Just back from ICRS 2010 in St Louis. As cities go, St Louis was really nice, so long as you don't want to do anything but look at an arch. And it was 100 degrees (though I'll admit that was, technically, outside — a place I rarely ventured). Still, the show was cozy inside the downtown "America's Convention Center," and the hotels were all within walking distance. I've never been one to grasp the charms of St Louis. I mean, the tourist guides can point out the arch, which really is nice, and there's a fine museum underneath it, but not much else. (Actual tourist guide I overheard: "And from THIS angle you get another nice view of the Arch!") The baseball stadium is downtown, which is cool. And there's a Budweiser tour. Um… some good rib joints. That about covers the high points of the city. Not exactly what you might refer to as Vacation Wonderland.
However, since the Christian book show has shrunk markedly in recent years, putting it inside a smaller venue is nice. So St Louis is probably a good size city to host something like this, assuming it survives (more on that later). It doesn't feel like you've got to walk miles to get to everything. (Some of us remember attending past conventions that were so spread out it felt like you were trodding from nearby towns.) And while the convention space is certainly smaller, sticking it here made it feel more crowded, so the mood was generally upbeat. The only downside is that the entire area around the convention center is under construction (the city had to do something, since downtown was becoming ugly and dangerous). That meant it lacked a lot of great restaurants close by, like we had in Denver, and wherever you walked you were stepping over pipes or walking under scaffolding or wondering if the St Louis Crips were holed up in the big abandoned building next to you.
Still, I don't want to sound whiny. I thought the convention went smoothly. The CBA team did a nice job of putting together this gathering and keeping spirits up in the face of (1) declining membership, (2) the forced sale of its headquarters, (3) the sudden and unexpected resignation of its President, and (4) the plague of locusts that attacked the opening ceremonies. Ha! Just kidding. The opening ceremonies (and indeed most every public event) went off without a hitch. The actual convention floor was great — I was glad they went back to the old plan of putting the book publishers all near each other, so it was easy to see whose books were doing battle and what the latest cover ideas are. The Art-and-Crud crowd was on the other side, and the various music people and purveyors of Jesus Junk were in between. (The music people are easy to spot –the women are all young and pretty, the guys all have ponytails.) The displays were maybe a bit more subdued this year, as companies cut back on art and signs, but that meant there weren't a bunch of howling morons trying to compete with each other in the music section. I liked the simple layout and the scaled-back designed. And there were no big embarrassing empty floor spaces where people had pulled out at the last minute, as there were in recent years. (True item: A couple years ago, a CBA exec made a point of telling me how wonderful it was that everybody had rented their space and showed up… except we were standing right in front of a big empty booth space at the time. I still marvel he could say that to me with a straight face.)
If you've not been to ICRS before, imagine a giant building the size of an airplane hangar filled with 10×10 booths displaying books, music, jewelry, t-shirts, art prints, and knick-knacks, all with a Christian theme. Most are fairly mainstream, a few on the fringe. The people working the various booths are almost always nice (they're there to sell products, remember), though occasionally you find the bored sales guy or the woman who you can tell is DYING for a cigarette break. There are great ideas and remarkably stupid ideas, and they're all on display next to choir robes and Betty Lukens Felt Boards and Precious Moments statuettes.
I'll admit: I love it. Love seeing all the new books, reading the titles, and evaluating covers. Love watching the signings, saying hello to friends, and being surprised by the authors who have jumped houses. I've seen people become speechless when they actually get to face Chuck Swindoll (who, let's be honest, is shorter than me). This show was a bit short on media, which is a bad sign, but Christian Retailing did its usual job of over-hyping everything ("Standard Publishing Is Throwing a Party!" — "Destiny Image Is Getting Into Movies!").
There were some really cool things that happened. First, FaithWords threw an A-list party. You may not have much context for this, but FaithWords is part of Hachette, and Hachette always throws a huge party at the Frankfurt Book Fair. So there's precedent for this, and it was the talk of the show. Speakers included Ted Dekker, Philip Yancey, Chuck Swindoll, and David Jeremiah — heavy hitters all. Second, the Christy Awards are finally getting some overdue national attention. Christian fiction is not only a significant part of nearly every publisher's bottom line, it's been the fastest-growing segment of publishing over the past decade. So it was nice to see Lisa Samson (an author we represent) serve as the keynote speaker, then win an award for Novel of the Year, and have the story picked up by national news services. Third, B&H Fiction's "Thriller Tour" got a lot of attention for four novelist and the company's new, upgraded foray into suspense novels. Jim Rubart, one of the B&H authors (and another writer we represent), made headlines with his "thank you" talk to retailers, telling them they are helping to change lives. And fourth, the International Square on the showroom floor was remarkably busy – proving there is a growing interest in American authors around the globe. I sat in the square for an hour, just to get a feel for it, and had a line of foreign publishers asking me about the books we represent.
