Uncertainty has been one of the few constants since Covid-19 spread over the globe, and that reality has carried over into planning for the regional associations’ fall book shows. As this issue went to press the Friday before Labor Day, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association was still determined to hold a live event in Portland, Ore., starting October 3, and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association is still heading to Denver on October 7. The New England Independent Booksellers Association and the combined New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance have opted for virtual shows at the end of September. And the California Independent Booksellers Alliance is doing something of a hybrid, planning a virtual show augmented by in-person get-togethers at Books Inc. in San Francisco and Vroman’s in Pasadena.
As they did last year, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association decided to forego a traditional trade show. Instead, in August, they kicked off this year's Heartland Fall Forum with comedian Charlie Berens in conversation with Books & Bars emcee Jeff Kamin. Virtual bookseller education sessions have been scheduled this month and next, with more programming still to be determined. Programming concludes with a virtual awards celebration on October 14.
One of the big unknowns in early September: when will in-store sales reps’ calls to accounts resume? Some independent rep groups have already been on the road to some degree, but sales forces for the larger publishers and Ingram are being more cautious. Hachette Book Group’s executive v-p and group sales director, Alison Lazarus, says that while the publisher continues to monitor CDC guidelines as well as local guidance, its current recommendation is that sales call be done virtually. Lazarus adds, however, that because of HBG’s reps’ desire to connect with their accounts in person, the company will allow in-store sales calls on a voluntary basis, with some restrictions. As outlined by Lazarus: “the account must feel comfortable meeting in person; the sales rep’s visit does not require an overnight stay; and travel is within the state that the sales rep resides in. At such visits we strongly encourage our staff to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. In addition, all such visits and safety protocols must comply with applicable local laws and health authority guidance.” Other major publishers contacted by PW were following a similar hybrid strategy that takes into account the comfort levels of both the accounts and reps.
In much the same vein, John Mesjak, the head of Abraham Associates, a four-person commission rep group that covers the Midwestern states, says that he is leaving it up to each rep whether he or she wants to make in-person calls. “One of our reps has a toddler and doesn’t want to go out into the world and bring something back home with her,” he says, while another rep is deciding “case-by-case” regarding scheduling in-store visits.
Mesjak himself resumed making in-person calls in June, once he was fully vaccinated, more than a year after being forced to shift to Zoom and phone calls with store buyers. Besides the stores in Minnesota, where he lives, Mesjak visited stores in Chicagoland, the Milwaukee metro area, Iowa, and Kentucky in July, and “it didn’t seem too perilous.” Then the delta variant’s surge began, and he is being more cautious now. When Mesjak visited Chicago in mid-August, the visits were brief, and rather than standard sales calls, Mesjak says, they were more of a check-in. Indies in his territory have mixed approaches to in-store calls. Some stores are not ready to see reps yet, while others don’t have the space to accommodate more people in the store. Since most of the stores he has called on have a mask mandate, he keeps masks in his car.
For the moment, Mesjak hopes to follow a pattern of spending one week on the road, followed by a week at home for follow-ups and virtual visits, before another week on the road, but he knows that could change. And looking at next season, he expects one more round of sales conferences that will be virtual. “I’m going to play it by ear,” he says. “I will see what stores want. What we learned these past 18 months is how to do it remotely.”
Eric Heidemann, the head of Fujii Associates, says that all six reps in the group are vaccinated and have resumed in-store visits to some degree, but in general sales calls remain a hybrid process. “It’s an account-by-account thing,” Heidemann notes, adding that when stores do agree to in-store visits, the reps “keep meetings shorter, come to it masked up, and sit outside, if we can. All the Fujiis take precautions.”
Even if the surge in the delta variant declines, Heidemann believes hybrid calls will remain. “We learned during the pandemic that we can work more efficiently by preparing beforehand with Edelweiss and other means,” he says. “We know now how to make more efficient use of our time.”
Bruce Joshua Miller, the principal of Miller Trade Marketing in Chicago, says that he wants to resume in-store visits, though so far he has only met in person once since March 2020—at an outdoor café—with Jason Kennedy, a buyer at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee on August 18. Miller says booksellers are coping with lots of different issues at present. “I think they are figuring out what works for them,” Miller says. “As more stores resume normal activity, sales calls will follow suit.” Until then, he continues to make virtual calls, by phone and via Zoom.
One thing is certain: unlike this time last year, bookstore sales are on the rise. Bookstore sales fell 28% in 2020 compared to 2019, but through the first six months of 2021 sales increased 30% over the comparable period in 2020, which included the worst sales months of the year. One particularly encouraging note was the June boom, when bookstore sales skyrocketed 81.1% in the month, jumping from $388 million in June 2020 to $703 million this year. It was the first time since 2013 that June bookstore sales topped $700 million. (In 2019, June sales were $613 million.)
The increase in retail sales, the continued higher interest in reading, and strong fall lists from publishers are three factors that give booksellers and publishers hope for a strong fall and holiday season. Somewhat offsetting those positive trends is the uncertainty over the course of Covid-19 and what everyone in the industry says will be unprecedented problems in the supply chain. Shortages of truck drivers, trailers, warehouse and retail workers; bottlenecks at ports; and printing capacity issues are combining to pose severe challenges for holiday sales. Industry experts are advising all accounts to order books early to avoid missing out on sales.
This story has been updated to include news on the Heartland Fall Forum.
Regional Association Fall Trade Show Schedule
Date: September 21–23
Region: New England Independent Booksellers Association
Date: September 27–October 1
Region: New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association/Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance
Date: October 3–5
Region: Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association
Place: Portland, Ore.
Date: October 7–9
Region: Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association
Date: October 25–27*
Region: California Independent Booksellers Alliance
Place: Virtual *Date for virtual conference; in-person events planned for October 24 in San Francisco and October 28 in Pasadena
Below, more on the Regional Trade Show