Some have asked for my thoughts on this past week’s International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) in St. Louis. I’m glad to answer.
This was my 29th consecutive booksellers convention. At its height there were approximately 14,000 in attendance, many years ago. That is no longer the case. Statistics released indicate total attendance was 6,812. Registered pick-ups in attendance was 4,747 (flat compared to 2009); professional attendance was 1,675 (up 4.5% over last year); and international attendance came in at 390 (up 4% over 2009). I’m not sure if they combine exhibitors and retailers in that first number of if the exhibitors (publishers, etc.) are included in the second number. As an agent we are considered “professional” attendees.
Apparently the national average retail trade show attendance is down 16%, so the convention is feeling pretty good about this year’s showing.
I’ll admit to being skeptical about St. Louis as the locale. In my nearly 30 years of attendance it had never been in that city. I was pleasantly surprised. I was fortunate to be staying at the hotel directly across the street from the convention hall which made moving from one thing to another very easy. I was also impressed by the number of fine restaurants in the area, most within walking distance. I had the fun to host two author-related dinners and both restaurants were excellent.
Since I don’t go to the convention with tourism in mind I have no idea what I might have missed, other than traveling to top of that Arch. However I spoke to the husband and son of an author who thoroughly enjoyed the area and filled three days with a wide variety of activities.
For me the event began with the Christy Award reception on Saturday night. Our agency had three authors who were finalists. None received the top award, but being recognized as a finalist is an honor in and of itself. I love the Christys and what it represents. If you ever have someone criticize Christian fiction as being vapid or poorly written, challenge their assumptions by suggesting they read the finalists. I predict they will be chagrined to have made their accusations after having a chance to read some of the incredible writers represented among the award finalists.
The rest of the week was a series of scheduled meetings and “hallway” or “aisle-way” conversations. I had thirty scheduled appointments and probably ended up with over 50 significant conversations when the time was done. Even had the chance to discuss deal points on a new contract that surfaced during the convention (that almost never happens).
I was also privileged to hear a hour and a half presentation by Hachette Digital. They are working very hard to maximize the opportunities created by the digital revolution. I came away feeling like some very smart people are working hard on doing smart things in this world. They were open to questions and suggestions. Very impressive. Thank you Rolf, for the invitation.
Tuesday was an odd day in that every meeting was in the hotel until late afternoon. I did not actually hit the convention floor until 4:00. That was something new for me since, in the past, most meetings took place on the convention floor or in Publisher suites. This was also the first year that not a single appointment took place in a publisher’s suite!
Because the convention itself was smaller in scale it fit in the hall very well. There were always people visibly roaming the aisles all the way until the closing announcement on Wednesday afternoon. It “felt” busier because of that.
The International rights section was a hive of activity. Goodness. There was never a dull moment in that space. It is incredible to think of the marvelous activity of great Christian literature and its impact around the globe.
I’ve had some disagreement with a colleague or two over whether the ICRS convention is a dinosaur that will soon disappear. I tend to remain positive about its place in the industry and truly hope it does not go away. There is simply no other single event where so many industry-related people gather in one place. I can think of a half dozen conversations that would not have happened if were not for this event.
For publishers it has become an Author-Relations event, not much of a sales opportunity. The stores have already placed their orders for forthcoming books and music. And while there are fewer Christian stores, many major big box retail buyers were in attendance. Therefore while actual orders may not be placed at the show, the seeds for new sales were being planted.
Since both Chi Libris (fiction) and AWSA (women speakers and authors) organizations have their retreat in the days before the convention, many authors are there. I believe we had at least 12 or 13 of our clients who were there for at least part of the event.
The gift section was humming the entire show. And that will always be. Many gifts are such that they have to be physically held or seen in person before knowing if they are a product the retailer can sell. If ICRS goes away the retailers will have to rely on the general market Gift Shows which would not have as many vendors and their selection opportunities would decline.
All the usual suspects of kitchy art, gifts, and toys were there. Nothing made me exclaim, “you’ve got to be kidding.” So that either means I’ve become immune after all these years or there were simply fewer products to see. (Years ago, my all-time worst observation was a clown making balloon art. He was methodically putting together a six foot high brown crucifix with a flesh colored Jesus on it…all made out of long thin “clown” balloons. From the back of the adoring crowd I muttered a little too loudly, “My kingdom for a pin.” And then walked away shaking my head.) In general I don’t mind most of that material since I sold a lot of it during my days as a Christian retailer. For many people the items are a real blessing in their church or home. But that balloon art exhibition was over my line.
I enjoyed taking pictures of client’s book covers and displays and emailing those to them. A lot of fun for those who couldn’t attend.
Bottom line? Publishing is alive and well. Publishers are still looking for great content and great authors. The Christian retail business is small, but those who survived the “crash” are still working hard and serving their communities. It is nice to see there are those still dedicated to the call of being booksellers.
I can’t wait to get to work each day to find out what’s new in this terrible, horrible, wonderful, exciting, frustrating, exhilarating business.