Independent bookselling is more confident of its role in the industry than it has been in over a decade, as demonstrated by the evolution of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, the annual industry gathering that took place in Albuquerque, N.Mex., last week. The event featured more than 700 indie booksellers,150 authors, and several hundred other industry professionals, including publishers, sales reps, and service providers.

The independent sales channel is very healthy, said ABA CEO Oren Teicher during a presentation on industry trends and analytics. “Sales were up 5% for our member stores in 2018,” he noted. “For us, we had a nice year, nationally.”

Last year, booksellers were given an assist by strong customer interest in political books. “In 2018, political book sales were unprecedented,” said Alison Risbridger, an analyst with NPD Book, who participated in the presentation via speakerphone. “Lifestyle books also spiked, with cooking book sales up 26% and books about the home up 50%. In the children’s books category, books about social situations, holidays/religion, games and activities, and educational titles were the growth drivers. And, after a significant decline in 2017, young adult science fiction/fantasy/magic novels rebounded.”

A strong holiday season was also a positive factor in sales, with Michelle Obama’s Becoming pulling customers into stores; as a result, Penguin Random House reps found themselves in the enviable position at Winter Institute of parrying eager bookseller queries about when President Barack Obama’s forthcoming book would be published.

Though PRH, as well as Hachette and HarperCollins, were praised for stellar performances in delivering key high-demand titles to indie booksellers over the holidays, Simon & Schuster encountered criticism for delays during Thursday’s ABA Town Hall meeting, at which booksellers were given the opportunity to question the ABA’s board of directors and make suggestions.

“Why can’t S&S just get its act together?” questioned Sarah Pishko, owner of Prince Books in Norfolk, Va.

Simon & Schuster senior v-p of sales Gary Urda took the microphone to address the audience, who applauded Pishko’s position. “None of us want to lose sales on any titles,” he said. “We had titles that outperformed our expectations. While we printed aggressively upfront, when we went back for reprints, it took longer than any of us anticipated. We need to communicate better and are trying to figure how to print better for next year—especially on the hot books for the fall.”

Others at the Town Hall expressed frustration with occasional outages of the ABA’s IndieCommerce online retail platform, lack of child care at the Winter Institute, and the lack of representation of genre titles among the selections promoted to booksellers at the event.

Rebecca George, owner of Volumes Bookstore in Chicago, asked for help strategizing about how to cope with a minimum wage hike, and BrocheAroe Fabian, who is opening River Dog Books in Beaver Dam, Wis., asked for mentoring from the ABA on how to acquire financing for her store.

Indeed, several factors are impacting booksellers’ overall profitability, according to the most recent ABACUS benchmarking survey of bookstore financials. Though booksellers have seen the cost of goods sold going down, from 57.6% of revenue in 2012 to 53.2% in 2017, they are also seeing minimum wage laws raise base payroll slightly, from 23.7% in 2012 to 23.9% in 2017. And total operating expenses went up, from 11% in 2012 to 12.2% in 2017.

Better discounts for booksellers is one thing that could help improve margins. Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., challenged the ABA to work with publishers to ensure fairness in discounts given to indie booksellers. “I am perpetually confused as to why Amazon is allowed to get much deeper discounts on books, and they are kept secret,” she said. “We provide book reviews and do a lot of advance reading for publishers, yet our discounts are so much lower. Is there anything we can do as a group to fight for this?”

Another potential change that could increase profitability is the introduction of net book pricing, a system in which publishers stop printing prices on jackets and allow booksellers to charge what they want. ABA board member Pete Mulvihill, the co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, asked for a show of hands in favor of net book pricing. Only a smattering of hands were raised; just as few were raised in opposition. “I expected a stronger response,” Mulvihill said. The idea of net pricing has been around for decades but has never garnered much backing from booksellers or publishers.

Henry Rosenbloom, founder and publisher of Melbourne-based Scribe, attended Winter Institute for the first time this year. He heard about the net book pricing suggestion and remarked that books in the United States are inexpensive compared to elsewhere in the world. “In Australia, we’d abolished resale price maintenance — the US approach — decades ago, and replaced it with our recommended retail price system, which enables booksellers to raise or lower the list price," he said. "Today, the average price of a paperback is about A$29.95,” Rosenbloom added, noting that the higher margins provided by the higher prices make for a healthier bookselling environment.

Rosenbloom was among nearly 100 Winter Institute attendees from outside the U.S. A panel on Wednesday morning sought to highlight the opportunity for booksellers to engage further with the global publishing community through the Bookselling Without Borders program, now in its third year. The program offers a select group of booksellers fellowships to attend book fairs in Bologna, Frankfurt, Guadalajara, and Turin. New this year will be fellowships for Istanbul and a three-week residency in India.

“The hope is that booksellers will change the way they think about selling international literature,” said Europa editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds, noting, “I find it extraordinary how many end-of-year lists about diverse books come out without a single title of translation.”

Education sessions, publisher pitches, and trade talks are all key components of the Winter Institute experience. But, when it comes down to it, it’s the roster of authors in attendance that produces the most sparks. This year, Margaret Atwood’s Thursday morning conversation with Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern created a buzz that lasted throughout the day, as the two spoke of the writing process, defying literary conventions, and, of course, their next releases: Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, will be published in September, and Morgenstern’s Starless Sea will be released in November. Doubleday printed 250 galleys of Starless Sea for WI14, and the huge line of booksellers hoping to get a signed copy extended from one wall of the ballroom to the opposite wall during Thursday evening’s authors reception.

Describing BookExpo as having become too big, with book bloggers fighting over galleys with booksellers, and the regionals as an essential opportunity for one-on-one time with the reps, Pamela Klinger-Horn, a bookseller at Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, Minn., praised Winter Institute for having become the “best of all worlds” for indie booksellers. “It’s big enough that it attracts the big names,” she said. “But it’s not so big that one overlooks the small and university presses. This is the conference at which I get the most work done.”

With 200 first timers at WI14, many of them young booksellers new to the business, demographics at Winter Institute are evolving in such as way as to reflect wider changes in the industry and society. “When it comes to diversity and inclusion, it is good to see the ABA talking the talk, crawling the crawl, and, maybe soon, walking the walk,” said Emmanuel Abreu of Word Up bookstore in New York City, at the end of the Town Hall, when he invited any bookseller who self-identified as being a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community to take the stage for a group portrait. “Last year, we took this photo with just a small group,” he added. “This year, we will fill the front of the stage. Next year, we’ll take it over.”

Winter Institute will move east next year: WI15 will take place in Baltimore, Md., Jan. 21–24, 2020.

This article has been updated to clarify details about Australian book prices.