Christian Book Expo: My Take

I didn’t attend the final day of the Christian Book Expo yesterday in Dallas. Instead, Gail and I visited my parents in Waco. However, I promised I would share my summary thoughts on the event.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RBFried, Image #4641268

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RBFried

Let’s start with the obvious. The attendance at the show was abysmal. There’s no way to spin this or ignore it. We only got a fraction of the audience we were anticipating. According to ECPA (as quoted in Publishers Weekly), only about 1,500 consumers showed up. Frankly, we were hoping for 15,000 to 20,000.

If consumers had come, this would have been an incredible show. The “product” itself was superb. Programming, production, logistics, displays—everything was first class. The evening events were especially well-produced and effective. (Thank you Chris Thomason.) I could not have been happier with the quality of the show.

So then, why didn’t it work? We built it. But they didn’t come. Why?

Before we beat ourselves up too much, let’s remember two facts: first, we planned this more than two years ago. It was a very different economy. Many things made sense then that don’t make sense now. Our goal was to raise the visibility of Christian products, and this seemed like a great way to do it. What we didn’t anticipate was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Second, hindsight is 20/20. Any of us can look back and see the obvious misses. Unfortunately, things aren’t always so clear before they happen. Despite the fact that things didn’t turn out as we hoped, I’m proud of the fact that we abandoned “business as usual” and tried something new.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, here are some of the “mistakes” I think we made and which can inform us going forward, should we decide to do so.

  1. The venue was too big. As Chip MacGregor stated,”the leadership at ECPA swung for the fences,… But they whiffed.” We should have probably done this in a mega-church in a more accessible part of town. The enormous scale of the Dallas Convention Center only highlighted the smallness of the crowd.
  2. The venue was in the wrong part of town. As I discovered in talking to locals, no one wants to come downtown for an event. The challenge and expense of parking is just more hassle than it’s worth. Plus people were concerned for their safety, especially at night.
  3. The event overlapped with spring break. Thousands of people were on vacation. But the mothers who stayed home couldn’t get away, because the kids were out of school and childcare would have been an added expense. I’m not sure how this happened; my guess is that we didn’t really have a choice. As a first-time event, you don’t have a lot of leverage with venues.
  4. We shouldn’t have charged for the event. I don’t know how we would have made the business model work, but the truth is, it didn’t work any way. Again, as Chip pointed out, people aren’t going to pay for the privilege of being able to buy books. Not in today’s environment.
  5. We should have given ECPA a bigger marketing budget. We spent all our money on the venue, production, and logistics. We should have downsized all of this and spent our money on marketing—especially on billboards and lots and lots of radio. We counted on our member publishers and local churches to get the word out. Frankly, it just wasn’t enough. Either it didn’t happen or it wasn’t effective. People stayed home in droves.

I am not sure publishers are going to want to try this again next year. With the current economic realities we are all facing, we really can’t afford to try too many things that don’t promise an immediate payback. That doesn’t mean that Christian Book Expo is a bad idea. It may just mean that we have to re-launch this at a different time with a different model.

One final comment: I am proud of Mark Kuyper, President and CEO of ECPA. Anyone can be a “Monday Morning Quarterback” and second-guess the decisions that were made. But the truth is that Mark executed the plan exactly as approved by the board. He and his team poured their life into this project and gave it their very best effort. I think we can all feel very good about the quality of the event. We simply need to determine where we go from here.

Question: What do you think it would take to make an event like this a success? Should we move forward?
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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RichardMabry RichardMabry

    Mike,

    I appreciate your candor in not trying to sugar-coat the results and being willing to consider some of the factors (in hindsight) that contributed to the lack of success of the event. I'm a member of one of the largest churches in the Dallas area and to my knowledge not one bit of information was ever passed on to our congregation. Did our staff know and ignore it? I doubt it. Lack of publicity was one of the major problems in my view. Was any effort made to enlist the help of the authors in the area (there are quite a few of us) in publicizing CBE? If so, it didn't reach me or most of my colleagues.

