A Bookseller's Buzz on the GLBA Trade Show

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By Daniel Goldin, General Manager, Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee

If a trade show has two themes, it must be twice as good as those old-fashioned one-themed regionals, right? For the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, the answer may be yes, as the education sessions at last weekend's show (at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center in Schaumburg, Illinois) played off of "The World Is Not Flat" while the show itself cheerily announced "It's About Books, It's About Buzz."

First, the brainy stuff. American Booksellers Association CEO Avin Mark Domnitz led the "Digital Future" workshop, which postulates the future of bookselling in Web 2.0. It's not an easy session for old-fashioned retailers with an even more old-fashioned product to embrace, and it was made even tougher because the program had to be condensed into 40 minutes.

It's daunting to hear about how rapid change, open source, and the wisdom of crowds are influencing our world, and there's a tendency to throw your hands up in surrender. But the message is ultimately affirming -- that our customers need us more than ever and we can harness these changes to bring people into our shops.

Other workshops were more hands-on. Robin Allen of Forever Books in St. Joseph, Michigan, moderated the "Ideas That Work" panel. According to booksellers, the idea that turned the most heads was her "Read for Pay" idea in which her staff is expected to read three books a month for extra compensation. Oh, and they have to like them. Liz Murphy of The Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio, came armed with pro-indie logo tees and would have brought her "A better world without borders" mug if she hadn't just sold out. And pencils (or pencil equivalents) were used to furiously scribble while Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books of Kalamazoo, Michigan, recounted her adventures in networking.

Sunday's book club panel featured Laura Barrato of Random House, Carol Ann Katzoulis of Anderson's in Naperville, Illinois, and Sue Boucher and Ann Walters of Lake Forest Book Store in Lake Forest, Illinois. It was clear that there are several ways to present at a book club night (few books versus a lot of books); an equal number of ways to display (a signed versus unsigned book club section); and lots of disagreement over whether a book in which there is nothing to talk about makes a good book club choice or not. While I was previously on the "don't recommend books you can't talk about" team, I thought that the other side had a very clean argument in that many clubs don't really want to talk about the book anyway.

Reps show off some of the featured titles at the GLBA trade show.

An important session on Sunday was GLBA's "The World Is Not Flat," moderated by ABA's Domnitz, with talks from Matt Cunningham of Civic Economics (famous for their groundbreaking studies on the economic contributions of local businesses versus chains), Jeff Milchen, the Outreach Director of AMIBA (American Independent Business Alliance), plus some down-to-earth advice from Carol Bessie of Carmichael's (Louisville). I found the talk fascinating, and particularly appreciated Bessie's frank discussion of what worked and what did not in the formation and structuring of the Louisville Independent Business Alliance. Another bookseller did find the session intimidating, and we agreed that adding another bookseller from a smaller market who was taking small steps to combat non-local buying might have made the whole goal feel more doable.

A session on using My Space and blogs was basic and informative. Matt Norcross from McLean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, handled the former while Bridget Rothenberger of Nomad Bookhouse in Jackson, Michigan, walked attendees through the latter. (When you sign your store up, make sure you remember to make your store's age at least 18 years old so that you don't have a problem with restrictive content!)

Finally, a series of sessions on Whiz Bang Marketing were led by Bob Negen of Whiz Bang Training, whose success at building Mackinaw Kite Company into a three million dollar business has been parlayed into a series of programs to help small retailers. Three sessions, on exploding your sales, developing staff, and using web sites and e-mail to drive traffic, were positively received, and several booksellers told me afterwards that they bought the package.

Negen's tips had the beauty of being both counterintuitive and yet imbued with common sense. There was a lot of meat in the message. When you think about it, gift cards really are like cash, but coupons are like trash, so why not tempt potential customers with the former instead of the latter and dramatically increase redemption?

And that was just the education sessions. For the rest of the show, buzz was the buzzword. Before the show, there were two "What's the buzz" panels, one each for adult and kids books. There was some discussion of what "buzz" was exactly, but at least for the adult panelists, we mostly saw this as an opportunity to help bring midlist titles to a wider audience.

