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What Are Indie Booksellers Like At Parties?

Stacks of books on a store table.
Stacks of books on a store table.

Martha Woodroof has been writing about the First Novel Experience. For this post, she reports on her travels to the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute in January.

The American Booksellers Association Winter Institute was billed as providing independent booksellers with a chance to get together " vibrant Seattle for three-plus days of networking, special events, and professional development."

This was not an event for shy persons. Which, I suspect, is why my publishing house (St. Martin's Press) sent me. My debut novel, Small Blessings, is not due out until mid-August, but booksellers plan ahead, and so un-shy me (and my Small Blessings tote bags) were flown to Seattle with the assignment of connecting with as many of the 500 independent booksellers there as is humanly possible. Or, preferably, with more than is humanly possible. Though that may not be ... possible.

The ABA Winter institute offers a standard conference agenda: breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, interspersed with business meetings and educational breakout sessions. The mood, as more than one bookseller put it (in some instances sounding surprised), was upbeat. But why not? According to ABA President Steve Bercu (of Austin's Book People), the year 2012 had seen almost an eight percent growth nationally for indie booksellers that had held in 2013. There's a lot more such encouraging information available at the Winter Institute's section of the ABA's website.

But enough about the Winter Institute's official agenda. The unofficial agenda is networking among the 500 indie bookstore owners, buyers and event co-coordinators who swirl around the Seattle Westin Hotel's lobby (and lobby bar), meeting rooms and ballroom, along with another hundred or so trade association representatives, publishing executives, and – oh yes – authors. Like me. I mean, get this: I sign galleys right next to Colson Whitehead (The Noble Hustle) and right down the from Barbara Ehrenreich (signing her latest Living with a Wild God). And they never once ask me what I'm doing there.

At breakfast the first day, I (carefully dressed in black jeans and my Route 11 Potato Chip black-and-grey T-shirt) wade in among the assembled indie book people and go to work. I introduce myself to the first cluster within reach, and we chat cheerfully. This is fun, I think. I can do this. But then someone asks me what Small Blessings is about.

What is it about?

Of course, I've anticipated this question. But if I'd ever come up with anything, it's gone now. Gone.

"Well," I say. And I stop.

Mercifully, wise St. Martin's has not left me unattended. My new best friend, Matt Baldacci, VP, Marketing and Sales, takes me aside. Matt is kind and funny and good at handling dumbstruck debut authors who suddenly don't know what their books are about. He offers me St. Martin's distillation of my own novel, which had been used to present it to indie book buyers at a lunch before I even arrived. I will never in a million years distill as smoothly as Matt, but I am now able to say something.

Matt and I lunch that day with Jennie Shortridge, whose latest novel, Love Water Memory, just came out in paperback. From their easy conversation, I assume Matt and Jennie have known each other for years. But no, they've only met a couple of times in passing. Indie people, I'm learning, bond easily.

Jennie is one of the Seattle Seven, a nonprofit collective of Pacific Northwest authors. She's also lead singer and tambourine player for the author band The Rejections (and Trailing Spouses). I am terribly impressed by both her charm and her versatility.

I am to be in Seattle for two nights, and so I attend two dinners hosted by St. Martin's and Bloomsbury, whose purpose is to give indie bookstore people and (mostly) debut authors a chance to enjoy each other's company without having to shout. It turns out to be a bit like slo-mo speed-dating, however. Halfway through the meal, the authors change tables.

What I truly enjoy about these dinners is witnessing firsthand the fervor indie people bring to running their bookstores. Work for them is creating community, building relationships with customers, and hand-selling books because they've taken the time to learn what individual customers like. What indie people want from me at these dinners is a sense of whether my book belongs on their shelves; i.e. can they visualize actual customers to whom they can hand the novel and say with assurance, "You will love this."

Arguably my favorite moment, one that encapsulates just how companionably open-minded indie booksellers are, is a fey one that slides in when chatting with Nicholas Butler (Shotgun Lovesongs and the Thomas Dunne books) and a friend of his whose name I do not catch. The friend, it seems, is thinking of founding The Church of Patrick Swayze.

"Think," he says "of all the really good movies Patrick Swayze has been in, and all the really terrible movies he's not been in."

He has a point, I think. Perhaps not a point for everyone, but what is for everyone is not the indie person's concern.

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