March 25th, 2009 | CBA | 28 Comments
I've had more than two dozen people write to ask, in effect, "Why are you bashing CBE?"
Hey, let me be clear: I thought the Christian Book Expo was great. Honest. The show itself was wonderful. Incredible authors. Great workshops. The panels were as good as any conference or trade show I've ever attended. So the problem wasn't the show, it was the way the show was put together, marketed, and sold. Nobody came. And that's awful.
Let me choose just one publisher to explore… The folks at Thomas Nelson must have spent a fortune on this show. They set up a big booth. They had a ton of books. And they brought in Max Lucado, Donald Miller, Andy Andrews, Patsy Clairmont, Shela Walsh, Robert Liparulo, Colleen Coble, and even Ron Hall & Denver Moore (the two guys who share their story in the New York Times bestseller Same Kind of Different as Me). They did everything they could to make for a successful show. They not only flew those folks in, but put them up at a nice hotel and must have paid them something to do workshops and panels. In addition, they flew a bunch of Thomas Nelson staffers in to shepherd the authors and man the booth. That had to cost them a fortune. In other words, Thomas Nelson (and the other publishers who participated) did everything right. But the reason I called the show a "disaster" is because, after all this time and effort and money being invested, nobody came. There were no book sales, no big media push, and not even a huge relationship gain with readers.
Think of the losses for the publisher. And those losses are coming at a terrible time, when the economy is in shambles and book sales overall are down, causing layoffs and cutbacks in the industry. That's why I said the show was a disaster — it was. I don't take any glee in that. I would have preferred the show was a huge hit, with jammed aisles and a huge boost to the publisher's bottom line. So… we move on, and hope for better decisions in the future. I hope they find an inexpensive location, work with churches and bookstores, and put on a great event somewhere next year. But what scares me about this is, after talking with some of the publishers, I don't think everybody will participate again. The show scared away most of the mid-level publishers from investing in this type of event in the future. So… yeah. That qualifies for the "disaster" tag.
If you want to read more about CBE, check out the three blogs Mike Hyatt did at www.michaelhyatt.com. (And if you're not reading Mike's blog, you're missing out on one of the really insightful posts in all of publishing. He regularly has good stuff to share.)
On to something happier, the Christy Finalists were released. The Christy Awards are given out every year to the best Christian fiction, and this year's list of finalists has quite a few surprises and first-time names on it. That just goes to show the breadth we're now seeing in Christian fiction. (The list also includes two authors I represent — Lisa Samson for Embrace Me, and Claudia Mair Burney for Zora and Nicky. Lisa is already recognized as one of the great writers in CBA fiction, and Mair is a wonderful young novelist who has had a great first two years. A shout out to both of them.)
Max wrote to ask, "Is a place like CBE appropriate for an author to meet with an agent or editor and pitch their book?"
I suppose theoretically that's a good idea, but practically speaking it's almost impossible. Consider my schedule at a show like this… I might have 20 authors I represent show up. Then there are at least 20 or 25 publishers I need to meet with. And there are a bunch of agents and editors trying to create a list, so we're all setting up schedules months in advance. By the last couple weeks before the show starts, my datebook is filled to overflowing with meetings. So I may not be able to squeeze in something else… and even if I could, it will be for 25 minutes, and it'll be one meeting amid 100. You probably want to stand out a bit more. I'm not saying new author/agent meetings never happen at these types of things — they do. But your odds are better to try and meet at a writing conference, or simply by traveling to meet the agent for coffee sometime.
I also had some folks from Lifeway write me a note, defending the company practice of stickering certain books with the words, Read with Discernment. They asked me not to quote them directly, so I won't, but their basic arugment was that as booksellers they have a responsibility to protect the minds of Believers.
My response: Okay… so why sell name-it-and-claim-it nutjobs, but put a warning label on Rob Bell? Why sell mindless tripe from the likes of Benny Hinn but warn people to be careful of Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz? This doesn't strike me as really caring about the spiritual lives of believers, so much as defending a certain theological stance. You're willing to sell something weak to make a buck (see: Osteen, Joel), but you want to make yourself feel better by compensating with a sticker on someone not seen as being "with you" in the evangelical camp. That's just intellectually dishonest. I don't agree with everything that comes from the pen of Brian McLaren (and, to be completely honest, I'm not sure Brian himself knows what he believes any more), but isn't a bookstore the last bastion of intellectual integrity? A place we can go to get all the opinions — crazy though some may be? Hey, if you don't like a book, or feel a book is heretical, the response is simple: Don't carry it. If you believe a novel is pornographic, don't stock it. But to carry it, sell it, make a buck off it, then slap a lame warning label on it as a way of telling yourself you are "defending the faith" is one stupid way of doing business.
[Correction: Lifeway doesn't stock Benny Hinn. In fact, they're not really favorable toward any charismatic. So, granted, I could have used a better example... They sell C.S. Lewis, who (1) smoked a pipe, (2) drank alcohol, and (3) believed in infant baptism! Or how about if I point out they carry Adrian Rogers books -- a great guy, and a man I did some writing for and respected very much. But Adrian also wrote that he believed Jesus never drank wine. Honest! I know this because he asked me to create the chapter for him. While I think Adrian was wonderful, this one point was, um, not exactly in sync with the biblical text. My point is just that bookstores offer a wide variety of theological perspectives. We read ALL books with discernment, so let's not pick on a couple authors because there's something about their theology we feel doesn't toe the party line. This harkens back to the heresy that salvation is found in checking the right boxes on a test. Knowing Christ as Savior isn't evaluated just by what theological positions you hold, but by who you are as a representative of Christ in the world. If a bookstore feels a book is so bad they need to warn readers away from it, then it seems like they are compromising their values to actually sell a copy.]
Imagine you're a conservative, you walk into Barnes & Noble, and they've put warning labels on the books from Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, P.J. O'Rourke, and Rush Limbaugh. But there's nothing on the inane ramblings of Bill Maher or the spiteful, unfanny rants from Al Franken. Wouldn't you feel as though they had done a disservice to readers? I don't care if they want to sell Al Franken — I just want to make sure the bookstore is a marketplace of ideas, isn't run by the government, and doesn't turn into a mouthpiece for one particular political party. The same holds true in Christian bookstores. I'm not a charismatic, nor am I a baptist, but I don't want to see CBA stores stickering books with things that warn me from engaging their ideas. Our local Barnes & Noble sells Mein Kampf. They dont' feel a need to sticker it. "Nuff said.
One last item, and it's the most important one of all: the lovely and talented Patti MacGregor hit the big five-oh! Our small group surprised her with a great birthday party, complete with black balloons and medications for coming ailments. We've been married for 27 years, and Patti has not only stuck by me through all the moves and all the mistakes, but she's still convinced she married the right person. (Please don't text her and let her know the truth — that she married a dope not really worthy of her. I prefer we keep that a secret a while longer.) Love you, darlin'.