The 22nd annual Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit met May 28-30 in St. Charles, Ill. With BEA rescheduling its dates, those who wanted to attend both had to make a choice or send a contingent to each. But very few faced that decision, since there is now little overlap. RBTE attracts liturgical—primarily Roman Catholic--houses, and few of them exhibit at BEA anymore, because of cost and also because they more effectively meet their target markets at the smaller show.

However, RBTE has experienced rapid decline in the past few years, acknowledged show organizer Bob Byrns. “People love the show, the issue of course is declining numbers in both attendance and exhibitors,” a situation worsened when the Episcopal Booksellers Association decided two years ago to hold its annual meeting at the Munce Christian Products Expo regional shows instead. This year Byrns said he saw an 18% drop in vendors—to 65 exhibiting companies--and an 8% drop in buying stores--to 72—from 2012, which had been significantly down from 2011. Most of the major publishers in the category—HarperOne, Random House’s Image imprint, Wiley’s Jossey-Bass, Putnam, Baker Publishing Group, Oxford University Press—have dropped out, as well as mainline denominational publishers Westminster John Knox and Augsburg Fortress. That leaves primarily small Catholic houses, and some of them were absent this year too.

Asked about the show’s future, Byrns outlined three possibilities: merging with another organization; leaving the show as is; or creating a two-track meeting, with a day devoted to retailers and another exclusively for those in professional and volunteer church ministry, who would be primarily drawn from the region. But, he admitted, “everything is up in the air currently. We may or may not continue to meet here. But no matter what we do, somebody is not going to be happy.”

In a summary of his experience at this year’s RBTE, Robert Hosack, executive editor for the Baker Academic, Baker Books, and Brazos Press imprints of Baker Publishing Group, wrote, “The dreary decline of exhibitors and retailers left behind an even smaller event….What used to be a wonderful networking show, no longer seems to draw networkers….I could find no U.K. publishers present, nor one agent, so my brief time in the hall was limited to ministering to the lonely publisher reps.” Hosack indicated that without “drastic changes” he would not return next year.

Tom Grady, CEO and publisher of Ave Maria Press, alluding to one of the celebrity appearances at BEA, said, “We had no Grumpy Cats, except the vendors. It was slow, and we’ve reached a point where we’ll see whether Bob can find a way to continue the show.” Ave Maria brought extra people because some of its authors were luncheon speakers, “but we could have done it with fewer people and in one day.” He, like many others, said he would be sad to see the show fold because “it’s nice to see colleagues,” but otherwise Ave Maria doesn’t really need a trade show to reach its customers. “We sell to the small Catholic stores through Ingram.”

But another publisher had a different take. Jon Sweeney attended the show for Paraclete Press, an ecumenical, liturgically oriented house based in Massachusetts, where he is editor in chief. Said Sweeney, “For the second year in a row the show was generally slow, and people were complaining. But we did fabulously well. We’ll keep coming back.” Paraclete no longer exhibits at BEA, and, like many other publishers in the religion category, increasingly is passing up trade shows and reaching customers through highly targeted denominational conventions, clergy and chaplains’ conferences, and other professional meetings.