The Canadian Booksellers Association will hold its third annual national conference from May 13 to 15 in Toronto. The conference that began after the demise of BookExpo Canada is evolving into its own shape and has fewer and fewer echoes of BEC.

“We’re not trying to reinvent a trade show. This is a bookseller show,” says Simone Lee, chair of the committee for this year’s conference and owner of Calgary’s Pages Books on Kensington.

The first conference was hastily pulled together to fill in the gap left by the closure of BEC and was held during the same week in June when BEC was scheduled. Last year’s conference was held immediately after BookExpo America in late May, to accommodate people who might want to combine travel to both events. This year, the conference is two weeks earlier to avoid conflicting with BEA, Lee said, adding that not many people actually attended the conference on their way home from BEA last year. An earlier date also fits better with publishers’ schedules, Lee said.

This year’s theme is “New Ideas in Store” and there is a strong emphasis on professional development for retailers. Keynote speaker Bob Phibbs and endnote speaker Barbara Crowhurst are both retail specialists. Phibbs was recommended after CBA board members heard him speak at the ABA’s Winter Institute. It’s not the first bit of cross-pollination from the Winter Institute. The idea of speed-dating sessions between sales reps and booksellers was modeled after the Institute.

The CBA, which has focused on independent booksellers in recent years, is also reaching out to the large book retailers such as Costco, Walmart, and Indigo, inviting them to send staff to the conference. CBA senior manager Jodi White says there are “nibbles” of interest from the big players but no confirmed registrations yet.

So far, more than 40 stores are sending one to three staff members, says White, but as the early registration ended on Monday, she is still hoping to top last year’s number of having representatives from 90 stores and 120 attendees.

Conference organizers are still trying to attract more publishers to the event, too. Having replaced BEC’s booths with less expensive and smaller display tables, last year’s conference drew 17 publishers as exhibitors. So far this year, White says they have 20 publishers participating in various ways, with display tables, speed-dating, and author breakfasts, and as sponsors. “There seems to be more interest [from publishers] in attending,” says White. In 2009, Penguin Canada was the only large house to participate. So far, this year, Penguin, Random House of Canada, and HarperCollins Canada are all confirmed participants. HarperCollins Canada is one of the sponsors of the CBA’s Libris Awards, which recognize excellence in all aspects of publishing and bookselling.

Random House will participate in a new way this year, hosting CBA members in its downtown Toronto offices as a part of a bus tour that will also take members to the offices of trade wholesaler North 49 and several Toronto bookstores.

In spite of the focus on retail, Lee says she thinks the event is still valuable for publishers to attend. “I think they totally appreciate that the best way to sell some of their books is having informed booksellers hand-selling them and making the buzz about them. It’s a question of how to get that news and that excitement out to us, so I think it is well worth their while when there is a group of booksellers together to come.”