At the 54th Christian Booksellers Association International Convention July 12—17 in Orlando, the fate of the convention itself was the central topic, with industry insiders speculating about it and especially about the future of CBA Expo, the smaller winter show that meets in late January/early February. The past few years have seen publishers dropping out of Expo, citing too high a cost for too little return. CBA's response was to form a Convention Reinvention committee; one of its first strategies, to be implemented in 2004, was to combine two other events—Independents Day and the Future of the Industry conference—with Expo to cut down on travel for participants and, said CBA president Bill Anderson, "to strengthen the reasons to come to Expo."

Though most major publishers still plan to attend Expo, and most agree there is a need for some kind of winter meeting, some are beginning to question whether the industry needs two full-scale annual trade shows. Another question on the minds of many was whether International needs to be so long, with exhibitors required to set up on Saturday even though the show floor doesn't open until Monday and stays open through Thursday. Said Anderson, "Shortening the show is certainly on the table, as are other changes."

Doug Ross, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, considers the association at a crucial crossroads. "The roar in our heads is an oncoming train that if we are not careful will run over us," he said, adding that CBA needs to find ways other than exhibitor fees to fund the shows, and to work hard to preserve the convention. "Those who didn't downshift [their presence here] this year will next year," he predicted.

Signs of Contraction

Indeed, there were many empty spots on the exhibit floor—some dressed up as seating or display areas—and one industry leader said, "It looks to me like they're down about a third." Some publishers had dramatically downsized: Thomas Nelson went from 20 booth spaces last year to six. Jonathan Merkh, senior v-p and publisher of Nelson Books, said the spartan display reflected not so much the difficult economy as the changing nature of the show. "Not as much business is conducted on the floor—a lot of the buying is done before and after, and it's a lot more practical here for us to do business in the suite," he said. Merkh reported that order-writing at the show has declined by "60 to 70%" since CBA was in New Orleans three years ago. Still, Nelson v-p of marketing Jerry Park admitted, "We probably went too far. I think you'll see a more substantial floor presence for us next year." Though its exhibit also was scaled back from previous years, Zondervan still had an attractive and solid-sized presence, though, like Nelson, the house decided not to bring any product to this year's show.

Anne C. Gerth, director of production and fulfillment for InterVarsity Press, observed that "there are empty booths, and I've never seen that before." She summed up her impressions by saying, "There's certainly a subdued ethos in the aisles. But we've also stayed really busy and had lots of traffic. A mixed report, isn't it?" That refrain was heard from many. At the Eerdmans booth, v-p of publicity and promotion Anita Eerdmans said that this CBA was the slowest she'd ever seen. Orders were "about the same as usual," but the overall feel of the show was "more empty," she observed. At the Random House booth, Doubleday editor Andrew Corbin agreed. "Our orders actually seem better this year than last, but there doesn't seem to be a real center to the show," Corbin said. "There isn't one book that seems to be standing out. There's just not much buzz."

Official numbers released by CBA indicated that the number of buying stores in attendance was up 22% over 2001 and 2% over last year. Yet many told PW that fewer buyers from some of their major accounts were there. A scheduled reception for Max Lucado hosted by W Publishing was canceled because, according to a corporate source, most of the invited media and buyers had decided not to come to the convention. Overall attendance was down, with 10,902 registered attendees, compared to last year's 13,129. Exhibitors numbered 477 (224 of them book and Bible publishers), compared to 496 last year and 515 in 2001. One obvious area of belt-tightening was in booth staff: exhibitors brought 1,000 fewer people than last year. International attendance was down to 708 from last year's 1,039.

Sales Up or Down?

Just before the show, CBA released the results of a study that showed 2002 sales of Christian products by CBA member suppliers through all channels at "just under" $4.2 billion, up from $4 billion in 2000. The survey showed that $2.4 billion of the total was sold through Christian retail outlets; $1.1 billion through general retail; and $725 million through direct-to-consumer and ministry channels. Sales in CBA member stores for the first six months of 2003 are down 2%, with increases of 8% for books and 2% for Bibles, but a decrease of 9% in music and flat sales for gifts. Music sales—always critically important for these stores—have suffered from rampant downloading, just as they have in the general market. The good news for book publishers, according to Anderson, is that as a result books have increased as a proportion of inventory. The bad news for Christian retailers is that the same study showed almost a 5% loss in market share for CBA stores, who for several years have faced increased competition from general-interest bookstores—particularly the chains—as well as from big boxes and online booksellers.

But even in the face of this apparent contraction and battening-down, some publishers are in expansion mode. Jim Kregel, president of both Kregel Publishing and its Spanish-language division, Editorial Portavoz, said sales are up 16% this year over last, and the company has jumped its title output from about 80 to about 90. This year at the convention, Kregel moved Editorial Portavoz to a separate exhibit space removed by several aisles from the parent company. According to Kregel, this allowed the publisher to occupy all the space it had previously shared with Portavoz, but also allowed the Spanish division to further establish its own distinctive presence under its new director, Andre Schwartz.

