With attendance numbers down from last year and notably smaller exhibits for some publishers, the International Christian Retail Show met June 23-26 in St. Louis, Mo. Total attendance dropped significantly, to 3,700 from 4,990 last year, with professional attendance down 15%, to 1,485 buyers. International attendance was down 21%, to 288 from 57 countries. There was positive news going into the show—an 8.5% increase in sales for 2012 over 2011—and while 39 member stores closed last year, that was down from 63 in 2011. Figures for store closings so far in 2013 were not available, though CBA’s State of the Industry report stated that half the 2012 number said they planned to close this year.

As usual, there was grumbling among exhibitors about whether the show makes sense for them anymore, given the dwindling number of Christian stores and the shrinking trade show. (At its peak in 1999, ICRS drew 15,000 attendees.) Some publishers had reduced their footprints on the show floor—the most drastic example was David C. Cook, which had only an 8-foot, tabletop exhibit. Still, all agreed it was an important place to network and hold meetings, and that there would always be a need for an annual gathering.

Some publishers still made a visual splash with their ambitious exhibits. Among them was the new HarperCollins Christian Publishing Group—at its one-year mark since the acquisition of Thomas Nelson by HarperCollins–which had both a big presence on the floor and a roomy suite just off it. HCCP CEO Mark Schoenwald told PW the major reorganization process and layoffs were finished, and he pointed to the company’s new tagline—“Together We Inspire”–reiterating Harper’s commitment to maintaining the distinct identities of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. Commenting on the process of combining the two divisions, he added, “We built this company from within—no one came in and imposed their vision.” Asked how the spin-off of News Corp.’s publishing properties from its other businesses might impact HCCP, Schoenwald said, “If anything it will have a positive effect—HarperCollins will be a bigger piece of the publishing division, which should bring us more attention and resources.”

The Association Innovates

CBA president Curtis Riskey, three years into his tenure as association head, has introduced a number of innovations in an effort to revitalize the show, and there were more this year. The new Author’s Alley provided tabletop display space for very small publishers and, primarily, self-publishers. An Author’s Bootcamp gave advice and education about marketing, promotion, distribution, and sales. And a new merchandising area, Lifestyle Stories, offered display ideas targeting three kinds of customers: Boomer women, Millennial moms, and men. The full-scale retail displays were at the front of the hall by the main entrance to draw maximum attention. Said Riskey, “We’re working into new arenas and trying to find new markets. This show is still the apex of our industry.”

CBA has formed a partnership with the Covenant Group to launch Find It Local Today, a service that enables publishers to direct consumers to local Christian stores to buy books. The Covenant Group, which provides marketing and other services to Christian stores, created the program, which is open to both indies and chains in the Christian channel. Once 400 retailers have signed on the program will go live; about a dozen publishers so far have agreed to participate. Stores pay a one-time set-up fee and then an annual fee to be featured on publishers’ sites.

The perception among many publishers is that Christian stores aren’t doing much in the digital realm. But while admitting that the ABA channel may be further ahead [with digital], Riskey said that about 800 of its member stores are now selling e-books.

His organization is working on a project to provide white label digital downloads that can be sold by stores.

For a Video Culture

With family-friendly films based on Christian properties becoming increasingly important, Riskey noted that “in a video culture” sales of DVDs of such films have increased 27% over the past three years. Said CBA board president George Thomsen, “You have an improvement in production quality, and people have always liked a redemptive story.” Six films were screened at ICRS, among them The Redemption of Henry Myers from Echolight Studios. New Echolight CEO Rick Santorum, who contended unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, said the culture was more influenced by storytellers than politicians. “The arts inform and shape culture, and politics is downstream,” he told media assembled at an opening day press conference. Echolight president Bobby Downes noted the importance of Echolight’s vertical integration; it can finance, develop, market, launch, and distribute films. Based in Dallas, Echolight has its own financial backers, Santorum said, without giving details. He and Downes were meeting with publishers about the four films the studio has already completed. Novelizations of such family-friendly films as Fireproof have achieved bestseller status in the past three years.

