Although the Christian Booksellers Association midwinter Expo, held January 26-30 in Nashville, drew more buyers than last year, they came to a more subdued show with fewer book-related special events.

One publisher, who requested anonymity, said, "I think there's an insecurity in the CBA booksellers. Because of the proliferation of channels for Christian product, they are not sure what their role will be in the retail mix." Another publisher called this "an in-between time," with many issues awaiting resolution in the rapidly changing industry. There was also an air of anticipation, as vendor and bookseller conversations continuously returned to the FTC's pending ruling on B&N's acquisition of Ingram, including its Spring Arbor division, the dominant wholesaler for this market.

In spite of the quieter mood, CBA officials told PW that the Expo drew 6222 attendees (up from last year's 5629) and 1556 buying stores (up from 1461). However, there were substantially fewer book publishers in evidence this year (74 of 237 total exhibitors vs. 110 of 219 in 1998), making for a drop from 50% to 31% of exhibitors. Asked about the proportion of books to other products in Christian stores, CBA president Bill Anderson offered again the 1997 figure of 27.5%. While new figures for the association will be made available this spring, there was at least one indication that change is afoot.

Jim Seybert, v-p of corporate marketing for the 333-member Parable Group, the largest of the buying groups in the Christian market, noted, "We are heavier in books than in any other inventory segment -- over 30% now -- and books are our fastest-growing segment. That's a real reversal of a trend." Seybert said Parable stores enjoyed a 9% same-store growth in sales in 1998 over the previous year. Anderson also cited a 9%-10% growth for independent Christian retailers and noted that the independents had done better in 1998 than the Christian chains, which saw a growth of only 5.25%.

Spring Arbor Rebounds

Despite lots of noise about myriad problems in the wake of the May 1997 acquisition of Spring Arbor by Ingram, some talk at this Expo was positive. "They are now about 80% there," said Rich Baker, Baker Book House chairman, president of its retail division and a member of the board of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. ECPA had been especially vocal in its criticism of Spring Arbor at its fall meeting in October (News, Nov. 16). At Expo, however, ECPA president Doug Ross, commenting on a meeting with Spring Arbor, said, "It was wonderful. Things have gone from tense and irritable to a love fest." He added, "John Ingram has demonstrated tremendous resiliency in the face of criticism, and tremendous determination to correct the problems."

Ross and Baker cited Ingram's recent expansion of its Spring Arbor accounts payable department staff as leading to a state of "constant reconciliation." They added that although shortages were still a problem, progress has also been made on that issue. Convention-g rs also expressed excitement about Ingram's new Lightning Print division, which was made available to all Spring Arbor accounts as of October 14.

Publishers Push Branding

Although author branding has been crucial in the Christian book market for some time, some evangelical publishers are now pursuing publisher branding, seeking a higher recognition of their company or imprint name by consumers. Carol Johnson, editorial director at Bethany House, noted that "untrained staff and higher turnover at bookstores makes brands even more important." Added Steve Laube, senior editor for nonfiction at Bethany, "Books must sell themselves today."

Another publisher seeking brand recognition is NelsonWord Publishing Group's J. Countryman. President Jack Countryman explained, "Branding is the way it has to go." His efforts to achieve this include an aggressive program to gain store real estate by offering free spinners and other displays, a program currently at use in 300 stores. Countryman said the displays provide stores with four to six turns per year.

CBA continues to heavily emphasize bookseller education; the J.C. Williams Group has been contracted to provide a 10-module training program that will lead to retailer certification. According to ECPA's Ross, "ABA has pretty much shut down its training for booksellers, while CBA is doing a better job than ever."

At Expo, ECPA presented the multi-tiered product-category standardization draft that has been in development for the past two years. More comments will be taken from vendors until it comes up for final approval at the July CBA International in Orlando. Said Ross, "The super-categories will be useful to ABA stores, and CBA stores, with their greater depth, will also use the primary categories and subcategories. Stores will be able to shelve in great detail the topics they emphasize."

Ross also took pains to correct the impression left by some Christian trade publications that the recently abandoned Christian Books in Print database -- which ECPA developed in concert with R.R. Bowker -- was being revived. "We are now working with Bookstore Manager to develop from the ground up a database called Christian Books &More for use with our X-net EDI system," Ross explained. Family Bookstores' adoption of X-net last summer "put us over the top," Ross added. "We are now where we expected to be with X-net -- just three years late."