Notes From Big D (that’s “D” as in “Disaster”)
March 23, 2009 | Written by admin
I spent the last several days in Dallas, attending the first-ever Christian Book Expo. I had really been looking forward to CBE — a books-only version of ICRS. I thought it would pull together everyone in Christian publishing, draw in the reading public, and forego the people shilling Gospel Ties, WWJD belt buckles, and Thomas Kinkade soap-on-a-rope. The big concept was that this would be a consumer show, not a trade show. So the goal was to get consumers (i.e., readers) to come visit, meet authors, and buy books.
That's the goal. As loyal readers know, I've been a fan of the idea from Day One. I made my plans early to attend, blogged about the show, and encouraged everyone I could to be there. I honestly think the basic idea behind CBE is wonderful. And I had fun.
But let's face facts… The show, in terms of what it was supposed to be, was a disaster. Now don't get me wrong — I had a good time. Saw lots of great authors. Connected with publishers. Heard some fabulous presentations. But in terms of what it was supposed to be, the show was an unmitigated disaster. And not just your run-of-the-mill disaster, but a Joaquin-Phoenix-On-David-Letterman type of disaster. You're going to read a bunch of reviews, and many of them will try to spin this into something happy, but I'm not buying it.
The problem is that consumers didn't show up. They were planning on hosting 15,000 people at the show. I asked the folks at registration how many tickets they had sold and was told they "did not reach 1500." Ouch. (And Christian Retailing says that 275 of those were kids… who got in free.) The first day consisted of publishers, authors, and agents — insiders all, walking around and talking to each other. It was like somebody decided to throw a Christian publishing potluck. There were more industry professionals on the floor than there were consumers (and no, that's not an exaggeration).
The organization failed to explain the concept. Hear me out: It cost $29 to attend for a day. And what do you get for your $29? A chance to go buy books. That concept didn't make sense to people. I mean, you can buy books at Barnes & Noble for nothing. When I go Christmas shopping at the mall, they don't charge me twenty bucks for the privilege of going in and spending money. Whether the organization wants to admit it or not, most consumers couldn't get over the high price tag for an event that was basically a chance to spend money. (More on this in a moment.)
The venue was all wrong. Why do this at an expensive place like the Dallas Convention Center? That's where trade shows take place, not consumer shows. Why not move it out to one of the centers in the suburbs that are considerably cheaper? Or why not have it at a mega-church that has the space to host it? For that matter, if they really want to make it similar to some of the "book celebrations" that are hosted in various cities around the world, why not do it outside somewhere, so it has more of a festival feel to it? Going back to my Christmas shopping example, the mall not only invites me to come, they offer me a nice food court and free parking. The food at the Dallas Convention Center was, in a word, awful. And any consumer who wanted to drive to downtown Dallas had to pay to park. All of this worked against the show's success.
The author events were great… and almost completely ignored. Back to my point about the cost of the show — the reason you'd pay money to get in would be to meet authors, correct? Consumers are willing to pay something for access to insights and insiders — we'll pay ten bucks to go to a home-and-garden show, for example, or to attend a boat show that offers us stuff we can't find at the local stores. But some of the workshops on Friday had nobody in attendance. At others, a half-dozen people showed up. Can you imagine the embarrassment to have a good author prepare to speak and have nobody show up to hear him? I don't want to embarrass any particular author, since this clearly was not their fault, but I saw some great authors sitting at their signings with nothing to do. Not a single person in line to talk with them. I counted at least ten bestselling authors standing around with no one to sign for. That's a shame (to say nothing of it being a costly mess for the publishers who paid to fly in authors and put them up at downtown hotels).
There were too many signings — a strange thought, when you consider the interest our culture has in celebrity. In fact, the lack of people at famous author signings is all you really need to know about the reading public's response to this event. You're a book lover — don't you enjoy getting the chance to meet some of your favorite authors? Don't you love walking up and having a chat with some beloved authors and getting them to sign their books? This is a celebrity-driven business — and even great celebrities had a tough time drawing a crowd.
