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Christian Book Expo: How Come No One’s Asked This Question?

By most admissions, the recent Christian Book Expo was a bust. Apparently, the organizers expected a much, much, larger crowd than they got. There question-markwere quality presentations with lots of authors and panels. Frankly, it’s something I would have attended if it were closer. So why the public disinterest? There’s been a lot of detailed speculation. The economy, poor promotion, location and cost have all been cited as possible factors. But there’s  another possibility for the CBE’s poor showing, one that insiders don’t seem to be asking.

Do the Expo’s numbers indicate dissatisfaction with contemporary religious literature, waning interest, disconnect with readers, shoddy product, or simply a plateauing of the religious book industry?

To me, the absence of these types of questions — and their quick dismissal — is indicative of a problem within the Christian book industry.

A disclaimer before this next quote. I am not a big fan of Slice of Laodecia, its aims or ultra-conservative approach. However, in a post entitled New Christian Book Expo a Major Bust, they make an observation (however rancourously), that I think should honestly be considered in evaluating the Expo aftermath:

I am not against books, believe me. I am just fed up with the kind of shoddy books that so many Christian publishers are putting out these days. Reading the only book of lasting value, the Bible, gets ignored in the blizzard of personal success and self-help manuals, romance novels, sex guides, and end-times thrills and chills books. Enough already! This is the wrong time to try to get thousands of Christians to come out to buy more of the same. My advice to organizers of this new event is, forget it. The Christian Retailers Association convention (formerly CBA) is already pumping enough junk from the evangelical pulp mills into society to bury us all.  Stop the avalanche. Stop the madness. Let’s get back to reading the Word.

Sure, maybe the author has a chip on her shoulder and an “unChristian” tone. Nevertheless, if Christian publishers are serious about evaluating the success / failure of their products, why not consider these more critical observations? Detractors aren’t always wrong.

And who could be more critical of Christian lit than atheists? But even they might provide a nugget of insight. For instance, Atheist Revolution states:

After two years in the planning, the event, designed to promote awareness of Christian authors, bombed badly. Of course, the economy may have something to do with this, but it is tempting to speculate that Dallas religious leaders expected to promote the event may not have the same influence they once enjoyed. (emphasis mine)

I find this observation illuminative. We’re on the backside of recent polls indicating that Americans are in some type of religious transition. Christianity — at least traditional Christianity — is in flux among a new generation of postmodern youths. So why can’t that be affecting the Christian book industry?

Even more unnerving, to me, than these possibilities, is how quickly they are dismissed by the rank and file. Maybe the Expo did tank because of poor promotion, cost, or location. But if there’s the slimmest chance that a shifting religious landscape and a product reaching the boundaries of its market are to blame, then why not consider it? It is this apparent dismissal that bothers me more than anything.

Hey, I appreciate the tone of the Christian Book Expo and its sponsors. Apparently, they crafted a quality presentation and made a legitimate attempt to connect to the general public. Kudos. But please — please —  do not succumb to myopia when evaluating CBE ’09. Step outside the echo chamber. Yes, avoiding the hard questions may protect our turf. But asking them may be the most “Christian” thing we can do.

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Heather April 2, 2009, 9:45 AM

