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CBA Steams and Stumbles In New Orleans
Lynn Garrett and Phyllis Tickle, with reporting by Jana Riess -- 7/31/00
Bethany's new quarter-million-dollar booth
was busier than many; WaterBrook Press won
the Christy Award for Best Romance
No longer a publishing backwater, the evangelical Christian book world is now fully integrated into the larger publishing arena. At the 51st annual CBA International Convention, held in New Orleans July 8-13, proof of that was all around. At Saturday evening's Gold Medallion Awards, for the first time top prizes were taken by two general trade houses that have made serious plays for the CBA market in recent years. Doubleday won the best biography/ autobiography prize for Fingernail Moon by Janie Webster, and Penguin Putnam upset the Left Behind megalith, taking the top fiction award for Jan Karon's A New Song. Penetration between what were once very separate worlds g s both ways. Though Tyndale House's bestselling Left Behind novels may have been passed over for awards this year, the books are now widely available in general trade bookstores and have become a publishing phenomenon. Commenting on the outcome of this year's Gold Medallions, ECPA president Doug Ross told PW, "No trade publisher has ever won before, and it's a real watershed event when two trade publishers win in the same year. That validates the significance of this market, and I welcome the sale of Christian books anywhere, by anybody." One Christian house had ample reason to rejoice at the awards dinner--Zondervan walked away with fully one-third of the prizes, including the Charles "Kip" Jordan Book of the Year Award for Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala with Dean Merrill.
In another significant development, Thomas Nelson Books announced the resignation of publisher Rolf Zettersten, who has gone to Time Warner Trade Publishing to, in his words, "bring in CBA business" by acquiring and publishing Christian books (News, July 17). In keeping with the current frenzy for fiction in the Christian market, Zettersten expects to devote "about half" of his Warner list to novels and will continue to do the celebrity books (like John and Patsy Ramsey's The Death of Innocence)that became his trademark at Nelson.

Nelson moved quickly to fill the void created by Zettersten's departure. Michael Hyatt, senior v-p of marketing at Nelson Books, was named executive v-p and publisher the day after Zettersten's resignation was made public and the day before the CBA convention opened. In a wide-ranging interview with PW, Hyatt outlined four new directions for Nelson Books, three of them positioning the house squarely in the general trade. The first emphasis will be on books for charismatic Christians, defined as those "open to the activity of the Holy Spirit" and including Pentecostals and others in nondenominational churches. According to Hyatt, Nelson's proprietary research reveals that charismatics buy seven books for every one purchased by Christians in general. Part of this first element in Nelson's new publishing agenda will include a strong program of titles for African-Americans. The three other, more general-trade oriented, emphases include leadership-business-motivational books along the lines of their currently bestselling John Maxwell titles (Failing Forward has made the lists of the New York Times, PW, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal); health-fitness-nutrition titles like Ted Brower's Maximum Fat Loss (Jan. 2001); and fiction. "Our fiction program has been totally random until now," Hyatt admitted. "We want to be a lot more intentional and do books that are not propaganda disguised as fiction." (Memo to Christian fiction authors and editors: This might be the time to look for a new contract or job.) Asked whether celebrity books will continue to be a part of Nelson's program, Hyatt said, "Yes, when it's right." He also told PW he would be "beginning an aggressive program of reimaging Nelson. There's been a perception that we'll do anything for money. Editorial integrity has to be important, and when you do the big-bucks one-offs, you pay for it down the line. We want to be careful not to betray our heritage." Title output will rise from 120 per year to 150, Hyatt said.

Amid unanimous agreement about the vitality of the industry, reactions to the convention itself were decidedly mixed, with some exhibitors reporting good traffic, and others complaining about the choice of New Orleans. Of the 520 exhibitors, 107 of them were new and 190 were book publishers. Some exhibitors felt bookseller traffic was way down. Jack Walker, executive director of Leadership Ministries Worldwide, publisher of the Outline Bible Studies, told PW he had learned that "less than 800 stores" had preregistered for the show. CBA stores traditionally plan their family summer vacations around the convention, and Walker said, "I've heard over and over again that New Orleans is not a good place to bring kids." Traffic seemed very light on opening day (Monday), Tuesday was busy, but Wednesday was once again light for many exhibitors. CBA management acknowledged that numbers were down, with 2,629 buying stores attending (compared to last year's 3,766). There were 12,107 total attendees (14,694 last year), 623 of them internationals (852 in 1999). CBA reported its membership numbers are "holding steady" at 2,443.

