Christian Book Expo: The Lowdown

Mar 23, 2009Write!

Susan Meissner and I at the Christian Book Awards banquet

She won! The Christian Book Award for fiction (for The Shape of Mercy)

Celebrating with Rachelle Gardner and Beth Jusino.

On the Christianity Today panel.

The Christianity Today panel: Stan Guthrie (standing), Andy Crouch, Ruth Haley Barton, Donald Miller, Me, Randy Frazee

The good: The Christian Book Expo was well-planned, well-staffed, and provided a lot of amazing opportunities to hear and meet authors and speakers. The signage, programs, and staff were professional and helpful. I was particularly impressed by Christianity Today’s involvement in staffing some amazing discussion panels and raising important issues. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on our panel, Living Christianly in a Post Christian Culture. This will be aired on eventually, and I’ll share that link in case you’re interested in seeing it. 

I was a bit nervous, though. I felt a bit like I didn’t belong among these amazing, accomplished speakers and writers. But as I sat down, the Lord said, “Mary, I’m going to speak through you. Relax. Trust.” So I relaxed. And trusted. I was amazed at how beautifully I connected with the audience (to God be the glory). I had several people come up to me afterwards, and then more emailed later. I’m thankful that my words had impact. Tomorrow I’ll post what I said on Relevant Blog.

The Christian Book Award ceremony, sponsored by the ECPA, was elegant and fun, particularly since I had the privilege of cheering for my friend Susan Meissner who WON! The evening did run long because actors/actresses read about each book (and that could’ve been shortened). But all in all, good food, great company, and a well-run show. One thing that did startle me at least seven times was the announcer’s voice. It came over the PA system at different times, and the voice sounded like God. Scared me a bit.

The bad: I ached for the folks who put the CBE together–so much sweat and toil to see so few come. It was hard for me to enjoy myself knowing that the event failed to live up to expectations. I know publishers and the ECPA must’ve lost money. I know I did. (Though I live in the Dallas area, we stayed in a hotel to avoid traffic.) Instead of a projected crowd of 10,000 people, we probably had 2,000 or less. As a local, I had a haunting feeling that few would show up. Why?

  • No billboards.
  • I hadn’t heard any radio or seen any TV advertising. (I live in the metroplex).
  • It was spring break for all of North Texas.
  • The convention center is frustrating, and parking is not free. (And if folks are like me, they avoid downtown Dallas.)
  • The cost for entry was prohibitive. And then folks still had to buy books.
  • But mostly, people simply didn’t know the CBE existed. I talked to the manager of our church bookstore, and she hadn’t heard about it. She should’ve heard about it some way. I did see people I knew there, but only because I had personally advertised the Expo on my blogs, facebook and shoutlife.

The godly: I had some really cool divine appointments. I had the privilege of praying for several people over the course of a few days. One lady I prayed for had a special needs child (something I don’t have much in common with). But I felt led to pray for her. Afterwards another lady approached her, said, “I am sorry I overheard, but I wanted to encourage you.” She had a special needs child who is now an adult, and she was able to encourage and minister to this frazzled mom.

I met a few bookstore owners, which was wonderful. I had great conversations with several people. I had significant conversations with my agent and several of my close writing friends. And I heard some really cool things from folks that made me want to keep writing. (Sometimes you just need encouragement. Hearing that people continue to think about the characters in Daisy Chain long after they’ve shut the book warmed the cockles of my writerly heart.) And hanging out all weekend with Susan has been so much fun.

What I think: I believe this show should continue with some tweaking. My recommendations:

  • Have the event at a local megachurch. Most Christians in the area know where Prestonwood Baptist is and would be happy to drive there. Parking is free. Plus the cost of the venue would be much less than the convention center. (They have a cafe, too.)
  • Emphasize the expo as a conference, like Women of Faith (People of Faith?). Have speakers speak in breakouts and sign their books in the same room they speak in.
  • Make the expo part of the program a bit smaller, so setting up a booth isn’t cost-prohibitive.
  • Have great food available via an affordable caterer.
  • Partner with bookstores in the area to promote and possibly staff the bookselling aspect of the event. (I know they did do that with Family Christian Stores, but I’d love to see independents also be involved.)
  • Continue with high impact speakers on a larger stage with worship. Bill the event as THE place to go for spiritual growth, reconnection with Jesus, and revitalization.
  • Start advertising now.
  • Partner with local churches. Get a commitment from several that they’ll buy bulk blocks of tickets for their people. Try to establish a liaison with every church in the area, someone who would be willing to promote the event to their church.
  • If the event is more like a “Get close to Jesus” event (like Women of Faith), I believe you can charge admission.
  • Have a Dallas-area task force that will work hard to promote the event to the Dallas Fort Worth church and bookstore community. Having someone on the ground to spearhead logistics and advertising will really help.
  • Think of ways to incentivize on every level. Ask: How would an event like this specifically benefit publishers? Authors? Readers? Attendees? Speakers? Build in incentives to attract folks.
  • Continue the Christianity Today panels.
  • Staff the Expo with seminary students (who always need extra cash).
  • Blitz the airwaves months in advance.
  • Make use of local authors to not only promote the event, but to help coordinate and brainstorm what would help this event be successful in Dallas.
  • Give the expo an outlet that will bless the world. Instead of simply having it be about spiritual growth, tie it to a global issue like AIDS orphans or adoption ministry or serving our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. If there is a benefit outside of the event, folks will also be drawn in. (I would love it if my fifty dollar entry fee helped fund a well project, for instance).

I really hope we can do this event next year, and I truly believe it can be wildly successful on every level. I’m willing to do my part. So even if the event (which was well executed) wasn’t successful in terms of attendance and participation, I believe it has merit.