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ICRS Observations 2010

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.

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Incoming Proposals

To your left is an actual picture of the pile of proposals our office has received since December 1, 2009. About 30 days worth of incoming mail…during a slow time of the year. The stack of books next to the pile include books sent for review (consideration) and recent publications that I want to look at.

That does not include the myriad of email submissions we get (many simply ignoring our guidelines regarding email submissions)…inquiries from those who use the contact form on our web site (many of those ignoring the request to “Please do not copy and paste your entire manuscript into this form.“)

Or the poor soul that failed to proofread their email before sending this sentence, “I would like to send you my quarry letter….”

Nor does it include those that do an Internet search and call us. Recently we got a call that went something like this:
Agency: This is the Steve Laube Agency…
Caller: What kind of agency are you?
Agency: We are a literary agency.
Caller: What does that mean?

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A Year in Review

This is one of my favorite times of the year. The Christmas glow is still present and since the publishing world is, in essence, on vacation, it is a perfect time to to reflect on the past twelve months.

This was a hard year for many as the economy touched everyone in some way. And yet, despite the ominous cloud of doom and gloom, there were many exciting things to celebrate.

On a personal level our middle daughter was married at the end of June. What a joy to see God at the center of the ceremony. And our oldest daughter had a blast playing keyboards for Alice Cooper (singing “School’s Out”) in front of 50,000 people at the ASU graduation ceremony in May.

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The Wave of Digital Creativity in Books

I went to high school in Hawaii (I know.. a rough life) where I learned the joys and perils of body surfing. That experience is a great metaphor for the new “waves” of digital revolution we are seeing in the publishing world.

The key to great body surfing is waiting for the right wave and then time your push just right. The ride is exhilarating (I still remember riding inside the tube of a perfect wave off the beaches of Kauai). BUT if you catch the wrong wave or mistime the push, there is no ride. Or worse, catch a wave that throws you wildly into a bunch of rocks…

But unless you are in the water and making attempt after attempt you will never achieve the perfect ride.

I see this metaphor applied to the new world of digital publishing. It is really fun to play a small part, but even more fun to watch others be extremely creative in their experiments. There are some very bright and exciting people trying new things in merging the traditional book with all things “interactive.”

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2009 ICRS Observations

Like many going into the 2009 ICRS convention (aka CBA or the Christian Booksellers Association convention) I was wondering what would be found. It was great to see that instead of the projected doom and gloom there was light and hope. (Yes, that is Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber in the photo to the left – courtesy of Christian Retailing Magazine.) A few observations:

1) The total convention exhibit floor was about 30% smaller than in past years and the middle section, housing CBA’s events and displays was HUGE. In fact you could walk through the entire book section very rapidly for the first time in years. Everything seemed condensed.

2) The net effect of the smaller sales floor was that you felt the crowds. There was noise, energy, and excitement in the air. This was a major change over previous years where it always felt so quiet.

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ICRS / CBA Bookseller’s Convention

Today is the official opening of the convention in Denver. This year will be my 28th consecutive ICRS (International Christian Retail Show) or CBA as we veterans still call it (Christian Booksellers Association Convention). I absolutely love the experience. I’ve attended as a retailer, as an exhibitor, and now as an “industry professional.” I find it amusing that each name badge is color-coded to help exhibitors know whether the person in their booth is a bookseller (and thereby a potential customer) or a browser, like me. What makes it particularly fun is that the “agent” color is black….the color of an agent’s soul.

PRO: There is nothing like the experience of walking the floor of the world’s largest Christian bookstore. Everything is there, the good, the bad, and the outrageous (like the balloon art crucifix or the painting of a junkie shooting heroin into the arm of Jesus). The spirit is electric. It can be overwhelming, but ultimately it is a picture of God at work. As a writer you can meet key people, network with fellow writers, collect catalogs (those that aren’t digital), and simply increase knowledge of what the industry is all about.

CON: Unrealized expectations. Too many writers think the convention should be all about them. It isn’t. Disappointment is palatable with some folks at the end of the experience. Their publisher didn’t pay enough attention to them; not enough people came to their signing; no editor was available for an appointment…etc. Go to the convention with modest expectations and the chance of disappointment with be minimized.

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Christy Awards

Tonight was the tenth annual Christy Awards which honors the best in Christian fiction. We were very proud to have six clients as finalists!

To my eternal delight two clients won!

Marlo Schalesky won in the contemporary romance category for her book Beyond the Night (Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group).

Tracey Bateman won in the contemporary series category for her book You Had Me at Goodbye (Faithwords).

Since neither Marlo or Tracey could attend, I had the privilege of accepting their awards and reading their speech. A thrill and an honor.

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