At a particularly difficult moment in the book business, when, as Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, says, “booksellers are working five times as hard to keep a nostril above water,” the fall regionals are being reconfigured. In addition to moving online, they are being designed to serve as sources of inspiration and education to help indie bookstores make it through the holiday selling season.
While the fourth quarter is always important, this year even more is at stake, says American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill. “Most independent bookstores depend on the fourth quarter to make their sales goals for the year,” she notes. “Missing those goals can mean budget cuts, critical cash flow issues, and layoffs. Given the last six months of the crisis, the next four months will determine whether many independent bookstores stay in business come January.”
Hill points to a survey of 400 stores that the ABA conducted: “A quarter reported 2020 sales down 21%–40% compared to last year and another quarter reported sales down more than 41% for 2020. And these numbers don’t speak to profitability. Factor in Covid-related expenses and the higher cost of e-commerce, and the industry’s already paper-thin margins disappear. Stores are operating in the red. It’s clear that independent bookstores are on precarious ground going into the fourth quarter.”
Independent booksellers are tough, Hill notes, but they can’t go it alone. “The indies are creative, hardworking, innovative, and resilient. They have adapted to grow online sales and are taking the necessary steps to prepare for Q4. Even so, survival for many stores will require more support from publishers and wholesalers. Publisher relief and support for the indie channel at this crucial moment is an investment in the future of the industry.”
The scenario described by Hill places additional weight on this year’s regional shows. Though solid statistics on the number of indies are not available, as regionals have waived membership fees and welcomed all stores, attendance will likely be higher than in previous years. That’s because booksellers are hungry for information, and associations like the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance are providing them with it, whether they are members or not. “Our newsletter goes out to at least a thousand individual booksellers,” says executive director Linda-Marie Barrett. “Our open rate since the pandemic is 88%.” She anticipates that this bodes well for strong participation in SIBA’s fall show.
At this year’s virtual gatherings, booksellers will have a chance to listen to—and in some cases meet in virtual signing lines and breakout rooms—authors who wouldn’t normally be able to travel to Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, or other show locations. “Regionality being less of an issue allows us to tap into a more diverse author base,” says Brian Juenemann, executive director and marketing director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, who is emphasizing that point to his membership at PNBA’s “(Cross) Continent Breakfast” with Helen Macdonald from England and Raina Abouzeid from Beirut. (See “Regional Show Highlights,” p. 46.)
This fall’s regionals will be bookended by Zoom author events open only to booksellers, bringing a new national dimension to the shows. Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, author of Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads (Hanover Square, Sept.), will give the opening keynote in conversation with Ramunda Lark Young of MahoganyBooks in Washington, D.C., on September 15. A conversation between Allie Brosh, author of Solutions and Other Problems (Gallery, Sept.), and Jenny Lawson, author of Broken (in the Best Possible Way) (Holt, Apr. 2021) and owner of Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio, Tex., will close the regional season on October 14.
Other major changes include SIBA and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association merging their 2020 shows under the New Voices New Rooms banner this year. Together the groups are doing more programming virtually than they did individually pre-Covid—in part, explains NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler, because this year’s show is longer, as it will run for nearly a week.
“We got so excited with all the programming we were coming up with that we ended up filling every single day,” Dengler says. “Anytime a bookseller wants to log in, there is something for them to participate in. We have breakfast events, pick of the lists, editors buzz every single day.” There are also late nights, which means 8 or 9 p.m. start times based on bookseller feedback. That way they can attend in their jammies with a cocktail or mocktail before bed.
NEIBA, which is the same length and time period as New Voices, is also packing in as much programming as possible. “After feedback from booksellers that they hoped for a robust conference,” Ineson says, “we are doubling down on virtual programming. This event will have more authors and education than ever.”
Other associations are taking a different tack. The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association decided to postpone their joint Heartland Fall Forum until 2021. Instead, they ramped up virtual bookseller education and pick-of-the-list sessions over the past few months under the Heartland Summer umbrella and will hold a grand finale to coincide with the close of the fall regionals.
For CALIBA’s first trade show—after booksellers in Southern California voted to dissolve their association and those in the north voted to include stores across the state as members in their association—executive director Calvin Crosby is planning a hybrid show. There will be weeks of education leading up to the California Bookseller Virtual Discovery Lab, which will allow the show to focus on author appearances, ABA education, and the annual meeting.
Crosby sees the show as “a sampler” that booksellers can graze on, since there are no facilities to get to or food constraints—and everything is being recorded and will be available to watch online, or to listen to via CALIBA’s podcast channel on Spotify. Because booksellers won’t be able to take off six, eight, or 12 hours to attend, he says, he wanted a show that they can dip into when they have time. Thanks to the recordings, he sees this year’s show as being about “the long tail,” with booksellers watching or listening weeks later.
