The American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute has become an annual rite, marking the start of the new year of sales and promotions. The focus in 2021, as always, is on upcoming big books, but the conference also offers a Rorschach test for the industry’s concerns, woes, and aspirations.
Last January’s Winter Institute 15 in Baltimore was bookended by a pair of significant events. First was a standing-room-only panel to address the publication of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, which numerous booksellers criticized as cultural appropriation. Second was the meeting to discuss the launch of Bookshop.org, the online bookselling company founded by Andy Hunter and championed by the ABA. Both events were harbingers of what was to come: the massive protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd; the rising up of publishing’s younger generation to demand more equity, inclusion, and better pay; and the sudden shift among booksellers to prioritizing online sales given periodic closures due to Covid-19.
So, what does Winter Institute 16—which is being held virtually February 18–20—portend? Events are planned that offer more examination of the trends of 2020: a rising awareness of diversity and inclusion issues in bookselling and the need to manage the growth in online sales while maintaining strong direct relationships with customers, in the real world and virtually. And, of course, publishers will be promoting their latest books: throughout the three days of WI16, publisher and business partner virtual “booths” will be open for booksellers to drop in and talk with reps about books and products. Former president Barack Obama, whose memoir A Promised Land helped seal a strong season of holiday sales for booksellers, will open the conference with a personal video message.
“We’re incredibly excited about this year’s virtual Winter Institute,” says Allison Hill, CEO of ABA. “Although we’d love to be together in person, virtual programming allows us to bring everyone together even during these socially distanced times and gives us the chance to reach booksellers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend in person. And we’d be excited about this year’s event regardless of the format. WI16 is a robust schedule of poetry, authors, social events, expo booths, education, and, most importantly, critical conversations about the future.”
Hill says the ABA expects more than 1,000 people to sign up for this year’s Winter Institute (the registration fee is $35). Several booksellers PW spoke with echoed her point that many will be able to participate this year who were not able to in the past, due to the cost, inconvenience, or inability to take time away from their stores.
Hill points out that there are other benefits to hosting virtual events. “We’ve been able to connect with authors and keynotes who wouldn’t have been able to attend in person,” she says. “We’ve been challenged to think differently and focus on quality not quantity. And we’ve been able to imagine a future in which in-person and virtual programming both exist for the benefit of all.”
The conference kicks off with a conversation between author Brené Brown and bookseller Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., entitled “What Now!?” that will address how booksellers can stay committed to their work even though their emotional resources may be depleted.
The second keynote, “Novelist as Citizen,” looks at both the future and the recent past: this panel discussion with authors Lauren Groff, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Colson Whitehead moderated by Michelle Malonzo (buyer at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz.) examines roles for novelists in the fight for social justice.
The final keynote is a conversation between the ABA’s Hill and Brian David Johnson, author of The Future You: Break Through the Fear and Build the Life You Want. Johnson , who was Intel’s first-ever futurist and is currently professor at Arizona State University’s Global Futures Laboratory and School for the Future of Innovation in Society, will discuss how booksellers can think about, prepare for and, ideally, shape the future with their own best interests and those of their community in mind.
“The pandemic is an opportunity,” Johnson says. “I think there is a boom coming as we get to the other side. There is a lot of pent-up consumer desire and a lot of desire for community, which is what booksellers do best.”
Topics and trends
Bookseller education is a major feature of the event overall. This year, panels are limited to a handful a day and, as they are pre-recorded, won’t allow audience interaction. Topics include managing digital growth, financial planning, and recognizing racist and harmful practices in the workplace. The panel titled “Customer Experience and Hand-Selling/Upselling in a Hybrid World” considers the myriad ways booksellers have found to connect with customers who cannot shop in-store.
“The pandemic has urged booksellers to think outside of their comfort zone,” says panelist Cristina Rodriguez, general manager of Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, who runs a hotline that offers personal advice in addition to recommending books. “I try not to use traditional literary models of handselling, matching a backlist with a frontlist title, which only works for literary readers. A lot of people I get in the store are nontraditional or less consistent readers, so I tend to rely more on asking about their extracurricular activities outside of reading. That makes it more inclusive for people who might not be comfortable asking booksellers what to read next.”
