Chip MacGregor

July 22, 2008

Back from the Front Lines…


Just got back from a week at ICRS (the International Christian Retailing Show) in Orlando. Some notes…

1. Attendance: In a word, awful. One insider told me this is the lowest attendance they’ve had at a CBA convention since the 1980’s. There were only about 7000 people at the show. Ouch.

2. The Bad News: There wasn’t much buzz at the show. Zondervan introduced an interesting idea (more on that later), but the whole event had a bit of a gloomy atmosphere. As you know, Thomas Nelson, the largest Christian publisher on the planet, pulled out of the show. That helped create a sinking ship mentality. My guess is that more publishers are going to follow their lead (more on THAT later as well). In addition, they’re going to have to cut the whole thing back. NOBODY was there on Thursday — you could have whacked golf balls down the aisles and not hit anyone. So, overall, a bit of a negative vibe at this convention.

3. The Good News: On the flip side, book publishing is alive and well. Even though there was a bit of a cloud over the show, a Bowker study revealed that there were more Christian books produced and sold last year than ever before. I figure that’s good news to everyone who works in the industry. And I’d argue there were some excellent new books unveiled. (I loved getting a copy of Baker’s UNCHRISTIAN, and Jossey-Bass had new books from both Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones.) So we can all stop whining. There’s plenty of good things going on.

4. The Floor: It was nice to have all the book publishers close to each other on the floor again. And many of the art-and-trinket sellers weren’t there — in fact, I’d say they took up half the space they used to inhabit. Real shrinkage among the non-book types.

5. The Crazies: Many of the nutty things failed to show at this year’s CBA. No one selling vials of ash from Sodom and Gomorrah. No Armor of God Pajamas, no Gospel Golf Balls, no Praise Panties. A bit of a downer for those of us who sit up half the night chatting about the ups and downs of the show. (Last year’s event featured at least four companies selling footwear with bible verses on them, PLUS the "Standing On The Promises" folks with their scripture-infused insoles. None of that sort of truly stupid crud this year.) Yeah, there were Testa-mints ("Saving the World One Piece at a Time") and the occasional weirdness (one company makes wristbands out of dirt from Israel — so you could be "wearing the actual dirt Jesus walked on!"), but overall the kitschy side of CBA was in the same funk that everyone else experienced.

6. The Worst Thing I Saw: One artist showed up with a painting the size of your dining room table, featuring a junkie kneeling on his dingy apartment floor and shoving a syringe of dope into… the arm of Jesus. Nope, I’m not kidding. Christ was there behind the junkie, offering his arm, and the guy was ready to plunge the drugs into the Lord. Truly the most tasteless bit of art I’ve seen in ages. Who would ever buy this? And who would hang it up? They had tried to sanctify the whole mess with the verse about "whoever has done this to the least of these has done this to me" — a sort of mind-numbingly bad interpretation of Scripture. I told my buddy Steve Laube (a fellow agent) about it and he didn’t believe me, so I walked him over in order to let him get the full effect. Steve immediately grabbed his camera phone so he could remember the moment. Oh — and I now have my own name for it: Heroin Jesus. (Thanks to the boys from The Ooze for offering that bit of insight.)

7. True Story: While walking around making notes on trends in book ideas and book covers, I was approached by someone who works closely with CBA. "Hey Chip," he says to me, "I see in your blog that you covered Thomas Nelson pulling out of the show. I just want you to know that when they did that, we immediately sold their space to someone else." He said this with a straight face. I mean, we’re in the midst of a drastically shrinking show, and we happened to be standing right next to a big open space that had obviously not sold to a vendor — just a vacant piece of floor, covered by an industrial blue rug. I really wanted to say, "To who? A carpet company?" but I didn’t. I just smiled and nodded. Eeek.

8. Negative Signs: Many publishers had fewer people, fewer books on display, and smaller booths at the show. I heard a lot of sales types complain about the lack of sales they’re generating — and if the convention doesn’t generate income, it’s all but dead. Want to know why? There was almost a total lack of media this year. Very few radio and TV opportunities for authors. You go there to sell books, and if you can’t sell them, at leasts you can promote them. If you can’t do either, you stop going.

9. Positive Signs: There were several smaller book publishing companies with booths. I had a nice chat with the folks at Ampelon Publishing. And it was nice to see Moody Press take a giant leap forward. Here’s a company that, a few years ago, we didn’t think would survive. The leadership there has put together a good team, has a clear plan, and is releasing some excellent books. Always nice to see someone grow and begin to succeed in the face of doom and gloom.

10. Buzz: Lots of people talking about Susan Meissner’s upcoming book, The Shape of Mercy, which got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Several folks said to me it might have been the best review for religious novel they’ve ever seen in PW. Just not many times you see the word "lifechanging" used in a book review.

11. Symtio: The folks at Zondervan are going to be moving into more digital products. They introduced "Symtio," which is not an Italian version of Sim City. It’s basically a gift card that people can buy at their local Christian store, then take home and use it to download digital books onto their iPods or laptops. Z claimed they’d have 300 of their titles ready to be downloaded (by audio or text) this fall. 

12. Rain: And not to sound cranky, but isn’t Florida "the Sunshine State"? Good grief. They should change their slogan to, "Bring Your Umbrella!"

13. People: The best part of the convention is seeing friends, and I saw a ton of them. Great people working in publishing. I had great meetings with people from every publishing house, saw a number of authors I represent — even scammed an incredible meal from Tony Collins, the publisher at Britain’s Lion-Hudson.

14. The Future: So what happens next? My guess is that several publishers will pull out of ICRS next summer. It’s expensive, and the show just doesn’t pay for itself in sales for most larger publishers. Just can’t see how they can continue justifying the expense…and that makes me wonder if the convention can survive. I know there’s been talk of them trying to get placed together at BEA, but will independent Christian booksellers show up at BEA? I have my doubts. They may be more likely to head to the Christian Book Expo in Dallas next March, sponsored by the ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association). This is a show aimed more at consumers than retailers, but word is most CBA publishers will show up (and encourage their accounts to show up). Thomas Nelson has already said they will participate, and all the publishers I spoke with made it sound as though this could be the event that allows everyone to re-focus on books. That will end up hurting some of the smaller suppliers who really get their only national exposure through the show floor — they’ll have to turn to one of the permanent gift showcases, or work with sales reps, or do more direct calling themselves. When the history of Christian publishing is written one day, "changes in distribution" will be the lead topic for this era. It’s re-shaping everything.

15. Introductions: The best part of ICRS this year was that I got to introduce everyone to Sandra Bishop, my new colleague at MacGregor Literary. She’s incredibly sharp, knows the industry, and has made her living at writing for 15 years. It’s nice to finally have somebody with some brains working for my company — leaving me to be nothing more than the pretty corporate face, apparently. (Um… we’re still tweaking this plan. Check back for frequent updates.)

Back to publishing questions. Let me know what you’d like to ask about writing and publishing.


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