Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The International Christian Retail Show

I'm a bit late with this, but I don't much care. It took me three full days to recover from a recent 10-day trip to Florida, mostly to visit my daughters and the friends I left behind when I moved to Colorado last year, but also to attend the annual event known as ICRS, or the International Christian Retail Show. I'm only now sufficiently awake to post this.

I began attending the show in the 1990s when I was editor of Christian Retailing magazine. In those days, I had appointments on the trade-show floor every half hour or so during the day, early morning breakfast meetings, luncheons, dinners, and late-night events or appointments. I averaged four hours of sleep each night.

After I left the magazine, I attended as a representative of a freelancing client like Publishers Weekly or, or as an author with one of the publishing companies. Over the years, my participation waned—as did my interest. This year, I attended three dinners that I wouldn't have missed for the world (thank you, Christy Awards, Baker and Tyndale), a seminar my literary agency held (thank you, Alive Communications), a women-in-publishing event (thank you, Guideposts, Sara A. Fortenberry Literary Agency,, Nunn Communications, and the B&B Media Group), meals with industry friends, and a booksigning for my very own We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter.

That was it. I never "walked the floor"—which at an event like this means spending untold hours going from one vendor's booth to another, checking out excellent, mediocre and truly horrible books, the plethora of what we call "Jesus Junk" (cheap products, often ridiculous, with something religious gratuitously slapped on them) and the myriad services offered to booksellers.

Apparently, I wasn't alone in my lack of interest in the show. Attendance dropped to just under 7,500—the lowest number in decades. As recently as 1999, some 14,000-plus people attended.

So is it the economy, increasing travel hassles (which nearly did me in, I admit), the consolidation of mom-and-pop stores into large chains, meaning fewer representatives, or simply a lack of interest? For me, it's that last factor. With each passing year, I feel less of an affinity with the Christian marketplace and more with the general market.

That doesn't mean I don't appreciate Christian retailers, who work harder in a day than some people work in a week, or Christian publishers, who have been incredibly good to me. I just think that maybe this show has run its course. Back in the day, we faced an uphill battle getting our books into general market stores, and we needed our own show to give our books and other products exposure to retailers.

But no more. Religious sections in general market stores have expanded, and while they'll never compete with Christian stores in knowledge or depth or breadth of titles, they do offer exposure to Christian authors and let readers know there's more to Christian books than they may have realized.

Will I attend next year? Sure. It's going to be in Denver, a mere hour or so from my home. And the following year? Probably. It's in St. Louis, a much more manageable city to tolerate. Other venues in recent years, and to which they may return, have included Dallas (nope), Atlanta (no way), and of course Orlando (well, my daughters are a factor there). If they ever add Portland or Seattle, I'm in.

But no matter where it's held, it's unlikely that you'll see me walking the floor looking for the latest and greatest product. I'll leave that to the other 6,000 or 4,000 people there, or whatever attendance drops to in future years.

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