Though May’s BookExpo was “reimagined” and the National Association of College Stores is rebooting its annual Camex show, most regional associations are planning to make only minor tweaks to their trade shows this fall. That’s because the regionals continue to be the top shows for indie booksellers, even drawing small stores that are forced to close in order to attend. Preliminary figures for BookExpo 2018 showed bookseller attendance at 1,073, but last year’s fall regional trade shows taken together attracted 2,338 booksellers. With strong programming and increased membership in some regionals, that figure will likely rise again this year.
Some regionals are continuing to add new members at a rapid pace. Midwest Independent Booksellers Association (MIBA) executive director Carrie Obry signed 24 new bookstore members between July 2017 and July 2018. Some just opened, such as Canterbury Books in Escanaba, Mich., which launched in April. Others will open soon, such as River Dog Book Company, a mobile bookstore in Wisconsin (owned by BrocheAroe Fabian, a moderator of PW’s BXsellers Facebook group) that will be roadworthy by spring 2019. Older stores—including 20-year-old Sly Fox Bookstore in Virden, Ill.—are returning to MIBA after a hiatus.
Some regionals, including the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA), already have high levels of participation. But upticks in membership are more common than dips, according to PNBA executive director and marketing director Brian Juenemann.
Challenges on the Horizon
Unlike past years, when indie bookselling was thrown into turmoil because of concerns over the rise of e-books or Amazon removing the buy buttons for Hachette titles prior to the shows, 2018 has been relatively calm. “I feel like stores are finding their groove,” says Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) executive director Wanda Jewell. “They’re finding ways to present themselves to their community as more than just a bookstore. The book-buying experience has to exceed convenience and price and the idea that you can sit in your house and get a book sent to you.”
In the Pacific Northwest, Juenemann says that he has visited at least a dozen stores so far this year and hasn’t found any big-button panic issues. “We talk more about nuance and what makes their store particular and what they might focus on,” he notes.
In California, sales are up for most stores and awareness of the importance of independent booksellers among consumers is also up, says Calvin Crosby, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA). But his region is feeling pain from a different quarter: rising costs. “The challenge is not from a predator,” Crosby says. “It’s out of our wanting to pay people. But where does this money come from? The other thing facing California is a shortage of employees. California has negative growth, and commutes are ridiculous; real estate is insane. Landlords want all this money for rent, but the money’s not there.”
Large cities in Texas and Colorado are also facing longer commutes for employees as rental and real estate prices go up. “Getting qualified staff for low pay is an ongoing struggle,” says Heather Duncan, executive director of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA). She finds that the rents employees pay for housing is even more of an issue than commercial real estate costs.
For bookstore owners, the pressure from rising costs for rent and wages has made getting good margins on books and other goods essential. “Rent is a tough one,” says New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) executive director Eileen Dengler, who advises booksellers to purchase their buildings if they can afford it. But she thinks that buying stock to maximize margin—and gearing displays to maximize it as well—can help. “That’s a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around,” says Dengler, who led a roundtable on buying for margin at BookExpo. She plans to reprise it at NAIBA.
SIBA is getting proactive about margins by launching a new program to help booksellers in the region find one special high-margin item that will keep selling throughout the year. This fall, member stores will be able to test a variety of products—ranging from notebooks and coffee mugs to chocolates. The products and/or their packaging will link back to the region with signatures from some of the South’s biggest authors. Bookstores will also have branding opportunities to market the merchandise: as exclusive collectible objects, as products that support local businesses, or as items specifically created for Southern writers and readers. Jewell calls this the “fail fast, fail cheap stage of the process.” Based on bookstore responses, she will refine the concept until she finds that one single item that works across the board.
Changing Things up—and Getting More Diverse
Despite the success of the fall shows—one of the oldest, NEIBA, is holding its 45th annual conference this year—each regional continues to make some changes. (For more highlights of the different shows, see “Regional Show Highlights,” p. 42.) After going with a very full one-day show for many years, booksellers in Southern California told executive director Andrea Vuleta that it was too much. So she is adding a second day this year.
