As if to underscore the turmoil roiling the book industry, the American Booksellers Association's fifth annual Winter Institute in San Jose, Calif. (Feb. 3—5), was during the standoff between Amazon and Macmillan and days after Apple's unveiling of the iPad tablet. Reference to the former brought a standing ovation when ABA president Michael Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, said, “In light of current events, we give a special thanks to the Macmillan companies for the stand they have taken in the face of bullying tactics from one of our large competitors.”

Despite the institute's upbeat energy, the fragility of independent bookselling was evident. Some booksellers are supplementing store income with outside jobs. Others, like Eric Wilska, owner of the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass., have seen sales rise a little, but note that they're working harder for them. “It would be disingenuous for me not to acknowledge tough times,” said Oren Teicher, leading his first convention as ABA CEO. “We're going to work as hard as we can to ensure a bright future for bookselling.” Still, the fact that 500 booksellers attended was cause for optimism, as was the fact that 40 new stores opened in 2009. And more are on the way, including One More Page in Arlington, Va., to open in the spring.

But there could be more bookselling pain ahead. In predicting where digital content is heading, Andrew Weinstein, v-p and general manager of retail solutions at Ingram Digital, said, by 2012, “if you are listening, reading, or watching TV, you will more likely be doing it on the Internet than not.” He had no easy answer for Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., who asked, “If the purchase of e-books goes the way of e-music, where do we fit in?”

Nor did Google Books director Daniel Clancy, who advocated e-books stored in the cloud—that's Google's cloud, for which the company would take a percentage of every sale. “It absolutely should be that you can buy a digital book in the physical world. Conceptually how to do it is tricky,” Clancy acknowledged. Among his suggestions were bundling e-books with print ones or having booksellers send purchasers an e-mail with a link to the digital file. Of course, there are privacy issues, Clancy said. Google would need to hold on to information about who bought what to enable customers to have long-term access to their e-book files. Booksellers will also get less margin.

According to ABA COO Len Vlahos, the organization is currently in talks with Google Editions, which will launch mid-year, and with bundling partners. “We at ABA happen to agree with Dan Clancy that e-reading devices are not going to be what people read on. In three years time, e-books will be 10% of the market, a conservative estimate. How will we make that up?” he asked in a workshop on E-books 101. However, not all bricks-and-mortar stores want to be in the e-book space. “To me, we sell books,” said Michael Boggs, co-owner of Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Ky. “I can't see a business model with us selling e-books that includes joy.”

Although much of the conference was dedicated to digital technology, many attendees aren't convinced that e-retail is ready for them now. It's up to publishers to work out the details first, commented Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall in Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill. Added Andrew Getman, a bookseller at Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeeshop in Washington, D.C., “All our customers want to know is what books are good.”

For Dale Szczeblowski, general manager of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., hands-on workshops like one on IndieBound Design was a favorite, while Sheryl Cotleur, head buyer at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., said, “I enjoy Winter Institute as much for the conversations as the workshops.” Judging by the lines for the 42 writers at this year's author reception, Barry Udall's novel The Lonely Polygamist (Norton, May) and Karl Marlantes's novel Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly, Apr.) were the most buzzed-about adult titles. Publishers seeded booksellers with galleys for both long before the show. Sally Brewster, co-owner of Park Road Books in Charlotte, N.C., said she got so engrossed reading Matterhorn on her way to Wi5 that a flight attendant had to remind her that her plane had landed.

Next year Winter Institute will head East to the Washington suburb of Crystal City, Va., January 20—22.