Like the other regionals, the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association has put together an extensive virtual programming schedule since the start of the pandemic, and has held 27 sessions this summer for its six-week summer camp. It will be back in a condensed two-week format next year. Even so, executive director Heather Duncan is planning three 12-hour days of education, author events, and bookseller connections for FallCon. She acknowledges that “it’s hard to know how to be helpful when our stores are going through so much. [A pandemic] is something we hadn’t planned for.” But she has filled this year’s show with more than 80 authors and eight hours of professional development opportunities.
Heading into the regionals, two key issues have been topmost in many regional directors’ minds: the precariousness of bookstore finances due to Covid, and diversity and inclusivity, which have taken on greater urgency in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in late May.
In a statement released by PNBA in June in support of Black Lives Matter, Juenemann wrote, “PNBA will develop immediate educational opportunities focused on institutional racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion. We will direct grant support secured for 2020 to relevant programming during this year’s fall show. We will amplify marginalized voices.” PNBA has made good on that commitment by featuring authors like Tracy Deonn, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Renée Watson.
The programming for the New Voices show includes an event aimed at helping bookstores create safe and welcoming spaces. Titled “Inclusion and Respect,” it will be led by Cultures Connecting, which previously led a successful workshop on diversity and inclusivity at virtual Children’s Institute.
NEIBA is taking diversity beyond the discussion stage and encouraging its members to add diverse staff now with a nuts-and-bolts session on hiring for diversity. “I’m trying to focus on things that are as practical as possible,” Ineson says. She is also encouraging publishing partners to feature writers of color in their booths, and to offer stores education on how to redirect customers’ buying toward these titles.
With sales for some bookstores in the MPIBA area down as much as 50%–60% in the summer compared to last year, Duncan notes, “it’s hard right now for stores to be engaged with anything besides staying afloat, though many wish to support efforts towards diversity and inclusion in the industry, and getting out the vote. I hear a lot of people say that if they can make it through the holidays, they can make it. Getting there is iffy.” Duncan adds that she and the MPIBA board continually consider how to best help bookstores in their region, and they regard a diverse FallCon as one such way.
One of Duncan’s particular concerns is evictions, which she says is one reason that “we are giving as much as we can to Binc.” Though the Book Industry Charitable Foundation says it hasn’t been contacted yet by booksellers facing evictions, executive director Pamela French notes, “Booksellers are definitely worried about paying their [store and personal] rents, staying current, and not getting too far behind. They have been working so hard to stay on top of it, in spite of lost wages and cut hours. Landlords seem to be all over the map. Some are quite understanding of late or partial rent payments, others are not and are taking action.”
To help frontline booksellers manage their money and plan for the future, CALIBA is holding a session titled “Adulting 101,” as one of its events leading up to its show. CALIBA, along with other regionals, plans to make use of ABA programming on IndieCommerce to help bookstores improve—or add—online sales to supplement traditional store sales. The days of the quaint bookstore that only caters to in-person shopping appear to be over.
ABA is also offering a virtual presentation on bestseller-list reporting for both online and in-store bestsellers. A couple of regionals have decided to share this with their booksellers at a later date and focus on more immediate concerns for now. That’s the case with PNBA, which has prioritized helping booksellers get a jump on the holiday season. As part of that effort, it has pushed up the design and printing schedule for its holiday catalog, which will be ready for delivery in mid-October, according to Juenemann.
Though Juenemann and the other executive directors are doing their best to innovate to meet booksellers’ needs virtually this fall, all would agree with Ineson that virtual bookseller gatherings in no way replace in-person events. “We fully intend to meet in person,” Ineson says. “I hope in 2021.”
A Warning from ABA CEO Allison Hill
Though the fourth quarter is always important to independent booksellers, this year even more is at stake, ABA CEO Allison Hill told PW, in an interview conducted as part of our coverage of the regional fall trade shows, which begins on p. 21. Given disruption to the bookselling landscape caused by the pandemic, “the next four months will determine whether many independent bookstores stay in business come January,” she said. A recent ABA survey of 400 stores found that sales of half were down by at least 21% for the year through mid-August compared to 2019.
Independent booksellers are tough, Hill noted, but they can’t go it alone. “The indies are creative, hardworking, innovative, and resilient. They have adapted to grow online sales and are taking the necessary steps to prepare for Q4. Even so, survival for many stores will require more support from publishers and wholesalers. Publisher relief and support for the indie channel at this crucial moment is an investment in the future of the industry.”
Below, more from the Fall Regional Trade Show.
Getting into the Holiday Spirit Early
Booksellers are kicking off holiday sales now, well before the traditional start of the holiday season on Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving
CALIBA Celebrates Its First Year
The country’s newest regional is unifying California booksellers
SIBA Looks Ahead
SIBA’s new leader responds to challenging times
Bookseller Models for the Covid-19 World
Three indies share their preparations for the long haul
Regional Show Highlights 2020
A roundup of key zoom events at all five virtual shows
Exhibit Halls Go Virtual, Too
This year’s show floors have moved online as well, and some will be up through the end of the year