Bookselling, once seen—at least by some—as a second-career opportunity for people entering retirement, has all but flipped into a notably more youthful profession. Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA), notes, “NEIBA has been the grateful recipient of an enormous youth quake in the past couple of years—our organizational conversation drivers and agenda setters are largely under 35, and I am in constant dialogue with them about how we can be more inclusive to frontline booksellers—not only in show programming and education, but in the organization’s general outreach.”
Over the past few years, as the demographics of bookselling have shifted, the eight fall regional shows run by the nine independent bookseller associations across the country have become more relevant than ever. New blood is joining the industry, with younger entrepreneurs coming into the trade and experimenting with fresh formats and, often, smaller stores. As a result, the annual autumn shows, which have long served as showcases for holiday titles and big spring books, are now an even more important forum for the education of frontline booksellers, many of whom may not yet have had the opportunity to attend one of the larger, signature bookselling events such as Winter Institute or BookExpo. A new bookstore with a small staff simply cannot spare resources and staff to travel. The regional shows are more affordable and closer in proximity, all the while offering direct contact with colleagues and affiliated professionals. For many bookstores, the regional shows are their primary real-world connection to the larger bookselling and publishing ecosystem.
Jamie Fiocco, the recently elected board president of the American Booksellers Association and owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., says she plans to prioritize developing education programs for small booksellers during her tenure. And she’s a big advocate for booksellers attending their regional shows. “If folks get involved in their regional associations, they get a great understanding of bookselling in general,” she says.
New Store Formats
Across the country, regional directors report an explosion in hybrid bookstores. “My region is seeing a lot of stores opening, especially in Oklahoma and Texas,” says Heather Duncan, executive director of the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookstore Association (MPIBA). “We’re seeing some cool mixed-use spaces: bookstore restaurants, bookstore bars, book buses,” she says.
Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), concurs. “More booksellers and potential booksellers are looking for alternate formats from traditional bricks-and-mortar stores,” she says, citing the pop-up format as a particularly popular starting point. To cater to new and prospective store owners, NAIBA hosted a q&a session in New York City this summer and will be offering a special welcome package with resources focused on new stores at the association’s show. “If we can help them build with a strong foundation, they can thrive,” Dengler says.
“Camaraderie is key,” says Calvin Crosby, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA), who says that his organization is keenly aware that for many booksellers, a visit to the fall regional may be their first experience of a professional trade show, and thus they may need a bit more hand-holding. “Some booksellers may never have attended before, or maybe they were recently promoted into a position with new responsibilities,” he says. Crosby added that several venerable NCIBA stores have been able to attract new owners who—though they are in a long-standing store—may also need education. Accordingly, the show needs to cater to people with a wide range of experience. “Everyone should feel empowered to participate, so we try to hold seminars and workshops for a variety of skill levels. That way, when it comes to a particular issue—social media marketing, for instance—everyone has the same vocabulary and can be part of the conversation.”
Networking, both in professional and casual settings, is at the heart of the role regionals play for their booksellers. Exchanging best practices often takes center stage, with booksellers invited to share what changes they have made to their respective stores that have resulted in increased sales—or, perhaps, the opposite. And the ever-popular author signings and cocktail parties offer the chance for booksellers to mingle with big and small publishers alike. For many regional or niche publishers, this is the best opportunity for them to get their authors face-to-face with a bookseller, who, one hopes, will consider booking them for an appearance at the store.
Roundtables Replace Panels
In an effort to be more inclusive, several regionals have opted for roundtables, which imply a more democratic approach than that of panels, which suggest there is a voice of authority one should heed. NAIBA executive director Dengler explains that the roundtable format allows everyone “to get their questions answered.” It’s also a very flexible format that enables organizers to focus conversation on specific topics tailored to even smaller groups, such as people running pop-up stores. This year, in a twist on what usually appears on NAIBA badges, alongside an attendee’s preferred pronoun (something you’ll see at most shows across the country), attendees will also find the bookseller’s point-of-sale systems—“so they can easily identify each other to ask questions,” Dengler says. In another nod to inclusivity, booksellers will also likely hear some events open with a formal acknowledgement of the Native land on which the event is taking place and honoring the indigenous custodians of that land, a practice that has become increasingly customary at bookselling gatherings this year.
