names major houses can bring to Winter Institute, and may overlook the small presses and the authors they are promoting. “I don’t want the small presses to be pushed out,” one bookseller said.
While two busloads of about 90 booksellers spent Tuesday touring Santa Fe, many others attended educational seminars at the Albuquerque Convention Center, including sessions on best practices in store management.
Meanwhile, the Independent Publishers Caucus convened for almost three hours, with about 65 independent and small presses strategizing on how best to build up their presence in the marketplace. Michael Reynolds of Europa Editions informed the publishers that IPC is hammering out the final details with the ABA on a backlist marketing initiative modeled on Indies Next. Publishers will be asked to nominate backlist titles, which will then be submitted to indie booksellers for selection. Selected backlist will be marketed along with Indies Next picks.
“Don’t pick the titles you love the most,” Reynolds urged the publishers, “Pick the titles that have the most potential, the ones that are still selling well online.”
The Caucus also featured two panel sessions: the first featured Daniel Slager, the CEO of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, IPC executive director Ben LeRoy, and Johnny Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of publishing outside of New York City. While all three agreed that trips to New York were necessary, they insisted that lower overhead and fewer daily distractions made up for the travel expenses.
“New York City is the most provincial large town,” Byrd said, noting that his trips to New York City to meet with national media and the trades always included educating them on the press’ ongoing commitment to maintaining its headquarters in Texas, where it specializes in multicultural books.
New York City-centric publishers run the risk of a “cultural blindness,” LeRoy said, explaining that if New York City-based publishers don’t make the effort to understand the rest of the country, they run the risk of having a skewed perspective, similar to the national media’s myopic perspective during the 2016 campaign season that resulted in their being blindsided by Trump’s victory.
The second panel featured Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin, Two Dollar Radio publisher Eric Obenauf, and Akashic editorial director Ibrahim Ahmad, discussing best practices as a small press.
“The playing field today is much more level, Ahmad said, “We have every opportunity to publish successfully.” While small presses should not be afraid to go “head to head with the Big Five,” Entrekin said, they should think of publishing like a poker game. “Don’t get too over-confident or aggressive when you are holding a good hand,” he said, “Publishing, like poker, has its ups and downs. You’re doing some good publishing, and you will have some luck.” The three publishers also emphasized that diversifying revenue streams is essential, so that a press is not relying on frontlist, but on a sustaining backlist and subsidiary rights as well.
“It’s just very cool that we can have a three-hour conversation about indie publishing and not mention by name [Amazon] or the names of the Big Five,” Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press noted as the caucus wound down. “That’s a sign of good health. It means our energies are focused in a very positive way."