    I do hope ECPA can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, take a long look at what needs to be done to make this work, and try again next year.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RichardMabry RichardMabry

    Mike,

    I appreciate your candor in not trying to sugar-coat the results and being willing to consider some of the factors (in hindsight) that contributed to the lack of success of the event. I'm a member of one of the largest churches in the Dallas area and to my knowledge not one bit of information was ever passed on to our congregation. Did our staff know and ignore it? I doubt it. Lack of publicity was one of the major problems in my view. Was any effort made to enlist the help of the authors in the area (there are quite a few of us) in publicizing CBE? If so, it didn't reach me or most of my colleagues.

    I do hope ECPA can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, take a long look at what needs to be done to make this work, and try again next year.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/trent1280 trent1280

    Has no one considered the obvious? The fixation by the 'Christian Right' on gay marriage, so-called Intelligent Design, constant money-raising, and internal theological disputes has left much of your audience alienated.

    Who would be interested in attending an event so divisive, so smug, and so contrary to American precepts of tolerance? I daresay that the wildly popular writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are having an effect as well. To say nothing of the father-son disputes at ORU and the Crystal Cathedral, church pedophile scandals, and 'faith-healing' exposés…

    As long as your 'leaders' include such bullies and crackpots as James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, the exposed charlatan Peter Popoff, Earl Pauk, Ted Haggard, Creflo Dollar and the rest, few and fewer decent people will be interested in your message. No wonder.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/trent1280 trent1280

    Has no one considered the obvious? The fixation by the 'Christian Right' on gay marriage, so-called Intelligent Design, constant money-raising, and internal theological disputes has left much of your audience alienated.

    Who would be interested in attending an event so divisive, so smug, and so contrary to American precepts of tolerance? I daresay that the wildly popular writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are having an effect as well. To say nothing of the father-son disputes at ORU and the Crystal Cathedral, church pedophile scandals, and 'faith-healing' exposés…

    As long as your 'leaders' include such bullies and crackpots as James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, the exposed charlatan Peter Popoff, Earl Pauk, Ted Haggard, Creflo Dollar and the rest, few and fewer decent people will be interested in your message. No wonder.

  • http://cre8ive-yyyguy.blogspot.com/ curtis fletcher

    Just back from vacation and catching up on some reading…it seems I've made it in time to land amongst the angry folks.
    In all of the comments I've read through I'm still missing an important definition:
    Who is the target market for the event?
    The event seems to have been targeted at: publishers, retailers, homeschoolers, christian schoolers, church attenders, and perhaps christian readers in general. In that last category alone you'd have a vast chasm between the needs, wants, desires of a 65 year old grandmother and a 21 year old college student…and the answer "we have something for everyone" typically means "you have very little that applies to me"…especially if I have to pay to attend and then sort out which bits, if any, really do apply to me.
    Even at large events where there are different "tracks" those that do not apply to me are non-entities. They are pure cost with no return because I don't care about them. The more tracks then, or the more audience segments, the larger you have to have in each "successful" track to make up for the ones that don't draw.

    Even as I was reading your daily posts, Michael, I still thought it was an industry trade show you were talking about. Reading through this post and the various comments that follow I still can't figure out if this was anything I might have been enticed to attend, no matter where or when it was held or what it was called, or how it was valuated by pastors.
    I would have asked myself, as a potential attendee, a standard marketing question: What problem does this solve for me or value does it provide for me?
    But then again, I may not have been the audience you were hoping for.

    This almost sounds like it was planned as "a cool thing for the industry" that had some chance of being successful as a marketing tool in and of itself.
    So again it makes me wonder..who was the intended customer?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think our target audience was readers of Christian books and prospective readers of Christian books. That may have been too broad; I don't know. Regardless, we clearly did not connect with this audience in any meaningful way.

