Indie Vitality Celebrated at 2014 Winter Institute

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The resurgence of independent bookselling is on full display at Winter Institute 9 (Wi9), where more than 500 ABA member booksellers, 59 publishing companies, 78 authors, and almost 30 international guests from a dozen countries are into the final day of this year’s event.

In welcoming booksellers to the Opening Plenary session on Wednesday morning, ABA President Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, said, “Our industry, the media, and the general public are recognizing that there has been a resurgence in independent bookselling, a vitality that is the result of your passion, creativity, and untold hours of hard work. That you are here today is evidence that you want 2014 to be even better.”

To the booksellers participating in Wednesday’s Rep Picks Lunch, ABA CEO Oren Teicher said: “A year ago, when many of you braved the snows of Kansas City, we noted that in 2012 there had been almost an eight percent growth in sales nationally for independent bookstores. Here at Winter Institute 2014, I am very happy to report that we have held on to virtually all of those gains in 2013. … In 2013, we’ve seen new stores open; existing stores add locations; and many stores expand their selling space. And, happily, we are continuing to see established businesses successfully transition to new owners. These new booksellers in our midst are bringing fresh eyes, vitality, and lots of great new ideas to our industry. Sixty stores brand-new to the Winter Institute are here, and of the 500 attending booksellers, almost 200 of you are here for the first time.”

Bercu and Teicher both extended sincere thanks to the Winter Institute’s lead sponsor, the Ingram Content Group, for its continuing support of ABA’s educational programming, as well as to the event’s 59 publisher sponsors, the most the institute has ever had. “Ingram’s continuous and very generous commitment to bookseller education allows ABA to offer year-round programming for our members, and to make low-cost hotel rates possible,” Bercu said.

He also extended thanks to The Elliott Bay Book Company and Shelf Awareness, the host and sponsor, respectively, of the institute’s “fantastic” opening reception on Tuesday night. In addition, earlier that day, more than 200 booksellers had taken part in either a full- or half-day tour of some of the area’s great indie bookstores.

At the start of the Winter Institute’s Opening Plenary session on Wednesday morning, ABA Vice President Betsy Burton of The King’s English Bookshop was joined on the stage by author Sherman Alexie, who was saluted in appreciation of his part in launching the very successful Indies First movement, celebrated on Small Business Saturday. Alexie was presented with a T-shirt that said, “The original absolutely true part-time Indie.”

“I was just the figurehead for a lot of people doing a lot of work on Indies First,” Alexie told the packed ballroom. Of the campaign’s origins, he said, “It actually began due to my incompetence and sleepiness.” After accidentally sleeping through a planned appearance at the opening day celebration of Seattle’s Queen Anne Book Company, Alexie asked owner Janis Segress how he could make it up to the store, and she suggested that he might work as a bookseller for a day. “And it went really well,” he said.

With the support of ABA, Alexie wrote the letter that encouraged his fellow authors to show their support for independent bookstores by signing on to become handsellers for a day at their local indies on Small Business Saturday. “You all responded in a wonderful way,” he said. “And writers responded in a way that completely shocked me — I had no idea this many were going to do it. We hope to make it even bigger, to make this a giant event so we continue to be amazed by it.”

Alexie also thanked the room of booksellers for launching his career. “This is not some altruistic move; don’t think I’m some romantic fool,” he said. “I was a young kid with a book of stories about some rez Indians, and you paid attention … and I know you will continue to do that.

“I celebrate you, as people, as institutions, as a movement, and as the future of bookselling: not just the past — the future — of bookselling.”

The Opening Plenary: Dan Heath on Making Better Choices in Life and Work

Dan Heath took to the stage on Wednesday morning to share some important insights on decision-making from Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Crown Business), which he co-authored with his brother, Chip.

Heath outlined four critical pitfalls that often occur when we weigh choices in life and work — narrow framing, confirmation bias, short-term emotion, and overconfidence. To help us overcome these predictable traps, the Heaths developed the WRAP process, which includes four steps to better decision-making.

Widen Your Options: When we put blinders on and don’t consider all options, we’ve fallen into narrow framing. “You’re ignoring all of the real alternatives that exist,” said Heath. “You miss what’s available to you.” By approaching decisions with a whether-or-not attitude — deciding either to do something or not to do something — we fail to see the options in between. “I’m hoping this phrase, ‘whether or not,’ will become a kind of alarm bell for you,” he said.

Heath recounted an important decision made by Robert Sindelar, the managing partner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Ravenna, Washington. With the café at the Ravenna location struggling, Sindelar considered firing the manager or redoing the menu, but instead he met with a handful of restaurateurs in the Seattle area to gain insight as to how to improve the café. The key, Heath said, was seeking out the help of people who had already solved that same problem. After having an established restaurant open a branch in the bookstore, Sindelar and his colleagues saw the store’s café become a success.

