Despite the frustrations of navigating the 73-story Detroit Marriott Hotel at the Renaissance Center, this year’s Heartland Fall Forum bustled with activity during its October 18-20 run. The conference drew 566 attendees, including 285 booksellers from across the Midwest and Great Lakes region to network with each other, meet authors, and check out the displays in a spacious exhibit hall filled with vendors from all over the U.S. -- along with a few Canadian publishers.

Emily Mernin, a rep with Biblioasis, a Canadian publisher that also operates a bookstore in Windsor, Ont., across the Detroit River from the conference hotel, said that Biblioasis doesn’t usually exhibit at regional bookseller shows, but could not resist attending Heartland this year, “because of Detroit.” She was very pleased with the company’s decision to cross the border for a gathering that was both convivial and productive.

Thursday morning’s program began with a conversation between Phillip D. Williams, a poet who is promoting his debut novel, Ours (Viking, Feb. 2024) and Percival Everett, promoting his 24th novel, James (Doubleday, March 2024), a reimagining of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn told from the perspective of Huck’s traveling companion, Jim. The conversation was moderated by Cree Myles, a Milwaukee-based influencer who moderates the All Ways Black platform; it focused on how both authors ended up writing novels set in Missouri during the Antebellum era, as well as on their creative processes. While Williams said he wanted to write “a Black epic that took place during the time of enslavement” that featured “fantasy, mythology, Hoodoo, and folklore,” Everett said that he wrote James because he was “so sick of slavery narratives” and that he has always been intrigued by the contradictions in Mark Twain’s classic novel. “I was surprised that nobody had written Jim’s story before me,” Everett said.

Booksellers Educating Booksellers

The rest of the morning involved education, including a packed session on book banning, during which the three booksellers on a panel that also included Myles and PEN America researcher Sabrina Baêta urged their professional colleagues to stock, display prominently, and handsell controversial books. Noting that “the books that are being banned are not the most radical books,” Jonathan Pope of Prologue Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio, said that the challenges focus on books that contain “even the most minute mention of something that might make someone uncomfortable.” He said many of the books are “phenomenal” works by BIPOC authors. “Allow the space for these books,” he said, “If you don’t have them on your shelves nobody’s going to buy them, nobody’s going to read them.”

Grace Hagen from Novel Neighbor in St. Louis, Mo. said that “it’s harmful not to have these books on the shelves.” Citing the controversy regarding diverse books and book fairs that Scholastic is currently embroiled in, Hagen urged the audience to discuss with publishers the authors and books that are promoted to schools and libraries. Ashley Valentine of Rooted MKE, a Milwaukee, Wisc. children’s bookstore/literary center, added that booksellers should proactively recommend books to local educators. “This is something we have the power of doing every day,” she said. Audience member and MIBA board president Kristen Sandstrom of Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, Wisc. suggested that booksellers should offer student discounts along with teacher discounts and also invite educators to take students on field trips to local bookstores.

Thursday’s program ended with a cocktail hour that featured Danny Caine, the co-owner of the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kans. in conversation with some of the owners of the bookstores he profiled in his latest book, How to Protect Bookstores and Why: The Present and Future of Bookselling (Microcosm, Sept.). Caine praised the Midwest for being “home to wonderful, amazing, and radical bookstores.” While all of the booksellers on the panel expressed optimism in the future of bookselling, Caine did express concerns about the sustainability of the traditional indie bookselling model. He urged his professional colleagues to consider the employee-owner model that Caine implemented almost two years ago at The Raven. In response, Angela Schwesnedl of Moon Palace located in Minneapolis pointed out that “it’s not just the bookstores: it’s the system. That’s the problem.”

Big Books of the Show

There indeed was one book that, literally, had everybody at Heartland buzzing. After Erik Larson's presentation during the Friday morning author keynote, many booksellers PW spoke to were eager to get their hands on his account of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency from his election in 1860 to the attack on Fort Sumter. News of the April 2024 publication was announced just prior to the conference and with no galleys available Larson took photos with booksellers. Describing Demon of Unrest , Larson said that his research was purely an intellectual pursuit until January 6, 2021. “Suddenly this is a very different story. Suddenly, a story about the start of the Civil War seemed current. I was reading things [in the archives] that could have been written today. This became a story for now, a story for our times.”

Nichole Bryant of Bryant Books in Hastings, Nebr. related that she had registered for her first Heartland as soon as she heard that Larson was scheduled to appear. "He and Barbara Kingsolver are my two favorite authors," Bryant said. Bryant opened her bookstore in August to sell books and vinyl records. She plans on expanding into selling musical instruments as well, but said that while she is not eager to sell instruments, she noted that "I’ve got to make money so I am going to do it.”

Apostle Islands Booksellers' Kristen Sandstrom was only one of many booksellers who said that they were also excited about the three novelists who appeared with Larson at the keynote breakfast: Cristina Henríquez (The Great Divide, Ecco, Mar. 2024); Candice Iloh (Salt the Water, Dutton Books for Young Readers, Oct.); and Kiley Reid (Come and Get It, Putnam, Jan.). Sandstrom said that Salt the Water is "one of the braver books I've read in a while. When the rest of the world keeps telling you what you 'should' do, it's that much harder to follow your heart. But that is exactly what Cerulean Gene does."

Looking Forward

Another hot book of the show –almost single-handedly due to the advocacy of Mary O’Malley, a bookseller at Skylark Bookshop in Columbia Mo -- was Martyr! (Knopf, Jan. 2024) the debut novel by Kaveh Akbar, the author of two poetry collections. PRH account marketing v-p & director Ruth Liebmann told PW that on Thursday afternoon, O’Malley stopped at the booth, grabbed up all of that day’s supply of ARCs and wandered the floor, handselling Martyr! to her fellow booksellers. O’Malley subsequently told PW that she considers it one of her “top three books of 2024,” adding that Akbar "writes with a poet’s heart and soul. It’s both heartbreaking and hilarious.”

On the children’s side, veteran bookseller Dave Richardson, the principal of 451 Books, a mobile bookstore in Cincinnati that he launched three years ago, has high hopes this holiday season for Erin Bow’s Simon Sort of Says (Hyperion, Jan.) and Gary B. Schmidt’s Labors of Hercules (Clarion books, May) – both of which he considers to be serious contenders for this year's Newberry Medal.

As Heartland wound down on Friday, Christina Ward of Feral House, which is based in Port Townsend, Wash. and in Milwaukee, said that it had been an excellent show and she looks forward to exhibiting at Heartland and even throwing a party for attendees when it moves to Milwaukee next fall. “It’s been fun to see everyone after such a long time and checking out what everyone is doing. After all, we’re kind of handselling to each other,” she said.

The title of Kaveh Akbar's debut novel has been corrected.