Politics Are Local
Politics, like it or not, are likely to have an impact on bookselling from now through next year’s election. Historically, election years have not been favorable to bookselling, because sales typically suffer as people retreat to their preferred medium for political combat, be it the active battleground of social media or the passive barrage of talking head TV. “When it comes to politics, where I live in South Carolina, we liberals—and there are more than just a few—have learned to just keep our heads down and keep quiet,” says Wanda Jewell, executive director of Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA). That said, she hasn’t shied away from programming a panel discussion between authors Sharon Robinson and Peggy Wallace Kennedy—the daughters of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, and George Wallace, the notoriously segregationist politician, respectively.
Voting on Change
For the past several years, Jewell herself courted controversy, first with her announcement that she planned to move to the West Coast, while still running SIBA, and then with her idea to move the regional trade show to spring—though both plans were ultimately aborted. “I’m just happy that we don’t have anything like that happening this year,” Jewell jokes. She might give some advice to NCIBA’s Crosby—as well as to Andrea Vuleta, executive director of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA)—about dealing with change. Both organizations will be voting on whether or not to merge. SCIBA’s members will vote in person at its trade show in September, and NCIBA’s will vote via email. Whatever the result, “We already know we will definitely be doing our spring and fall discovery shows together next year,” Crosby says, noting that the spring show will remain in Southern California and the fall show in the northern part of the state at least until 2020.
Baker & Taylor Blowback
One of the biggest issues under discussion at this year’s regionals will be how booksellers, particularly those out West, are trying to fill in the void left by Baker & Taylor after its announcement earlier this year that it is exiting the trade wholesale business. Numerous regionals are holding sessions on the topic. “Like all regionals, our booksellers are relearning much of their book buying after the closing of B&T retail,” says Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association (MIBA). “It’s a whole new game with a bit of a learning curve to establish your procedures for managing multiple lines of direct ordering from publishers all at once. This of course brings up the concurrent issues of inventory, turn, and so on, and using tools like Edelweiss to manage all of these aspects.”
Booksellers remember last year’s shortages of hot holiday titles, and the big question for many is whether Ingram and publishers, whose initial wave of post-B&T specials and incentives are starting to run out, will be able to meet demand when the pressure is on. In August, Ingram hosted a pair of what it called listening sessions in Boston and San Francisco, to answer bookseller’s concerns. “We think that this year will be a different holiday,” says Shawn Everson, Ingram’s chief commercial officer. “There is no Becoming coming, for example, and there’s no crunch on printing capacity. Nevertheless, we want indies to be confident that we fully support them. For a start, we are putting more inventory into our ‘indie vault,’ which shields the inventory from other retailers, and we’re improving iPage functionality.”
That said, bookstores on the West Coast are especially concerned about delivery times, as many were serviced out of B&T’s Reno warehouse; Ingram’s main West Coast warehouse is located in Roseburg, Ore., and is generally seen as reliable, but it can be slowed by inclement winter weather. “West Coast retailers will be pleased to learn that we are adding additional inventory to Roseburg, and introducing a new carrier, GLS, for deliveries starting in September,” Everson says.
The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) will address the B&T fallout at its regional in a session titled “Cash Flow Post-B&T.” Likewise, the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) show will hold a session called “Life After B&T.”
One opportunity booksellers across the country are seeing to maximize revenue is through sidelines, and Ingram is adding more board games, reading glasses, and plushies to its inventory. “What is important when it comes to indies is we have now made it possible to order just one or two units of a sideline, rather than requiring a store to buy a case,” Everson says. “This should make it easier for a store to try a broader range of new products.”
Regionals are benefitting from the boom in sideline sales, as well, and have seen more and more interest in sideline vendors buying booth space. BookExpo added UnBound, its exhibition for sideline vendors, and placed it on the main show floor; the result is that many vendors have developed relationships that translate to the regional shows. “I met several sideline vendors at BookExpo and went after them aggressively,” says SIBA’s Jewell, who reports having sold out the show-floor exhibition area for the first time in years as a result of sideline vendors taking additional space. The media has also helped, with its constant stream of bad news about the state of retail and positive stories about the independent bookstore resurgence. “Independent bookstores are seen as one of the few vital forms of bricks-and-mortar retail,” Jewell says.
