Marking its 20th anniversary, the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit (RBTE)--serving Catholic, Episcopal, and other liturgical booksellers--drew nearly 114 stores (down from 124 in 2010) to suburban Chicago May 31-June 3. Publishers took up three of the exhibit hall's five aisles, with gift and other vendors making for a total of 104 exhibitors—roughly the same as last year, but bringing far fewer personnel (290 vs. 340). A total of 520 people attended the show, compared to 550 in 2010.
While no one was enthusiastic about a smaller show, many publishers said they took orders, made connections, or did other fruitful business. Bill Falvey, manager of publicity and special sales at Church Publishing, the publishing arm of the Episcopal Church, reported a "small uptick" in sales compared to the previous year. "We've written a lot of orders," said Brian Hughes, senior marketing manager at Oxford University Press. Oxford was doing good business with the New American Bible, revised edition, the Bible for Catholics that is approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and went on sale in March.
The roster of speakers included Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, who was there to promote his God in Action (Doubleday, May), and Joseph Girzone, author of the bestselling Joshua fiction series. His new novel, The Homeless Bishop, will be published by Orbis in September.
Booksellers were happy to see peers who were there, while also recognizing there were fewer of them. Henrietta Speaks, executive director of the Episcopal Booksellers Association, said the group's membership stood at 70 after a net loss of 10 stores in 2010, the biggest loss in a single year for the trade group. Even so, some stores in the EBA are reporting notable sales gains. "We're beginning to see a little bit of recovery," Speaks said.
In this niche of the religion publishing market, many find RBTE valuable for a variety of reasons, and show organizer Bob Byrns is working on providing another one. He said show organizers have been talking with Google and Ingram about facilitating delivery of e-books to small independent religious bookstores by providing coding to a store's Web site. The program will be available at next year's show "for sure," Byrns said. Such a system would allow small retail stores to have e-book vending capability without having to make significant investments in technology. Next year's RBTE is scheduled for May 29-June 1, 2012.