CBA Expo, the smaller of the two Christian Booksellers Association conventions, met January 28—31 in Indianapolis for the second of a three-year stint in that city. Tighter economic times were evident. CBA president Bill Anderson told PW he expected show numbers to be "flat or down slightly this year," and indeed the total count was 4,674, down from last year's 5,002. Exhibitor numbers were down about 5%: 259 vs. last year's 274. Of the attendees, 1,880 were designated "professional attendees" (total head count minus exhibitor personnel and youth). This year, CBA changed its method of calculating buyers, allotting just one number to each chain or indie instead of counting chain outlets separately or multiple attendees from a single store. By that count, there were 622 buying companies at Expo representing 1,235 stores, a number that includes each store the company is buying for, minus the five largest national chains.
Just over 500 booksellers came in early for CBA's first ever Independents Day on January 28, designed to celebrate and help independent Christian stores, which face increasing competition from Christian and general-interest chains, as well as from "big box" retailers. Neena Lord of the Kingdom Treasures store in Fulton, Mo., called the training "the most valuable thing I've done as a store owner." Lord took over an existing 1,400-square-foot store last May and said she has been trying to "breathe life into it and keep [my] head above water." She said she would return home to write a new business plan.
Commenting on the current state of Christian retailing, Anderson said, "Christmas was an amazingly mixed bag. But overall, even the chains had a tough year. Christmas was just the continuation of a tough fall" for all of retailing, not just booksellers. Anderson said, "I am sure there is going to be some attrition—during hard times there always is. The stores we're concerned about are on the smaller end of the mid-sized range. They don't have the critical mass, cash flow or momentum." Still, CBA membership numbers are up slightly, according to Anderson, from 2,443 last year to 2,465. "Some of that increase is from the opening of church stores in megachurches," he noted.
A major concern for many Christian retailers is "the proliferation of product availability," Anderson said. "If they can get it everywhere, why should they come to a specialty store? What can stores do to make it more worthwhile for the consumer?" Anderson thinks one result of this heightened competition might be a stronger emphasis on books as part of the Christian stores' product mix—welcome news for publishers, after several years of decline in books as a percentage of inventory. "I think the retailer is realizing that since consumers can get the blockbuster titles everywhere, stores can stand out by carrying deeper books" and a better selection, said Anderson.
Commenting on the 22 new bestseller lists that CBA and ECPA have developed, which will roll out in March, Anderson said, "The idea is to help the retailer and the consumer. When customers come in with a need and an interest, they want to know what is good [within that category]. People don't come in asking for the best mass market paperback—they come in with specific topic interests. It's also going to help stores manage their core inventory better."
Floor traffic at Expo looked light at times, but that might reflect the fact that increasing amounts of business are done in publishers' hospitality suites. Exhibitor numbers were down, and many exhibitors reduced the size of their booths and sent fewer staff members to the show. Lower exhibitor and attendee numbers could also be a sign of the increasing competition facing Expo. The ECPA's six regional trade shows concluded just before Expo and were popular with many of the exhibitors who spoke with PW, some of whom grumbled about the sliding attendance and comparatively high cost of Expo. One of the industry's largest marketing consortiums also is planning its own trade show. The 782-member Munce Marketing Group will hold its first Christian Product Exposition in Nashville May 18—21. Most of the expenses for attending retailers will be subsidized by exhibitor fees. In turn, exhibitors will be given 30-minute time slots to present their wares to assembled buyers.
While some publishers found traffic disappointing, others were more positive. Doubleday editor Andrew Corbin reported that it was "slow, but we've had some very good book signings. For focused events, we've had excellent traffic." Other publishers who have solidified their inroads into the evangelical market—such as Harper San Francisco, Health Communications, and John Wiley and its Jossey-Bass imprint—also reported a productive show. Penguin director of religious publishing Joel Fotinos noted that Penguin had six CBA bestsellers in 2002, and that he's "looking to increase that this year."
With Warner Books up for sale as a result of AOL Time Warner's well-publicized woes, there was speculation that the two-year-old Warner Faith line might be vulnerable. Said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity, "Any potential buyer will be looking carefully at all of the lines and imprints and examining their numbers." But Warner Faith president Rolf Zettersten told PW, "Our numbers are good," and described the mood at Warner Books as "business as usual."
Thomas Nelson v-p of marketing Pamela Clements was ebullient over the debut of Michael Savage's The Savage Nation on the New York Times bestseller list. The book leads the list for Nelson's new WND imprint. Although it is not a religion imprint, Clements told PW "Christian stores now want to stock the book." Clements also noted that John Eldredge's phenomenally successful Wild at Heart, first out in 2001, is now up to nearly one million copies in print, and "it's not slowing down." Sister company W Publishing Group heralded its author Charles Colson, who has substantially revised and updated his award-winning 1992 book The Body, now called Being the Body. The revision, to be released in April, will enjoy wide exposure, including a radio special that will be broadcast on more than 1,000 stations as part of Colson's Breakpoint program.
HarperCollins unit Zondervan also had reason to rejoice, as its The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren ascended to the number one spot on PW's January Religion Bestsellers list, as well as the Evangelical Christian Bestsellers list. In October, Zondervan launched the book with the ambitious "40 Days of Purpose" campaign in more than 1,500 churches nationwide. Since then, more than one million copies have been sold, and another "40 Days" campaign begins April 13.
Bethany House editorial director Carol Johnson was excited over Baker Book House's recent acquisition of Bethany, effective February 28. Bethany lost no authors during the search for a buyer, said Johnson, who noted that the fiction leader has earned a reputation in the industry for remarkable author loyalty. One long-standing author in Bethany's stable is Janette Oke, whose mega-selling 1970s novel Love Comes Softly was made into a TV movie that will air April 13 on the Hallmark Channel. Bethany is publishing a new edition of Love Comes Softly to coincide with the event; it ships in late March. Baker president Dwight Baker said the Bethany acquisition nearly doubles Baker's backlist from 1,400 to 2,600 titles, and that Bethany will be the largest single division of the new combined publisher. "Bethany's sales are approximately 80% of the combined revenue from Baker's five imprints during the year prior to the acquisition," he explained. "We are nearly doubling in revenue."
Another company that has been on the expansion track is Cook Communications, which debuted its re-branding strategy at Expo. Publicity director Michele Tennesen noted that Cook had 26 brands, but in the wake of its acquisition of Honor Books (gift) and RiverOak Publishing (fiction), Cook now has "six targeted brands." The new brands also include Victor Books (reference and theology), CHURCHAlive Ministry Resources, Life Journey (family books) and Faith Kidz. She also said the house is ramping up its marketing efforts to the general trade.
Tyndale House continues to ride the seemingly unstoppable Left Behind wave (book 11, Armageddon, releases in April) and at Expo announced the launch of a new young adult line, geared for readers 15 and above. The line will be called thirsty(?)—no, that's not a typo—and will feature six books a year (fiction and nonfiction), with the first two titles launching in June. Tyndale was also excited about a new 12-book historical biblical fiction series, by industry celebrities Brock and Bodie Thoene, with the debut novel First Light set for release in June.
Expo 2004 will also take place in Indianapolis February 2—6 before moving back to Nashville in 2005 and 2006.