In the wake of the popularity of the first Indie Bookstore Romance Day in August, booksellers have placed a renewed emphasis on stocking romance titles, something reflected in the agendas of several regional shows. At SCIBA’s regional, Julie Slavinsky, director of events at Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla, Calif., will host a panel titled “Romance: Love It... And Don’t Leave It Off Your Shelves!” with the Wicked Wallflowers Club podcaster Jenny Nordbak and author Tessa Dare. Other shows, including PNBA and NCIBA, will host panels focusing on diverse and inclusive romance, such as YA and LGBTQ romance; SIBA will feature executives from the Berkley Publishing Group discussing the genre.
Book Prize Goes Public
Numerous regional organizations present their own book awards, such as MIBA’s Midwest Book Awards, SIBA’s Southern Book Prizes, and the SCIBA and PNBA annual awards. At MPIBA, which administers the Reading the West Book Awards, Heather Duncan has concentrated her effort on bolstering the impact of the prizes, in part by inviting the public to vote alongside booksellers for the winners for the first time. “Our bookseller reading committees created amazing shortlists in six categories, and with the help of our member stores, our nominees, and our publishing partners, we generated almost 4,000 votes to pick the winners,” Duncan says. “We also had a Reading the West bookstore display contest, which was fun to see on social media, and we will have a new website for the prizes in place for next year. This will be at the center of a new, expanded book-marketing campaign.”
Maps and Road Trips
MIBA’s Obry says they have launched some special programs in the past few years, including the Midwest Indie Bookstore Roadmap. The physical map has now been published for two years running and allows the organization to promote all of its stores, and gives each individual store a chance to brand itself creatively. “We’re also managing our events a bit differently and launched two new events last year: our first-ever Roadtrip, as well as Book University,” Obry says. “The Roadtrip is unique because it’s a 100% store-driven event that invites colleagues to that store to learn what they do best. Book U is unique because it’s geared to motivate and teach frontline booksellers about the industry overall, which is sometimes too easily overlooked.”
ABA and IBD
Bookstore maps, road trips, and competitions to visit multiple bookstores in a region or city have also become a popular and integral part of the annual Independent Bookstore Day, which will now be administered by the American Booksellers Association. ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who is retiring at the end of 2019 after nearly 30 years at the organization, will be on hand at nearly every regional to discuss the ABA’s plans for a reworked IBD. “It’s a real opportunity to bring it to a new level in 2020, and we want to get maximum advantage out of it for our booksellers,” Teicher says. The ABA, which will host booths at each regional, is also happy to field questions about ongoing priorities for the organization, including the promised (and highly anticipated) release of Batch, Winter Institute, and the ongoing effort to promote preorders. (One question they won’t answer yet is who will succeed Teicher, though an announcement may come at any time.)
Though independent bookstores generally have been experiencing improved business in the past year, Teicher is quick to admit that many bookstores continue to face significant challenges. “The ABA’s ABACUS numbers reflect that about one-third of stores are struggling,” he says. “Some are not able to pay the owner, some are losing money, some are unable to service their loans. But there is no doubt that the overall climate of indie bookselling in 2019 is healthier than a decade ago.” The ABA has signed up 52 member companies so far this year, bringing the total member companies to 1,887, which are spread across 2,524 locations.
At a regional level, NEIBA’s Ineson speaks for nearly all the regional directors when she says, “The primary issues remain the costs of doing business, occupancy, and minimum wage.” Sessions across the country in fall 2019 will look at these core questions and concerns. While many towns are clamoring to attract a bookstore to open in their community, most stores remain vulnerable to rising demands, such as health-care costs and payroll taxes. What’s more, NCIBA’s Crosby says, is most bookstores now function as de facto arts centers that host many events during a week. “Yet they lack donors, tax-exempt status, pledge drives, or even direct funding,” he says. “Bookstores are a meeting place, a safe space, and a place to find like-minded people as well as engage in healthy debate with differing points of view. Bookstores do all this with a fixed margin. We continue messaging that supporting a bookstore is more than buying an occasional book, and that the communities, landlords, and even local and state government need to step in with incentivization that genuinely supports indie business.”