I’m just back from ICRS (the International Christian Retailing Show), where I always enjoy getting to see longtime friends in CBA. A lot of people in publishing don’t really understand the Christian Booksellers Association — they still refer to it as “the inspirational market,” and have no idea that it’s a HUGE part of publishing. I think it’s funny that a major magazine recently admitted, while putting together notes about book publishing in the US, that they had excluded all religious works in their totals… then noted that religious publishing accounts for about 20% of all publishing in this country. That would be akin to a publisher saying, “Here are our sales figures for last year — but, of course, they don’t include any of the books we sold on Amazon.”
Anyway, we at MacGregor Literary represent a bunch of Christian books. We don’t work exclusively with religious books (though I get that question frequently, we do about a third of our business in the general market), but Sandra, Amanda, and I probably sell as much Christian fiction as any agency in the country. So I was there, representing the company at the book show, trying to act nice, and remembering to wear a clean shirt.
As usual, I loved seeing editors and authors. There were great new covers to see, some trends in books that we’ll get into later, and authors we represent won several major awards — so a good show all around. It was once again held in Orlando — faithful readers will know that the people in charge of ICRS hold high-level meetings each year, to try and determine which will be the hottest city in the country the next year, in order to book the show someplace completely uncomfortable. (“How about hell? Have we considered doing the show in hell?”) Rumor has it they light candles, throw the urim and thummin, and then decide to go back to Atlanta or Orlando or someplace equally muggy. The main show was in the Orlando convention center, which has finally added covered walkways to the complex, so you no longer get rained on every afternoon when you leave the convention and walk back to your hotel. (Another fine CBA tradition ruined!)
The show itself has definitely shrunk. There were far fewer people attending, and it didn’t have the optimism we all felt last year. In fact, the one thing that stood out about this year’s show was the lack of buzz. Monday mornings of ICRS traditionally are crowded, and have an air of anticipation to them. There’s always that first-morning crush, with everybody trying to see the latest books and Christian Crud. Not this year. I’m not trying to be negative, since I actually enjoy the convention, but Monday morning was decidedly quiet. In fact, it had the feel of the old Wednesday afternoons, when everybody was gone to visit with Minnie & Mickey, and the sales reps could talk to each other about how terrible the book business is. (Note: The fact is, book business is great. We’re producing and selling more books than ever before in history. And we’re selling more Christian books than ever before. So don’t accept the mistaken notion that publishing is falling apart. It’s not. It’s simply changing.) Anyway, there wasn’t nearly as much excitement as usual, and a number of CBA publishing houses simply chose not to participate.
For the un-initiated, ICRS isn’t like BEA, in that it’s not a “book” show. It’s a more generalized retail convention for anybody with religious stuff to sell. So there are t-shirts and ties, jewelry and Jewish trinkets, paintings and posters, music and miscellaneous crap from board games to dolls to genuine olive oil from the Holy Land. Yes, it’s THAT kind of show.
The book publishers were basically all in one section, but it’s clear they’ve all shrunk their floor space. Not as many giveaways, not as many signings, not as many authors. Makes me wonder if the publishers will again choose to dump ICRS and hold their own show, just for books. I pretty much stayed in that space, since I have no interest in Precious Moments Statuettes or Thomas Kinkade paintings, but I did get around to see some of the specialty products offered to religious retailers. In the past, I’ve recorded some of the really bad ideas that have come and gone at the show — Gospel Golf Balls, Praise Panties, Pope Soap on a Rope, vials of “genuine ash from Sodom and Gomorrah,” etc. (And before you ask, NO, I’M NOT MAKING ANY OF THIS UP.)
A couple years ago, Jesus Footwear was all the rage — people offering shoes with verses, Standing on the Promises insoles, and the like. This year it was clearly “The Pillowcase Convention,” since I counted at least three companies who have discovered the deep truth that “putting your head on a random Bible verse offers you better sleep.” Don’t believe me? “Celestial Slumber” offered pillowcases with heavenly stuff on them. The “To Rest My Case” company had pillowcases with Bible verses. And “Faceplant” was a third company that offered the same concept — all vying for this hot new corner of the Department of Laughable Christian Crud.
Of course, those pale in comparison to the people offering “WWJT” t-shirts — which stands for “What Would Jesus Text?” (An alternative idea: What would Jesus SELL? Would it be made in China? And would it have more depth than a stoo-pid t-shirt?) There was also a company on the floor selling Scripture Fortune Cookies. Really. Wrap your mind around that for a moment… (“Whenever I’m in need of divine guidance, I eat Chinese! Then I look forward to the Spirit leading me through some pithy aphorism in a cookie!”)
However, there was a hands-down, slam-dunk, stone-cold-lock winner of this year’s coveted Gold Weenie Award, given to the worst idea at each ICRS. This year’s unanimous selection has to be Grilled Cheesus — a George Foreman-like grill that imprints the face of Jesus on your sandwich. It’s so truly awful, so patently offensive, it is sure to join “Heroin Jesus” (a painting of a junkie pushing drugs into the arm of the Savior) and the afore-mentioned “Vials of Sodom Ash” on my top ten list of Worst Jesus Crap of All Time.
Lest you think I’m making this up…
(And, for those who are slow readers, YES, WE REPRESENT RELIGIOUS BOOKS, BUT WE ALSO REPRESENT GENERAL MARKET BOOKS. I hope that’s finally clear.)