The International Christian Retail Show, July 10–13 in Atlanta, mirrors the evolution of the Christian publishing/retail industry, which has struggled over the past 10 to 15 years to adapt to changing technology and consumer buying practices. Publishers have been rethinking their goals for the show, their presence there, and how they can support ICRS and its CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) retailers.
Some plan large exhibits, author appearances, and special events, while others will only maintain a hospitality suite off the show floor. Some plan booth space, but have booked meeting rooms at a nearby hotel; a few will have no presence at ICRS. With attendance dropping from a peak of more than 15,000 in 1999 to less than 5,000 in 2010, publishers must adjust.
Supporting CBA, but How?
"I want to support the Christian retailing industry, and I think it's safe to say every publisher feels the same," says Jonathan Merkh, v-p and publisher of Howard Books. "But is spending money at the trade show for results that can't really be measured the best way, or do I buy ads in [store] catalogues that help them sell books? Having a presence at ICRS doesn't necessarily equate to helping Christian retailers."
Howard Books, owned by Simon & Schuster, has a suite off the convention floor to conduct editorial meetings and international rights negotiations, but no booth space. The publisher will bring one author, Debbie Macomber (God's Guest List; One Simple Act, Apr.), to speak at a Parable Group managers event.
Thomas Nelson stopped attending ICRS in 2008; it plans no booth presence, but will have a hospitality suite and a small group of staffers attending this year's show. International Licensing and Remainders divisions will have exhibits.
"Thomas Nelson continues to support Christian retail and hosted a contingent of store owners, buyers, and managers at our spring sales conference," says Tom Knight, senior v-p of the Christian retail sales and ministry development group.
Pulling Out the Stops
On the other hand, FaithWords, owned by Hachette Book Group, is sponsoring author appearances, galley and tote bag giveaways, and booth space. "ICRS is a solid opportunity to support our authors in the CBA," says Harry Helm, v-p and associate publisher at FaithWords. "Our support for ICRS is the same as it's always been—strong. This year we're doing several smaller-scale, focused events," including signings by John Eldridge, Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee, and Lavaille Lavette.
FaithWords will also bring in Adina Senft, to highlight the house's foray into Amish fiction, and Debbie Viguie, who has authored a Christian vampire novel. The publisher will give away galleys of Joyce Meyer's and Greg Sarot's new books and tote bags to publicize Joel Osteen's newest. Says Helm, "We want to have people walk away from ICRS and see that we have what we believe is the strongest list in the Christian publishing industry."
Worthy Publishing, the new venture of CBA vets Byron Williamson and Rob Birkhead, launched in January and will announce its first nine titles at ICRS. The company will have its own booth, but also be represented at EMI Christian Music Group, with whom it has distribution, warehouse, and sales partnerships. "We think ICRS is important because we're trying to communicate to the industry who we are," says Birkhead, senior v-p of marketing and deputy publisher. "We're just getting in the game this year, so we're doing as much as we can line up."
Worthy, which calls itself a boutique publishing house, will publicize books by Steven Arterburn, Bill and Gloria Gaither, and Chuck Colson, as well as The Belieber by Cathleen Falsani, about the faith of teen sensation Justin Bieber.
B&H Publishing Group's Jennifer McAfee, advertising and trade show manager, sees CBA and ICRS as continuing its commitment to help publishers reach retailers. B&H plans on making a "pretty decent splash" at the show, with the same size booth as last year, bus wraps, banner ads, and video loops on shuttles. The press will highlight releases tied to the movie Courageous (Sept.) by Sherwood Pictures and will maintain a booth in the International Market Square as well as a hospitality suite.
Changing with the Times
Curtis Riskey, executive director of CBA, highlights the shift in ICRS from a venue where retailers place orders to the place where publishers introduce new books and products. "Increasingly, publishers are using ICRS as a way to launch new titles and campaigns," he says. "While current ICRS reports show slight increases in comparable booth sales and the number of exhibitors overall, larger publisher-marketing investments seem to be driven by building and developing strong consumer campaigns through retail booksellers."
