Book Industry Celebrates Winter Institute’s 15th Year, ABA’s 120th

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Hundreds of independent booksellers gathered this week in Baltimore, Maryland, for the American Booksellers Association’s 15th annual Winter Institute, a four-day educational and networking event marked by noted positivity among attendees, who came from around the world.

Approximately 755 booksellers (including 292 first-timers) from 450 stores joined more than 140 authors, 135 publisher partners, and 68 international guests who traveled from as far as the Netherlands, Colombia, Guatemala, and New Zealand to attend ABA’s largest educational event, which kicked off on Tuesday, January 21.

Ahead of Tuesday evening’s opening reception, booksellers streamed into the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor to collect their welcome bags and badges and to head off on a range of adventures. Some went to the Antitrust Symposium in Washington, D.C., while others toured Penguin Random House’s nearby warehouse; international guests visited indie bookstores around Baltimore.

Educational offerings included the IndieCommerce Institute, the Paz & Associates Workshop: Introduction to Retail Bookselling, Buying for Small Stores and Tips for Better Buying, the Life Cycle of the Book, and the Used Books Seminar. Face-to-face meeting opportunities included Ingram’s Indies on the Harbor, Publishers by Appointment, and one-on-one appointments with representatives from Batch for Books and ABA’s IndieCommerce team. Those ready to relax headed to the NAIBA Hospitality Suite or the Quiet Room to take a break.

Those who signed up for a mentor during registration connected with their Wi15 coach at the Mentor/Mentee Meet and Greet and First-Timer Orientation, then joined up with hundreds of other attendees at the Winter Institute Welcome Reception and Anniversary Celebration, co-sponsored by Shelf Awareness. ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger welcomed the crowd to Winter Institute, noting that 2020 marked the 15th year of the event and the 120th anniversary of ABA, which was founded in 1900.

The evening continued with the Bookseller Mix & Mingle with Romance Authors, sponsored by HarperCollins and Bookstore Romance Day, and a toast to recently retired ABA CEO Oren Teicher, which featured appearances by a number of booksellers and industry colleagues before Teicher took the stage himself.

“Nobody in this room, myself included, could have imagined that 15 years ago, when we gathered for that first institute in Long Beach, California, that the Winter Institute would grow into what has now become arguably the preeminent annual indie bookselling event. To say that I’m so proud of that achievement is a big understatement,” said Teicher, who went on to acknowledge and thank the many people he has worked with throughout his 30-year career in the business.

In thanking the booksellers in attendance, Teicher noted, “Your resilience, your entrepreneurship, your sense of community is nothing short of extraordinary. The fact that this room is filled tonight — and this institute sold out within hours of registration opening — is testimony to what each and every one of you have accomplished … As sure as I’m standing here in Baltimore tonight, I know that our work will go on; our cause will endure; and our dream of a vibrant, profitable indie bookstore in every town and city in America — I know that dream will never, ever die.”

On Wednesday, January 22, booksellers began the day with the keynote presentation “Reinventing the Store: Achieving Growth in the Face of New Business Risks” from Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ryan Raffaelli, who engaged in years of research of indie bookstores to identify how mature industries faced with technological change reinvent themselves. Following the keynote, attendees headed to the Bookseller to Bookseller discussion groups to talk about their business strategies in relation to the ideas presented by Raffaelli. See full coverage of Raffaelli’s keynote in this week’s issue of BTW

Just before Raffaelli’s presentation, ABA President Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, asked attendees to join in a land acknowledgment to formally recognize the historical and continuing connection between indigenous people and their native lands. “We are convening on the ancestral land of the Piscataway people in Baltimore City,” said Fiocco. “Please take a moment with me now to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that have brought us to this place.”

Incoming ABA CEO Allison Hill spoke about her trip from Los Angeles to Baltimore and the conversation she had with her seatmate on the flight, who asked her what she does for a living. “I’m a leader in a movement that changes lives every day,” Hill told him. “I talked about the work that we all do: changing lives by putting the right book in someone’s hand, creating communities, creating opportunities for the exchange of ideas, defending freedom of speech, publishing and celebrating underrepresented voices, boosting local economies, and contributing to culture and society.”

Looking ahead to her role as CEO, Hill noted, “A change in leadership is a tremendous opportunity to reframe the conversation in our industry. I believe that this moment in time is a critical one in the industry. The measure of our success going forward isn’t necessarily the number of stores but a more sustainable model, more profitable bookstores, and better wages for booksellers. That future requires a sea change and this week, for me, marks the beginning of that transformation.”

The morning also marked the opening of the Winter Institute Galley Room, which this year boasted stacks of galleys of more than 350 different titles up for grabs.

Morning education sessions covered an array of topics, including Training General Booksellers in Kids’ Book Sales, A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ+ Workers Nationwide, Creating Conversations Around American Dirt, Cost-Cutting with ABACUS, Reimagining the Backlist Canon for Our Time, and a panel session on Batch for Books.

The institute’s first Rep Picks Speed Dating Lunch, where booksellers heard from publisher reps about the most exciting titles coming up this year, was followed by a keynote from bestselling author Rebecca Solnit, who presented the talk “A (Feminist) Field Guide to Nonexistence.” See complete coverage of Solnit’s keynote in this week’s issue of BTW.

Afternoon educational offerings looked at the work-life balance, sending personalized e-mails, managing relationships with sales reps, managing a bookstore café, green retailing, and IndieCommerce for small stores. Booksellers also came together in user groups based on their store’s POS system and participated in focus groups with publisher partners.