Another panelist, Rosa Hernandez, social media manager of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Wash., advocates having customers shop by appointment, as that not only keeps people a little safer during the pandemic but also gives booksellers more of an opportunity to sell to customers. “If they are making an appointment, they want to buy books and interact with their favorite bookseller,” she says.
Hernandez, who identifies as Latinx, says that last year’s controversy over American Dirt put into stark relief the industry’s issues with diversity. She says that when customers are open to it, she steers them to books she feels are more representative of the experiences of people immigrating from Latin America to the U.S., such as Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive.
This year, Winter Institute is addressing a broad range of diversity and inclusion topics, including hosting a meetup for BIPOC booksellers and offering panels on LGBTQ romance writing and neurodiversity. Emily Autenrieth, owner of A Seat at the Table Books, a pop-up in Elk Grove, Calif., is part of the “Neurodiversity at Work” panel and is planning her new bricks-and-mortar store to be especially friendly to neurodiverse customers and booksellers. “We will have wiggle stools, a multipurpose room with two doors and a divider, so we can turn part of that into a quiet room, and signage to say that we are neurodiverse friendly,” she says. “There are many issues that booksellers can learn about from the conversations on neurodiversity.”
Annie Carl, owner of Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., is disabled and has challenged the ABA to address the topics of disability and neurodiversity more seriously at this Winter Institute than at previous conferences. She says there are more neurodiverse booksellers in the community than may be apparent. “You may not know it if you are working next to someone who is neurodiverse, because it is not something they may have chosen to share with you,” she adds.
Carl notes that diversity and inclusion issues are complicated to address and she applauds the ABA’s efforts over the years, though feels there is a long road ahead. “Even within the disabled community there is a lot of inclusion or exclusion—it feels like high school all the time. Ninety-nine point nine percent of us are unique, so we all have to work hard to keep supporting different voices and ideas, to keep working at that inclusion. And we need to keep in mind some don’t want to be ‘included’—for whatever reason.”
Carl adds that the one thing a bookseller can bring to any interaction with a customer or colleague, or anyone facing potentially challenging circumstances these days, is empathy. “Just don’t say you understand their situation, whatever it is, because you don’t,” she says. “You’re not living their life. Empathy and, really, kindness are enough.”
Despite the challenges of the past year and the pandemic, the latest figures indicate independent bookselling has been surprisingly resilient: the ABA reports that 27 new stores have opened since September 1, bringing the total number of ABA member stores to 1,827, operating in approximately 2,300 locations.
Donna Paz, co-owner of Story & Song Bookstore on Amelia Island, Fla., who hosts a seminar for new and would-be booksellers just prior to Winter Institute (this year on Wednesday, February 17), confirms growing interest in people wanting to open a bookstore. “This January, we had 30 requests for our guide, Owning a Bookstore: The Essential Planning Guide, which is more than we’ve ever had in 29 years we’ve been running workshops,” she notes.
As for why this surge in interest is happening now, Paz gets philosophical: “I think that past year has forced a lot of people into considering career changes. For many people opening a bookstore is a dream, and if we have learned one thing this past year, it’s that life is fragile—so what better time to pursue it than now?”
Below, more on Winter Institute 16.
WI16: Emphasizing Community
Though the “pandemic bookstores” that have opened since fall vary in size and focus, they share a commitment to their cities and towns and optimism about the future of bookselling.
WI16: Black Bookselling in 2021
Four black store owners reflect on how their businesses are changing.
WI16: Keynote Conversations
Keynote discussions look at what’s ahead for bookselling and literature.
WI16: Adult Authors to Meet
More than 125 adult writers and illustrators will gather for the first virtual Winter Institute.
WI16: Children’s Authors and Illustrators to Meet
Kids’ and YA authors from publishers large and small play a growing role at virtual Winter Institute.