From the opening night party at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company to the closing comments at a Thursday panel discussion on how booksellers can respond to rising book bans, last week’s ABA Winter Institute had something for all of the many constituencies that turned out. “This is the largest, most complex Winter Institute ever,” said ABA CEO Allison Hill.

The ABA infused programming at the institute, which ran February 20–23, with several themes, underscoring its values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility and addressing censorship and other existential threats to the bookselling community. Larger societal concerns were balanced with plenty of educational programming on financial literacy, social media analytics, grant writing, nonprofit models, and workforce hiring, onboarding, and compensation.

In addition to being the most complex Winter Institute, it was also the first in person since 2020, and the largest ever, with total attendance of almost 1,600, including about 900 booksellers. The big turnout was fueled by a 20% increase in ABA membership over the past three years, and Hill reported that ABA has “380 prospective new booksellers in the pipeline.”

A substantial number of new BIPOC bookstore owners were at the conference, and the robust DEI programming appealed to attendees including Aaron Akbar from Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe in Bend, Ore. “It feels like a broadening of the mission of bookselling,” he said. “It is a kind of embodied activism.”

For publishers exhibiting at and attending the conference, the number of new booksellers was welcome. David Goldberg, sales and marketing director for Steerforth, said he was delighted with “so many new booksellers having the opportunity to discover our books.”

Taking on Amazon

The conference’s opening keynote, “Chokepoints, Antitrust, Amazon, and You: How Corporate Monopolies Are Squeezing Bookstores, and How You Can Fight Back,” began with a presentation by Stacy Mitchell, co-executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of the study “Antitrust and the Decline of America’s Independent Businesses.” Mitchell believes we are seeing a meaningful move toward antitrust reform and that “anti-monopolists have reframed the debate,” including by agitating for FTC enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, aka the Anti–Price Discrimination Act.

Mitchell in turn invited Cory Doctorow to the stage to talk about his recent book, Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back, written with Rebecca Giblin. Doctorow summarized the ways Amazon “locks in customers” with prepaid Prime subscriptions and digital rights management on Kindle; locks in sellers by “taking away their surplus” and “making them bid against each other”; and locks in authors on e-book and audiobook sales.

Both Mitchell and Doctorow agreed that the problem of reining in Amazon and the other Big Tech companies is complex. “While canceling your Amazon Prime account and shopping less on Amazon is good,” Mitchell said, “it’s not really a path to change.” Ultimately, virtuous shopping choices fail to address the exploitative structures and what Doctorow calls the chokepoints in the capitalist system. Only legislative action will work, Mitchell suggested.

In keeping with the theme of how booksellers can compete with Amazon, founder and CEO Andy Hunter revealed that his company plans to begin beta testing a new e-book service for indie booksellers later this year. “We are building the platform entirely from scratch,” he said. “We want to give independent bookstores a way to sell e-books and capture those sales that they are losing to Amazon.” already has strong ties with the independent bookselling community. Beginning March 1, IndieBound, the ABA’s consumer-facing online bookselling and marketing platform, will switch to using to handle sales and fulfillment.

Hunter also announced that will publish its first book in October: Our Strangers, a collection of short fiction by Lydia Davis. Davis insists that the book not be sold on Amazon, and as a result had a hard time finding a publisher. The initial print run of 10,000 copies will be available only through independent bookstores and at Hunter said Our Strangers is the only book has under contract, but that he is open to working with other authors.

Aside from the roughly 900 booksellers who attended Winter Institute, one of the largest groups represented at the event was independent publishers. The Independent Publisher Caucus held its three-hour annual meeting during the conference, and high on the agenda was the question of how to make books from independent presses more discoverable. Advice from book reviewers underscored the need for authors to have compelling stories; authors with unconventional paths to publication or interesting backstories tend to be looked upon more favorably for non-review coverage, particularly for profiles and q&as.

The panelists agreed that while space for reviews is drying up, there are other opportunities for publishers to promote books, including festivals, radio, and podcasts, as well as social media platforms. The IPC is also working to create a database that will enable booksellers and others to get direct marketing missives from IPC member publishers.

The overall vibe of the meeting was congenial. Doug Robinson, owner of Eagle Eye Books in Decatur, Ga., spoke for many when he said that he was “happy to be together” with his fellow booksellers.

Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue Literary Press in New York City, said, “It’s a great opportunity to come together with colleagues and recognize the importance of and depth of our camaraderie and community.”

Next year’s Winter Institute is set for Cincinnati, which was due to host the 2022 event before it was canceled because of the pandemic.