Winter Institute Off to a Great Start

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

On Thursday, January 19, more than 500 indie booksellers and guests from all over the country, and as far away as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Sweden, were into the second day of the American Booksellers Association’s seventh annual Winter Institute in New Orleans.  Here’s a look at some of the highlights of the first day, as well as today’s World Book Night breakfast. Watch for more detailed coverage of the entire Winter Institute in upcoming issues of BTW and for a special edition tomorrow with photos from tonight’s Author Reception.

Booksellers who arrived in the Big Easy on Tuesday kicked off the Winter Institute at an opening reception at The Cabildo - Louisiana State Museum, located right on Jackson Square and within walking distance from the hotel. Hundreds of booksellers attended the festive event, which was just the first opportunity of many to renew connections with old friends and make some new ones.

On Wednesday morning, ABA President Becky Anderson welcomed attendees to the opening plenary session featuring Ingram President and CEO Skip Prichard and author and new bookseller Ann Patchett. “New Orleans is a pretty exciting place, but it’s even better now that it’s the center of the independent bookselling world,” said Anderson. “How cool is that that more than 500 of us have come together for an unparalleled opportunity to expand our business horizons and deepen our collegial relationships with one another. Let the good times roll.”

Anderson then outlined some of the highlights of the programming and special events taking place over the course of the next three days and reminded attendees that none of it would be possible without the ongoing generosity of Wi7’s sponsors. “Please join me in thanking our lead partner, the Ingram Content Group. Ingram’s generous, continued commitment to bookseller education allows ABA to offer year-round programming for our members,” she said. “To our friends at Ingram, thank you so much! We are extremely grateful for all your support.”

And she continued, “Please also join me in thanking our many publisher sponsors and other friends of the Winter Institute, whose support helps ensure the continued development of the Winter Institute and helps keep the education sessions free to ABA members.”

Following Anderson, ABA CEO Oren Teicher provided a look at several statistics relating to ABA member stores that showed “contrary to the predictions of some, 2011 wasn’t a year of climatic attrition or loss for indies.” Instead, he said, “it was, in fact, the best year many indie booksellers had in a long time.”

Pointing to the prime-time holiday period of Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, Teicher noted that “unit book sales across the network of indie stores reporting to BookScan increased more than 15 percent,” and in each week through December 31, sales showed gains over 2010.
In addition, there was a 300 percent increase in the number of IndieCommerce stores that achieved sales of more than $10,000 for the month of December. And average gross online sales per store increased 26 percent. Regarding e-books, Teicher reported that sales of Google eBooks™ through IndieCommerce stores improved dramatically in the month of December compared to 2010. And, for the entire year, e-book sales were 5.2 percent of all IndieCommerce sales.”

In 2011, he said, “we proved that the independent bookstore renaissance was no illusion”; however, he stressed that the need to formulate new business models to ensure that bricks-and-mortar stores don’t go away has never been more urgent. Noting that some publishers in the room had already begun to help change the status quo, Teicher said, “ABA remains ready to do whatever we can, with your help, to make this happen.”

Teicher then introduced the first plenary speaker of the morning, Skip Prichard, president and CEO of the Ingram Content Group, who, in a witty presentation that had booksellers both laughing and engaging in a sharing of ideas, presented five “ifs” that he hoped might change a bookseller’s perspective. Admitting that he was starting off on a controversial note, Prichard announced, “If selling books is your purpose, your store will fail.” He encouraged booksellers to formulate a broader mission than simply selling books, and to develop the bookstore’s platform, not the product. “The indie bookstore platform is so tremendous,” he said. “So think about how you’re using that. Books are only part of independent bookselling.” Noting that a bookstore should aim to be a reflection of the community, Prichard pointed to Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn and New Orleans’ Octavia Books as indies that are consistently recognized for their community involvement.

Prichard’s second “if” addressed competition in today’s market. “Anything you think is impossible, isn’t,” he said. And as an example, he cited Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans, which — after Hurricane Katrina and despite the city’s current economic state — was able to open two new locations in 2010.

Third, he said, “If you’re doing the same thing you did yesterday, you may be in trouble tomorrow.” Prichard suggested booksellers revisit their inventory and try new things, like adopting new technology such as the Espresso Book Machine, becoming a publisher, and re-evaluating the store’s product assortment.  

In line with the third point was the fourth: “If you want help, it’s within reach.” Prichard mentioned just some of the ways that the Ingram Content Group provides services to help booksellers, including as a supplier of nonbook products as well as print-on-demand titles for the Espresso Book Machine.

Finally, he segued to the next speaker, and drew a laugh from the audience, by sharing his last scenario: “If all else fails, get a New York Times number one bestseller to be your partner.”

Following Prichard, ABA Board member Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers introduced brand-new indie bookseller and bestselling author Ann Patchett, who brought down the house when she talked about how the love of books led her to open Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, with Karen Hayes.

Patchett began by noting that since she had only been a bookseller since the beginning of November, there was nothing that she could teach the assembled booksellers about bookselling. But she allowed that she was a good storyteller, and she went on to tell a very good story.

When Patchett was on her first tour she was given a budget by her publisher of $3,000 to visit 30 stores. “Those of you who’ve ever worked with New York publicists know that the thing they never took in 8th grade was geography,” she joked. But Patchett said the point of the book tour was twofold: to sign stacks of books because she was told signed books couldn’t be returned (“It was a lie”) and “to make nice with the girl behind the cash register,” based on the reasoning that if she liked her, she would read her book and then handsell it. While Patchett learned the first was a canard, among the lessons that she did learn from being in so many indie bookstores over the years was that “all of the power in bookselling does lie in the hands of the girl behind the cash register.”

