Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Winter Institute: A Flu-Riddled Recap

It is not easy to get a drink in Salt Lake City. Or rather, it's not easy to get exactly the drink you'd like in Salt Lake City. First, you have to join a club, which I didn't really mind. I like the idea of being in a club, although, when I realized that everybody had to join, it lost some of its appeal. Once you've joined your club, you're halfway to drinking. There's still the matter of what you'd like to drink. For instance, if you'd like a double of something, too bad. No doubles. A pitcher of beer? Only if you're splitting it with friends. Apparently, the binge drinker has no place in Salt Lake City. Now I know what it must feel like to be a smoker in LA. My heart goes out to you, you lung-burning deviants.

The draconian booze laws weren't the only hitch in the ABA's Fourth Annual Winter Institute (or as we called it, Wi4). A disease something like the measles-meets-cholera swept through the convention, claiming most of the ABA staff. I had my own version of it when I left LA, and it lasted well through the weekend. If my memory fails me at times, it's probably because I was in the grips of a hallucination. This was also why I frequently shouted inappropriate comments during the panels.

A little background on Winter Institute for those not in the book business. The American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent bookstores, hosts an educational conference every winter at a city in the US. Last year it was in Louisville; this year it was booze-phobic Salt Lake. These conferences are opportunities for us booksellers to get together to share ideas, network, and learn about new bookselling techniques. And, oh yeah, get a bunch of galleys of new and upcoming books. Jealous yet? A little.

As I saw it, this year's Winter Institute had two major themes running through it: how to sell books in the current hostile economy and how best to use technology to do so. Both of these are vital at this moment for every bookstore, large or small, but I'm especially interested in the latter of these topics, surprise surprise. In fact, I'm kind of obsessed with how bookstores use technology, and what works for them and what doesn't work, so the weekend offered me a lot to chew on.

Thursday night, after arriving in Salt Lake City, I promptly took a nap. Hotel beds can be the greatest beds in the world - so many pillows, such fresh smelling sheets - but when you're sick, all you want is the comfort of home - the old t-shirt smell of your sheets, your special tea mug, the tiny white dog that sleeps in your bed with you...okay, that might just be me, but you get the picture. I slept fitfully, and woke feeling miserable.

After a brief visit to the Mormon Tabernacle, I went to dinner with fellow Vroman's staffer Guinevere and two of the stalwart employees of the ABA - Matt and Paige. Some tepid oolong tea and a sizzling seafood platter later, I was ready to go to the opening reception at Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore. What an incredible place! I was reminded of the teeming, cluttered joy of The Strand in New York, except with a ton of LDS books instead of that galley room they have at the Strand. If you want to get an idea of what the store looked like with 200 booksellers in it, check out this picture on their blog. I found myself, Where's Waldo-style, in the middle, standing with Emily from Skylight. See if you can find yourself. Sam Weller's had an incredible rare book room, and tons and tons of books. And a dance floor. And a smoke machine. And I bought a copy of Kate Christensen's In the Drink, which I've blogged about before. So I was happy, but also feverish, which meant no dancing for me, no matter how hard the very hip staff tried to make it happen.

Back in my room, after an ill-fated trip to the bar with Guinevere and the folks from Skylight, I found myself alternately shivering and sweating my way through the night. Highly unpleasant, and that's all I'll say about that.

In the morning, after consuming the rubbery but free waffles and the deceptively great bacon, it was time for the real fun to start. The keynote panel was a discussion of the state of the book industry with Nan Graham of Scribner, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, and Bob Miller of Harper Studio. Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers, moderated the panel, which I thought touched on both of the major issues of the conference. Everyone acknowledged that this is a time of change in the book industry, and that whenever there's change, there's both opportunity and peril. Bob Miller was adamant that booksellers needed to be leveraging their roles as tastemakers through blogging, vlogging, podcasting, and using social media. Entrekin seconded that notion, with the statement that "Every bookseller needs to have a blog." There seemed to be some trepidation about this from the crowd, which I'll discuss in a moment.

The panel was somewhat divided about ebooks, with Miller seemingly the most bullish while Entrekin wasn't convinced they would be the industry-changing force that many believe/fear/hope. "At the low end they'll be 3% of the market, at the top end, 10%." His point was tempered, with regards to booksellers at least, by Coady's statement that the book industry is like an 8" apple pie -- even if one percent changes, that might be enough to sink many in the crowd. The ABA used the panel as a chance to announce that it was exploring a partnership with Symtio, a company that offers an innovative approach to selling digital content, and to announce what many (including me) had hoped, that the Indiebound iPhone application isn't far off. It seemed at first that this application would cost money, but at a later panel, it seemed it will be free. Let me take this opportunity to say that if it isn't free, it might as well not exist.