  • http://cre8ive-yyyguy.blogspot.com/ curtis fletcher

    Just back from vacation and catching up on some reading…it seems I've made it in time to land amongst the angry folks.
    In all of the comments I've read through I'm still missing an important definition:
    Who is the target market for the event?
    The event seems to have been targeted at: publishers, retailers, homeschoolers, christian schoolers, church attenders, and perhaps christian readers in general. In that last category alone you'd have a vast chasm between the needs, wants, desires of a 65 year old grandmother and a 21 year old college student…and the answer "we have something for everyone" typically means "you have very little that applies to me"…especially if I have to pay to attend and then sort out which bits, if any, really do apply to me.
    Even at large events where there are different "tracks" those that do not apply to me are non-entities. They are pure cost with no return because I don't care about them. The more tracks then, or the more audience segments, the larger you have to have in each "successful" track to make up for the ones that don't draw.

    Even as I was reading your daily posts, Michael, I still thought it was an industry trade show you were talking about. Reading through this post and the various comments that follow I still can't figure out if this was anything I might have been enticed to attend, no matter where or when it was held or what it was called, or how it was valuated by pastors.
    I would have asked myself, as a potential attendee, a standard marketing question: What problem does this solve for me or value does it provide for me?
    But then again, I may not have been the audience you were hoping for.

    This almost sounds like it was planned as "a cool thing for the industry" that had some chance of being successful as a marketing tool in and of itself.
    So again it makes me wonder..who was the intended customer?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think our target audience was readers of Christian books and prospective readers of Christian books. That may have been too broad; I don't know. Regardless, we clearly did not connect with this audience in any meaningful way.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/shopgirl77 shopgirl77

    While the logistics of this event failed it is in the philosophy of this event that was it’s true demise. The Christian products industry is deeply fractured. Groups have decided to host their own shows instead of pulling together. If CBA, MUNCE, Strang, GMA and ECPA actually could work together a successful show might be possible, but until that happens all you are getting is a bunch of failed shows that is deeply hurting the market. With much due respect Mr. Hyatt it is also very concerning to me that some publishers had such a large presence at this failed event yet have pulled out of ICRS where your buyers are actually attending. To the stores and buyers this is a rather insulting. I am open to proactive solutions, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize this show was D.O.A (Dead on Arrival) even before the recession. Failed philosophy = Failed event.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/shopgirl77 shopgirl77

    While the logistics of this event failed it is in the philosophy of this event that was it’s true demise. The Christian products industry is deeply fractured. Groups have decided to host their own shows instead of pulling together. If CBA, MUNCE, Strang, GMA and ECPA actually could work together a successful show might be possible, but until that happens all you are getting is a bunch of failed shows that is deeply hurting the market. With much due respect Mr. Hyatt it is also very concerning to me that some publishers had such a large presence at this failed event yet have pulled out of ICRS where your buyers are actually attending. To the stores and buyers this is a rather insulting. I am open to proactive solutions, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize this show was D.O.A (Dead on Arrival) even before the recession. Failed philosophy = Failed event.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Thanks for your comments. This show was intended to be a CONSUMER show. All the others you mentioned are TRADE shows. If this were intended to be a trade show, then I agree: we don't need another one. The fact that it was perceived as such, is probably why it did, in fact, fail.

    We pulled out of ICRS because we do not believe that trade shows are a cost-effective way of connecting with retailers. Instead, we spend a ton of money each year to actually call on 95% of these accounts either face-to-face or via the phone.

    Trade shows are fine for small publishers who don't have sales forces or for small retailers who don't do enough sales volume to warrant the visit of publisher reps. But this cost is shouldered by the big publishers who, frankly, don't need the added expense.

    In my view, we don't need more events where we are talking to each other (i.e., TRADE shows). However, we still need an event that raises CONSUMER awareness to the incredible products that are being produced by Christian publishers.

    • http://www.emergingintofaith.com/ Dr. David Frisbie

      Thanks, Michael — This is the clearest "mission statement" I've heard for the event. Your statement resonates: There's a clear need for this kind of connection between publishers/authors and their readership. Well done!

