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Distribution, Discounts, Advances Among Top Issues at Confab
Lynn Garrett and Jana Riess -- 2/14/00

In a placid show remarkably free of some of the controversies that have dogged the industry in recent years, CBA Expo, the smaller of the Christian Booksellers Association's two annual conventions, drew 2,078 buying stores (up from 1,556 in 1999), 6,447 attendees (up from 6,222) and 279 exhibitors (up from 237) to Nashville's Opryland Hotel and Convention Center January 25-28. According to show management, only one exhibitor was kept away by bad weather, though some buyers--such as those from Books-A-Million in Birmingham, Ala.--left the show early to outrun predicted snowstorms. Weather fears and the prospect of that weekend's Super Bowl game, which pitted the host city's Titans against the St. Louis Rams, seemed to elicit more excitement than any convention event.

The show's biggest story--one that brought uniformly positive reaction--was the return of David Moberg to Word Publishing as executive v-p, publisher and chief operating officer. Moberg, who had been Word's senior v-p of sales and marketing and associate publisher, left the company in 1998 when Lee Gessner was named publisher following the death of Kip Jordan. Gessner, whose new title has yet to be determined, will now oversee Word, the children's division Tommy Nelson, the J. Countryman gift-book unit and the newly acquired Rutledge Hill unit for parent company Thomas Nelson Inc. Said Moberg, "It was good to have a couple of years away, but I'm excited about returning and renewing relationships with key authors such as Barbara Johnson, Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll." During his hiatus, Moberg consulted with such companies as Garborg, best known for its gift lines, and he told PW that he enjoyed learning more about the gift industry and licensing and hopes to apply that knowledge at Word--perhaps a wise goal in a market increasingly focused on gift products.

All Quiet on Spring Arbor

One issue that has been much talked about in the past few years is the well-publicized struggles of Spring Arbor. That drama seems to have played itself out. Doug Ross, Evangelical Christian Publishers Association president, said, "I'm not hearing any complaints. I think that has settled down." Ross noted that ECPA and other industry groups met with Spring Arbor at Expo. "It was a very friendly meeting. We feel we've made an awful lot of progress. I think Fran [Salamon, new Spring Arbor president] is on top of it and will do an excellent job." CBA president Bill Anderson agreed: "I haven't heard anything from our members lately."

Meanwhile, former Spring Arbor president Larry Carpenter was very active at the show, signing up publishers for his new venture, Bookworld's Christian Distribution Services (News, Oct. 25, 1999). As chairman of CDS, Carpenter was quick to point out, "we are not competing with Spring Arbor. They are actually our biggest customer. They are a wholesaler, and we are a full-service distributor," offering not only fulfillment but also marketing, sales and warehousing services. Noting that there was previously no full-service distributor for the Christian market, Carpenter added, "We are targeting small publishers with annual sales of $250,000-$1 million."

Bookworld provides CDS with all of its back-office functions; Carpenter has put together his own sales force and public relations staff. CDS, which was launched November 1, currently has 20 publisher-clients and represents 400 titles.

A Rising Issue?

A problem beginning to occupy the minds of many in the industry will sound familiar to ABA booksellers. With increasing retail consolidation and the opening of new, nonbook channels to Christian product have come rumblings from CBA stores about a playing field that slopes unfairly in favor of the chains and mass merchants. ECPA's Ross called it a "rising issue," noting that some retailers "think they're not getting a fair shake, that suppliers treat them differently. There are rumors that retailers are getting ready to take some kind of collective action." Noted Ross, "I think there is ignorance on the part of some suppliers about the ramifications of the Robinson-Patman antitrust act. ECPA's role is simply to educate and to advise suppliers that they need their own antitrust attorneys." Yet, he added, "We want to address the concerns in a careful and nonlitigious way. It would be inappropriate and contrary to who we are to take that route." Ross also pointed out that the law constrains the association's ability to meet and discuss the issues; on March 29, ECPA will hold an Internet conference on antitrust issues.

CBA's Anderson also emphasized the need to avoid litigation. While he acknowledged concern among his members, Anderson said he wasn't aware of any organized effort to take action. Noting that general-market business practices can be unfamiliar in the CBA world, Anderson added, "Not everything that feels competitive is unfair, but not everything that's legal is ethical. I would hope we'd spend our energy working together, and keep our dollars in expanding this market rather than hiring lawyers."

The true size of the Christian products industry remains elusive. CDS's Carpenter told PW that there are about 11,000 outlets for Christian books "out there breathing," but that many are truck stops, gift stores and the like. He estimates there are "5,000 real Christian bookstores" in the U.S., with 95% of sales coming through what he called a "top tier" of 2,000 stores. Asked the same question, however, CBA's Anderson--noting that his association's membership is "holding steady at just under 2,500"--said, "The most legitimate number is between 3,000 and 3,500 total, both nonmember and member stores." (CBA membership numbers count each individual store within the chains.) A figure of $3 billion in annual sales of Christian product is often cited but has never been adequately supported by market research. (PW will examine the conundrum of the actual size of the religion book industry--for all faiths--in depth in our March 13 issue).

