A total of 1,500 people registered for Winter Institute 15, the American Booksellers Association’s annual conference for independent booksellers, which took place in Baltimore January 21–24. Of those registered, 800 were booksellers.
This year’s event opened with a variety of programs, including a symposium in Washington, D.C., focusing on efforts to combat Amazon’s market dominance in bookselling, hosted by the ABA. After agreeing that breaking up Amazon would be the simplest solution to lessening the e-tailer’s clout, many booksellers expressed dismay that the company may be too big for even the government to confront.
Still, they were urged on to action. “It is possible to initiate change,” said panelist Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy (S&S). “You have already started it—and we’ve had more antitrust conversation in our politics this election cycle than anytime in the previous 25 years.”
Technology was front and center at this year’s institute. Bookshop, the new online bookstore launched by Catapult publisher Andy Hunter, goes into beta next week. The site, which replaces the e-commerce function of the ABA’s IndieBound, aims to give book buyers another online option and give ABA member stores a chance to earn a 25% affiliate fee. While Bookshop has a good deal of support as a marked upgrade from IndieBound, some booksellers are also skeptical about the program.
John Rubin of Above the Treeline presented Edelweiss360, which offers a faster way for indies to market to customers than Mailchimp and Constant Contact. All the materials needed to create a marketing email, including book covers and copy, are within Edelweiss. Treeline is also developing mobile websites for bookstores, which will eventually be available as individual bookstore apps, so that bookstores can sell direct to customers.
In addition, the long-awaited Batch for Books invoicing service, which collates a publisher’s invoices into a single payment system for booksellers, is being tested among a small group of ABA bookstores. HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House have signed on to the system, but Hachette and Simon & Schuster have not. More bookstores are expected to test the system this year, but no launch date has been set.
This year’s Winter Institute seemed to be more politically charged than usual, perhaps due to the event’s proximity to Washington, D.C., during the impeachment hearings. Or the tone might have been set by the prominent activist authors who presented keynotes on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. Calling out to a packed ballroom, Rebecca Solnit noted that her success as an author of books on feminism, politics, and environmental issues has been due to the support of booksellers. “You are Rebecca’s 600 mommies, and we’re all here together at last,” she said. Solnit, whose memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence, is due from Viking in March, thanked booksellers for embracing diversity, declaring, “You all are why people can read those books,” and describing bookstores as “temples of resistance.”
During Thursday morning’s keynote, Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of Good Boy, My Life in Seven Dogs (Celadon, Apr.), who once worked at the New York City branch of a Canadian bookstore chain and also at Penguin, echoed Solnit’s sentiments, celebrating books during a time when, she says, “the nature of truth is under attack” by the Trump administration.
The ‘American Dirt’ Controversy
Jeanine Cummins, the author of American Dirt, which was the subject of a controversy that erupted the week before WI 15 due to its depiction of Mexico and of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., appeared for a standing-room-only q&a with Javier Ramirez of Madison Street Books in Chicago. The crowd was primarily supportive, though there were several booksellers who expressed their concerns regarding the book’s content, as well as the publisher’s huge marketing push.
Cummins defended herself and the novel, which has been denigrated as “inauthentic” and “trauma porn” by its detractors. Explaining that there are stereotypes in this country about immigrants, she said she wanted tell another side of that story, and “to get at the truth of the humanity of the people involved”—despite the fact that she is neither of Mexican heritage nor an immigrant.
“I know this book is going to engender a lot of conversations about who has the right to tell whose story,” Cummins said. “I wrote fiction that I hoped would be a bridge, because screaming into the abyss wasn’t working. The tenor of the conversation has been untenable at times, but I’m glad to be part of it.”
Cummins expressed the hope that people would judge American Dirt “on its own merits” rather than on what its detractors say about it. Her appearance did not seem to quash the buzz surrounding the book, as booksellers continued to discuss it in hotel hallways and lobby bars throughout the conference.
Despite the different speeches, Winter Institute remains primarily focused on establishing and refining best practices for independent bookselling, while publishers there are intent on networking with booksellers and promoting forthcoming titles. The center of activity for the latter was the galley room, where publishers offered hundreds of galleys for booksellers to take. Various sessions also allowed sales reps to pitch their picks directly to booksellers either in groups or in one-on-one meetings.
“The amount of granular knowledge exchange is simply amazing,” said Gavin Grant, owner of Book Moon in Easthampton, Mass., who attended Winter Institute for the first time. “It’s been a very practical experience for me, regarding everything from how to set up preorder campaigns to finding great new books in the galley room.”
Among the recurring themes this year was the growing importance of the need for bookstores to work with the ABA and publishers in their data collection efforts. In a keynote, Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli implored booksellers to fill out the ABA’s annual ABACUS survey, which establishes benchmarks for the industry.[
The ABA hosted a farewell event for Oren Teicher, who retired from his role as CEO. Incoming ABA CEO Allison Hill, who starts March 1, gave a short speech and highlighted her priorities. “My new job is to help ensure that the people—all of you carrying out the quiet revolutionary act of making the world better every day through books, bookselling, and bookstores—continue to survive and thrive,” she said. Among the issues that Hill has been tasked with addressing are the cost of goods for booksellers, slim margins, and the inability of many bookstores to pay a living wage.
The point was underscored by Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., and president of the ABA board, during the WI15 Town Hall. “Margins on books are not a viable business model,” she said. “We know that. We have a team that knows that the model is broken. We cannot pay ourselves what we are worth or what we need to live. The publishers know this as well. They are not the enemy. But the situation is practically untenable. It is a big issue and first on our plate, and we are going to have a lot of discussions on it.”
Winter Institute 16 will take place Feb. 7–10, 2021, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Correction: Johanna Hynes's position was previously mistakenly described in the first photo caption.