The evening concluded with a cocktail party hosted by Ingram Content Group, at which Winter Institute attendees donned twinkling blue glasses and snapped photos with Ingram’s specially designed blue umbrellas that featured the names of hundreds of indie bookstores. Later that evening, Scholastic’s 100th anniversary afterparty featured galley giveaways, champagne, dessert, and authors Pam Muñoz Ryan, Deborah Wiles, Sharon Cameron, and Jenny Downham.

Booksellers grabbed seats early for the Thursday, January 23, keynote featuring bestselling novelist, memoirist, and short story writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, who invigorated attendees with a thoughtful, moving, and humorous look at life through her personal lens. See a full report of Boylan’s keynote in this week’s BTW.

In her opening remarks, ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger took the stage to invite booksellers to reflect on the many changes and challenges the industry has seen in recent years, from rising rents and changing downtown landscapes to the need for industry data. “ABA understands this and is committed to working with all of you for needed changes. Our goal is to keep indie bookstores profitable and a vital part of their communities,” she said.

Dallanegra-Sanger also recognized the winners of ABA’s inaugural Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, Billie Bloebaum of Third Street Books in McMinnville, Oregon, and Nicole Magistro of The Bookworm of Edwards in Edwards, Colorado, and announced that the 2021 Winter Institute will be held February 7–10 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Publishers Weekly also announced the 2020 Bookstore and Sales Representative of the Year finalists; see who’s in the running in this week’s BTW.

The day continued with education sessions on writing in times of crisis, which featured authors Julia Alvarez, Erik Larson, James McBride, David Simon, and Emma Straub; pre-order campaigns; boosting sales and growing a customer base with genre titles; bookstore podcasts; and actionable ideas from representatives of Baltimore-area businesses, including Charm City Run, aMuse Toys, and A Few Cool Hardware Stores.

Booksellers also attended the second round of Rep Picks, heard from the latest authors in the Indies Introduce program and the booksellers who selected them, and visited with the 35 vendors at this year’s Consultation Station

At the annual Winter Institute Town Hall meeting, booksellers spoke up about a number of issues, including the implementation of Bookshop, the importance of supporting children’s booksellers as well as children’s books, the value of Spanish-language books, and more. See a full report about the Town Hall meeting in this week’s issue of BTW.

Afternoon education sessions were Black Female Entrepreneurship: Bookselling and Literacy as Resistance, Creating Profitable Events, How Bookshop Benefits Independent Booksellers, and the Politics of Curation.

The Evening Author Reception was once again a hit among booksellers, who lined up to snag signed copies of books from authors such as Michael Ian Black, Deb Caletti, Lily King, Judith Martin, James McBride, Colum McCann, Chuck Palahniuk, Jason Reynolds, Rebecca Stead, Lindy West, and more.

Booksellers who spoke with BTW during the reception shared their feelings about the event in its entirety. “I’m here at Winter Institute because you always want to be innovative with new technologies and interacting with new booksellers,” said Winter Institute first-timer Kristian Beverly of Cupboard Maker Books in Enola, Pennsylvania. “It’s always good to know what’s happening in the market. And being able to bounce off ideas from others across the country and world is always really incredible and nice. Bookselling is a community, and that’s unique from other retail spaces. Everyone wants to share ideas, and booksellers are really open in communicating with each other. It’s nice to put names to faces that you see online or in articles.”

Julie Beckers of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, was also attending her first Winter Institute. “I’ve been really impressed so far,” she said. “‘Writing in Times of Crisis’ was my favorite — I really enjoyed hearing the authors speak, and I just got a lot out of it. It was fabulous!”

On Friday, January 24, the final day of the institute and the slated day for Day Pass attendees, booksellers began the morning by hearing about upcoming titles from some of Winter Institute’s additional publisher sponsors, then met with those publishers for further discussion during Publisher Office Hours as well as with small and mid-size publishers for informal conversations during Meet the Presses. Education sessions invited booksellers to learn about board games; diversity, equity, and inclusion; managing events in a politically challenging climate; and time management for small stores.

The mid-morning keynote, “Bookselling and Liberation: Black Bookstores in America, From the ’60s to the Present,” featured an open conversation about the history and vital position of Black bookstores in our communities and in our industry with pioneers of Black bookselling and publishing, including W. Paul Coates of Black Classic Press, Shirikiana Aina Gerima of Sankofa Video Books and Cafe, Judy Richardson of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Nati Kamau-Nataki of Everyone’s Place. The keynote was moderated by Professor Joshua Clark Davis, author of From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.

The Lunchtime Author Reception provided a final opportunity to collect galleys and meet authors such as Gibby Haynes, Remy Lai, David Nicholls, Marieke Nijkamp, Garth Stein, and more. The afternoon offered a game room for booksellers to test out non-book inventory, a Bookselling Boot Camp, a workshop on employee manuals, a live Marketing Meetup on search engine optimization, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Conversation with Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

The final education sessions looked at Independent Bookstore Day (where it was announced that professional baseball player and indie bookstore advocate Sean Doolittle would serv as this year’s ambassador), running for office, bookseller innovations, and creating a welcoming and open space for LGBTQ+ youth, as well as an event debrief. Booksellers rounded out their visit to Baltimore with a special screening of John Waters’ 1988 classic film Hairspray, sponsored by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Stay tuned to upcoming editions of Bookselling This Week for coverage of additional events at Winter Institute as well as for in-depth coverage of ABA’s numerous Winter Institute education sessions. In addition, as part of an ongoing effort to make educational programming available to all member booksellers, ABA will post videos of keynote presentations and education sessions on BookWeb in the coming weeks; watch BTW for details.

Emily Behnke contributed to this report. Special thanks to Two Cats Communications for photos.