      Although I'd personally love to see this event held in Southern California, let me suggest a couple of "out of the box" ideas: Indianapolis & Tulsa. Indy has an historically strong Christian presence, i.e. people would actually turn out for this — it would draw them. Tulsa has ORU, Rhema, Victory Fellowship, Church on the Move, et al — a surprisingly large and vibrant Christian community that, again, would actually turn out.

      I'm not a "small market" fan in general, but either of these venues might be a "large turnout" locale. Larger markets may be too jaded (?) or have such diverse options that any given opportunity is just 'more noise.'

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        You may have a point about Dallas. It has the highest density of Christians and large churches in the country—which is why we picked it. But it may also have too many competing opportunities.

        Believe me, we are looking at every facet of this show. Nothing is sacred other than the mission.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Thanks for your comments. This show was intended to be a CONSUMER show. All the others you mentioned are TRADE shows. If this were intended to be a trade show, then I agree: we don't need another one. The fact that it was perceived as such, is probably why it did, in fact, fail.

    We pulled out of ICRS because we do not believe that trade shows are a cost-effective way of connecting with retailers. Instead, we spend a ton of money each year to actually call on 95% of these accounts either face-to-face or via the phone.

    Trade shows are fine for small publishers who don't have sales forces or for small retailers who don't do enough sales volume to warrant the visit of publisher reps. But this cost is shouldered by the big publishers who, frankly, don't need the added expense.

    In my view, we don't need more events where we are talking to each other (i.e., TRADE shows). However, we still need an event that raises CONSUMER awareness to the incredible products that are being produced by Christian publishers.

    • http://www.emergingintofaith.com Dr. David Frisbie

      Thanks, Michael — This is the clearest "mission statement" I've heard for the event. Your statement resonates: There's a clear need for this kind of connection between publishers/authors and their readership. Well done!

      Although I'd personally love to see this event held in Southern California, let me suggest a couple of "out of the box" ideas: Indianapolis & Tulsa. Indy has an historically strong Christian presence, i.e. people would actually turn out for this — it would draw them. Tulsa has ORU, Rhema, Victory Fellowship, Church on the Move, et al — a surprisingly large and vibrant Christian community that, again, would actually turn out.

      I'm not a "small market" fan in general, but either of these venues might be a "large turnout" locale. Larger markets may be too jaded (?) or have such diverse options that any given opportunity is just 'more noise.'

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        You may have a point about Dallas. It has the highest density of Christians and large churches in the country—which is why we picked it. But it may also have too many competing opportunities.

        Believe me, we are looking at every facet of this show. Nothing is sacred other than the mission.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/shopgirl77 shopgirl77

    That is why I said the philosophy failed– it was direct to consumer. But I firmly believe you help consumer awareness by working with the industry at large. You also raise consumer awareness by assisting those on the frontlines who have relationships with their consumers not by bypassing the them and going direct to consumers in the form of a book EXPO ( modern name for book fair). Let's call a spade a spade- publishers need/want a bigger margin and thinking direct to consumer is more profitable than going through stores. The money spent on this event would have been better used if the publishers had used coop advertising and partnered with stores or authors in several markets rather than hosting a book fair in one market already saturated with Christian products.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/shopgirl77 shopgirl77

    That is why I said the philosophy failed– it was direct to consumer. But I firmly believe you help consumer awareness by working with the industry at large. You also raise consumer awareness by assisting those on the frontlines who have relationships with their consumers not by bypassing the them and going direct to consumers in the form of a book EXPO ( modern name for book fair). Let's call a spade a spade- publishers need/want a bigger margin and thinking direct to consumer is more profitable than going through stores. The money spent on this event would have been better used if the publishers had used coop advertising and partnered with stores or authors in several markets rather than hosting a book fair in one market already saturated with Christian products.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/NoelGriese NoelGriese

