Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Dispatches from the International Christian Retail Show

This week Ellen and I are in Denver for the International Christian Retail Show, formerly known as CBA International, the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association. Something like 10,000+ Christian industry professionals - publishers, retailers, authors, editors, agents, sales reps, journalists, etc. - gather for a week of promoting and selling new Christian books, music, videos and gifts. I've been attending CBA/ICRS shows since 1998, and this year I'm wearing two hats - I'm here as an IVP editor, and I'm here as an IVP author. So I'm networking with my authors and industry contacts, and I'm also promoting my new book.

It's always interesting to see what big new books or authors are being promoted. It seems like every year there's a new trend - a few years ago it was Jabez stuff (including a Jesus fish that said "JABEZ" in it instead of "Jesus"), and more recently, it's been Tolkien tie-ins, Da Vinci Code critiques and Narnia spinoffs. This year there are a few Superman-related things, but not a whole lot. I saw one booth with a "Christian Pirates" theme, and I don't know if that was supposed to tie in to the Pirates of the Caribbean movie or what.

The Christian publishing industry is an interesting world. Lots of money goes into creating and promoting authors, artists and brand identities. Publishers sponsor all sorts of things here to get their message out - the keycard for our hotel room featured a publisher's new logo, as part of their branding efforts. General market publishers have been increasingly getting into Christian publishing because it's quite profitable; Christians are a big market and audience. AOL Time Warner's book division started Warner Faith a few years ago, which has had megasellers by Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer and the like, and just recently the book division was purchased by a French company called Hachette International, I think. So they renamed the division Hachette Book Group USA, and Warner Faith is now FaithWords. Too bad they didn't go with something like Hachette Faith. "Hatchet Faith - Christian books that cut to the heart." (The cheesy pun is a staple of the Christian industry - I saw a booth here for some Noah's Ark company that bills itself as "State of the Ark.")

Ownership and financial backing of Christian media is interesting. Zondervan is owned by HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. I'm surprised that they haven't been rebranded as HarperGrandRapids, to parallel their other religious imprint, HarperSanFrancisco. Thomas Nelson used to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, but it was recently purchased by a group of private investors for something like half a billion dollars. I just heard yesterday that Multnomah Publishers (which was family-owned, I think), has just been purchased by somebody, but further details were not available.

At any convention or trade show, the cost of stuff is unbelievable. It would have cost us $600 to have internet access in our booth. It's often cheaper for exhibitors to buy stuff onsite (like tables, shelves, even TVs or DVD players) and leave them behind than to ship their own down or to rent materials from the convention center. At my hotel, bottled water is $3.00 in the snack shop and $5.00 in the rooms. A 20 oz. Coke is $3.00. I can't even begin to estimate how much money goes into one of these conventions, how much it costs individual bookstore managers and buyers to fly out, stay in hotels, pay for meals, etc.

And I happened to watch Rob Bell's latest Nooma video, Rich, on the hotel channel the other day. He talked about how all of us as North American Christians are rich. If we have clean drinking water, we are rich. If we've eaten today, we're rich. A billion people have not had a meal today. If we have a car, we are rich. 92% of the people in the world do not own a car. The video is quite well done and convicting, challenging affluent American Christians to be more generous and globally aware, to be better stewards and sacrificial in our giving. It's an important message.

And yet there's an irony in such a video being produced and promoted with tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars. I hope Zondervan/HarperCollins/News Corp./Murdoch is also using its wealth and resources toward global justice issues, health care, etc. I'm encouraged that Bono, the Gates Foundation, Warren Buffett and others are championing philanthropy at really high profiles. I heard something on the radio from a philanthropic organization that talked about how when these media personalities give such large amounts, it encourages ordinary people to give as well. I know that a lot of Christian companies give a lot of their profits directly to various ministries; I think some might even tithe in some form or another. So while the commercial environment of the Christian retail industry is inescapable, I'm hopeful that the powers-that-be wield their influence and resources wisely and Christianly.

Well, I was going to say more about the actual books, but that will have to wait for another post.


Anonymous said...

The Christian book industry, at least in terms of marketing, seems to hold to par to other Christian subculture standards. Always a gimmick, never the Gospel - in marketing at least.

Granted, these are business, owned by people, probably more interested in the bottom line. What bothers me is that it takes cheesy gimmicks for people to buy good books. And it is cheesy gimmicks that keep Christians irrelevant and rather boring.

I look forward to reading your book, but I want to read it for content. I hope that IVP does not surround it with poor marketing.

Totally aside from my rant - I look forward to your book informing a ministry that I'm beginning through my suburban church. I have been impressed with your blog, and I anticipate being impressed with your book. The community demographic resources you provided about a month back has been really helpful for my ministry. Thanks.

Craver Vii said...

This post made me laugh, because I have attended the CBA International trade show, and I remember the craziness of the whole thing! We would get together at dinner and see who found the zaniest giveaway or most bizarre book. But I will not pass judgment on the marketing folks. Their job is to get the product into people’s hands, and if silly trinkets bring more people into the bookstores, so be it.

Yes, we are rich! But to appreciate it more, we must stop comparing electronics, houses, or cars with our neighbors, and readjust to a global perspective. Short term missions is a great way to do this.

I once ate with a family of five near Manila. They always had rice—even for breakfast, and since they had a house guest (me), they also served three fish. They gave me the first fish, and split the second between the five of them, leaving the last fish on the table in case I wanted seconds. There were times that I just wanted to cry because they were so poor, but they gave so much…and then I wondered, proportionately, how much could America do? No, how much could Christians in America do? How about just my church? What about me, personally? I have dozens of memories similar to that one.

When I returned home, I was bothered by what we expect and what we sometimes think we deserve. It was shocking to see the television commercials and material distractions. I’m still struggling with materialism and trying to retain a more global perspective.

Tonya said...

I saw Rob Bell's Nooma video "Rain" over the weekend. Nooma is completely new to me. While I liked the video and thought it hit upon real truth I wasn't sure I was comfortable with the format.

His website says, "We can get anything we want, from anywhere in the world, whenever we want it. That's how it is and that's how we want it to be. Still, our lives aren't any different than other
generations before us. Our time is.

We want spiritual direction, but it has to be real for us
and available when we need it. We want a new format for getting Christian perspectives.

NOOMA is the new format.

It's short films with communicators that really speak to us. Compact, portable, and concise. Each NOOMA touches on
issues that we care about, that we want to talk about..."

It seems like we can only take God in via little bites. What's your impression?

Anonymous said...

"100% of the proceeds from "Rich" will be donated to charitable organizations that clothe the naked, take food to the hungry, and water to the thirsty."

Says so in the Nooma "Rich" dvd-booklet.. in case you didnt know.