Reality-Test Your Assumptions: “Often in life, we think we’re looking for truth when we’re really just looking for reassurance,” said Heath. This behavior leads to the decision-making pitfall confirmation bias, or cherry-picking information that validates our ideas. Instead of finding information to support the decision we want to make, Heath urged booksellers to try “ooching” instead: small experiments that can be conducted to test different options.

As an example of ooching, Heath pointed to Flyleaf Books’ new take on the classic holiday gift guide. For the 2013 holiday season, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, indie offered title suggestions for people who fell into very specific categories, like the husband who loves Indian food but can’t find the time to take a cooking class or the grandmother who loves mysteries but does not want to read about sex or murder. “The effect of this promotion was pretty amazing,” said Heath, with customers returning for weeks to ask about the specific books from the flier. The trial run was so successful that Flyleaf owner Jamie Fiocco is considering producing the guide year-round.

Attain Some Distance Before Deciding: Many of us have been told to “trust your gut” when looking to make a decision, but basing decisions on short-term emotions is not the best route to go, said Heath. Your gut instincts are helpful in ethical situations, but for business or organizational decisions, let the gut be a witness and not the judge. “When we think about our own decisions, we tend to get caught in the trees,” he said, but when we help our friends to make decisions, “we can see the whole forest.” Adopting a different perspective when considering an important decision, said Heath, can be an enormous help in making better decisions. Ask important questions like, if you were to start over today, would you build the same partnerships or make the same hires? If you were replaced, what would your successor do? “There is something powerful about a shift in perspective,” Heath said.

Prepare to Be Wrong: When making a decision, avoid overconfidence, or having too much faith that things will pan out the way you want them to. Set up a trigger that will grab your attention — a tripwire — so that a decision can be reevaluated before it goes too awry. “We need tripwires to tell us when to reconsider our decisions,” said Heath, like trying out a new idea for store events, but reconvening to discuss if the events aren’t breaking even by a certain point. Tripwires can be a moment, date, or diagnostic that calls out for review when reached.

Utilizing the WRAP process helps to build confidence that we have considered all of the options, said Heath. It gives us the freedom to be bold while knowing that we’ve also built a safety net. “We are never going to be perfect with our decisions — we live in a complicated world and we are fallible people. But we absolutely can be better,” Heath said in closing. “May you make decisions with confidence and wisdom in the days ahead.”

Thursday Morning Plenary: The Seattle7Writers on Creating Connections Between Writers, Readers, Librarians, and Booksellers

Six members of Seattle7Writers, a collective comprised of more than 60 Pacific Northwest authors, took the stage on Thursday morning for a lively discussion about their organization’s mission. Authors Garth Stein, Carol Cassella, Tara Conklin, Elizabeth George, Deb Caletti, and Jennie Shortridge addressed the room full of booksellers and outlined the ways in which they work with local independent booksellers, as well as literacy organizations, to foster a passion for the written word in their community.

Shortridge began by explaining how Seattle7Writers was formed in 2009, after she and Stein had coffee and a conversation about writing that ranged from the often frustrating and isolating lifestyle of an author to a desire to become more active in the community. This quickly turned into a monthly meeting of seven Seattle-area writers, which they called “Wine and Whine.” Though now more than 60 authors strong, the name Seattle7 has stuck, to pay tribute to “the more dangerous Seattle 7,” said Stein, referencing the 1970s anti-Vietnam radicals.

While Seattle7Writers was created to serve as a forum for local authors to share ideas about the craft of writing, it also had a clear mission to use its members’ reach in the community to energize the reading public.

“We wanted to connect readers and writers with independent booksellers and librarians, to foster this big ecosystem of people who love books,” said Shortridge. “We’re all in this together –– we love writing, we love reading. And we want to make sure we’re giving back to this community.”

The group’s many charity efforts include collecting donated books and distributing them to food banks, shelters, and prisons; helping children and adults in need –– those transitioning out of homelessness, as well as those in recovery –– with their writing skills; and hosting writing conferences for the general public. Since its inception, Seattle7Writers has raised more than $50,000, which has been donated to literacy organizations.

“Bookselling is a living organism,” said Stein. “It changes, and it grows, and it expands, and it contracts.” Though writers often “tend to be cave-dwellers,” he continued, “we have to realize as authors, we’re part of the ecosystem, as are booksellers, as are readers, as are librarians. That’s really what we try to emphasize in the Seattle7, that we all have to take care of each other and pay attention to the well-being of our ecosystem.”

In an effort to gain the attention of the community, “we try to do funky, weird things,” said Shortridge, “as a way to infuse energy into the public.”