At NAIBA, Dengler has decided to do away with educational panels. “When I went to panels at Winter Institute, I felt that there were a lot of questions that weren’t being answered,” she says. So this year’s morning of education will be devoted to roundtables on a variety of topics, from author events to in-school book fairs and membership programs. Dengler wants to help booksellers solve store problems through these sessions and the show overall. That’s why this year’s overarching theme for the show is “Solutions.”
For PNBA and MPIBA, one of the biggest changes is adding even more authors—17 or 18 for the latter and having a total of roughly 100 altogether for the former, which received a record 190 proposals this year. “We have authors that are not necessarily regional that we wouldn’t have gotten pitched in the past,” says Juenemann, who is testing a new author event: a keynote interview with Nicole Chung for her memoir, All You Can Ever Know.
Though the Heartland Fall Forum is back in Minneapolis this October, the biggest transformation that the show will make is slated for 2019. Instead of rotating between Chicago and Minneapolis, which it has done since the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (GLIBA) and MIBA held their first joint show six years ago, it will move to Cleveland next year. GLIBA executive director Larry Law says that future stops include St. Louis and Louisville.
But this year’s Heartland show is not without a few tweaks, including two keynotes: one will be with local indie favorite Kate DiCamillo, the other with Valerie Jarrett, the Obama White House advisor. “Diversity has definitely been in the forefront of my mind,” says Law, who helped plan education for the forum for the first time in conjunction with MIBA’s Obry. “We’re offering diversity and inclusivity panels at our trade show. It’s my hope that this will translate into a more diverse staff.” MIBA has also added a new mentorship committee specifically aimed at fostering networking and communication among booksellers from diverse backgrounds.
Diversity and activism are key for this year’s NEIBA conference, which also scheduled Jarrett for its opening keynote and will hold an educational session on how bookstores can be politically active but still make all customers feel welcome. Outside the trade show, executive director Beth Ineson says that she’s working on an initiative with 826 Boston, the local arm of the national nonprofit youth writing and publishing program, to build a diverse customer base from the ground up. She wants to embed kids who are active with 826 into bookstores to make young people from different backgrounds feel welcome there.
In addition, Ineson would like to find a way to turn NEIBA and NCIBA’s four-year-old Windows and Mirrors Project, which aims to promote diverse books for children, into a national bookstore program. NEIBA’s children’s group, the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory (NECBA) council, generates a list of new diverse books for toddlers through YA that stores can get behind and sell—particular during the holiday season.
Getting booksellers to diversify their inventories in other ways and stock genre fiction and more graphic novels is a mission that a number of regionals are undertaking this fall. “Romance is huge—I think it’s a very underserved genre,” says GLIBA’s Law, who is also a fan of comics and graphic novels. Heartland will have a session on how to sell romance novels, as well as a panel discussion with graphic artists on graphic novels as memoirs. A number of regionals are also scheduling sessions on science fiction and fantasy, including one on alternative SFF at SIBA.
ABA at the Regionals
As in years past, ABA will have representatives at the eight fall shows, including members of its IndieCommerce team. With new bookstores opening and older stores changing hands, ABA will reprise its popular introductory seminar on principles of bookstore finance, conducted by ABA CFO Robyn DesHotel and a local bookseller. Booksellers from any region are invited to attend; registration is through ABA.
In addition, ABA will be presenting an educational session on maximizing preorders, the importance of which came to the fore when indies were cut out of advance orders for John Oliver’s instant bestseller, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.
“ABA is looking forward to meeting with booksellers, to be as present as possible in order to get their feedback and discuss issues of concern,” says ABA CEO Oren Teicher. “The regional shows also are an opportunity for ABA to meet with the boards of the regional associations when possible. And we’re always grateful to the associations for the opportunity to provide brief updates at their annual meetings.”
ABA’s presence will give booksellers an opportunity to ask about Batch, the online payment system developed by the Booksellers Association of the U.K. and Ireland in 2000, which ABA is planning to launch in January 2019.
Below, more on the fall regionals.