And now, Patchett said, her passion for “forcing people to read the books that I like” has manifested itself in the opening of Parnassus, which is earning widespread media attention. Everywhere from the New York Times, to Martha Stuart, to NPR is praising indies “to the stars,” she said. “Everyone is tired of the story that we’re barraged with that books and libraries are dead.”

Patchett pointed to Julie Norcross, the founder of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, as a bookseller who always made customers feel welcome but in a light and fun manner found ways to keep telling them it was wrong to go an event at the bookstore and buy on Amazon. “I feel evangelical about this,” Patchett said, adding “I want to stand up and tell people that we are fine. We are here.” And harking back to her past as a writer for style magazines like Elle, she said, “A trend is whatever you tell someone a trend is. If you tell people … that tying a fish tank to your head is a trend they’ll believe it. So I’m telling people that local independent bookstores are the new trend. This is where the nation is going. If you keep saying it’s true, it just becomes true. Build it and they will come.”

At Wednesday’s lunch, emceed by ABA Vice President Steve Bercu of Austin’s BookPeople, bestselling author James Patterson discussed his commitment to encouraging and engaging young readers. One of his initiatives has been the creation of the College Book Bucks program, which in its second year will give away $70,000 in gift certificates ranging from $250 to $1,000 apiece to 230 college-bound students for use at any IndieBound-affiliated independent bookstore. At today’s lunch Bercu announced that Hachette, Patterson’s publisher, would be contributing five additional first-place gift certificates.

Patterson was introduced by one of last year’s scholarship winners, Logan Bishop, a freshman at University of Texas Austin, who thanked Patterson and BookPeople for helping to make his dream of higher education possible.

Patterson began discussing booksellers’ roles in children’s lives and proclaimed, “Bookstores are absolutely indispensable to this country’s future... It does seem to me that bookstores have to find a way to speak in a louder, more compelling voice to the press and to the public.” However, he stressed that ensuring children become readers starts with the parents. “Parents need to understand that it is their job to get kids to read books,” he said.

Patterson then had a conversation with Cathy Langer of Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado, and Bill Reilly of the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, New York, about what more could be done to foster a love of books and reading in children.

Reilly discussed the book mobile, a surprisingly successful program among children in his town. And Langer noted that “access is so crucial.” Both booksellers agreed that engaging young readers has to be a movement adopted by booksellers and the book industry as a whole. “It’s a matter of the future of our country,” said Langer.

Another literary highpoint of the Winter Institute, was Wednesday afternoon’s interview with award-winning historian Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (HarperPerennial), by Bob Minzesheimer of USA Today. Booksellers drank locally brewed Abita Beer and Barq’s Root Beer (Barq’s Brothers bottling was founded in 1890 in the French Quarter) while Minzesheimer and Brinkley had a dynamic conversation about New Orleans, the business of books, and politics.

Brinkley, who was in New Orleans during Katrina and helped with the rescue, gave the packed ballroom a sense of the power of the hurricane, which, as he watched the Mississippi River run backwards from a high-rise, made him feel “the power of god or the creator.” He also talked about some of the “villains” (Mayor Ray Nagin, George W. Bush, members of the New Orleans police force) and some of the heroes (Dr. Fredro Knight Jr., many among the city’s poor and “French Quarter misfits”) during the storm and its aftermath.

Minzesheimer and Brinkley also discussed New Orleans’ resilience and the determination of its local businesses, including its local indie bookstores, which he called “central to the community.” Brinkley said, “After Katrina we all went to Garden District Bookstore or Octavia to share our stories.” He also credited conventions like the Winter Institute with improving the city’s finances.

Asked about some of his favorite political books, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the Wi7 One Institute One Read choice got a nod, along with Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72.

World Book Night (WBN) was the focus of attention at breakfast on Thursday morning. ABA’s Teicher introduced the session and said, “World Book Night is an extraordinary opportunity to focus the country’s attention on books and reading — an unparalleled celebration of physical books in physical places…. WBN is about what we do best every day… It’s a golden opportunity to showcase what we do in our bookstores.

He then turned the stage over to Jane Streeter, president of the Booksellers Association of the U.K. and Ireland and founder of The Bookcase, located in Lowdham near Nottingham, England, who shared some of the experiences of the inaugural celebration of WBN in the United Kingdom last year. Streeter told the audience that first celebration raised the profile of books, increased sales, drew lots of media attention, and brought increased foot traffic to participating stores; however, she stressed the main focus was “to spread the joy and love of reading as far as possible in one night.” Streeter also showed a short clip of celebrities ranging from the mayor of London to actor Rupert Everett and authors Margaret Atwood, Monica Ali, Philip Pullman, and others.

WBN U.S. Executive Director Carl Lennertz then took the stage to encourage booksellers to sign up to become givers and to have their stores serve as WBN book pick-up points. Noting that WBN is meant to be a nationwide celebration and that national media coverage is planned for the beginning of April, he stressed to booksellers that the event is not New York-based, or Los Angeles-based, but rather community-based. He urged booksellers to use their local media connections to draw attention to the celebration and to invite local celebrities to become involved as book givers.

Lennertz told booksellers all the information and forms they need to sign up to participate in WBN are available on the website,, and he provided a quick “to-do list” for right now:

  •  Sign up!
  • Encourage others to sign up
  • Tweet #wbnamerica
  • Make your store a WBN destination!

Teicher, Streeter, and Lennertz then had a conversation that offered booksellers some ideas on how to make their bookstores a center of attention during WBN. Streeter said, “This is the perfect opportunity to create amazing press, if you don’t already have it.” And Teicher emphasized, “Every single giver who goes out has a story to tell,” and these will appeal to the local media.

Look for complete coverage of the Winter Institute, including more detailed coverage of the plenary sessions beginning in next Thursday’s edition of BTW. —Rosemary Hawkins, Elizabeth Knapp, and Karen Schechner