With only about half as many vendors and buyers as last year, the 23rd annual Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit (RBTE), held May 27-29 in St. Charles, Ill., was very quiet. But one thing came through loud and clear: Catholic publishers are betting Pope Francis’ popularity will translate into burgeoning book sales.

“Everybody’s got a pope book,” said Michael Lawrence, national sales manager for Orbis Books. Theirs is Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church, (Aug.) by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan priest.

The Jesuits—including Loyola Press, which has not exhibited at RBTE for several years—have benefitted from the Jesuit pope, gaining the U.S. English translation rights to his own first book, The Church of Mercy (Apr.). But so have Franciscans.

“Everybody’s so excited about Pope Francis; we’re using it to teach about St. Francis,” said Angela Glassmeyer, marketing manager for Franciscan Media. Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Aug.), by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, is their latest. They also have a pope book: Pope Francis and Our Call to Joy (Aug.) by Diane Houdek.

Two other popes—the newly sainted Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II—also graced the covers of a number of books at RBTE booths. The first title in a new People of God biography series from Liturgical Press, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy (Apr.) by Massimo Faggioli, was out just in time for the dual canonizations. (Francis: Bishop of Rome by Michael Collins will be published in December.) Pauline Books & Media has released two new volumes in its Classic Wisdom Collection: Secret to Happiness: Wisdom from John XXIII and Be Not Afraid: Wisdom from John Paul II (Apr.).

The papal theme continued in the many children’s books on display at RBTE. Both Paulist’s The Pope: the Life of Pope Francis, the Holy Father (Oct.) by Paul Harrison and Pauline’s The Story of Saint John Paul II: A Boy Who Became Pope (May) by Fabiola Garza are aimed at middle-grade readers.

Other newsworthy titles also revolved around Rome, including Orbis’ Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times (Apr.), a collection of presidential addresses from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group of American nuns under investigation by the Vatican. Paulist has published two new books by controversial German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has called for a change in church law prohibiting divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving Communion: Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Mar.) and The Gospel of the Family (Mar.).

The buyers at RBTE were not much interested in heavy theology, however, preferring spirituality and gift books, said publishers. The buyers represented small, independent Catholic bookstores, as well as book/gift stores at retreat houses and spirituality centers.
Eerdmans, one of the few non-Catholic exhibitors, said they were taking orders for children’s and spirituality titles. “This is my favorite show,” said Tom DeVries, sub rights manager. “It’s friendly and laid back. You have time to talk to people.”

Still, the hall at the Pheasant Run convention center in suburban Chicago was noticeably empty, with only 38 vendors/exhibitors and approximately 40 buying stores attending, according to show organizer and co-founder Bob Byrns. Many wondered about the show’s future, as they have for the past several years.

Byrns said he has been in conversation with the organizers of the Catholic Marketing Network—whose annual convention this year (July 29-Aug. 1) will be in nearby Schaumburg, Ill.—about merging the two events. “It makes sense for vendors and buyers, as long as there is respect for one another’s beliefs, traditions, and ways of doing business,” he said, alluding to the more conservative orientation of the vendors and buyers at CMN.

On Thursday, Byrns moderated a lunchtime session called “RBTE Moving Forward” and reported that support was nearly unanimous for continuing the show. Yet some publishers told PW that while a show like RBTE meets a need, it cannot continue at its current size. One publisher said the trip was only worthwhile because of meetings with international rights representatives. Byrns admitted the economic downturn since 2008 has hurt RBTE. “Everyone wants value for their money,” he said. “But even though we communicate electronically and through social media, there is still value in creating relationships.”

The importance of “relationship marketing” was emphasized by Curtis Riskey, president of CBA, the association of Christian retailers, who spoke at a seminar Tuesday. He offered data showing that despite the massive changes in the way books are sold, millennials still crave a relationship when purchasing, such as the relationship that can be found in smaller stores.

RBTE co-founder Peter Dwyer, director at Liturgical Press, praised Catholic retailers for their commitment despite seismic shifts in the industry. “Face to face is still important,” said Dwyer. “But the retail world has changed radically. It continues to exist in this market because of mission-driven people. It is a ministry.”

At Wednesday’s luncheon, the Association of Catholic Publishers recognized excellence in Catholic publishing for 2013 books with awards in eight categories, with Ave Maria Press, Liturgical Press, and Loyola Press taking home multiple awards. Faith Meets World (Ligouri) by Barry Hudock won first place for general interest book. The top children’s winner was Totally Catholic! by Mary Kathleen Glavich (Pauline Book & Media).

Lunchtime speaker Judith Valente, a journalist, book author, and poet, encouraged publishers to keep up the good work, despite the challenges of the rapidly changing publishing landscape. “The world will always hunger for beauty and story,” she said. “The delivery may change, but that deep human yearning will never disappear.”