At the show, Cook Communications publicity director Michele Tennesen told PW about Cook's new strategy to support Christian retailers, the NexGen bookstore program. Cook now sells curricula directly to churches, but with NexGen, qualifying stores will be given Cook's church accounts in their area. Cook will also provide support with NexGen reps, Cook employees who used to sell to church accounts but will now help stores with ordering and stocking, event support and other services. Said Tennesen, "We've also rolled back prices on curriculum and plan to hold them down for at least two years."

Officially launching into the CBA market was Faith Communications, the new evangelical Christian imprint of HCI. Pat Williams, senior v-p of the basketball team the Orlando Magic and editor-at-large for the imprint, said, "HCI has been publishing Christian books for a while, but didn't consistently penetrate the CBA, maybe because of some mistrust on the part of Christian booksellers who associated us with New Age. We think Faith Communications will solve that problem." Williams defined his role as "looking for new talent, which I've always done in the sports arena." Three CBA-oriented titles from the HCI backlist have been moved over to the Faith Communications imprint, and new titles include A Teen's Guide to Christian Living, released in July, and 12 Months of Faith: A Devotional Journal for Teens (Sept.). Williams himself is the author of How to Be Like Jesus, published this March. Six to eight titles are planned for 2004.

At the Saturday evening Gold Medallion awards, Zondervan was clearly the house to watch: it took three awards, more than any other publisher, and then capped off the night by winning the ECPA Jordon Book of the Year Award for Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life, which has sold more than four million copies since its release 18 months ago. A popular Zondervan author, Joni Eareckson Tada, was also the keynote speaker of the evening and received the ECPA Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement Award. Though Thomas Nelson's popular Wild at Heart (more than 900,000 sold to date) did not win, author John Eldredge drew an enthusiastic crowd of more than 5,000 to the Sunday evening Pacesetters event. His new book, Waking the Dead, released in July.

Zondervan plans to pull out all the stops to promote its new book from CBA favorite Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World, with a $100,000 campaign that will include a 12-city tour employing what marketing v-p John Topliff calls a "two-pronged approach." At each stop there will be a traditional book signing at a general-interest bookstore, as well as a breakfast for local pastors and lay leaders sponsored by a CBA retailer. This book is written both for the Christian and for those on what he calls "the borderlands of belief"—those who may once have believed but have moved away from faith, or the spiritually curious. "This campaign will allow us to reach both groups," said Topliff.

Fiction is still hot, hot, hot, and the Friday evening Christy Awards brought both solid performances from established players and some surprising upsets. (For full coverage of the Christys and news from the convention about fiction trends and launches, see the August 12 issue of our e-mail newsletter ReligionBookLine.)

Celebrity Sightings

If there was no "big book" at this year's CBA, there certainly were some big themes and big names. One hot topic was the faith of President George W. Bush. Two publishers, W Publishing Group and Charisma House (an imprint of Strang Communications) highlighted their forthcoming Bush titles. Charisma/Strang will get there first, copublishing Stephen Mansfield's The Faith of George W. Bush with Penguin USA, with Penguin taking on the marketing and distribution in the ABA and Strang shepherding it through the CBA. Interest has been high well in advance of its November 11 street date; Strang president Stephen Strang said that the book got a "huge response" at the convention, with strong interest from Wal-Mart and Choice Books. W's book, A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush, is by former Time senior correspondent David Aikman, who is—in an odd twist—a personal friend of Strang. W's book is slated to be in stores in April 2004. And in another twist, both publishers sifted through the thousands of stock photographs of the president and independently hit upon the identical image for their jackets: a reflective profile shot of Bush.

Much of the buzz was about Mel Gibson and his forthcoming and controversial film The Passion—Reflections on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Condemned as anti-Semitic by some critics—including James Carroll (Constantine's Sword)—The Passion has not yet found a U.S. distributor, but Gibson previewed the film for a group of 40—50 industry leaders, soliciting their feedback and support.

Aside from Gibson, the other major star sighting at the show brought back memories of the '80s. On Tuesday, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner drew long lines to two signings of galleys for her September title for Penguin Putnam, I Will Survive... and You Can Too! "I wasn't sure how people were going to receive me here," Messner told PW, "but everyone has been really sweet." When one person wanted a galley signed but not personalized, the author teased, "Am I going to see this on eBay tonight?"

All at International agreed that the mood at this year's convention was muted wariness in response to these hard and hard-to-read times. Jim Seybert, marketing consultant and industry guru, said that neither he nor "any of the five or so sources I really trust" could "even venture a guess about what's going on right now or where this part of the industry is going to be in five years." Noting that there was clearly a more professional and quieter tone this year, he added, "The most definitive thing anybody can say about this show is that nothing definitive can be said."