The New England Booksellers Association’s 39th annual fall conference, held Oct. 3–5 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, opened with high energy, which it largely sustained throughout the three-day show. In his only appearance at a fall regional show, Macmillan CEO John Sargent delivered a free-ranging keynote/off-the-record industry conversation. (No tweeting either.) NEIBA president Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct., noted in her introduction that “[Sargent] is someone with a strong enough backbone to stand up to Amazon and the DoJ, a long history in publishing, a little Midwestern twang, and an appreciation of why indies matter.” There was only one complaint: “I’m just disappointed that I can’t talk about John’s talk,” said bookseller Josh Christie of Sherman’s Books & Stationery in Freeport, Me., a sentiment seconded by other booksellers and this reporter.
Big accounts like New England Mobile Book Fair, which changed hands late last year, were back at NEIBA in full force. So were big name children’s authors and illustrators such as James Dashner (Infinity Ring #1: A Mutiny in Time, Scholastic), who spoke at the author breakfast; and husband-and-wife writing team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, who had the audience at the children’s dinner laughing with their homemade film about their writing careers together and apart. Currently they’re together again on Eve and Adam (Feiwel and Friends). Scott Nash (The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, Candlewick) and David Shannon (Jangles, Scholastic) rounded out the dinner, which also marked the 25th anniversary of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council. Two of the founders – Bina Williams, now a children’s librarian at Bridgeport Public Library in Bridgeport, Conn., and Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass. – were applauded for their efforts at the dinner.
Beyond that, the trade show part of the NEIBA conference facilitated many of the kinds of conversations among booksellers more often found at Winter Institute. Less than a half hour before the exhibit floor was scheduled to close there were still a few dozen booksellers talking with reps and with each other. “I’m having a great show,” said Marika McCoola, one of the lingerers and a children’s bookseller at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. “The conversations have been really good, and the keynote was really good. I value [Sargent’s] honesty.” She also welcomed the opportunity to sneak a peek at the adult lists, something she doesn’t often have time to do at the store.
The opening day of the conference provided several workshops and panels for booksellers to brush up on their skills. In “The Best of Both Worlds: Understanding the Young Adult and Adult Crossover Market,” produced by NECBA, booksellers Laura Lucy, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, N.H., and Kaley DeGoursey, children’s and YA books buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Ct., joined Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sales representative Katie McGarry, and moderator Bina Williams in discussing how they handle crossover books, which have seen a significant bump. “We’re seeing increases from the price [YA editions tend to be several dollars cheaper] and from nostalgia, going back to coming-of-age stories,” said DeGoursey. Williams pointed to a complementary phenomenon, “crossing under”: books written for adults that are really YA and can be sold to teens. One new term that came up is “new adult” in lieu of “young adult,” although don’t look for that on the back of books anytime soon.
At the “It’s All About Customer Service: Strengthening the Brick-and-Mortar Advantage” panel, retailers offered suggestions on wowing customers. “For us, customer service is all and everything. We have 16,4877 SKUs in our store. I need my staff to know every one of them,” said Michael Kanter, owner of Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass. At Edgartown Books in Edgartown, Mass., manager Susan Mercier said that she borrowed an idea from her local police department to make the store stand out as a community center, “I’m encouraging the people who work for me to volunteer in the community.” Another stand-out panel focused on “What’s in It for Me? Getting on and Staying on the Publishers' Radar Screens.” For Barbara J. Kelly, trade book manager at Portland University Bookstore, it added to making NEIBA “a great show. It reminds us that publishers really do listen.”
The last day of the show was devoted primarily to Kobo. An hour-long ABA presentation by Joy Dellanegra-Sanger and Neil Strandberg elicited so many questions that NEIBA scrapped a planned “think tank” on business ideas and continued the conversation. “It was fabulous,” said Chittenden, repeating many of the words that booksellers had previously used to describe Sargent’s plenary. “It was a very candid and upbeat session.” Dick Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., is one of many who plan to participate. “While I wish we hadn’t taken the detour through Google, the ABA has done an impressive job getting Kobo launched. It would be a real feather in our cap if independent bookstores could help Kobo establish a viable market share in e-books. Having devices to sell will certainly help us connect our customers to e-book sales that benefit us, even though we all know that won’t be a game changing amount of revenue in all likelihood.”
The show closed with the annual awards lunch. Author I.C. Springman and illustrator Brian Lies won this year’s children’s award for More (Houghton Mifflin), and Maurice Sendak was posthumously awarded the Lifetime Achievement for Excellence in Children’s Literature.