Admitting that New Orleans could not compete with Orlando as a child-friendly destination, CBA president Bill Anderson said there were 465 fewer preregistered youth and children this year. He noted, "They have good attractions here for kids, but New Orleans d sn't promote that." He added, "At least those who come are not split between the show floor and an amusement park." Anita Eerdmans, publicity director for Eerdmans Publishing, said, "There sure are fewer baby strollers this year." Doug Ross said, "The perception of some of our members is that numbers seem to be substantially down. If so, the fault is with the location. Many people have been surprised at how nice it is here, but New Orleans has proven to be a poor location." Ross noted that at the exhibitors'ball drawing on Wednesday morning, "the crowd was pretty rough on CBA, and they admitted that youth and children's registration was down 50%."
Zondervan's John Topliff (above, l.)
and Scott Bolinder; Penguin Putnam's
J l Fotinos (l.) with
Harper UK's James Catford
Yet the booksellers who spoke with PW at the convention were largely positive. Gay Waye, buyer at Rockview Books in Texas City, Tex., said, "I've enjoyed it very much. New Orleans is not my preference--there's not a lot for Christian people to do here." Waye said she "comes to buy," especially looking for new gift items at a $20-and-under price point. "We're carrying more of that." Bea Warren, assistant manager at Concordia Books and Gifts in St. Louis, Mo.--a first timer--called the convention "a wonderful opportunity to meet vendors and reps. I've opened three new accounts so far." Asked about the weather, she understated, "It's a little humid." Becky Gorczyca, executive director of Logos Bookstore Association, noted better quality of gift items and better books getting recognition at the show. "Our stores have had a good time here. I can't tell whether there is less traffic or not. If there is a problem with New Orleans, I think it would be the weather, not any moral issues. All in all, I'm pleased."
Two Roman Catholic publishers, both of whom have exhibited at the show for over two decades, expressed satisfaction with the show. Said OSV marketing director Jill Kurtz, "We don't do Expo [the winter show] anymore, but we are committed to this show. I opened six new accounts on Monday, and that's what we're here for, looking for new business. These stores are increasingly open to Catholic product." She added that they had been selling the new edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church "in case lots." At the Paulist Press booth, marketing director John Thomas told PW that their Walking with God board books "move better here than in the ABA or even the Catholic market." Paulist featured a new 46% discount and also opened several new accounts. Said J l Fotinos, director of religion publishing for Penguin Putnam, "We've gotten good orders, despite the fact that it seems slower than last year. Luckily, we have a new T.D. Jakes book, and orders of Jan Karon's book have dramatically increased since she won the Christy and the Gold Medallion."

One factor in the perception of lighter traffic may be what looked like a proliferation of hospitality suites off the show floor where many publishers met to do business. However, CBA management said there were actually fewer such suites this year because of the limitations of the Ernest P. Morial Convention Center, which not only provided too few meeting rooms, but a sprawling layout that forced attendees to hike long distances to even get to the show floor. (The facility is said to be a mile long from end to end.) One publisher avoided the need for a hospitality suite: Bethany House's new 150-linear-foot, quarter-million-dollar exhibit featured built-in meeting rooms, two private and one semiprivate. Said Carol Johnson, editorial director, "Thirty-five of our authors are at the show," and lines constantly surrounded their booth for nearly back-to-back signings. Another exhibitor with a sleek new layout was Zondervan; its staff was rejoicing over winning Exhibitor of the Year from CBA for the house's total approach to the show, including booth design and display and promotional materials.