There were other cool things as well — the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) announced that their Book of the Year Award was now going to be known as The Carol, in honor of longtime Christian fiction editor and publisher Carol Johnson, and the Advanced Writers & Speakers Association (AWSA) gave longtime publishing consultant Sally Stuart their Lifetime Achievement Award for her years producing the Christian Writers Market Guide. But there were some clunkers mixed in… One of the award shows invited Phil Vischer to speak. Um… that would be Phil Vischer, the guy who created Bob the Tomato. He had huge success with his Veggie Tales tapes, but then he ran the company into the ground. Don't get me wrong — I have met Mr Vischer, and think he's very nice, but I doubt you really want people who are trying to run small businesses to follow his example. And his talk on the CBA of the 90's being like one big party — well, I found it odd and out of place. Just as bad was the workshop on social media — when a session starts by having someone have to explain what Twitter is… well, you have a sense it ain't going to be on the cutting edge. <
However, my biggest disappointment was that there was no clear winner of my annual "Worst of Show" award. I realize that may cause you to put down your cup of Starbucks and gasp, so go ahead — I'll wait. There. Back with me? Previous years have shown there is no LOW to which some tasteless bonehead won't go in order to claim he is spreading the gospel when all he really wants to do is make a buck. Earlier winners include "Praise Panties" (women's underwear with verses on them — I was always rooting for "His love endures forever"), "Armor of God Pajamas" (pajamas with the appropriate parts of Ephesians 6 printed on them), "Standing On the Promises Shoe Insoles" (don't ask), and "Gospel Golf Balls" (they featured John 3:16 on them, and as the saleswoman said to me, "You never have to worry about losing a ball — you're just helping to spread the gospel!"). Even worse, there have sometimes been truly tasteless products — I'm thinking of the artist who had created a painting of a junkie shooting drugs into Christ's arm, or the guy who sold "actual ash from the ruins of Sodom & Gomorrah" (a GREAT way to witness to your gay friends!).
This year's show had nothing like that. I was pretty disappointed — apparently the budget cutbacks have even hit the nutjobs and shysters. Oh, sure, there was the company selling soccer balls with miniature verses on them, so you can stop the game, pick up the ball with your hands, and ask your opponent to squint and read the words, I think (apparently the people manufacturing these have yet to pick up on some of the finer points of the game). There were the usual collection of insipid one-off books claiming God wants you wealthy (one guy was having a sale on those, so I'm thinking he may be changing his theology, now that his 401k is down). And there were the "Blood Donor" t-shirts worn by the Kerusso staff, with the fake spilled blood and sayings like "Power in the Blood" on them. Ugh. I don't really understand who wears something like that, aside from the sales staff. Maybe the feeble-minded. They also had "Jesus Is My BFF" shirts, in case you need to give something to a middle-school girl you want to see get beat up. (I also noticed they were having a special on the "One Nation Under God" tees, which is doubtless because the red, white, and blue eagle on them make them look amazingly like the opening of the Colbert Report. My guess is that Glenn Beck supporters were buying these as part of their patriotic duty.)
Still, nothing really rose to the level of Award Winning Badness. I even called my buddy Steve Laube, to see if he'd spied anything that made him want to barf. Nope. If you were there, and saw something I missed, please make a note in the "comments" section below.
Of course, this may be a good sign. The fact that there are no longer so many stoo-pid products could mean we're actually getting rid of the crackpots and fast-buck artists. Or maybe they're just all going mainstream. (There was a Macy's close by, and I could have SWORN they were selling Praise Panties.) I'm not completely sure this trade show will survive — for all the good vibes, it was still much smaller than before, and publishers are pulling out, and the gift people already have their own shows.
But all in all, a good show. Would love to know your impressions.