The American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, which recently concluded its 10th annual meeting in Asheville, N.C., has fast become an early-warning system for the year’s most celebrated titles. Two years ago, Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” made its debut here and then went on to win the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for a first novel. A similar trajectory occurred last year for Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” and Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams.”
“We’re all still talking about those books,” said Wendy Sheanin, Simon & Schuster’s director of marketing and the person who introduced Doerr’s novel (a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction) to the Winter Institute crowd.
Unlike the enormous industry trade show Book Expo America (BEA) in New York, Winter Institute has a much smaller target audience: independent booksellers. While BEA is open to the entire publishing industry — including librarians, agents, self-published authors and readers — Winter Institute is limited to about 500 booksellers, as well as publishing representatives and a handful of media representatives.
For 2015, Sheanin has chosen two debut novels from her publishing house to promote with special emphasis at Winter Institute: Jamie Kornegay’s “Soil” and Bill Clegg’s “Did You Ever Have A Family.” The books are quite different. “Soil” is a dark, comic novel by a writer who is himself a bookseller (at TurnRow Book Company in Greenwood, Miss.). “Did You Ever Have a Family” is a multi-voice, coming-of-age tragedy penned by a longtime publishing figure, an agent who chronicled his downfall from crack in “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” and his rehab experience in “Ninety Days.”
“A bookseller knows which of these books should go to which customers,” said Sheanin. “At Winter Institute, booksellers have the opportunity to talk to each other. I get to take a backseat and allow collaboration of the best kind to take place.”
That doesn’t mean publishers leave anything to chance. They made sure some of the industry’s rock stars were among the guests: Erik Larson, Azar Nafisi, John Green and T. C. Boyle mingled with the assembled bookslingers. Numerous imprints hosted private dinners for booksellers. Algonquin Press, for example, took their guests to Asheville’s hottest restaurant, tapas bar Cúrate. Simon & Schuster invited 18 booksellers from around the country to dine with Kornegay and Clegg. “These are the go-to people,” Sheanin said, nodding as she looks around the room. “If a book like this doesn’t hold water, we will know it after tonight.”
“A good bookstore can act as a lighthouse,” Clegg said. He remembers his local shop, Oblong Books, in Millerton, N.Y., “where my parents could drop me off, and I could buy all the Thomas Hardy — and all the Judith Krantz — I wanted.”
Clegg, who began his meteoric career at the William Morris Agency, fell spectacularly but came back humbly, releasing his memoirs in 2011 and 2012. His fiction, it seems, has been part of the journey for quite a while. He began “Did You Ever Have a Family” seven years ago. “I was scribbling about it and puzzling through it, but the book really began as a series of questions that I had to ask myself in recovery.”
The plot centers on a disaster that occurs in the first chapter and reverberates throughout the lives of several characters for many years. “We only learn at the speed of pain,” Clegg said, “and we don’t have others in our lives without forgiveness. That’s why I wanted to occupy so many different narratives, to show the threads, sometimes very fragile threads, that connect one act of forgiveness to another.”
As was previously reported, Clegg’s novel so impressed Jennifer Bergstrom of Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, that it inspired her to launch Scout Press, a stand-alone imprint devoted to literary fiction. “This is a new experience,” said Clegg. “It’s like I’m the emissary of a start-up to this audience of people you can’t fool.”
He’s right; booksellers can’t be fooled — they can’t afford to be. And they’re hoping the books they talked about at Winter Institute are the books you and your book group are talking about in the fall or five years down the road.
Bethanne Patrick is a writer and critic who founded #FridayReads.