Publishers lost a ton of money. If there is anything that could doom future CBE's, it's the fact that publishers spent a bunch of money and got zero return. Let's say you're a publisher who shipped 100 cases of books to Dallas for the show. You only sold a few books, so now you have to pay to ship all those books back. Ouch. (I happen to know that some publishers simply went to chains and distributors, and asked them if they'd buy the entire leftover mess at a huge discount. They figured they'd lose less money dumping them for pennies on the dollar than having to bother with re-boxing and re-shipping the whole mess back to the warehouse.) Publishers didn't find a bunch of new readers at this show. They didn't get much press. And remember, this all took place in a terrible publishing economy, with publishers cutting jobs, reducing inventory, and watching sales sag. While I'd love to see CBE continue, I think the leadership at ECPA is going to have a hard time convincing member publishers to pony up any money for a future event. They are already pulling out of the ICRS show in July, and this looked like it was a colossal financial loss for the publishers who participated.
There was certainly good stuff that happened. I'm really not trying to be overly negative. As I said, many of the workshops and talks were well done. Susan Meissner's Shape of Mercy won Novel of the Year at the ECPA Awards Banquet. That was well-deserved (and here I'll admit that I can be accused of bias, since I represented that novel, but it's one of the best CBA novels I've read in years). The downside: The banquet lasted roughly as long as the weekend — in fact, it might still be going on. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but… five hours? Should giving out six awards really take longer than the 50+ that it takes to hand out the Academy Awards? (And a mea culpa: I got delayed and missed the big show, sad to say. So the criticism of the length is admittedly second hand, but it's supported by numerous TB sufferers.)
Another nice thing is that Crossway's ESV Study Bible won the overall Book of the Year award. You don't normally see a Bible win something like that, so it put a unique spin on the award. I happen to be a huge fan of the ESV, and maybe this will get more people to pick up a copy and acquaint themselves with it. The nonfiction book winner was John Piper's Spectacular Sins, which I'll admit I have yet to read.
The movie Collision could be a hit. The film is a debate between famous atheist Christoper Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson, done in sort of an art-house style. A fascinating piece for people who think. It premiered at CBE, but didn't get quite the press it deserved.
The biggest buzz was probably the live debate that featured a bunch of Christian theologians taking on Christopher Hitchens. I'd have to say that Doug Wilson did a nice job of stating his case, and Lee Strobel seemed to be the only one on the panel who didn't buy into the "we have to be respectful to Mr. Hitchens' ideas because we want to show you how polite we are" line. Good grief, why didn't somebody say, "This guy is actively trying to destroy lives, and it's not healthy"? Look, Mr. Hitchens is charming, but he didn't once respond to a question with an answer. He's making a buck off saying "I don't think God exists, and you shouldn't either," but he can't ever answer a question with any sort of reason. (When asked a straight question, he smirks and says, "Let me tell you a story…" — which never actually gets around to having a point, other than revealing what a charming guy he is. I kept waiting for one of the Christians to shout, "Answer the damn question!") So I found the whole thing rather frustrating. I'm sure if they had a debate with Hitler, the Christians would all be polite and try to find areas of agreement, rather than saying, "You're an evil nutcase whose ideas don't merit serious consideration." But perhaps this is why I'm not an academic.
So what lessons do we take away? I still think a Christian Book Expo is a fine idea, but it needs to be cheaper, needs to be marketed better, and needs more than just a few tweaks to make work. And no, I don't think it will happen. I think the losses the publishers took will scare many away from investing in something of this size again… which is a shame, but probably reality. My guess is that a large publisher might see great advantage in doing this sort of thing themselves (I could see Thomas Nelson hosting their own version of this in Nashville, for example). I honestly think the leadership at ECPA swung for the fences, and there's something to be said for that. They whiffed this time. And, in the end, that's probably all that matters.
[Addendum: The leaders at the larger publishing houses (Dwight Baker at BPG, Mike Hyatt at Thomas Nelson, Mark Taylor of Tyndale) were all quoted today as saying they saw value in the event, and would try to make the event work in a better venue, with a different pricing plan and better marketing. That's good news. CBE is still a good idea, if done right.]