    Actually, I discovered a couple of new authors–new to me, that is–at CBE. Because I lead a book club, WaterBrook gave me a couple of books (I told them my book club prefers more literary writing–and the one book I’ve read from them has beautiful prose), and I met another author (Christa Parrish) and bought her book, Home Another Way, which I thought was a good story (you can read my thoughts here: http://www.heatheragoodman.com/content/what%2526%2523039%3Bs-my-nightstand-march). I think there is more quality stuff going on (so glad Susan Meissner won for Shape of Mercy–one of the best CBA books I’ve read), but you have to dig through marketing to find them.
    My reader friends (surprise, surprise, I have a lot of them) (1) didn’t hear about CBE other than through me (they’re also not the type to listen to the local Christian stations, which someone told me did announce CBE) and (2) don’t care about meeting the authors–they want to read the books. I find this refreshing in a celebrity culture (which is just as much a factor with Christians as with nonbelievers). I do think some of them would have enjoyed the panels (i.e. with J.I. Packer, Scot McKnight, Randy Frazee, Don Miller), but $30 doesn’t justify that.
    Some of your thoughts line up with what Donald Miller, Mary DeMuth, Ruth Haley Barton, and Randy Frazee said at their panel: when we say “post-Christian,” we mean Christians are losing power. But we don’t have a good barometer about how much religious leaders influence their parishioners because the fact is, Dallas religious leaders didn’t promote CBE.
    I agree that we’re losing some sort of power–and that might not be a bad thing–but I think we can still influence and transform culture, and I think that CBA, as many complaints as I have with it, may be in a position to do so if they continue to push the boundaries little by little. I’d like to show the world that Christians produce good art not to prove our theology or to evangelize but because we know what it means to be fully human.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 2, 2009, 2:13 PM

    Well, it’s good to hear from someone who was there as a book reader, not an “insider.”

    My first thought was, there were some very popular authors, who sell well, at the Expo, so it wouldn’t seem logical that people staying away had anything to do with a change in attitude toward Christian books.

    And the Christian critic is missing the point—the Book Expo is a valiant attempt to get readers out from under what he terms the avalanche of junk.

    If that event had been here in the LA area, though, I wouldn’t have gone, for one reason only. The cost. That’s of course provided I knew about the event far enough in advance to attend.

    And speaking of attending … Mike, when is that Biola debate you mentioned?

    Becky

  • dayle April 2, 2009, 7:56 PM

    Mike, I would say that the dismissal of said argument is due to the fact that, well, it’s quiet easy to see that it’s not valid.

    Along with Lee Stroebel, the attending authors have sold millions of books. If just the Dallasinians who’ve read Stroebel’s book would have attended it would have been a success. The obvious reason is that the American public believes everything should be free. And in this one particular case, they’re probably right. If they would have dropped the entrance fee to Zero or a $3 love offering, more would have attended. Most people I know already complain that a book costs $14. Why would they spend $30 to see the author? The money could have been made up in impulse book sales.

    Let’s take a festival concert. Attendees are willing to spend the money because the music acts are not going to just sit there and talk about music, they’re going to play it. Dollars for goods.

    Btw, I live 8 hrs from Dallas and seriously considered going. But, it would have costs me a couple hundred bucks all together.

  • Ame April 2, 2009, 8:07 PM

    i think there are some very valid and serious/weighty points here that must be considered. i have personally been, ummm, annoyed at how much people in the church use published materials rather than the Bible. there is a young woman who goes to bible study every wednesday, rain or shine, kids sick or well. but they’re not really studying the bible … they’re studying books written by christian authors. that’s not necessarily bad, but it should not be a replacement.

    i’ve found that women, especially, in the church, lean heavily on published, christian books over the bible … or at least hold them equal to the bible. i’ve found that they use these published materials rather than relying on God and His Word to teach them.

    the result is that, when talking to these people, you don’t hear, “hey, do you know what i learned from the bible?” instead i hear, “you really need to read this book. it says to do ‘this’ (implying i am not doing ‘this’ and ‘this’ would make my life just perfect).

    i’d rather have someone tell me what God taught them from the bible.

    and i agree with the quote about the market being flooded with all these self-help books saying the same thing. i’m a big fan of getting all the help you need, but i’ve got all the help i need already available.

    anyway … great post.

  • Ame April 2, 2009, 8:11 PM

    btw – the husband of said woman said to my fiance and myself once, “i don’t believe in divorce, but if we do get divorced, i’m going to sue _____” and he named a prominent, christian author of books and workbook-bible-studies.

    his point? his wife takes all these studies and thinks that this author is God … goes home and demonstrates in some way, implied or straight-up, that he’s not the kinda man God wants him to be b/c this author says he should be this and this and this.

    funny thing … his wife obviously does NOT apply what she learns … b/c if she did, he wouldn’t feel that way. she puts too much weight on the author and not enough weight on God and His Word.

