NEBA Returns to Providence for a Productive Show

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From September 27 - 29, the New England Booksellers Association (NEBA) returned to Providence, Rhode Island, for its fall trade show, and a combination of stimulating panels, notable author events, a productive trade floor, and a convivial city made for a memorable bookselling weekend.

"This was probably the smoothest show we have ever had," NEBA Executive Director Rusty Drugan told BTW. Both Drugan and NEBA President Linda Ramsdell of Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, reported that feedback from exhibitors and attendees had been "almost universally positive," according to Drugan. "I was really pleased -- I thought the show went extremely well," said Ramsdell. "It was an atmosphere of great collegiality and cooperation."

There were 1,432 booksellers, 808 exhibitors, and approximately 100 authors attending this year's show, for a total of 2,340 individuals. Drugan noted that while attendance was down slightly from 2001, there had been no drop in exhibiting companies. In contrast to last year, when the show's Boston location allowed nearby publishers to send staff for a day, some houses had fewer staff in Providence for the weekend.

Attendees contacted by BTW all praised this year's programming, especially a panel sponsored by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), "Harry Potter and '911' -- Current Challenges to First Amendment Rights." The panel was moderated by ABFFE President Chris Finan, and joining him on the panel were writers Wendy Kaminer (Free for All, Beacon) and Judy Blume (Double Fudge, Penguin Putnam).

The state of the First Amendment, as outlined by Kaminer, was not reassuring. Among the notable trends were a growing acceptance among Americans of calls to regulate "harmful speech," at the expense of First Amendment protections; the continued development of such new technologies as Internet filtering programs, which, in turn, have helped spur national and state legislative initiatives that challenge free expression; and the post-9/11 mood of fear, which, Kaminer argued, has made Americans less reluctant about diluting First Amendment protections.

In addition, Blume described a continuing assault on the rights of young readers, including efforts to ban titles ranging from the Harry Potter series to several of her own perennially popular works. She said that censorship efforts came chiefly from parents and adult caregivers, spurred by fears that children might copy the actions of characters or might be disturbed by actions depicted. In addition, parents' religious concerns continue as a cause for book challenges. While noting that parental guidance is appropriate, Blume said, "What [parents] don't have the right to say is 'I don't want any child to read this -- I want the book gone.'"

Given the profound national anxiety, "unfortunately, [Americans] support those assaults on free speech they would see" directed at non-citizens, Kaminer contended, adding that "people are now quite accustomed to assaults on the rights of privacy."

The most significant threat cited by Kaminer and Finan was the USA Patriot Act, section 215, which allows FBI agents to demand the business records of bookstores, including customer purchase records. They described the efforts of ABFFE, the ACLU, and others in attempting to discover the extent of the effects of the Patriot Act on bookstores and libraries. Most recently, these groups have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Justice to discover how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries, and newspapers under the Patriot Act.

Despite the current sobering trends, Finan joked to attendees that "after listening to Wendy, I think that my job will be to try and cheer you up." And, indeed, he did review some significant First Amendment advances in 2002. Notably, almost 1,000 bookstores had ordered kits to participate in this year's Banned Books Week, and, in a major First Amendment victory, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in April that Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store did not have to turn over customer purchase records to state law enforcement officials. The decision so resoundingly supported bookstore owner Joyce Meskis and her colleagues that "some people are still shaking their heads," quipped Finan. "This is all good news, and you should bear it in mind when we talk about the effects of 9/11," he said. After the session, Drugan noted that "the evaluations [of attendees] show that they amply appreciate the importance of censorship and First Amendment issues in the wake of 9/11 to their lives as citizens and their vocations as booksellers."

Many of the themes of the "Harry Potter" panel were echoed in another standing-room-only panel on Saturday, "Sex and Drugs and Children's Books." The session was organized by the New England Children's Booksellers Advisory Council and featured booksellers Alison Morris of Wellesley Booksmith, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Josie Leavitt of The Flying Pig Bookstore, Charlotte, Vermont; YA editor Sharyn November from Penguin Putnam; and authors M.T. Anderson (Burger Wuss and Feet, Candlewick) and Ellen Wittlinger (The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Simon & Schuster).

