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When you throw a party for 20,000 and 1,500 show up…

News article today from Publisher’s Weekly, worth reading if you’re interested in publishing…

Missed Connection: Christian Book Expo Attracts Few Customers
by Marcia Z. Nelson — Publishers Weekly, 3/23/2009 7:50:00 AM

Stacks of unsold books and glum publishers stood for three days inside the cavernous Dallas Convention Center this past weekend at the Christian Book Expo, a first-of-its-kind event designed to connect publishers and authors directly with readers in the evangelical Christian market. Only problem was there were few readers to connect with, despite the show’s location in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible Belt and a top market for Christian publishers. The show, sponsored by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, attracted 1,500 consumer attendees; it had hoped for 15,000-20,000.

Off the record, exhibitor publishers rolled their eyes heavenward, but spoke with circumspection on the record. “Every new experience has a few nicks and bruises, but things can be worked out,” said Greg Petree, v-p of marketing at Howard Books. A few were more blunt. “We can’t afford these kinds of risks,” said Dennis R. Hillman, publisher at Kregel Publications. “In a year like this the last thing we want to do is something that has no payoff.”

Conceived before the current economic downturn and more than two years in planning, the event combined three days of panels and programming to provide both a conference experience and a product. ECPA president Mark Kuyper said the goal of the event was to drive awareness of Christian authors – 238 were featured – and their message. The sponsoring ECPA had a minimal marketing budget that Kuyper said its board had approved. Instead, the marketing strategy relied on relationship building through early meetings with influential religious leaders in heavily churched Dallas. That was intended to mobilize regional networks. ECPA planners expected that participating publishers would also alert their own customers. “We’re going to be following up with them to find out what they did or didn’t do,” Kuyper said.

The show might, or might not, go on. “If we end up doing this again, it would be a smaller show,” Kuyper said. “We’ll be smarter next year,” said Michael S. Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson and chair of the ECPA’s executive committee.

Before that decision is made, publishers will have shelved their returns and added up their expenses. “InterVarsity Press will be looking for a more concrete, specific marketing plan for the event – with some strings attached – before we would consider setting aside money to participate,” said associate publisher Jeff Crosby. “Viewed in total, the event was a major disappointment.”

In other words, instead of looking for new channels for publicity (blog reviewers? Twittering? making free downloads available? hello??) the Christian publishers go back to a model that worked three decades ago, and try to make it even bigger.