Some 240 Christian retailers got the royal treatment at Thomas Nelson’s first-ever Open House, held April 10—12 in Nashville. Nelson invited its top 100 Christian accounts—representing about 1,400 storefronts—to an all-expenses-paid two days of seminars at the Sheraton Music City and evening events held at downtown venues.

Open House was created as an alternative to Nelson’s participation in Advance, CBA’s winter trade show. Soon after Nelson announced its abandonment of Advance, the show was canceled and replaced with an industry conference that drew disappointing participation. The success of Open House seems to have paved the way for the publisher’s announcement last week that it would also end its participation in the upcoming BookExpo America and the International Christian Retail Show, CBA’s summer convention (p. 4; PW Daily, Apr. 16).

At Open House, many attendees expressed surprise at the low-key, no-sell approach. There were no exhibits, no sales appointments and no product presentations, aside from a few five- to seven-minute video clips sprinkled throughout the seminars. Though most of the sessions and events showcased Nelson authors like John Maxwell, Max Lucado and Donald Miller, there were also presenters who are not on the publisher’s roster.

In a Saturday morning town hall meeting, as the retailers nodded in agreement, Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt said bluntly, “I’ve listened to people complain about Christian retail for 10 years, and it’s time to stop. If people don’t like it, get out. My business isn’t easy, either. Either you’re called to it, or you’re not.” He added that competition has caused surviving stores to become much better at what they do, and that the retailers on hand were “the crème de la crème.”

Nelson released 700 new products last year, but Hyatt noted that “23% of our total active SKUs [5,000 active titles] drove 80% of our sales in [fiscal] 2007.” He said the company will cut its output in half in 2008. He also said that “less than 4% of our retail accounts drive 90% of our revenue, and we plan to allocate our best resources to our best customers—you.” Among the ways Nelson will do that will be “better marketing that drives sell-through.”

Asked about plans for next year’s Open House, Hyatt said the no-sell approach would continue. “The point of this was, how can we connect with our most important customers, how can we encourage them and give them information that will make them better retailers, which will accrue to our benefit.” He added, “Next year we’ll leave more space in the schedule for people to interact with each other. And we’ll bring in top speakers and presenters, whether they are Nelson authors or not.”