I don't want to get into too much detail about each of the panels, as this post is already running a little bit long. Anybody interested in the nittygritty of the conference should definitely read the Twitter feed (#Wi4), which contains posts by me (@vromans), @richrennicks, @booksliesalibis, @bookavore, and @guinevere23, as well as lots of people not in attendance contributing great ideas and feedback. Scroll back to the original pages to read the posts in chronological order.

I will say that the most discouraging aspect of the weekend was the technophobia that seemed to hover in the air. Booksellers are still not completely at ease in the digital world, and that's a shame. At the ABA's ecommerce user group, there was some confusion about what the ABA's new Drupal system websites will do and what they cannot do. I ended up giving an impromptu demonstration of the new Vroman's site, which is an example of the kind of new site the ABA is launching. Additionally, there was some consternation over why blogging was important and how it might help bookstores compete and thrive.

I spoke with lots of booksellers over the weekend about new media (namely, blogging, Twitter, and video) and how we try to use it at Vroman's. What I tried to convey in these discussions was a sense of how interrelated everything is (and also the importance of having your web person b more of a marketer than an IT person). Our Facebook page complements our blog which in turn works very nicely with Twitter. When we make a video (something we'll be doing more of in the future), we'll post that video on our website, our blog, our Facebook fan page, our Facebook group, our Tumblr blog (yes, we have one of those, too), and mabye even our page, if they allow video, and we'll certainly mention it on Twitter. Blogging isn't the kind of thing you can start doing in a vacuum and expect to work for you. You must interact with other blogs, other entities online. In short, the digital world is built on relationships, just like the non-digital world. If you want people to take an interest in you, it helps to take in interest in them. This can be hard for people used to thinking of media as a one-way broadcast. Twitter, blogs, and the like must be about dialog if they are to be successful. And that takes time.

But it's worth it.

I thought Alex Beckstead did a great job at the Using New Media to Promote Your Store panel, providing an easy, manageable blueprint for conceiving, producing, and distributing a short video. I loved his idea of making a video that welcomes audience response and reaction. He showed some great videos - some professionally done, some not - and he even showed a clip of the video we made for the holidays. At the end, he showed a video by Gary Vaynerchuck that I thought nicely summarized the strengths of new media, and showed how to become successful at using it. It was a good way to wrap up the weekend, and it left me feeling energized to try some new things online. You, good reader, will be the benefitiary of those experiments.

Oh, and I met some great new authors and got some very fun galleys. I'm probably most excited about Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel, The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno, and How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (who was an absolute riot at the Algonquin/Grove/Random House dinner I had the pleasure to attend), but I will eventually get to all the galleys I got. I had a great time at lunch with Kenn Nesbitt, whose site gets an absurd amount of traffic, and Michael Malone, who wrote by far the best inscription of any of the authors at the conference. Thanks to Source books for hosting me and for putting up with my 20 minute tangets about Twitter. I may have been hallucinating at that point.

To all the booksellers I met, thanks for inspiring me and giving me lots of good ideas. To those of you who now have my flu, a word of advice - NyQuil.

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At 2:53 PM, Blogger Drew Goodman said...

Winter Institute was fantastic, even with the alcohol difficulty, which you may be happy to know (although too late for this trip) that the governor is trying desperately to change.

I too saw a real technology thread running through the education sessions and was honestly surprised at the amount of resistance to social media that there was. I really hope that they bring more social media to WI5, more than just glossing over all the aspects of it, and get down into the trenches on two or three aspects of it (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, for example).

It was good to meet you in person, hang out at lunch and talk about some of these tech issues. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go do shots of Nyquil (no club membership required).

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Emma said...

This is fascinating, Patrick. All I can say is that I'm really glad that there are people like you in the book universe. If you're on the case, I think the world is going to be a-okay.

I'm off to AWP with Avery next week. I'll try to do you proud with my tweetiness.

At 11:28 PM, Anonymous e said...

Sorry you didn't feel well, but deceptively great bacon can make up for a lot. Thanks for the recap.

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous paige said...

The iPhone app will definitely be free! That's a promise.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Patrick said...


Good meeting you, too. I agree, we need a hands-on social networking panel next year, one that focuses on how successful stores (and not just bookstores) have built their networks and used the tools to sell books.

I also think the ABA ought to split the ecommerce meetings into beginner and intermediate, so that we don't have the folks using dial up connections talking with the people who are discussing php programming.

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Jonah said...

Oh, so now I know why you were "shout[ing] inappropriate comments during the panels!"

Seriously, thanks so much for your insightful words both at the Institute and on your blog. They have been a big help to a new bookseller in Maplewood, New Jersey.


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