Silence of the Christian book sellers

stacks-711918This may be turning into a "theme week" for me here at GetReligion. Call it the "dog that didn't bark" week. Or maybe I need to run that lighthouse joke -- again. Remember that one?

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who lept from bed shouting, "What was that?"

A very big, loud gun didn't go off in Dallas during the recent "Christian Book Expo" that was held down there. It seems that a bunch of publishers tried to throw a big party and, well, here's the top of the short Publishers Weekly report:

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.

Clearly the economy had something to do with this red-ink bloodbath and it may be some time before the organizers can add up all the bad numbers. But it also seems that this event didn't click with Dallas and with the scores -- legions even -- in the vital North Texas marketplace. So what is that all about?

Here's the point. I know that it is hard for editors and reporters to justify major coverage of an event that didn't happen, or that flopped in some way. But this seems to me to be an amazing case -- check this Google search -- of a big, big evangelical dog that didn't bark.

This rings a bell for me, because my own decision to become a religion writer pivoted on a similar story during my years at Baylor University. I volunteered to cover a foreign missions emphasis weekend, since no one else in the newsroom wanted to. I mean, who would want to cover a religion story? I assumed that a foreign missions event would be a rather big deal on the world's largest Southern Baptist campus.

Hardly anyone showed up. I thought this was important and, at the very least, symbolic of something. Symbolic of what, I didn't know, but I sure wanted to try to find out.

The other student journalists weren't interested. My mentor, the legendary jprof David McHam, told me that my instincts were right, but that many of these journalism students had already picked up the fact that most mainstream journalists don't, well, "get religion." He didn't use those words back in the mid-1970s, but that's what he meant.

No one showed up. That was the story. The actual story was the fact that the story wasn't as big as one would have expected.

Over at the Dallas Morning News, the remaining members of religion-beat squad covered the Christian Book Expo with small stories -- in advance and during the semi-event -- and finally on the religion blog. Here is, no fooling, the entire online report:

The Christian Book Expo, a first ever "fan event" for evangelical Christian book lovers, drew only about 1,500 people to the Dallas Convention Center during a three-day run that ended Sunday.

"It's far less than we had hoped for," said Mark Kuyper, president/CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, which put on the event.

Kuyper said the marketing strategy relied too much on networking through publishers, authors and church groups, and would have to include billboards and other forms of mass marketing to pull in a much larger crowd. If ECPA tries again, Dallas will remain the site, Kuyper said. He added that the event was well-received.

"The people who came just loved it," he said.

The expo featured workshops and panel discussions with authors, including one Saturday with best-selling author Christopher Hitchens and four Christian apologists. That session drew several hundred people.

Again I ask: What the heck happened? What did this mean? Could there be a follow-up story?

For Pete's sake, we're talking about Dallas! This. Is. Dallas.

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