One such event was a six-day writing marathon to raise funds for literacy during which the group collaboratively wrote a novel in front of a live audience at Seattle’s Hugo House Literacy Center. Their words were projected on a screen and streamed live online. There was also a chat room function, so viewers could make suggestions to the writers on stage. “That added a community element to it,” said Stein. The project was called The Novel: Live, and the result is Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, published by Open Road Media. All royalties on the book have been donated to literacy organizations.

Though nerve-wracking at first, “it turned out to be the most fun,” said George. Additionally, “it showed people that a novel is a participatory art form,” said Cassella. “To do it in front of an audience is a good example of how authors can connect to readers.”

The group emphasized the importance of authors working together, as well as the way booksellers and librarians serve as a vital link to the reading community.

“We realize we’re all in the same boat, and we have a shared goal –– to get our ideas out to the reader. But we need help, and that’s why we value independent bookstores,” said Stein. Conklin added that before she became an author, she was discouraged by the many news reports predicting the demise of the book industry. Looking out at the large audience of independent booksellers, she said, “I think the reports of your death are a little exaggerated.”

Cassella noted that indies help to make bookselling a pleasant experience. “You take it out of the realm of sales... it’s about the book, the story, the characters, and what goes on in the mind of the reader. It’s about that human connection.”

To that point, George said that she values the reviews and shelf-talkers that can be found in indie stores as an effective way to communicate to readers. “Sharing your love and excitement makes it work,” Caletti added.

The authors were in agreement about IndieBound’s Indie Next List –– that being chosen is a high honor. “That was one of the most exciting things about publishing my book,” said Conklin, whose title, The House Girl, was the #1 Indie Next List Pick for February 2013. “I think we value that more than any other list,” added Shortridge, whose titles have appeared on the Indie Next List, including her most recent book, Love Water Memory, which was an April 2013 pick. “It’s not a corporate decision; it really comes from the heart,” she said.

In responding to audience members, many of whom asked for advice in starting similar organizations in their own towns, Stein said that it’s important that the participating authors are active. “The number is not as important as the energy,” he said. Shortridge explained that the requirements for authors to join the Seattle7Writers are that they have at least one traditionally published book, as well as “a generosity of spirit,” she said, adding that it’s important to make sure authors are not simply seeking to promote their own books.

During the Q&A at the end of breakfast, an audience member posed more of a request than a question to the group: that the members of Seattle7Writers, include a prominent buy button for indie stores on their websites. Stein and Shortridge –– who already provide purchasing options for indies on their sites –– happily agreed to share this request at the next Seattle7Writers meeting.

Friday Morning Breakfast: Ray Oldenburg on the Need for a Third Place

At Friday’s Small Press Breakfast, Ron Sher, owner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Ravenna, Washington, sat down for a conversation with sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Marlowe & Company, dist. by PGW) and Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities (Da Capo). The two discussed how independent bookstores can remain important “third places” in every community and become social spaces for the public to come together and create relationships.

“The first place — and the most important place — is the home, the second place is the work lot, and the third place is where you escape the role requirements of home and work,” said Oldenburg, who noted that the term Great Good Place to describe third places was inspired by Henry James’ short story “The Great Good Place,” in which the main character experiences a break from the daily grind in a community-type setting.

What has happened in America, said Oldenburg, is that zoning rules have helped create neighborhoods that have lost community places. “That means you can’t have gathering places where people live.” But booksellers have a plethora of ways in which they can help bring their bookstores into the ranks of third places and recreate what has been lost in communities.

Oldenburg detailed the functions that an ideal third place would perform for its community, including unifying the neighborhood by creating a welcoming space; serving as a port of entry for newcomers; serving as a staging area for the community, especially in times of struggle; offering social and intellectual support; and providing an atmosphere of fun and enjoyment for all involved.

“You become a real third place when your regular customers know one another and count on meeting one another there, then you’ve got the essence,” said Oldenburg. Sher agreed that third places create excitement and energy and critical mass — all of which can be done in bookstores.

“The third place is a very simple idea,” Oldenburg concluded. “What I did was show that from culture to culture to culture, the basics are the same. Whether you’re talking about a French café, an English pub, or the old country store ... the basic ideas are the same. Given that universality, we should understand how essential this kind of thing is.”

Winter Institute 10 to Be Held in Asheville, North Carolina

At Friday’s breakfast, ABA CEO Oren Teicher announced that the 10th Annual Winter Institute will be held in Asheville, North Carolina, at the historic resort hotel The Grove Park Inn. The event will open with an evening reception on Sunday, February 8, 2015, and the educational program will run from Monday, February 9, through Wednesday, February 11.

Look for reports on Winter Institute 9’s educational sessions in upcoming editions of Bookselling This Week. —Sydney Jarrard, Elizabeth Knapp, and Rosemary Hawkins