Michael Boggs of Carmichaels and Deb Covey of Joseph-Beth in Cincinnati waxed on about Chronicle's lavish photography book Creature. Boggs also praised Listening Is an Act of Love (Dave Isay, Penguin) as this year's This I Believe. Cary Boswell of The Bookshelf in Cincinnati made an impassioned plea for spring's The Rope Walk from Carrie Brown (Pantheon), calling it the best novel she'd read in years. The engaged presentation of Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor had me rethinking my buys on The Book of Psalms (Robert Alter, Norton) and Proust and the Squid (Maryanne Wolf, Harper). The final panelist [the writer himself] did a mediocre job (I can be quite self-critical) but did somewhat convince me that The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett, FSG) was the perfect indie book and we could all sell truckloads.

The Rep Around luncheon, new to GLBA, was a big success, according to both booksellers and exhibitors. The convention floor closed for a series of mini-presentations. Several booksellers including Norma Solberg from Anderson's were intrigued by Rescuing Da Vinci (Robert M. Edsel, Laurel Publishing/Midpoint), an oversized history of the "Monuments Men," a crack team of folks charged with rescuing artwork stolen by Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners.

The Authors Feast was also popular. GLBA Book Award winner Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen and The Off Season (Houghton), won over the crowd with her ode to independent bookselling. And Carol Bessie's Quiz Bowl was the subject of widespread discussion; most said the questions were the hardest yet. In the end, team Cincinnatus, led by Cary Boswell took top honors.

My favorite part of the show is chatting with booksellers about what will sell. Rukiya Johnson, buyer for Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstores in Detroit said she was enthusiastic about Walter Moseley's return to Easy Rawlins with Blonde Faith (Little, Brown) Linda Bubon of Women and Children First in Chicago did a good job talking up Bad Karma (Tamara Sheward) from Academy Chicago, about the travel exploits of a cantankerous Australian. Several booksellers told me they were enthusiastic about reading the book after chatting with Linda.

Jill Webb and Sue Wood of the Cottage Bookshop of Glen Arbor, Michigan, agreed that the best swag were Christmas cards from Simon & Schuster. Marge Thomas of Coffeetree Books in Morehead, Kentucky, was enthusiastic about Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles (Random House). When one bookseller told me "Judy's assistant" was quite hot on The Black Book of Secrets (F.E. Higgins, Feiwel & Friends), I had to show her the fabulous finished copy at the Holtzbrinck booth and tell her about all the great reads we'd had on it. I never found out who Judy was, however.

Just about everyone had a book they wanted to share with the world. Betty Redmond of PGW told me that Frances Itani's new Remembering the Bones was even better than The Deafening. Johanna Hynes of Norton said that a number of booksellers were at the booth following up on titles they heard about from fellow GLBA-ers. And even Avin Domnitz got into the act -- he's got a winter book he's wild about, but so far he's playing it close to the vest and I promised I wouldn't reveal the title.

In the end, isn't that what regionals are about? Get some good ideas from speakers and other booksellers and share some of your own. Hear what other booksellers are talking about, and then offer your own picks. The buzz is what we live for -- it's what keeps us ahead of the competition and it's what makes our jobs fun.

Booksellers who stopped by the ABA booth at any one of this season's trade shows are eligible to enter drawings for prizes, courtesy of ABA and BookExpo America. At GLBA, Larene Hall, owner of The Village Bookworm in Coshocton, Ohio, won an iPod, courtesy of BEA. ABA donated a color inkjet printer to GLBA's Silent Auction, which was subsequently won by Rita Williams of Books of Aurora, in Aurora, Ohio.

Both winners, along with other booksellers who dropped off their business cards at the ABA booth, will be included in drawings taking place at the end of October, at the conclusion of the trade show season: for accommodations at Hotel ABA at BEA 2008 in Los Angeles, courtesy of BEA; for hotel accommodations at the Third Annual Winter Institute in Louisville in January, courtesy of BEA; and for one of 24 publisher-sponsored scholarships, including reasonable transportation costs and up to a three-night hotel stay at the Winter Institute.