The World of Christian Books and Writers
Typically this blog is posted on Tuesdays. Sometimes I’ll throw in an extra one between Tuesdays, but normally that’s when you can expect it.
I got back late last week from the annual Christian Booksellers convention. Always in July, it’s normally in a hot, sweaty southern city. This year was Atlanta, next year is Orlando. We haven’t been back to Dallas since it hit 120 degrees several years ago. Now if we could only have it in Portland or Seattle... Anyway, I’m going to spend a couple blogs talking about it.
The convention was called CBA until a few years ago, when they changed it to ICRS, the International Christian Retail Show. Thousands of people attend. Every year I meet interesting people and renew my friendships with several hundred people who are booksellers, writers and publishers. Many of these I see only at ICRS.
For years I saw my old buddy John Kohlenberger, original language scholar, almost exclusively at this convention. One year we met John Stott together. Lately John K and I’ve been hanging out again, which I’m grateful for. Last week we met up at ICRS, and were on the same flight home. Three years ago John couldn’t make it to the convention, but fortunately that was the year Zondervan had a life-size cardboard cut-out of him. After John proved unresponsive to my questions, I realized it wasn’t really him. So I posed with the cardboard John, then I emailed the pic to the real guy.
Last year at ICRS, one of my highlights was a fifteen minute conversation with J. I. Packer, author of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and other classics. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, and he turned 80 last year. His Knowing God is one of five books I’d take with me on a desert island. (I have no specific plans to go to a desert island. However, I just typed dessert island by mistake. Now that’s something I could get into, especially in my resurrection body when I won’t be insulin-dependent.) Another great Packer book is Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fulness in Our Walk with God. If you have one that’s a favorite, post it in a comment.
When I thanked Dr. Packer for the impact of Knowing God, he told me how much he appreciated my book Money, Possessions and Eternity. Talk about a shock. It never dawned on me that someone whose feet I’ve sat at, through his books, would have read one of my books. I told him I quoted him a few times in my Heaven book, and he said he’d like to have a copy. Trust me, we sent it.
An hour later I was talking with Shaun Alexander, the Seattle Seahawk running back, who I’d met the previous fall when speaking in a Seahawks chapel. I won’t tell you who Nanci was more excited that I’d talked with, J. I. Packer or Shaun Alexander. Now, she has read Knowing God, but she has a football signed by Shaun Alexander and a bunch of other Seahawks. I doubt she can locate Packer’s book, but she knows right where that football is. (J. I. Packer and Shaun Alexander are about as different as two human beings could be, but a common love for Christ makes radically different people part of the same family.)
Anyway, that’s how it works at ICRS. There’s a close community of Christians in writing, publishing and bookselling, and I always enjoy the convention. I took my camera along this year, so I could share some photos.
Sunday evening they had a concert with a half dozen groups, including Casting Crowns. But the most touching thing to me was this gentleman from Hong Kong, who you see on the stage, and then much larger above on the screen. He told the story of Christian bookstores in China. There were a handful five years ago, about 160 now. Then they took an offering to train and support those stores. I’m going to designate some book royalties for the same purpose. A couple of my books are in Chinese now, so they’re in some of the stores. Wow. In some places there’s too much persecution to have a store, in other places there’s relative freedom, for which we praise God.
Here are a few different book signings (all on the same day; yes, I did bring more than one shirt):
The biggest joy of book-signing is mixing it up with bookstore people. Most of those you see in these pictures are bookstore owners, managers or staff. The last ten years have been tough for Christian bookstores. Many of them have closed; many have substantially reduced their inventory and profits. Most of those who stay in the business do so because they consider their stores to be lighthouses where ministry happens, both to believers seeking good books and music and to unbelievers who wander in their doors, who they direct toward products that can introduce them to Jesus.
Someone asked in a comment on an earlier blog why I thought people should buy from Christian bookstores. On the one hand, I’m all in favor of people buying Christian books from Borders and Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart and Costco and Amazon. On the other hand, it was Christian bookstores which sold those books decades before they crossed over to the secular market. And even now many Christian bookstore owners choose carefully what they carry, and guide people toward the kind of biblically oriented books that can challenge and enlighten them.
Those in secular bookstores simply carry what sells. Some Christian books sell, so they carry them. Books of erotica sell, so they carry them. False doctrine, New Age, and atheist books sell, so they carry them. (On top of the New York Times Bestsellers list is God Is Not Great, and before that The God Delusion.) Hey, I’ll be perfectly happy if Hindus and atheists and agnostics and materialists get my books into people’s hands. But I feel like we all owe something to the Christian bookstores that carried our books when no one else would, and which to this day offer an environment that’s warm and hospitable to the faith.