  • Mike Duran April 3, 2009, 3:29 AM

    Heather, your last paragraph summarizes my sentiments. Christian publishing “can still influence and transform culture,” but as you said, it must “push the boundaries” and “produce good art,” not just religious tracts for their membership.

    Becky, you’re assuming that because “there were some very popular authors” at the Expo, it couldn’t mean that the industry is in flux or its product is waning. I think that reasoning is potentially dangerous. Sure, some Christian books sell well to the niche. But if the niche ain’t growing, it will become a rut. Then a grave. If the possibility even exists that the niche is shrinking (as CBE may indicate), or its target audience is growing disillusioned, shouldn’t that be considered? that’s all I’m asking. Besides, how popular are these authors — really — if people aren’t willing to go see them?

    Dayle, I find your dissent eerily indicative of the point I’m making. You opened, “the dismissal of said argument is due to the fact that, well, it’s quiet easy to see that it’s not valid.” Yes. Quite easy. So you’re saying that because “the attending authors have sold millions of books,” this means that religious publishing and the religious culture is healthy? That’s like saying that because a billion Big Macs have been sold, MacDonalds can rest easy about its future. So as long as some Christian authors sell a lot of books, they validate the remaining 90% of the market? Forget that only 1/10th of this “vibrant target market” showed up to this major event. Hmm. I guess there’s no need to even consider the possibility that Christian publishing and its influence on the culture may be waning. And they thought the Titanic was unsinkable….

    Frankly, this is the type of easy dismissal that concerns me. I just don’t see how we can look at the disparity of numbers — they expected 10X what they got, folks! — and not consider all the possibilities. It’s just not good business sense. Of course there are lots of factors at work here. That’s obvious. But to simply brush off the possibility that the Expo’s numbers may reveal dissatisfaction with contemporary religious literature, waning interest, disconnect with readers, shoddy product, or a plateauing of the religious book industry, is indicative of a big, big, problem amongst its proponents.

  • Glynn April 3, 2009, 5:53 AM

    I read a lot, and especially a lot of Christian fiction. The quality is uneven, especially for the big “brand” authors whose names alone can sell their books (the Christian counterparts to John Grisham, Stephen King and James Lee Patterson, I suppose). The writing quality of unknown or lesser known authors seems to be better — perhaps because it has to be. This isn’t so different from secular publishing; in fact, it’s a little too close for comfort.

    If I lived closer than 850 miles from Dallas, I would have gone to the CBE, and I wouldn’t have minded (much) the $29 entrance fee. But it’s because I love books. Last fall, I went to a (no-charge) book festival in my hometown; it was nothing on the scale or scope of CBE but more like an extensive array of booths at a community festival. I got to spend almost 30 minutes talking with Missouri’s poet laureate (yes, we actually have one), whose work I read and admire. I would have done the same at CBE.

    It’s like whenever I go to visit family in my hometown of New Orleans — I usually find an excuse to make it to the Faulkner Bookstore in Pirate’s Alley, right off Jackson Square. You walk in, and you know that “this place loves books.”

  • Dayle April 3, 2009, 7:37 AM

    Mike, I was merely speaking to the point of lack of attendance. Perception being reality. The larger point of the health of the industry or product can remain a mysterious vortex of conjecture.

    In other words, you’re seeing a McDonalds when I’m talking about 1 cold fry. : )

    The built in audience (readers) of the authors who participated don’t suddenly dislike these authors or there message.

