Mickey, the mouse that roared, gave place to Larry, the cucumber that sings and dances, as the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) held its annual summer show in Orlando, Fla., July 11-16. While Larry, one of the popular VeggieTales characters from Big Ideas Inc., was singing, Bill Anderson, president and CEO of CBA, was crowing over significantly higher attendance and exhibitor numbers -- including 14,694 registrants (compared to last year's 13,741), 3241 buying stores (2679 in 1998) and 485 exhibitors (vs. last year's 439). The show also continued to attract strong international participation: 852 attendees from 65 countries.

This year the Religion Newswriters Association chose to hold its annual meeting immediately after CBA; many of the nation's religion writers and editors for daily papers and newsweeklies scouted the show for stories and interviews. A Thursday morning press conference, broadcast live by C-SPAN, attracted a roomful of journalists with the promise of new industry statistics, but those seeking reliable dollar figures for sales of Christian product were disappointed.

Anderson, whose remarks opened the discussion, noted that the difficulty of assembling such data "was even greater than I had expected." He later told PW that he expected some size-of-the-industry figures to be ready for release in six to eight weeks.

Anderson did cite figures from CBA's Impact X 2 initiative, launched in 1997, which helped produce average growth of 13% in religion book sales in 1998 and 10.8% YTD for 1999. He noted that growth, while still healthy, has slowed, although the industry remains optimistic. Anderson cited recent Gallup figures indicating that 82% of Americans now say they want to be more spiritual, up 24% in the past four years.

Seconding Anderson's optimism, Les Dietzman, president of the 318-unit Family Christian Stores chain, reported that Family's business had tripled in the past five years, and he expects "more change in the next five years." At the show, Family announced a major Internet initiative involving a $50 million outlay over the next two years.

Mark Scott, president of the 82-unit LifeWay Christian Stores chain (formerly Baptist Bookstores), noted that increased competition has brought "a new wave of growth and professionalism" in Christian retailing. Steve Potratz, president of the Parable Group, a marketing group for more than 300 member-stores, declared, "Consolidation is the story in the industry."

Buzz at the Show

Other big stories at the show included the changing of the guard at Spring Arbor. Following the abrupt resignation of former president Larry Carpenter on July 1, Fran Salamon, the new Spring Arbor president, was very present at the show, learning her way around the market. Many on the floor expressed surprise that Salamon had been brought over from Ingram Periodicals and was, by her own admission, unfamiliar with both books and Christian product. Doug Ross, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), told PW that Salamon met with the ECPA board on Wednesday morning at the show.

"She shows promise," he commented. " We like the fact that she referred to publishers as 'customers,' not 'vendors.' We just hope she has corporate support." Ross said that among "the looming problems" for Spring Arbor is "what d s Ingram do now that the B&N sale didn't go through, since that was supposed to be their 'salvation from a desperate time,' as John Ingram put it? How viable a company is it?"

Another press conference that turned out to be a non-event took place on Monday morning when Thomas Nelson brought journalists to its booth for the unveiling of its major new "secret author -- whose identity by then was common knowledge and the talk of the show. Nelson paid a rumored $1.25 -- $1.4 million for Weigh Down Diet (Doubleday) author Gwen Shamblin's next book, Rise Above, planned for a January release. Shamblin told PW the lure to Nelson was not the highest bid, but an aggressive marketing program for the book, which Nelson calls "the biggest launch of a book in our history."

Bethany House was ecstatic about the sales garnered by CBA superstar author Janette Oke's children's book, Making Memories -- 30,000 in two weeks. WaterBrook's Bad Girls of the Bible by humorist Liz Curtis Higgs prompted the most smiles at the show, as the brightly veiled Higgs mugged for photos at the WaterBrook booth.

On the Saturday evening before the show opened, Word Publishing's Just Like Jesus snagged Max Lucado an unprecedented third Charles "Kip" Jordan Christian Book of the Year Award. The event marked the 22nd anniversary of the Gold Medallion Book Awards, the 25th anniversary of ECPA and the 50th anniversary of CBA.

Word proudly announced its acquisition of hardcover and mass market rights for the religion market from Plough Publishing for She Said Yes, the memoir by Misty Bernall, mother of Columbine massacre victim Cassie Bernall. Word senior v-p and associate publisher Mark Sweeney described the acquisition as for "under six figures." First serial rights went to Ladies' Home Journal, which will run excerpts in October.

Certainly the most colorful participants on the show floor were the VeggieTales characters, on display not only at the Big Ideas booth, but also with other exhibitors who license them. According to CBA's Anderson, sales of children's product have grown 22% in the year since CBA's Think Kids First campaign was launched. Also growing in importance in CBA is Spanish-language publishing. According to Family's Les Dietzman, "We are targeting Hispanics now. Some of our stores do more than half of their product movement in Spanish, and we've added a Spanish-language buyer." Larry Downs of Spanish House Inc., a distributor for several Spanish lines, explained, "Five years ago we were still knocking on the door. Now this market is knocking on ours -- not only knocking, but bursting in. Ninety percent of our sales at this show have been off the floor."

A New Database

Being demonstrated for the first time at the show was phase one of the new Christian Books & More database, developed by Bookstore Manager with ECPA; it will be officially released in January. It will use the recently approved standardized categories to offer product descriptions, jacket and package images and soundclips for more than 90,000 items. Priced at $395 per year, the database will be shipped on CD-ROM to the 700 stores that currently use Bookstore Manager software and to additional subscribers who began signing on at the CBA convention. Publishers and other suppliers who want to add their products to the database can call (915) 672-1238.

A popular innovation at CBA International was the electronic map of the Orlando Orange County Convention Center show floor, which was offered at 20 kiosks at seven locations on the concourses. Attendees were able to search for exhibitors by product category, key word, company, booth location or alphabetical listing, then print out a personalized list and floor map.

At Doubleday's Crossings Book Club annual party on Sunday evening, Markus Wilhelm, president and CEO of Doubleday Direct, addressed the assembled guests, admitting that after several years of rapid growth, book club business had leveled off in the face of increased competition and proliferating consumer options. This has led Crossings to expand its Internet presence.

Also attending the show were Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, who, along with Eric Major, recently named publisher of the new Doubleday religious publishing division of Random House, hosted a Tuesday evening dinner. At CBA for the first time was Penguin Putnam president Phyllis Grann, who commented, "This is a wonderful show. It really seems to serve its audience the way the old ABA convention did."