In a wide-ranging and freewheeling exchange, the panelists and attendees covered topics that included both editorial issues (is the pendulum swinging away from darker, problem-laden YA novels) and marketing strategies (beware of recommending any YA novel that you have not read completely). All the panelists agreed that the ultimate touchstone for selecting notable titles was strong writing. "The books really aren't about the issues. The books are about the characters," declared November, who added that, despite parental worries, most YA fiction "is nothing compared to what you see on MTV in five minutes."

However, booksellers on the panel and in the audience attested that handselling contemporary YA fiction was often challenging. A frequently mentioned issue was parental anxiety. "Parents don't trust the kids enough to read about a certain behavior and not do it," said Leavitt. In contrast, the panelists contended that, often, fiction can help young readers come to grips with important emotional issues in a safe context. Despite this, parental concerns, booksellers reported, can often veto a topic completely. "A lot of great gay books are out, but no one will buy them," said Leavitt. "Parents say, 'I don't want my kids to think that I'm implying anything.'"

By the panel's conclusion, the session had become an intriguing marketing exchange between booksellers and publishers, as the invisible wall between dais and audience came down. For many, the very anxiety certain titles raised among parents and caregivers implicitly articulated the unique place of fiction in the lives of readers. "People are more afraid of books than about anything else," said November. "And I think that gives us a great charge. It's a great responsibility."

Other notable panels at this year's NEBA included Friday's day-long "Jump Start Your Business Brain," with Jeffry Stamp (co-author of Measurably Smarter, F&W Publications) and three ABA panels: an introduction to the new online ABACUS, a panel on succession planning, and an introduction to the new ABA Book Buyer's Handbook online. The ABACUS session, lead by ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz, served as both an opportunity to answer key questions and as a useful focus group to help improve the new project, and the succession planning session, as was the case at BEA, proved to be a topic of considerable interest. The succession planning panel featured Ivan Barkhorn, formerly a partner at McKinsey and Company; and booksellers David Didriksen of Willow Books in Acton, Massachusetts; Bob Hugo of Spirit of 76 in Marblehead, Massachusetts; and Jenny Lawton of Just Books in Greenwich, Connecticut. Joseph Biernat of Hudson Valley Book Shop in Kingston, New York, attended both the ABACUS panel and the "Jump Start Your Business Brain" session, and said that both were very helpful.

Throughout the show, many exhibitors and booksellers reported productive meetings. "It's been good on the floor," said Allan Schmid of Books, Etc. in Portland, Maine, who noted that he was taking advantage of many publishers' show specials, was placing orders on remainders, and was enjoying networking and meeting industry colleagues. Alluding to the "Jump Start" session he had attended on Friday, Schmid said, "Coming to NEBA in a way is jump starting your brain…. It's a good time to get a lot of advice from people and to compare notes." He noted that the show afforded him a chance to see authors, talk with reps, and explore "this sea of books."

This year's show featured a number of authors. At the "Industry Luncheon" on Friday, which featured keynote speaker Gary Fisketjon, Knopf vice president and editor at large, NEBA presented association awards. The President's Award for lifetime contribution to arts and letters went to Donald Hall (The Painted Bird, Houghton Mifflin), and Nanci McCrackin received the Gilman Award for outstanding New England sales rep.

"The aspect of the show that was novel and, I think, a hit was the increased interaction of booksellers and authors through the Saturday 'Dinner with Authors,'" Drugan told BTW. "The Board wanted to emphasize this potential of the trade show to expose authors to booksellers and vice versa -- one that I don't think we ever before really addressed structurally and in a substantial way." At the first-time event, 11 authors moved from table to table of booksellers as each course of the evening's meal was served. The event featured Claire Cook (Must Love Dogs, Penguin Putnam), Kathryn Davis (Versailles, Houghton Mifflin), Mark Dunn (Ella Minnow Pea, Anchor Books), Ha Jin (The Crazed, Pantheon), Michael Keith (The Next Better Place, Algonquin Books), Rosemary Mahoney (The Singular Pilgrim, Houghton Mifflin), Malachy McCourt (Voices of Ireland, Running Press), Matthew Pearl (Dante's Club, Random House), Alexandra Robbins (Secrets of the Tomb, Little, Brown), Beth Saulnier (Bad Seed, Mysterious Press), and James Siegel (Derailed, Warner Books). The event was sponsored by Houghton Mifflin, Ingram Book Company, Koen Book Distributors, and Time Warner Trade Publishing. -- Dan Cullen