  • Nicole April 3, 2009, 9:03 AM

    Mike, one thing I think can be considered here is the disconnect between CBE organizers and the “message” the whole publishing environment preaches to its authors and wannabes: Marketing, marketing, marketing. In other words if no one knows about the product, it won’t sell. If you could discount the advertising of this event–if it was well done and indisputably well sold from every available market–then you could dissect the lack of attendance from disinterest and decline.
    Secondly, if you could ignore a ridiculously expensive admission to the event and a poor location, it would be easier to determine if said interest is actually waning.
    But with two glaring errors to consider which should merit top analysis, then the less popular or perhaps less justified point that you’re making should be discussed.
    Those of us who read a lot more CBA fiction than you do see the strengths and weaknesses of the overall genre. (That may have sounded snarky–I honestly did not mean it that way at all, more as a fact from what you’ve revealed about your reading.) As a whole , quality is increasing in many of the sub-genres. I’m not so sure it is in the target market. However, there is no difference there between the selections in ABA’s target markets and CBA’s.
    It should be noted I’m commenting strictly on the fiction market. I don’t buy the non-fiction self-help, studies, etc.

  • Mike Duran April 4, 2009, 7:31 AM

    Dayle, if “[t]he larger point of the health of the industry or product can remain a mysterious vortex of conjecture”, then my observations remain valid, albeit “conjecture” in your opinion. But you’re not suggesting that “the health of the industry or product” can never be accurately diagnosed, are you? Either way, I’ll take that as a concession.

    Nicole, I’d agree that the “glaring errors” of cost, location and poor publicity should be at the forefront of this analysis. I don’t agree that those realities make my suggestions ultimately “less justified.” And even if they are “less justified” in this instance, they are not UNjustified. What makes them “less justified” to some, in my opinion, is a built-in defensiveness on the part of those who read / aim for the Christian market. My point with this post is simply to suggest there is a potential blind spot amongst supporters / producers of Christian literature. That’s all. I am not suggesting that there isn’t good quality Christian books out there. There is. I’m suggesting that the traditional strictures that have governed and guided the Christian book industry may also be in need of a thorough re-working. At least, an objective, unbiased, scrutiny.

  • Mike Duran April 4, 2009, 8:35 AM

    And by the way, Nicole. I do read some Christian fiction. I don’t read nothing but Christian fiction, which I find many Christian readers do. Recently, I finished The 12th Demon: Vampyre Majick (Jonathan Steel Chronicles) and Demon: A Memoir. Both can be categorized as Christian fiction, although the 12th Demon is an indie publisher. One was, in my opinion, awful. The other was terrific. I’ll let you guess which was which. The disparity reinforced what’s true about ALL lit, CBA or ABA — there’s good and there’s bad.

  • Nicole April 4, 2009, 9:03 AM

    “That’s all. I am not suggesting that there isn’t good quality Christian books out there. There is. I’m suggesting that the traditional strictures that have governed and guided the Christian book industry may also be in need of a thorough re-working. At least, an objective, unbiased, scrutiny.”
    I totally agree with this point, Mike, because I do believe there is a certain disconnect between publishers and the readers. I think the reader base is expanding–or desires to–and the publishers are slow to grasp the possibility of expanding their fan base (i.e. fantasy, specfic, scifi, etc.). I think they rely too much on their “chosen” demographic and leave the rest of the reaaders lacking.

  • dayle April 4, 2009, 10:25 PM

    There must be some kind of Louisiana/California language barrier when we discuss something Mike. I almost never intend nor write what you infer. Finding a simple obvious reason for the lack of attendance at one event is not defending the CBA. Nor is it a manifestation of some dismissive attitude on the part of the likes of me.

    You said “So you’re saying that because “the attending authors have sold millions of books,” this means that religious publishing and the religious culture is healthy? This is NOT AT ALL what I’m saying. NOT EVEN CLOSE. HOW DO YOU COME AWAY WITH THAT ASSERTION? I said the lack ATTENDANCE of one event cannot be positied as evidence for the lack of health of the industry as a whole. Even if the health of the industry is down. My example was that Lee Stroebel alone has sold millions of books. He’s not all of a sudden down to 50 fans. That’s like saying because the health of the industry is failing, all the fans of the attending authors decided to unite together in protest of their favorite authors at a book expo in Dallas.

