Inaugural Christian Book Expo Marred by Disappointing Turnout

The inaugural Christian Book Expo concluded Sunday with optimism for the future despite its lower-than-expected attendance figures.

Organizers of the Mar. 20-22 event were aiming for attendance close to 10,000 and even up to 20,000 but drew around 1,500 attendees and some 230 authors.

"We acknowledge the attendance numbers were disappointing," said Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which sponsored the event. "But several of our board members have said they believe this consumer-driven model for marketing represents the future of Christian publishing. We will be evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of this year's event with the goal of greatly increasing next year's attendance."

Held in Dallas, the Christian Book Expo featured 150 author-led workshops and seminars, as well as mini-events and evening programming. More than a quarter of the 389,000 square feet that the ECPA secured at the Dallas Convention Center for the Christian Book Expo had been designated as floor space for the exhibit hall, which featured more than 60 organizations representing tens of thousands of Christian books.

"If consumers had come, this would have been an incredible show," remarked Michael S. Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson and chair of the ECPA's executive committee, in his personal blog Tuesday.

"Programming, production, logistics, displays – everything was first class. The evening events were especially well-produced and effective. I could not have been happier with the quality of the show," he added.

However, as Hyatt pointed out, "[t]he enormous scale of the Dallas Convention Center only highlighted the smallness of the crowd."

"I stepped off the DART and wandered into the Dallas Convention Center, expecting a deluge of books and readers," commented speaker and writer Heather Goodman.

"There were books. Readers? Not so much," she reported in her blog Monday, describing the inaugural event as "embarrassing." "All those poor publishers and authors who invested so much for so little."

The turnout was especially devastating for some, considering all the time, effort, and money that was spent in preparing for the event amid a teetering economy.

"We can't afford these kinds of risks," Dennis R. Hillman, publisher at Kregel Publications, told Publishers Weekly. "In a year like this the last thing we want to do is something that has no payoff."

However, there were also a significant number of individuals who said they had gained much through the event.

Todd McClincey of Macmillan Publishing Solutions was one of the 66 exhibitors at the event and said although the publishers did not get what they were hoping for in attendance, they were able to come to understand what is driving the market.

"The booths that seemed to get the most positive attention out of their products were those in emerging media markets, such as mobile phone, eBook, audio, and software," he commented on the website of Publishers Weekly.

"Across the board, from keynote authors all the way down to general consumers, there was a buzz about the desire for greater convenience and accessibility of the products of the Christian market. For us, in particular, we feel that this event was a great success," McClincey added.

Authors David and Lisa Frisbie from Del Mar, Calif., meanwhile, said they loved the networking and synergy this event provided.

"We connected not only with our readers (existing and new) but with store managers, regional distributors, editors and publishers, and other authors," they commented.

"Although we value hard data and we work hard to sell books in quantity, sometimes the networking and connecting end up having a broader and more lasting impact. Kudos to ECPA and its event staff for providing such a smooth, well-produced event – especially in light of the dismal global economy," they added. "If this event continues, in any format or venue, we will return with gladness."

Though there is some question as to whether the event will move forward, if it does, ECPA's Kuyper said there would be many improvements in store for 2010. The marketing strategy would change significantly and the ECPA would be reevaluating elements such as the event's timing and venue.

"Many consumers conveyed how much they enjoyed this year's event, and how they wished it had been enjoyed by more people," said Kuyper, highlighting the main problem.

Some of the mistakes that Thomas Nelson's Hyatt noted on Tuesday included the event's venue size, location, timing, inclusion of fee to attend, and budget.

"The event overlapped with spring break. Thousands of people were on vacation. But the mothers who stayed home couldn't get away, because the kids were out of school and childcare would have been an added expense," he noted.

And, Hyatt added, "We spent all our money on the venue, production, and logistics. We should have downsized all of this and spent our money on marketing – especially on billboards and lots and lots of radio."

Should ECPA give it another go next year, Hyatt said they would re-launch it at a different time with a different model.

Unfortunately, with the economy in the state that it is in today, he said they can't afford to try too many things that don't promise an immediate payback.

"We simply need to determine where we go from here," he concluded.

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