    I think Thomas Nelson is on the right track by downplaying its presence at ICRS. ICRS, in my experience, has behaved as a moribund, exclusionary show that goes out of its way to roadblock rather than invite participation by exhibitors. I think CBA is stuck in a 20th century mentality, when the industry is experiencing sea changes not unlike those that dislocated monks and scrolls when Gutenberg introduced movable type. Indie booksellers now have only eight percent of the overall $32 billion book retail market. Christian booksellers have a small slice of the indie market. As for diagnosing the reason for low attendance by consumers in Dallas, I'm still waiting for information that will help me in writing an article about the show for the Southern Review of Books, of which I am the editor.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I know Mark Kuyper sent you an email on Tuesday, March 24th. He copied me. Did the two of you ever get a chance to talk?

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/NoelGriese NoelGriese

        Mark Kuyper and I are going to talk. I sent him a few more things to think about before we get together by phone. Didn't want to bother you – surprised you can find time to read all the traffic on your blog. Meanwhile, I'm helping to plan a national seminar on self-publishing, a seminar for writers at the Great American Bargain Book Show in Boston in August and trying to help Clark Atlanta University launch a new TV show on books and authors – initially via Comcast to Atlanta metroplex, but already being test-marketed for digital streaming internationally. Also just posted a story on my Energy Pipeline News blog about how Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Merrill Lynch last summer manipulated the crude oil futures market, driving the price of crude oil to $147/bbl. in order to drive SemGroup into bankruptcy and pick clean the bones. Highest traffic I've had at that site since I ran a story about how KBR Halliburton failed to inform U.S. soldiers protecting it in Iraq that they were being exposed to hexavalent chromium – the bad stuff that got Erin Brokovich angry. Brings back memories of my early days as an investigative reporter in Chicago.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/NoelGriese NoelGriese

    I think Thomas Nelson is on the right track by downplaying its presence at ICRS. ICRS, in my experience, has behaved as a moribund, exclusionary show that goes out of its way to roadblock rather than invite participation by exhibitors. I think CBA is stuck in a 20th century mentality, when the industry is experiencing sea changes not unlike those that dislocated monks and scrolls when Gutenberg introduced movable type. Indie booksellers now have only eight percent of the overall $32 billion book retail market. Christian booksellers have a small slice of the indie market. As for diagnosing the reason for low attendance by consumers in Dallas, I'm still waiting for information that will help me in writing an article about the show for the Southern Review of Books, of which I am the editor.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I know Mark Kuyper sent you an email on Tuesday, March 24th. He copied me. Did the two of you ever get a chance to talk?

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/NoelGriese NoelGriese

        Mark Kuyper and I are going to talk. I sent him a few more things to think about before we get together by phone. Didn't want to bother you – surprised you can find time to read all the traffic on your blog. Meanwhile, I'm helping to plan a national seminar on self-publishing, a seminar for writers at the Great American Bargain Book Show in Boston in August and trying to help Clark Atlanta University launch a new TV show on books and authors – initially via Comcast to Atlanta metroplex, but already being test-marketed for digital streaming internationally. Also just posted a story on my Energy Pipeline News blog about how Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Merrill Lynch last summer manipulated the crude oil futures market, driving the price of crude oil to $147/bbl. in order to drive SemGroup into bankruptcy and pick clean the bones. Highest traffic I've had at that site since I ran a story about how KBR Halliburton failed to inform U.S. soldiers protecting it in Iraq that they were being exposed to hexavalent chromium – the bad stuff that got Erin Brokovich angry. Brings back memories of my early days as an investigative reporter in Chicago.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/shopgirl77 shopgirl77

    I was there – I walked around the empty show floor and watched well known amazing authors sitting uncomfortably as only a few people waited in line to get a book signed. I was there- and I was embarrased for our industry.

    Although the retailer got 100%… ( although 100% profits probably didn't even cover their employees parking) it still was a publisher to vendor show.

    I mean no disrespect- I just care about our very fragmented industry which is tanking and making poor decisions.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/shopgirl77 shopgirl77

    I was there – I walked around the empty show floor and watched well known amazing authors sitting uncomfortably as only a few people waited in line to get a book signed. I was there- and I was embarrased for our industry.

