The Evangelical Christian Publishing Association’s 2022 Leadership Summit, held in Philadelphia May 3-4, brought together 140 evangelical publishers, book manufacturers, and other publishing partners for speaker sessions, workshops, and socializing. The event, which also included the ECPA’s Christian Book Awards ceremony, marked the first in-person Leadership Summit since spring 2019, and several attendees referred to it as an essential touch point.
“It feels great to be here,” said Dwight Baker, president of the Baker Publishing Group who has attended the event for 25 years. “The random spontaneity of meeting people [is valuable]; this profession attracts wonderful people.” For Catherine DeVries, publisher at Kregel, the summit is more important than ever. “A lot of the regional shows and the CBA have gone away," she said, "and the ECPA has filled in.”
Attending the event is like visiting family, according to Pete Larson, president, CEO, and owner of the book production, printing, binding, and warehouse provider Bethany Press International. “People have a lot to catch up on,” he said of this year’s event.
Steve Smith, director of sales and marketing at Oasis Family Audio, agrees, citing the number of people with experience at several companies within the Christian publishing industry. “There are people here who have been in the same market for years,” he said. Smith highlighted the “impactful” speakers, including Cherie Harder of the Trinity Forum who opened the event, followed by Dr. Theon Hill, an author, professor, and Aspen Institute Fellow.
“It’s been very social and thought-provoking,” Smith noted.
Sessions included Elevating the Reader, during which Kristen McLean, executive director, industry analyst at NPD BookScan said: “Books are ideas in jackets." She noted that book sales can give indications of consumer needs and impulses. While BookScan is always striving for more complete data, there are “holes” in the Christian market, McLean said. For instance, BookScan does not receive reports from Hobby Lobby or Christian Book Distributors (CBD). Nevertheless, McLean said Christian publishing is outperforming the total book market, in part because of the very long tail adult nonfiction books have in the religion category.
McLean emphasized opportunities in the amorphous category of "wellness" books, which includes topics such as sleep, diet, health, fitness, devotionals, prayer, and many more. She encouraged publishers in the room to take heed: “Faith is critical to health and wellness,” she said. “Engineer yourselves for the broader market. People are stressed out. There is a lot of interest in the consumer market for these things.”
As previously reported, Bibles are having a great run, McLean said, with Crossway gaining the most market share in recent months. Looking at overall trends, McLean’s data showed significant growth for manga. When it comes to general bookselling, data shows that chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble are increasing their market shares, but McLean notes that the 10% of sales that moved online-only during the pandemic is likely to stay. General fiction is experiencing growth, with #BookTok being a leading, powerful trend and serving as a “new discovery mechanism for next-gen bestsellers.”
McLean attributed underperforming geographic markets to what she calls “the migration story of the pandemic,” or the large number of people who moved out of cities. According to census data, these cities include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, each of which experienced market drops. Growth in the mid-size markets is expected to stay, McLean says.
Another session, Elevating Opportunities in the Supply Chain session, featured a panel of book manufacturers who discouraged publishers from “hoarding,” or ordering larger print runs than what is needed, and to cut the use of embellishments such as ribbons, special paper, elaborate covers, and other “bells and whistles.” The speakers examined their role in the supply chain crisis as well as publishers’ roles. Each agreed that the book manufacturing is "a nickels and dimes business, not dollars," in which publishers in the past have been known to take their business to a different printer over a matter of pennies, which speakers said, led printers to close and creating the current lack of capacity.
One panelist, Kelly Gallagher, v-p, content acquisition, Ingram Content Group, concluded that roles have changed now—with printers having more control over the business than publishers, but that paper shortages, supply chain delays, and understaffing has left them powerless still: “We might have the wheel, but the steering is broken," he said.
During a breakout session entitled Pursuing Mutiethnicity in Your Publishing House, director of product innovation at IVP Helen Lee cited media coverage of diversity issues within publishing, including PW’s, in order to underscore the attention publishers need to give to both their staff and their frontlists. She called on publishers to be more inclusive in their acquisitions and pointed out three bestsellers in I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown (Convergent, 2018), Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison (WaterBrook, 2019), and The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby (Zondervan Reflective, 2019). These books are both "prophetic and profitable," Lee said, meaning they present messages that the church needs to hear while also moving the sales needle. Drawing on IVP's Every Voice Now Initiative, Lee also gave publishers steps to take for making "safe spaces and places" for people of color on their staff.
PW’s 150th anniversary was a topic of conversation with many publishers during the summit. Jeff Crosby, ECPA CEO and president, acknowledged the milestone during his welcoming remarks, and Dwight Baker reflected on the magazine’s influence, telling PW: “Robin Mays and Daisy Maryles recognized a gap and stepped into the space to make introductions when religion publishers were self-isolated. I remember the first time being across the table from significant people in the general publishing world. I was able to see my company in the context of the larger industry."
When asked to reflect on the summit, Crosby told PW in an email that he had three goals in mind for it: "To foster community among our members who have felt a sense of isolation due to the pandemic; to platform visionary speakers to help us consider vexing issues; and to offer practical, hands-on training." He said: "I think all three of those goals were accomplished through the plenary sessions and, for the first time, three breakout sessions. I'm grateful for each of the speakers and trainers who offered their gifts for the benefit of the ECPA community."
The next in-person ECPA members’ event, the C-Suite Symposium, is taking place in Savannah, Ga. from Sept. 25-27.