ICRS: Day Two

Monday was another full but exhausting day at the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta (ICRS). Thankfully, the cool weather is still with us. Although the humidity was quite high (85%), the temperature remained in the 70s and low 80s. Even Denver, where we’ve had the convention for the past two years, wasn’t this cool.

trade show meetings

I had breakfast with Dale Hansen Bourke, former publisher of Today’s Christian Woman and now a writer for Religion News Service (RNS). She had not attended ICRS for several years but was back to do a story on trends in the Christian marketplace. We’ve known each other for 25 years. As Jerry Jenkins quipped last night at the Book Awards show, “we’ve known each other since the Dead Sea was merely sick.”

She asked me about what trends I saw coming in publishing in general and Christian publishing in particular. I mentioned the following:

  • The eventual arrival of a digital device that enables readers to “carry around 1,000 books in their pocket.” This device must be similar enough to a real book experience that readers forget it is digital. I have seen a few devices in development that are close, but so far “no cigar.” Regardless, it’s only a matter of time.
  • Eventually, physical books will be printed at the point-of-sale. Some call this “distributed manufacturing.” As print-on-demand technology gets better—and, trust me, it’s already so good you can’t tell a POD book from a regular one—this is going to happen. The current model, where printers print thousands of books for publishers to ship to bookstores and then bookstores return to publishers when they don’t sell, is too expensive and cumbersome to last much longer. It’s begging for a solution.
  • In the coming years, publishers will dramatically reduce the number of SKUs. It’s just too expensive and too inefficient to keep churning out hundreds, if not thousands, of books each year in the hope that some of them will stick. This won’t eliminate mid-list books (as some fear), because publishers have to be constantly looking for the next generation of writers. But it will eliminate most one-off projects. To get published, authors will have to have more than one book in the oven. If publishers are going to invest the money necessary to launch a successful book, they will want to know there are more to come.
  • Publishers will do more market research than they currently do. This won’t be difficult, because most publishers do virtually none. Most publishers’s idea of research is to publish the book and see if it works. This is way to expensive to sustain. With the pervasive use of the Internet, research can now be done inexpensively with almost near-instantaneous results. (I wrote on this topic recently, but plan another posting with a more expansive vision of what can be done.)
  • Publishers will continue to focus their resources on key accounts. Yes, I know, this is bad news for independent booksellers, but this is simple economics. The old model is to think of the market in terms of sales channels. This paradigm is already fading. More and more, publishers are focused on developing strategies and programs for specific, large accounts. This is simply a continuation of the larger trend of customization and individualization.
  • Global publishing will increasingly be the focus. As recently as five years ago, American publishers could be successful by focusing exclusively on domestic rights and publishing. Those days are over. Thanks to the Internet and global media, the world is at our doorstep. This is why last year, for example, we opened offices in Beijing, Rio, and Mexico City. This year we will release several titles simultaneously in multiple languages. This is only the beginning of our global strategy.

Next, I met with Cliff Bartow and Brenda Lugannani of Family Christian Stores. Cliff is the CEO and Brenda is the head of merchandising. We discussed various challenges we are both facing in the industry right now. The incredible collapse of the retail music business has been a real challenge for all retailers. I discussed the fact that books are probably not far behind.

Fortunately, we have the advantage of seeing what has happened to the music business and have a little more time to get prepared. There are some major differences between these two kinds of media, which is something I also hope to cover in another post. Regardless, the industry is changing quickly, and only the nimble will survive.

I had lunch with David Evans, Executive Vice President of Business Development for Salem Communications. Salem, as you may know, owns and operates over 100 radio stations. They are also a major Internet and magazine provider in the Christian market. We had a very creative brainstorming session about how our two companies can better work together. We discussed a variety of exciting ideas. Before I knew it, our scheduled one-hour meeting and run into an hour-and-a-half. We agreed to setup another meeting in Nashville to follow-up with our teams.

I then met with Gabe Lyons, who is the CEO of Relevate, a very innovative, non-profit organization that convenes and mobilizes societal leaders to create and celebrate good culture. He is one of the most creative people I know. Thomas Nelson has been actively investing in his ministry for the past few years. He gave Matt Baugher, our VP of Publishing for Spiritual Growth and Christian Thought joined us. Gabe gave us a fascinating report on what he has been doing and on the trends he is seeing among younger Christians. Wow!

I met with Steve Potratz, CEO of The Parable Group, one of the largest buying groups in the Christian retail marketplace. They also now own several franchise Parable stores. Steve has been a good friend for years, and someone I deeply respect. He introduced me to Tom Black, Erin Martin, and Nelson Saba from Good News Holdings. They demo-ed a Web-based product for us called LightsTogether, a “group centric social network” technology. Think, “MySpace for churches.” It was very exciting and, I think, has great potential.

Right before dinner, Mark Schoenwald, our Chief Sales Officer, and I met with our friends from Christian Book Distributors (CBD). They are one of our largest customers and are the Amazon.com of the Christian world. (They actually do way more than this, but this is the simple way to understand their business model.) We discussed several strategic partnership ideas with them. They are the best kind of partners, because they are very direct and open about their business. I never feel like there is any posturing or gamesmanship. Plus, we always have a lot of fun when we are together.

Instead of eating dinner, Gail and I dropped by the CBA Personality Party, where several of our authors were featured, including Ted Dekker, Colleen Coble, Deborah Norville, Sheila Walsh, Hank Hanegraaff, Carol Kent, Ed Gungor, Robert Schlipp, Sarah Young, and Denise Jackson (Alan Jackson’s wife). We hung around for 30 minutes and then dashed off to the Christian Book Awards.

The Awards show was probably the best produced show we have ever had. Mark Kuyper, President of ECPA, and Bill Anderson, President of CBA, did an outstanding job. The program moved quickly, and various projects and people were appropriately honored. In the past, this was called the “Gold Medallion Book Awards.” Books in about 20 or so categories were recognized as the “best of the best.” However, two years ago, we cut that down to six awards, so that we could better focus the after-show promotion on a handful of titles and make the award really mean something.

Last night, we won in the fiction category for Charles Martin’s book, When Cricket’s Cry. We had nominations in several other categories, but didn’t take home any trophies.

I was also pleased to see my friend, R.C. Sproul, honored for the “Lifetime Achievement Award.” He deserves it. My only complaint with the evening is that it was so poorly attended. There probably weren’t more than 150 people in a room that could have held 500. I think we need to seriously consider moving this back to a different night. (We used to hold it on Saturday night before the convention really began. Unlike a Monday-night event, we had no competition.)

Finally, Gail and I enjoyed a leisurely, if late, dinner, and then collapsed into bed about 10:30. Our daughter Marissa (age 16) decided to drive to Atlanta last night and spend Tuesday with us, so we are excited about that. She used to come with us every year when she was younger, so I think she was feeling a little nostalgia with both of us gone. I can’t wait to see her and get her reaction to the industry now.

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