On the book side, Charisma Media was basking in the glow of its mega-selling The Harbinger, which has spent 76 weeks on bestsellers lists and sold one million copies in its first year. An ancillary product, the Harbinger Companion, has sold 80,000 copies since its January release, said Woodley Auguste, Charisma’s marketing director. The house is also heralding the debut of its new Bible translation, The Modern English Version, which updates the King James Version by eliminating archaic wording and usages while hewing closely to the KJV and preserving its poetry. The full Bible will debut at ICRS 2014.

Howard Books, the S&S Christian imprint, has been buoyed by the success of its Duck Dynasty line of bestselling nonfiction books connected to the A&E reality show. Howard distributed duck calls and cardboard fans printed with long beards; three new titles will be added to the line this fall. Next up are Si-cology: Tales and Wisdom from Duck Dynasty’s Favorite Uncle (Sept.), The Duck Commander Devotional (Oct.), and Miss Kay’s Duck Commander Kitchen, a cookbook (Nov.).

Despite some complaints about the show itself, most publishers were happy about increased print sales. Dwight Baker, CEO of Baker Publishing Group, said they were gratified by the uptick; he also said he thought the current proportion 65/35 print vs. digital would remain stable for a while: “There’s some predictability now that makes it easier to do business.” Family-owned Baker now has a governing board for the first time, and Dwight Baker said they are challenging him to grow the business. “One way to do that is with big books, and we know the judicious advances we’ve paid in the past will not be enough. We need to take the bigger risks.”

Fiction Moves

Fiction publishers at ICRS sent mixed signals in assessing the overall condition of this segment of Christian publishing, with some reported softening sales. River North, the fiction imprint of Moody, will cut its list back from 20 to 12 next year. “That (total of 20) was too much,” said associate publisher Deborah Keiser, who helped launch the imprint two years ago. Next year River North will publish The Turning, described as a “character-driven narrative,” by 2013 Christy-winning novelist Davis Bunn. The imprint will also launch Threads of Home, a quilting series, and focus on biblical fiction and other stories with redemptive arcs that harmonize with Moody’s nonfiction themes and aims.

At Howard, by contrast, publisher Jonathan Merkh was bullish, promising to build a fiction list for the house. Howard has a 10-book contract with Karen Kingsbury, who signed books at the show. “We’re going to get more aggressive with fiction this year—that’s critical to the success of any Christian imprint. I see it being 50% of our list within the next year,” Merkh said.

In the Kids Corner

Christian market children’s publishing consultant Mary Manz Simon and Kingstone Media publisher Art Ayris held another colloquy, as they did at ICRS 2012, to discuss publishing for younger readers. Kingstone Comics, ostensibly aimed at younger readers, has a social media demographic of ages 35-45, Ayris noted with a chuckle. Nonetheless, he also reported hearing from parents and grandparents, “saying, ‘Thank you for making something my children will read,’ ” he said. Simon underscored the importance of using visual media to connect with young readers. “Children must be able to interpret images and icons today,” she said, and noted that even middle-grade fiction was beginning to include illustrations.

Children’s publisher Callie Grant of Graham Blanchard in Dallas, attending her second ICRS, is readying the house’s fall launch. Grant, who has worked for Scholastic, said she began developing a line of books when she was unable to find what she wanted for her own children. Graham Blanchard has three separate designations for its books–Learn, Absorb, Praise–to approach children’s spiritual development in stages. She is working with religious educators as well as a children’s illustrator agent in developing her line. The books are not a curriculum but a collection. “We want to create enjoyable books,” she said.

ICRS is a show that includes ministry as well as networking on its schedule. This year it raised $6,258 via attendee offerings to support Humanitri, a St. Louis organization that helps the homeless with comprehensive services. It also purchased the show’s lanyards from Daughters of Hope, a fair trade social enterprise in India. Fair trade especially appeals to younger patrons of CBA stores, and makes sense to attract the Christian consumer of the future, said CBA’s Riskey.

ICRS 2014 will be held in Atlanta June 22-25.