Christian bookstore people often share the gospel, open a Bible with customers, and pray with people who come in to find a book on grieving or Heaven. You can’t put a price tag on that.
You bump into people all over the place at the convention. Dennis Rainey saw me talking with Ted Dekker and came over and gave me a hug. When I introduced him to Ted, Dennis said we two were his family’s two favorite novelists, and they’d love to have a picture of us. Ted and I thought that was funny, considering the scope of Family Life Ministries is a lot more than anything we’ve ever done. I really appreciate Dennis and Barbara and that great ministry (see www.familylife.com).
I attended the Christy awards, where Lauren Winner gave an excellent tribute to the power of Christian fiction. Lauren is sharp, funny, likeable and self-revealing. Read her book Girl Meets God: Searching for Spiritual Identity to catch her flavor. She’s an intellectual and an academic. Over the years, the Christy awards have had some speakers who either don’t read Christian fiction or don’t like it (in my experience those who don’t like it usually read one or two novels twenty years ago and still think that it doesn’t deal realistically with life, which is an outdated stereotype.) Anyway, Lauren Winner was wonderful, and told her story of coming to faith in Christ through reading one of Jan Karon’s Mitford books.
One of the great joys of ICRS is celebrating the successes of brothers and sisters who you’ve come to love and respect. One of those is Robin Jones Gunn, who won a Christy for Sisterchicks in Gondolas. I told her we could write one together called Sister Chicks go to Heaven. Robin’s books are delightful, and so is she. Check out www.robingunn.com.
For the ECPA Books of the year awards, another friend, Angela Hunt, had two finalists in the fiction category. Since I couldn’t even write one novel in a year, much less two in a year, and Angie’s were both good enough to become finalists, I think she deserves a special award just for that.
Here’s Angie Hunt at a get-together some of us had before the convention. Why is she holding up her hands like this? Go to www.alifeinpages.blogspot.com and ask her. (Actually, we were doing exercises between sessions.)
No one has done more than Angie to develop a community of Christian novelists, and we’re all in her debt.
Here are Francine Rivers, Terri Blackstock and Karen Kingsbury, all wonderful sisters. We were in a great class together on the craft of fiction-writing. (A lot of people think they want to write a book but what they really want is to have written one. It’s good work, sometimes it’s fun, and I wouldn’t trade it, but it’s also very hard work.) Francine’s at www.francinerivers.com, Terri’s at www.terriblackstock.com and Karen’s at www.karenkingsbury.com.
The novel that won Book of the Year was Ever After, by Karen Kingsbury. Here she is with her terrific kids Ty and Kelsey (Kelsey is on the cover of Ever After). I celebrated with them and Karen’s editor afterward. (Please pray for Karen’s father Ted, who had a heart attack the night following her award, and is still in critical condition; thankfully, he loves Jesus.)
My feeling on awards is this: enjoy them if they come to you, and give praise and honor to Christ whether or not you win. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win, but it does matter if someone else wins. Romans 12:15 says “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” A test of Christ’s love is when we can truly celebrate the successes of our brothers and sisters. This to me is one of the great annual joys of ICRS.
Speaking of awards, after celebrating with my friends at the Christy Awards on Saturday and the ECPA awards on Monday night, I found out on Tuesday that the Spanish version of my book Heaven, called El Cielo, won the ECPA Retailers’ Choice Award for book of the year in Spanish. I didn’t even know it was a finalist. That was a nice surprise.
I’ve been hearing how the book is being used among Hispanics in the U.S., but also in Mexico and South America. For instance, see this website: http://www.elcielollega.com/ I’ve often thought one of the greatest things will be to meet people in Heaven who read my books in other languages. Talk about making all that work worthwhile!
Here’s Third Day after a mini-performance at the convention, along with musician John Waller, second from the right. To his left is Tai Anderson, to his right Mac Powell, Dave Carr and Mark Lee, as well as two guys I don’t know.
Tai, TD bass player, invited me to connect with them after their performance and my book-signing. (Pic is black and white because it’s way over exposed, and this was the best way to tone it down.) When Third Day came to southwest Washington in May, they asked to get together, so we had dinner in Vancouver, WA at Cattle Company before they performed. Nanci and I and our daughter Angela and her friend Melissa hung out with them, and we “traded swag,” as Tai put it. (Meaning I gave them books, they gave me albums and t-shirts.) We talked about God’s Word, people’s expectations and being sold out to Jesus. This is a great group of guys. They love Jesus and seek to please Him.
Okay, next blog will include more on ICRS, with photos of my book signing with Ron DiCianni and Voddie Baucham, as well as pics of Kevin Leman, Shannon Ethridge, Tim and Bev LaHaye, and Jerry and Dianna Jenkins. And an amazing exhibit from Voice of the Martyrs that was unforgettable.