The 21st annual Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit, held in suburban Chicago May 29-31, brings together publishers and booksellers serving retailers from the Catholic, Episcopal, and other liturgical traditions. This year the show was notable in part for who wasn’t there. The Episcopal Booksellers Association, which had traditionally held its annual meeting at the show, was absent, opting to meet in conjunction with the Christian Product Expo to be held Sept. 16-18 and organized by the Munce Group, a marketing group serving independent Christian retailers.

Several key publishers who had long exhibited at RBTE were absent: Church Publishing, Abingdon, Westminster John Knox, Oxford University Press, Jossey-Bass, and HarperOne all sat this one out. At least one publisher usually at RBTE won’t return in 2013. “This show, with only Catholics here, is not enough for us,” said David Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group. “There are other ways to sell books.”

Show organizer Bob Byrns noted that the Episcopal booksellers’ presence had been declining since 2009, even before the association’s decision to move its annual meeting. Last year, he said, only 12 attended; this year he estimated attendance at three or four. EBA executive director Henrietta Speaks confirmed the decline, noting that the association saw “ three consecutive years of dwindling attendance at our annual meeting, reaching a low in 2011 that could not be ignored.” She cited several reasons: “RBTE began to host fewer appropriate vendors with smaller bonuses [for buyers] and zero ‘freebies’,” Speaks said. “Some vendors resorted to staffing booths with poorly informed stand-ins or one lone pro expected to take orders for multiple houses whose products or lists he or she could not discuss. As buyer numbers dropped and catalogue and online sales replaced sales at trade exhibits, fewer publishers and gift wholesalers budgeted RBTE. Protestant publishers ceased to sponsor speakers for meals or visiting authors as incentives, and the downward spiral gained speed.” By moving the annual meeting, EBA hopes to make it “a more valuable experience all around,” Speaks said, not only for doing business but for “inspiring and encouraging” each other.

Other publishers find the show a unique opportunity and wouldn’t miss it. “BEA doesn’t make sense for us,” said Bernadette Price, senior marketing manager for Orbis Books, which hosted a book signing for its major title, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer by Michael Lapsley, a priest who survived an assassination attempt in Zimbabwe. “I don’t think the trade show is dead. It’s evolving.” Sister Antonia Cleverly of Paraclete Press was also enthusiastic. “This is where our customers are.”

Therese L. Ratliff, newly minted publisher of Twenty-Third Publications, was at RBTE two days after being named to the post. Ratliff spent almost 20 years at Pauline Books and Media, participating in content creation, new project initiatives, market development, and organizational management. Most recently she came from Boston College, where she completed a Ph.D. in theology and education. “Catholic publishing is a difficult market,” Ratliff told RBL. “I have willingly come back. We don’t know what the future holds.” She said her emphasis would be on “reaching the Catholic in the pew.”

Commenting on the current state publishing, bookselling, and trade shows, Joseph Durepos, executive editor for trade acquisitions at Loyola Press, said, “It’s a confluence of great change. I don’t know if you can see what’s going on in the midst of great change. That’s kind of exciting.” Loyola was back at RBTE after an absence of several years, and won four of the Association of Catholic Publishers new Excellence in Publishing Awards, including one for Margaret Silf's The Other Side of Chaos.

Eerdmans made dual use of the show, not only selling its books to retailers in attendance, but also bringing for the first time its bookstore manager, Nate Dawson, who purchased books from other publishers. British publisher SPCK was there as always, primarily to sell rights, but other U.K. houses that had come in the past—Canterbury/SCM; Darton, Longman & Todd; Lion; and Veritas—were absent. SPCK Publishing Director Joanna Moriarty said, “We certainly hope the show survives, since it’s an important place for us to meet with our customers and publishing partners.”

By press time, Byrns had not responded to requests for show statistics. Dates and location for next year are pending; the convention facility where the show has been held for the past 19 years is under new management and this year demanded payment up front. Byrns said he is leaning toward the same time and a new venue that remains in the Midwest, since 60 percent of Catholic religious booksellers are within a day’s drive of Chicago. Proximity to a major airport and free parking were other requirement he cited. “For dealers,” Byrns said, “it’s all about affordability.”