It could all change quickly, but independent booksellers again have good news to report as the publishing industry prepares for its annual national convention, BookExpo America.
Core membership of the American Booksellers Association rose by 55 over the past year, from 1,512 to 1,567. It's the third straight increase for the independents' trade organization after years of double digit and triple digit declines brought on by superstore chains and online sellers such as Amazon.com.
The independents have stabilized even as the economy suffers and the market shifts dramatically from physical stores to digital purchases. The Borders superstore chain shut down a year ago and Barnes & Noble Inc. has been increasingly emphasizing its Nook e-reading device.
Borders' fall, of course, has been part of the independents' good fortune, association CEO Oren Teicher acknowledged in a recent interview. But he also cited a nationwide movement to buy from local stores, falling real estate prices and lower costs to create and maintain websites. Sales figures for 2012 are encouraging as Teicher shared statistics compiled by Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 75 percent of print sales. The number of books sold through mid-May by around 500 ABA stores increased by 13.4 percent compared to last year.
"We are more than holding our own," Teicher says.
Thousands of booksellers, publishers, authors and agents are gathering this week at the Jacob K. Javits Center for BookExpo America, a three-day convention which ends Thursday. Featured speakers include Stephen Colbert, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith and Jimmy Fallon.
Several events will focus on Russian publishing and literary history will be made when Natalia Solzhenitsyn, widow of Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, unveils her husband's archives. Rock stars also will be on hand: Patti Smith, winner of the National Book Award in 2010 for her memoir "Just Kids," will interview Neil Young, whose memoir "Waging Heavy Peace" comes out in October.
The convention's floor plan reads like a map of changing times. Space dedicated to digital companies will increase from 6,000 square feet last year to 7,000. The number of gift companies, suppliers of non-book items stocked by bookstores, has more than doubled, from 21 to 50. Amazon.com has more than doubled the space for its book publishing program, from 400 square feet to 1,000 square feet.
Independent stores still don't approach the presence they had 30 years ago, when membership in the American Booksellers Association was more than 3,000. Their share of total sales is well under 10 percent and stores continue to close, if not with the frequency of a decade ago. Just last month, Thee Bookstore in Hillsboro, Kan., shut down after 90 years, citing online competition.
Independents had hoped to break into the e-book market through a partnership with Google's digital store, but the online search engine has announced it will end the arrangement because of disappointing sales. Publishers and authors value local stores for creating word-of-mouth hits, but the fate of independents remains uncertain enough that a promotional campaign being launched at BookExpo is called "Why Indies Matter," as if proof were required.
"It's down compared to five years ago, but it went down when the whole economy fell," says Tom Jackson, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C. "It's since come back up and stayed up. Given what's been happening with digital books, the competition from Amazon and so forth, that seems pretty good."
As the industry becomes more interactive, so does BookExpo. Many speeches and panel discussions (but not the Smith-Young interview) will be streamed live on video and attendees for the first time will include members of the general public. Around 1,000 "Power Readers" are expected, dedicated book lovers recruited through stores and Web sites.
"It's a whole different approach," says BookExpo event director Steve Rosato. "It's all about bringing publishers and readers closer together."
BookExpo can be likened to the annual reunion of a dispersed and quarrelsome family: Attendees do have issues. Many stores refuse to stock books released by Amazon and booksellers and publishers worry greatly about Amazon's power as a retailer to offer deep discounts. Apple, which will be present at BookExpo, and five publishers were sued in April by the federal government for alleged price fixing. When Apple introduced the iPad two years ago, it negotiated agreements that allowed publishers to set their own prices for e-books, a response to Amazon.com's policy of charging just $9.99 for best-sellers
One convention panel is titled "What Librarians Wish Publishers Knew: Libraries Build Book Buzz," addressing a perennial conflict between libraries and publishers: Whether free books, especially free e-books, mean lost sales or potential new ones. BookExpo also will feature a roundtable of publishers discussing e-books and a book blogging conference where best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner, whose "The Next Best Thing" comes out in July, will give the keynote address.
"For those of us who don't write the kind of fiction that gets celebrated in The New York Times or excerpted in The New Yorker, it's an invaluable opportunity to keep in touch," Weiner wrote in a recent email, "to remind readers that we're out here, to be funny or pithy or entertaining or provocative, to hone our voices by publishing regularly, and, if we're lucky, to get readers excited about our next book."