Whatever its true size, publishers in this industry are increasingly looking beyond the domestic market. ECPA's Ross acknowledged the growing importance of global markets, noting that ECPA's spring seminar in April will focus on that topic. Ross expects participants from South Africa, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, the U.K., Germany and Latin America.

Big Trade Houses Move In

The market is certainly large enough to have attracted the attention of publishers outside the CBA universe. Commenting on the recent influx of money from general trade houses into the CBA, Baker Book House president Dwight Baker said, "It has really driven up advances, especially in the past six months. People blame it on the agents, but they are only responding to the market. We are wondering whether it will swing back the way it did a few years ago."

Among the big trade houses making aggressive inroads into the CBA market is Penguin Putnam, which hosted a Wednesday evening dinner celebrating the publication of Jerusalem Vigil, the first book in its new Zion Legacy series by popular CBA authors Brock and Bodie Th ne. In 1994, the Th nes signed a historic $4 million, 11-book deal with Thomas Nelson that reportedly never earned out. Penguin editor Carolyn Carlson noted that the books the authors did for Nelson "never got the response that the Zion books did. Readers didn't see those as Th ne books." (The previous Zion series--Zion Chronicles and Zion Covenants--each sold about three million for Bethany House, according to Carlson.) "Store buyers and customers have been asking for them to return to the Zion books, and that's what we're doing with this new series." Penguin Putnam fielded other star authors at Expo, including T.D. Jakes (Maximize the Moment), Robert Benson (Venite) and JoAnna M. Lund (Make a Joyful Table). Also during the show, Random House announced the completion of its acquisition of independent nondenominational publisher Harold Shaw (News, Jan. 31).

The boom in Christian fiction has been apparent for several years now, and at Expo, Tyndale House--arguably the most successful publisher of Christian genre fiction today--was basking in the glow of 1.8 million pre-pub sales of The Indwelling, the next volume in its Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins; it releases May 23. Left Behind was certainly good to many Christian bookstores during the Christmas season: that original volume in the series was the top-selling book for the more than 330 independent stores in the Parable Group, the largest of the three major buying groups operating in the CBA market.

Getting Web-Wise

At Expo, Parable announced a new initiative designed to help its member stores compete more effectively with chains and online booksellers. Parable will host customized Private Label Web sites for a one-time cost of $495 and no annual fee. The sites will feature the individual store's own logo and images but will connect consumers to the Parable Group's inventory of more than 70,000 Christian products. Jim Seybert, v-p of corporate marketing for the Parable Group, told PW that the concept will make it affordable for even the smallest independent store to have a commerce-driven Web site.

The industry's largest chain, Family Christian Stores, held a press conference to announce the hard launch of its $30-million iBelieve Web site, calling it a "comprehensive Christian lifestyle site" designed to serve the estimated 90 million "committed, active Christians" in the U.S.

The Big Books

Despite the fact that some exhibitors reported slow orders and sales at Expo, a few titles stood out from the pack. Albury House, another of T.D. Jakes's publishers, was elated over sales of Jesus Freaks by popular Christian recording artists dc Talk with Voice of the Martyrs, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians around the world. The book, a collection of true stories about contemporary martyrs, has sold 250,000 copies since it was released last summer and is going into a sixth printing of 100,000 copies.

At the Harper San Francisco booth, free copies of Richard J. Foster's Spiritual Classics were quickly snapped up by booksellers. Commenting on the press's refreshed direction, new HSF publisher Steve Hanselman told PW, "Our pipeline had dried up, and now we're getting it flowing again." Hanselman noted that he had just signed Brennan Manning (The Ragamuffin Gospel) for a "low six figures"; the new title is due in September. Also in September, HSF will release The Best Christian Writing 2000, edited by John Wilson, the first of an annual series, and Robert Schuller Jr.'s spirituality and health title Possibility Living.

A much more controversial title talked about at the show was The Death of Innocence, the forthcoming memoir of John and Patsy Ramsey from Thomas Nelson. According to Nelson publisher Rolf Zettersten, the major chains recently increased their buy orders after seeing the manuscript. Major media coverage will include an hour-long Barbara Walters interview on March 17, and Newsweek will run an excerpt and possibly an interview with the Ramseys the week of March 20. Also that week, Katie Couric will run five-minute interview segments Monday through Thursday on the Today show. (A PW review of the embarg d book will run March 27.)

Facing the Challenges

In April and May, CBA will be conducting an eight-week test- market study in Nashville and Indianapolis of its proposed national image awareness campaign, "What G s Into the Mind Comes Out in a Life." Using newspaper inserts, radio ads, church awareness programs, a public relations initiative and local store merchandising, CBA will measure the effectiveness of the campaign before moving ahead with a launch into other markets this fall. Asked about the greatest challenges facing the association--and the industry it serves--in the next five years, Bill Anderson said, "All of the forces that are typically talked about have implications for our shows--technological changes, group buying, e-commerce and continuing consolidation will all affect us. But do trade shows go away? I don't think so. Nothing replaces the face-to-face contact."

Echoing a continuing theme at the show, Anderson noted, "Our products are naturals for the Internet, so we're encouraging our retailers to get their feet wet now. In the long run, those who are multichannel retailers will be the survivors."

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