    I think you are projecting your other frustrations with the CBA onto the attendance at one event. I say the two are non-related. I only meant by the “the health…conjecture” comment that in this instance, a connection probably cannot be made. Read “putting that aside for a moment”. I have no blind spot when it comes to CBA. To the contrary, I think you may have a “see more than what’s really there” spot.

    What the hay? Let’s get into the “other” for a moment. And correct me if I’m wrong in my assumptions of your positions. You believe the cba are too rigid in their imposed standards on what should be published. You also believe there is a diminitive quality or diminished quality because of these standards. You also think that book sales should not be the measuring stick. So what should be? Your opinion? Accolades from another group whose subjective opinion of what’s good also trumps the book buying public?

    Due to the rigors of free enterprise, book sales have to be the measuring stick or the measurer goes out of business. Of course some principles are bigger than profit. Subjective by nature, standards and moral principles come first. Who decides those? A secret society of elites who know better than those rubes called the public? No. The ones who sign the checks. Although the two may overlap, I’m not making any charge.

    Lets say for a moment, you’re right about everything. What’s the answer? Let another group impose another set of business practices and standards so a whole other group of people are frustrated?

    The reality is: the only thing that will change any status quo that exists is based on the point Nicole made. As long as the reliable demographic can pay the bills, that’s who they’ll cater to. That’s good business. The ones that wait too long to adapt to the changing tides will either go out of business or be absorbed by another company. Business models are always behind the curve–see GM.

  • Mike Duran April 5, 2009, 8:02 AM

    Dayle, there’s no “language barrier.” You and I have different perspectives. You’re a defender of the CBA and like it the way it is. I don’t. You said, “I have no blind spot when it comes to CBA.” But the confidence that you see things accurately is your undoing. For if you have a blind spot, you wouldn’t know it. That’s what blind spots are. It makes your certainty all the more scary.

    I think I’ve been clear on this blog about my feelings towards the CBA. I like some things, don’t like others. Many writers, both in and outside the industry, published and unpublished, voice similar concerns. Heck, I’m contracted by a CBA agent! All I’ve done is suggested that CBA proponents appear unwilling to consider all options, especially the ones that point to the limitations of the genre or a disconnect with new religious readers. And as I said in comment #6: “I find your dissent eerily indicative of the point I’m making.”

  • dayle April 5, 2009, 8:59 AM

    Once again, Mike. For the record, here it is. I’m not a defender of the CBA. It is what it is–a flawed organization run by flawed human beings. It may be healthy, it may not be. It may need an intense overhaul, maybe not. Whatever the argument – pro or con – I seek fairness. If you make a valid point against them, I’ll back you up.

    All I ever do is point out the holes in your arguments when and if I see them. Your intense dislike for the CBA reminds me of the left’s dislike for George Bush. To paraphrase Ann Coulter, you may have CBA derangment syndrome. If the CBA saved a drowning puppy, you would criticize them for saying “shoot” instead of **** when they did it.

    Your comment: “But the confidence that you see things accurately is your undoing. For if you have a blind spot, you wouldn’t know it. That’s what blind spots are.” This proves my point about most of your reasoning. You do exactly what you criticize others of doing. This argument is weak because it can be applied to both sides of any discussion. Your argument against my “confidence” can only be backed by your “confidence”. Thus creating an impass.

    Btw, MIke. Who’s to say you’re not getting your wish. Maybe behind closed doors, they are considering all options. Maybe even agree with your conclusions. They still can’t come out and publicly berate their own company. That’s bad business.

    Btw2, I do have a couple of problems with the CBA. But, I’m applying for a job with them and I’m not as brave in that department as you are.

  • Mike Duran April 5, 2009, 9:17 AM

    Dayle, I absolutely DO NOT have an “intense dislike for the CBA.” This completely mis-characterizes me and my position. Sad that you must resort to this.

  • dayle April 6, 2009, 7:25 AM

    yeah, I know how you feel.

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