A View from the ABA’s Winter Institute in Memphis

CLMP Board Member Matty Goldberg reflects on a vibrant industry event.

In early February, I spent four days at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Memphis, TN. If you’re not familiar with Winter Institute, it could best be described as a gathering of the tribes for the bookselling community. I used to use that phrase to describe the ABA annual convention, which is now called Book Expo America (BEA). But in recent years that phrase no longer seems to apply.

Actually, Winter Institute was created 13 years ago as counter-programming to the BEA. Independent booksellers felt that BEA was no longer for them. It was hard to get publishers’ attention at the show. They seem far more interested in the larger customers cruising the aisles at the show. Additionally, the show did not specifically address their needs as small business people, in a very particular niche. “It was a direct response to evolving membership priorities to place greater emphasis on education and professional development,” according to ABA CEO Oren Teicher. Out of necessity was born a new show.

The show has turned out to be a terrific success. And each year it grows, both in size and in scope. This year there were 1,000 attendees at the show, including more than 680 booksellers from all 50 states and from Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Germany and other countries around the globe. The first show, held in Long Beach, CA. featured 360 independent booksellers from approximately 200 stores. 10 hours with 25 educational sessions designed to offer a wide range of programming for booksellers at different levels of experience, has grown to almost 50 sessions spanning 70 hours. Session subjects range from “Succession Planning” (Booksellers are aging!) to Take Your Social Media to the Next Level (Booksellers are young and know how to reach their customers!) to Selling Smart Nonfiction.

For the past few years, the number of publishers attending has also greatly increased. As word of the show’s clout with independent booksellers has grown – as well as independent bookseller’s own growing importance to the industry, in the wake of the demise of Borders 7 years ago – more and more small and independent (and University Press) publishers have come on board.

That first Winter Institute featured 11 sponsoring publishers. This latest show has seen that number grow to 93 participating publishers. Of those, independent presses, are becoming a growing percentage, and an important bloc. Winter Institute has, in the last few years added a “Small and University Press Day,” where these publishers can pitch their books to the attendees. It may not quite be at the same intimate level that the larger sponsors (read: publishers) do. “Full” sponsors get to participate in two 90 minute “Speed Dating” sessions with groups of 8 – 10 independent booksellers, where they talk about the upcoming books that they feel are most important for indie bookstores. Which are often not the same as the books they believe will work at a Barnes & Noble or Amazon or even Target. Small & University Press got to present to a room full of booksellers from the dais during breakfast and lunch events.

“We’re going to try something a little different this year,” ABA CEO Oren Teicher had said before the breakfast event began. We know that your interest in supporting our small and independent presses is really important.” Small and University Presses had for the last few years been given the last slot of the event, and treated a bit like an afterthought. This year that changed and the mutual admiration between indie booksellers and the small and university press community was evident in the animated conversations among publishers and booksellers at the various venues.

But presenting titles is just one part of Winter Institute is about. And really much of the most important work of the event happens in bars and restaurants where independent publishers and their authors can stand on the same footing as the big boys. Some indie press publishers are the real heroes of Winter Institute Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin is the master of picking the right books and the right authors to bring to achieve maximum buzz for upcoming titles. Michael Reynolds at Europa Editions is often surrounded by a flock of booksellers hoping to hear about their next big book. But this symbiosis does not occur once a year at Winter Institute, these publishers and others work at developing and building strong relationships with this community all year long.

The publishers who have the best feelings coming out of the show are those who work hardest to connect with the booksellers. Doesn’t matter what size you are (though I will say it does help if your list is Fiction-heavy). Those publishers with good books and the passion that goes into producing good books will always find booksellers interested to engage and hear more about those titles.

The last event of the show, for me at least, was a party hosted by a group mainly of small publishers distributed by Consortium: Akashic, Cinco Puntos, Coach House, Feminist Press, City Lights, Biblioasis, and Haymarket along with some outliers from Publishers Group West (Europa Editions, Two Rivers, The New Press) and PenguinRandom House (Verso), held at the famed Rendezvous Restaurant. Over ribs and brisket, publishers and bookseller recapped the previous four days events, talked about books – and kids, and politics, and everything else under the sun, and basked in each other’s ongoing success. For a little while, all was right in the world.

Matty Goldberg is VP, Acquisitions and Publisher Development for Ingram Publisher Services. A 40 year veteran of the book business, Goldberg has worked in wholesale, retail, as a buyer/merchandise director at Barnes & Noble and Brentano’s, in publishing in both Sales and Marketing and now in Distribution, at the world’s largest distributor of independent presses.