David Lewis of Baker Publishing Group agrees. "When conventions began, we didn't have computers or the Internet. We wrote lots of orders, we offered discounts and free shipping, and stores came to order. Everything was growing and vital," says the executive v-p of sales and marketing. "Today it's the reverse. Stores order weekly via the Internet as they need product. So we take very few sales reps and more marketing people."
Baker, which includes Bethany House, has decreased its expenses by a third in recent years, cutting its booth size from 20 spaces to about 10. The company doesn't pay for authors to attend ICRS, but instead focuses on getting out the word about its newest releases. Its author dinner, an event that features Baker president Dwight Baker, retailer account reps, and Baker authors, is back this year. "Perhaps we're sending more people than the show's value, but we're a supporter of the book industry and we're going to be at ICRS as long as it exists," says Lewis.
CBA's Riskey says 2011 programs are tailored to help retailers respond to consumer use of e-readers, e-books, and social media. Author and researcher George Barna will keynote a session exploring the future of the church in a changing culture and the role of Christian bookstores in that change, based on his upcoming book, Futurecast (BarnaBooks, Sept.). Barna will also moderate a panel of industry leaders discussing how booksellers can add value in this emerging digital era.
Zondervan's v-p of marketing, Don Gates, stresses the publisher's commitment to work with retailers in reaching consumers, especially via online digital formats. The company plans no author signings, but has several invitation-only events. "We've found it's much more effective to bring authors to consumers instead of to the trade," says Gates. "But we are as committed to ICRS as we have ever been. Our booth space is the same size it's been. We have a strong presence with sales personnel, but also marketing, PR, editorial, and senior leadership."
The publisher's two major initiatives are the updated New International Version of the Bible and the product line for The Story, a chronological retelling of the Bible. The Story spokesmen Max Lucado and Randy Frazee will attend a Tuesday breakfast that also features Christian rock group Casting Crowns, Nichole Nordeman, and other musicians.
That ICRS will survive seems certain, though how the trade show will look and operate in the future is still being worked out. "Exhibitors and retailers continue to ask for and support a platform where trading partners can come together to do business, network, address common challenges, and learn. ICRS is the best platform to accomplish these goals in one location and under one roof," says Riskey.
Says Worthy's Birkhead, "One thing ICRS does for smaller publishers is bring the whole industry to one place at one time. But trade show marketing is expensive. If CBA can come up with ways of making it more cost effective, ICRS has a brighter future."
Titles at the ICRS
Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus by John Eldridge (Oct.)
Forbidden: The Books of Mortals by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee (Sept.)
86400: Manage Your Purpose to Make Every Second of Each Day Count by Lavaille Lavette (Mar.)
Kiss of Night by Debbie Viguie (Oct.)
Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week by Joel Osteen (Sept.)
God's Story, Your Story: When His Becomes Yours by Max Lucado (Sept.)
The Heart of the Story: God's Masterful Design to Restore His People by Randy Frazee (Aug.)
Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus by Kyle Idleman (May)
Beyond Boundaries: How to Know When It's Time to Risk Again by John Townsend (Sept.)
The Sacred Acre: The Ed Thomas Story by Mark Tabb (Aug.)
The Resolution for Men by Stephen and Alex Kendrick (Sept.)
The Resolution for Women by Priscilla Shirer (Sept.)
Courageous Living: Dare to Take a Stand by Michael Catt (Sept.)
5 Conversations You Must Have with Your Son by Vicky Courtney (June)
Over the Edge by Brandilyn Collins (May)
The Sky Is Not Falling: Living Fearlessly in These Turbulent Times by Charles Colson (Sept.)
Walking into Walls: 5 Blind Spots That Block God's Work in You by Stephen Arterburn (Aug.)
A Homecoming Family Christmas: Making Memories of Comfort & Joy by Bill & Gloria Gaither (Sept.)
Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half and Raise Your Standard of Living... and Giving! by Kelly Hancock (Sept.)
Belieber! Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber by Cathleen Falsani (Sept.)