On February 12, the first full day of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute 2024 in Cincinnati, booksellers explored the galley room, met with vendors, and greeted friends. Onstage at the breakfast session, ABA CEO Allison Hill welcomed 951 booksellers—the most ever convened at a Winter Institute, the ABA noted. Hill made special note of Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers (Detroit, Mich.), who, at 85, is the eldest bookseller in attendance, and Halley Vincent of Seven Stories (Shawnee, Kan.), who, at 14, is an uncommonly young ABA participant. After “thousands of hours of planning and preparation,” Hill said, WI2024 was underway.

Hill returned to the mic later in the day for an informal ABA Open House, naming several priorities for the organization and taking comments and questions from members. She urged booksellers to opt into the Batch for Books supply chain technology program, which she called “one of the things that starts to transform this industry. When I have conversations with entrepreneurs, they are hesitant to invest in an industry that is hesitant to adopt new technologies. The ripple effect of adoption could be significant.”

Hill also strongly encouraged participation in ABA’s ABACUS survey, a means of documenting bookstores’ potential as profitable small businesses. Courtney Smith, of Underbrush Books (Rogers, Ark.), replied that ABACUS “was the reason I was able to get my loan” to open a store in her small Arkansas town, adding that ABA had brought booksellers to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the Credit Card Competition Act of 2023, which could bring down the cost of swipe fees.

Members expressed their concerns about climate change, declines in literacy, inflation, high interest rates, and their personal safety in an increasingly tense 2024 election year. Elizabeth Bluemle of the Flying Pig Bookstore (Shelburne, Vt.) said that “books are already a luxury item for most people, and even people with means are hesitating to buy them.” Another bookseller added: “The idea of staying in business is almost secondary to [the question of] ‘how do we stay alive?’ I don’t want to be melodramatic about that,” but many bookstores “become activist centers” for staffers and community and, consequently, targets for hatred and disruption. An attendee from Femme Fire Books (Jacksonville, Fla.) underscored that point: “We’re the only BIPOC bookstore in a 100-mile radius” in an area marked by political strife.

Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation program manager Judey Kalchik encouraged members to get in touch with Binc for mental health and wellness services, or if weather or other emergencies caused damage or closures of longer than three days. Many booksellers said that they are indeed reckoning with repairs, lost sales, and lost wages due to climate change. A Vermont member affected by flooding called 2023 “the year that climate change started to impact our business in small everyday ways,” adding, “these aren’t freak occurrences anymore.” In an effort to aid booksellers dealing with natural disasters impacting their shops, ABA director of education Kim Hooyboer pointed attendees to ABA’s “This Is a Fire Drill” crisis management resources.

From Bookselling Basics to Social Media Stardom

ABA is keen to connect independent bookstores with independent publishers, and a session on Education for Publishers: Four Ways for Publishers to Partner with Indies for Success explored the potentials, and pitfalls, of these relationships. The panel included ABA CFO PK Sindwani, ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, Batch for Books joint managing director Izzy Carlile, Cynthia Compton of MacArthur Books (Carmel, Ind.), and Molly Olivo of Child’s Play (Washington, D.C.).

Carlile urged booksellers to learn more about Batch, saying that it made invoicing much more efficient, and that publishers using Batch were “paid more quickly.” She added that there are 300 booksellers on Batch currently, estimating that, by the end of the year, those numbers would rise to about 425 Batch bookstore members.

In her remarks, Compton noted that "time is currency" for booksellers, and urged publishers to keep that in mind. When it comes to school and library promotions, she said publishers should maintain a global school calendar, as schools throughout the U.S. do not maintain the same calendar. As an example, she noted that students in Indiana schools start their vacation on Memorial Day and that all students return to school in early August. Thus, Compton said, back-to-school promotions that are scheduled for September are useless to booksellers like her. She suggested that publishers might “stretch out” such marketing campaigns and promotions.

Dallanegra-Sanger also encouraged consistency and standardization in publishers’ outreach to booksellers. Noting that bookstores nationwide, including many that have opened since the onset of the pandemic, “work with hundreds of publishers,” she requested that publishers begin using standardized language in their terms, noting that, currently, “the language is all over the place.”

Bookseller education sessions emphasized nuts-and-bolts operations. Ron Smithson, Nancy Rohlen, and Shawn Everson of Ingram Content Group talked about warehouse improvements and iPage enhancements across their facilities. Booksellers led panels on working with Excel and Google spreadsheets and on running book fairs—an increasingly popular revenue stream for mission-driven and literacy-focused stores that have the resources to provide this community service.

In a nod to the 254 bookstores around the U.S. that opened last year, three veteran booksellers—Camden Avery of Booksmith in San Francisco; Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Bookshop in Seattle; and Christine Bollow of Loyalty Bookstores in the Washington, D.C., metro area—joined Dallanegra-Sanger and Ryan Quinn, ABA IndieCommerce specialist, on a panel entitled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Bookselling, But Were Afraid to Ask.” Panelists informed the audience of about 90 booksellers about the basics of bookselling beyond standing at a cash register, ranging from a rundown of all of the industry resources available to them to effectively building relationships with publishers. Discussing proper bookselling etiquette at industry shows and conferences, Bollow summed up the standards succinctly: "Don't be an asshole."

At a session on “the new marketing and media strategy,” four booksellers gave advice on social media, blogs, and newsletters. “Start small,” warned Kassie King of the Novel Neighbor (Webster Groves, Mo.), who caught the attention of USA Today’s Laura Trujillo—also on the panel—by creating an Instagram series of “Looks as Books.” The Novel Neighbor paired the fabulous concert outfits of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift with matching book covers, and customers took interest. King promised an Oscars-related “Looks as Books” series, and mentioned another promotion involving creating book recommendations for characters in the film Mean Girls. She added one caution: Booksellers should talk to inventory managers before posting on Instagram, because reader demand could exceed book supply.

At Rediscovered Bookshop (Boise, Id.), where she is one of four newly announced owners, Kalli King (no relation to Kassie) relies on Instagram Reels and Instagram Stories for promotions. She said that Rediscovered went from having 6,500 followers on Instagram to more than 22,000 when it began consistently posting two reels a week. King uses Canva Pro to create “Meet the Bookseller” images that resemble baseball card formats and posts “This Just In” announcements when tempting preowned copies arrive at Rediscovered’s used book location, Once and Future Books.

Simplicity and authenticity were the watchwords of the media panel. Cris Siqueira of Lion’s Tooth (Milwaukee, Wis.)—a 600 square foot, mission-driven store that’s a haven for queer youth—had a short-and-sweet philosophy for social media: “If there’s something fun to do, do it until it’s not fun anymore,” and have faith that another creative idea will get social media energy flowing again.

At the close of the sessions, members dispersed to happy hours and dinners, including a Bookshop.org happy hour at Cincinnati bar Igby's and a celebration of Binc at Second Story Bar, across the Ohio River in Covington, Ky.