    Although the retailer got 100%… ( although 100% profits probably didn't even cover their employees parking) it still was a publisher to vendor show.

    I mean no disrespect- I just care about our very fragmented industry which is tanking and making poor decisions.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Were you there? Where are you getting your information?

    Actually, we didn't sell directly to consumers. We worked with a Christian retailer. They had their registers and their staff in our booth. They took 100% of the retail sales. We sold them our product at our normal trade discounts. Nearly all of the other publishers did the same thing.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Were you there? Where are you getting your information?

    Actually, we didn't sell directly to consumers. We worked with a Christian retailer. They had their registers and their staff in our booth. They took 100% of the retail sales. We sold them our product at our normal trade discounts. Nearly all of the other publishers did the same thing.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/chownage Chownage

    This was my assumption…especially when you have what used to be CBA Expo around the same time just a handful of years ago.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/chownage Chownage

    This was my assumption…especially when you have what used to be CBA Expo around the same time just a handful of years ago.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/LynCote LynCote

    Hi, I was there too. One idea that might be entertained is to break it up into regions and smaller venues. More authors would be available then since they could drive over. And finally no entrance fee! Let people choose from a menu and pay for what the workshops and events that are above and beyond the floor. And authors, I gave away books. I viewed this as an opportunity to get new readers.
    Well, I'm late in commenting, but thanks for the insightful analysis, Mike.
    Lyn Cote

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/LynCote LynCote

    Hi, I was there too. One idea that might be entertained is to break it up into regions and smaller venues. More authors would be available then since they could drive over. And finally no entrance fee! Let people choose from a menu and pay for what the workshops and events that are above and beyond the floor. And authors, I gave away books. I viewed this as an opportunity to get new readers.
    Well, I'm late in commenting, but thanks for the insightful analysis, Mike.
    Lyn Cote

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  • http://www.squidoo.com/missionary-stories-for-kids Meryl van der Merwe

    I would loved to have attend a Christian Book Fair – but I don’t think I would have been prepared to pay. Have you though about a virtual fair? I have noticed quite a few of these recently and that would make it accessible to more people – plus reduce costs.

  • Laurie Winslow Sargent

    Christian Book Expo combined with ICRS–same place, same time–I think would be a huge success. ICRS needs to welcome all Christian book lovers: from editors and publishers to authors and readers, bloggers and tweeters, in the same way BookExpo does.

    For ICRS to focus primarily on publishers selling to bookstores (when they can do this online anytime) seems shortsighted in this digital age. But if they allow the Christian masses to attend  author signings, and get review copies or book samples (paper chapbooks), buzz would begin on new titles more quickly, and  bookstores would then have consumers to order books for! 

    BookExpo this year merged with a digital book conference and book bloggers conference, and has connected with the Writers Digest conference. ICRS could do similarly, merging with a Christian bloggers conference, and all Christian Book Expo events.

    • Laurie Winslow Sargent

      BTW, I’m referring to the secular huge annual  BookExpo America event in this post, which this year (2011) claimed attendance of
      21,664 attendees, including those from a connected book bloggers conference & digital book conference. They also claim to have had 775 author signings. I did book signings at both BookExpo Amercia and at ICRS, in the Tyndale booths.

    • Laurie Winslow Sargent

      In 2003 & 2005.  Can’t seem to get one post clear here. Rats.

  • Christina Harper

    I just stumbled across your article after searching google for a 2012 date. I came to this event, flew from Hilo,HI to attend. I agree with the entire article. As a consumer, I loved hearing from my favorite authors, meeting new ones, the night service/worship was fantastic, and after it was all said and done, I had to ship 29 books back to Hawaii!
    I would love to see this type of event offered again. One thing not mentioned in your article is the slow death of the printed material at the hands of the digital media. More and more people I know are going to Kindles, Kobos, etc…so maybe marketing it in a way that peaks their interest would be helpful.
    Thanks for the write up!