The convention brought more debuts and new developments. Just before the show opened, Tim Martins, president and CEO of Barbour Publishing, struck a deal to buy the house from retiring owner Hugh Barbour. Harper San Francisco featured its newly minted mission statement, printed on all of its show literature. The statement positions HSF as "striving to be the preeminent publisher of the most important books across the full spectrum of religion and spiritual literature... respecting all traditions and favoring none." Associate publisher Steve Hanselman noted that HSF founder Clayton Carlson was a founding member of ECPA, but that Harper had been "kicked out" for not being able to adhere to ECPA's statement of faith. (However, Doug Ross told PW that "general-trade house membership is under discussion again.") CBA retailers are still very careful about vetting product before stocking it in their stores, but there is a new openness to expanding book offerings beyond the wares of evangelical Christian publishers. At a Tuesday evening panel on "What Makes a Great Christian Book?" co-sponsored by HSF and PW, Winston Maddox, chairman of the CBA board of directors and the owner of two Gospel Supplies stores in Tucson, Ariz., said, "I wish there was some way to flag non-CBA books that would work in our stores." Bill Anderson told PW, "The issue is, is it Christian product? If the source changes, and the product is still biblically based, that's okay with us. There's not nearly as much heartburn over that one as there used to be."

As at BEA, Christian fiction was hotter than the New Orleans weather at the convention. The first ever Christy Awards dinner on Friday evening honored excellence in Christian fiction, with the prize for contemporary fiction going to Jan Karon's A New Song (Viking). Once again, the Left Behind books were left behind, with LaHaye and Jenkins's Apollyon and Assassins losing out in the futuristic fiction category to By Dawn's Early Light by Grant Jeffrey and Angela Elwell Hunt (Word). Bethany House took prizes in the international historical fiction and North American historical fiction categories; Doubleday's WaterBrook division won for romance, and Broadman & Holman for suspense. As further proof of the new permeability between the Christian and general trade publishing worlds, Logos's choice for Best Children's Book was Pfeifer-Hamilton's The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau. Another new award was presented at a Monday breakfast. Created by Spring Arbor to honor founder Jim Carlson, the Jim Carlson Christian Bookstore Manager of the Year Award went to Ken Reinford of Provident Bookstores in Lancaster, Pa. Awards programs seem to sprouting everywhere: at CBA, Christian Retailing magazine announced its new Retailer's Choice Awards, with prizes in 15 categories that will be presented at CBA Expo in January 2001.

The number-one distributor in the Christian market seems to have put its recent problems behind it: comments about current relations with Spring Arbor were uniformly positive. Displaying a higher profile at the show was Anchor Distributors, a unit of Whitaker House Publishers, which trumpeted its position as "the fourth largest distributor in the Christian industry," according to Amy Sackett, territory manager. In the wake of the problems generated by Ingram's acquisition of Spring Arbor and a subsequent flap over charges for returns and restocking levied by number-two distributor Riverside, Anchor has moved aggressively in the past few years to positioned itself as "the alternative," according to show literature that states, "It's time for a change," and asks, "Where can you put your trust?" Riverside has since withdrawn the charges and ran ads in the CBA Connection, the show daily, that offered "no payments until 2001 on qualified orders." It seems clear there will be more jockeying and intensifying competition in distribution in the coming months. In another new development, the International Marketplace, established at the Dallas convention three years ago and on the show floor for the first time this year, was opened to U.S. retailers on the final day of the show.

There was also lots of buzz about "e." Last year, e-commerce was the hot button, and both FirstNet Christian and the Parable Group have ramped up the e-commerce capabilities of their Web-hosting services for bookstores. FirstNet (owned by Riverside) now provides hosting for 120 client stores, at a cost of $25 per month. Parable now hosts 80 stores, a number expected to rise to 100 by year's end, for a onetime fee of $495. This year, new online projects revolved around B2B sites. FirstNet is offering fee-free hosting for stores that use its B2B site, and Parable touted its MemberNET B2B site, free to all Parable members.

The next "e" on the agenda is CBA Expo, moved this year from Nashville to Louisville, Ky., January 28-February 3.
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