Stacks of unsold books and glum publishers stood for three days inside the cavernous Dallas Convention Center this past weekend at the Christian Book Expo, a first-of-its-kind event designed to connect publishers and authors directly with readers in the evangelical Christian market. Only problem was there were few readers to connect with, despite the show’s location in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible Belt and a top market for Christian publishers. The show, sponsored by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, attracted 1,500 consumer attendees; it had hoped for 15,000-20,000.

Off the record, exhibitor publishers rolled their eyes heavenward, but spoke with circumspection on the record. “Every new experience has a few nicks and bruises, but things can be worked out,” said Greg Petree, v-p of marketing at Howard Books. A few were more blunt. “We can’t afford these kinds of risks,” said Dennis R. Hillman, publisher at Kregel Publications. “In a year like this the last thing we want to do is something that has no payoff.”

Conceived before the current economic downturn and more than two years in planning, the event combined three days of panels and programming to provide both a conference experience and a product. ECPA president Mark Kuyper said the goal of the event was to drive awareness of Christian authors — 238 were featured — and their message. The sponsoring ECPA had a minimal marketing budget that Kuyper said its board had approved. Instead, the marketing strategy relied on relationship building through early meetings with influential religious leaders in heavily churched Dallas. That was intended to mobilize existing regional networks. ECPA planners expected that participating publishers would also alert their own customers. “We’re going to be following up with them to find out what they did or didn’t do,” Kuyper said.

The show might, or might not, go on. “If we end up doing this again, it would be a smaller show,” Kuyper said. “We’ll be smarter next year,” said Michael S. Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson and chair of the ECPA’s executive committee.

Before that decision is made, publishers will have shelved their returns and added up their expenses. “InterVarsity Press will be looking for a more concrete, specific marketing plan for the event — with some strings attached — before we would consider setting aside money to participate,” said associate publisher Jeff Crosby. “Viewed in total, the event was a major disappointment.”

In other news from CBE:

The ESV Study Bible (Crossway) was named 2009 Christian Book of the Year. The Bible sold more than 180,000 units within five months of release. Last year’s book of the year was also a Bible, The Word of Promise New Testament Audio Bible(Thomas Nelson). Small publisher Crossway scored a second win, in the Christian life category, with Spectacular Sins by John Piper. Fiction winner was The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner (WaterBrook Multnomah).

In fiction, finalists for the annual Christy Awards were announced. Three nominees were shortlisted in nine categories that recognize excellence; publishers Tyndale House and Bethany House scored the most berths, each with five finalists. Winners will be announced in July at the International Christian Retail Show in Denver. A complete list of finalists is available at

The economic crunch is crimping trade show presence. WaterBrook Multnomah, the evangelical division of Random House, will not attend the International Christian Retail Show, evangelical Christian publishing’s major annual event for retailers, in July. Multiple-imprint Baker Publishing Group will scale back its presence at Book Expo America, with a presence only in the African-American pavilion.