This year's PubWest Conference, held February 6–8 at the Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel & Casino in Maricopa, Ariz, was a tightly curated event offering seminars, multiple awards ceremonies, and opportunities for publishers to network. PubWest has no defined territory, but primarily represents publishers from the Western United States and Canada, although the event attracted approximately 130 publishing professionals from both coasts.

The conference's focus was on the daily ins-and-outs of publishing, including such various practical considerations as design, marketing, production, and sales. One overarching message communicated at this year's show was that publishers should expand the range of retailers who sells their books.

Joe Biel, the publisher of Microcosm Publishing in Portland, Ore., was honored with PubWest’s inaugural Innovator’s Award. In accepting the award, Biel discussed the now familiar story of how the company made the decision to stop selling on Amazon, instead electing to take over its own distribution in 2018, a decision he noted "wasn't easy and one we hesitated to do for several years."

“It wasn’t easy, but was the best decision we have made,” Biel said. “Since then, we’ve been adding about 145 accounts a month, at a rate of more than three a day.” These new accounts, he added, are primarily non-traditional retailers, including bike shops, cafes, and record stores.

Tom Hellberg, publisher of Mountaineers Books in Seattle, also advocated that publishers broaden their reach beyond traditional book outlets. “We’ve seen our sales to gift stores quadruple over the past two years,” Hellberg told PW. New retailers are finding Mountaineers Books on the Faire wholesale online platform, which Hellberg described as “like Ingram for non-bookstores.” This boost in sales has partially offset a decline in other sales channels, such as Amazon—“which exploded during the pandemic,” Hellberg said, “and has since gone from 60-70% of sales to a more normal 25%”—and the decline in sales at trade shows.

“Another issue we are facing is difficulty finding enough good people to come work with us,” Hellberg added, pointing out that Seattle is home to several publishers, all of which pull from the same talent pool.

Some of this pressure might be alleviated by new graduates coming out of nearby university programs that offer M.A.s in publishing, such as Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Portland State University in Oregon. This year at PubWest, a dozen members of the M.A. class from Portland State were in attendance, accompanied by two professors, Kathi Inman Berens and Rachel Noorda. As part of their degree, the students run Ooligan Press, a publishing house that produces four local-interest titles a year.

PubWest was bookended by a series of sessions on A.I. This started with the conference keynote delivered by Ana Tomboulian and Vincent Serpico of Decision Tree AI, an Arizona-based consulting company. The pair offered an overview of how ChatGPT users can create jacket and marketing copy and how authors or publishers might use A.I. to conceive a continuation of a popular book series.

The show's closing session provided a series of short reflections on the impact of A.I. on the industry, which ranged from fearful to hopeful to resigned. The major fear running through the conference was that A.I. would replace publishers and writers. Despite fears, Thad McIlroy, a PW contributing editor and PubWest panelist, asserted that there was less need for concern than there was for publishers to embrace A.I.'s potential: “We’ve been here before, with everything from e-books to piracy to the internet itself—each of which people worried could be a threat to replace traditional publishing, and none have."

Throughout the conference, some publishers complained of A.I. creating counterfeit books. Rhoni Hirst, president of Books of Discovery, a publisher of physical therapy books in Boulder, Colo., described how pirates had posted fake copies of her company’s bestselling title Trail Guide to the Body to Amazon, noting the difficulties of having it removed or otherwise rectifying the situation. “I cannot go online and give those fakes bad reviews, for example, because it would be giving my own author a bad review,” she said.

On the hopeful side, some see new opportunities in A.I. technologies—for publishers, insofar as the work they produce is fully vetted to experts, and for writers, insofar as they are professionals who are highly skilled with language and might find themselves very effective at creating prompts that will generate useful results from A.I. One mantra repeated in various iterations several times during the conference was, “A.I. won’t replace publishers and writers—publishers and writers using A.I. will replace publishers and writers.” Less positively, some publishers noted that they were struggling with A.I.–generated counterfeit books and book summaries being sold on Amazon that mimicked or outright copied their own titles.

Rachel Noorda, professor at Portland State University and director of book publishing at Ooligan Press, moderated a session covering A.I. featuring McIlroy and Pamela Malpas, a literary agent with the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency and board member of the Association of American Literary Agents. Malpas noted that AALA has a working group focused on A.I., and its impact and is coordinating with similar groups in the U.K. and Australia to get a “global perspective on the matter.”

“As a literary agent, my main priority is protecting the copywritten materials of my clients,” Malpas added. “A.I. was built with a disregard for consent. And frankly, I find that scary. Publishing values consent. We believe in asking permission. Publishers and authors make money on permissions. The publishing industry is built on manuscripts that take years to write. It's built on negotiated licenses, on carefully edited texts that demand years of hands-on training to work with. Publishing is built on personal relationships and trust. It's a human business with all the messy human inefficiencies that that implies. That does not mean that it cannot be improved.”

In another session, Mary Carlomagno, director of sales and business development for Bowker, together with Julie Trelstad of StreetLib USA and Paperbacks & Pixels, ran a workshop in which they challenged teams of attendees to reimagine book promotion and digital reading for the future. Some solutions included A.I.–powered chatbots that readers could query for book recommendations, which feature screens that bleed when you are reading Stephen King or text that quavers when a narrator in a novel is experiencing mental illness. Other technologies can books into role playing games, in which readers can play as characters from the books. (This idea was inspired by Tubby & Coos Book Shop in New Orleans, which has offered such experiences in the past.)

In further awards news from the conference, PubWest presented its 2024 Jack D. Rittenhouse Award, established in 1990 to honor those who have made an important contribution to the “Western community of the book,” to Howard W. Fisher of the Fisher Company, who accepted the Rittenhouse Award from Board Member David Hetherington of Books International. PubWest also honored several dozen titles with its annual Book Design Awards.

Asked his key takeaway from the event and recent activities in publishing overall, Microcosm’s Biel pointed to the “resurgence of labor,” including “the return of unions,” and the affirmation that “publishing is and remains a human-centric business.”

For many at the conference, it was the sight of all those students committing their lives to publishing that was most reassuring. “It was great to have so much youthful energy and optimism in the room,” said Bowker’s Carlomagno. “It is exciting to meet these people who will carry on publishing into the future.”