Catholic book publishers have been hit by the economy like everyone else. Given the pressures they face, that could mean Catholics will have a more difficult time finding books they want to read.
In response, publishers have been forced to make cutbacks and seek alternative arrangements to survive in a lean economy.
Author David Hartline knows firsthand the difficulties facing publishers. Hartline had originally signed a contract with Our Sunday Visitor to publish a follow-up to his book The Tide Is Turning Toward Catholicism but was released from his contract.
“They’ve been forced to scale back,” said Hartline. “I’ve talked to other publishers who are doing the same.”
The major retail book chains admit that the situation is dire.
Barnes and Noble chairman Leonard Riggio told employees via an internal memo that was published in The Wall Street Journal, “Never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in.”
Tearing a page from the Envoy magazine model of uniting with a Catholic college, Sophia Institute Press avoided bankruptcy by announcing a collaborative partnership with Merrimack, N.H.-based Thomas More College. Their affiliation began in August.
“Our backlist and income diminished, and we weren’t able to sustain ourselves,” said Sophia Institute Press founder and president John Barger.
Meanwhile, Thomas More College had been exploring the idea of starting its own academic press, Second Spring.
“Since we had the infrastructure, warehouse, fulfillment, royalty circulation staff, and experienced book editors and designers, it seemed prudent to try to join forces,” said Barger.
The arrangement allows both organizations to share resources. Sophia is sharing its mailing list; Thomas More is sharing its fundraising database. Because of the college’s ability to raise money, Barger is hopeful that it might be possible to find individuals or foundations who like Catholic books enough to contribute to keep the press going.
There’s also the possibility for other ventures. According to Barger, England’s Catholic Truth Society is interested in distributing hundreds of booklets in book racks in English parishes.
“We’re looking at how we can join with them to revive parish book racks in the American market,” said Barger.
One publisher that’s gearing up rather than scaling back is Circle Press, the book publishing division of Circle Media, which also publishes this newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. Started several years ago, primarily to publish books from the Legion of Christ, the publisher has evolved into a full-fledged Catholic book publisher. Since hiring Claudia Volkman as general manager in 2007, they’ve published a total of nine new titles and seven reprints, including some titles specifically for women and children.
The Legionaries’ ecclesial movement, Regnum Christi, provides a built-in audience for many of its titles.
“Our mission is to provide books to inspire and equip today’s Catholics,” said Volkman. The press’ scriptural meditation book The Better Part by Father John Bartunek is in its third printing, with 10,000 copies sold so far.
“People are going through such hard times. So many people across all industries are losing their jobs,” said Volkman. “Our titles are filling a niche and are especially timely for now.”
For other publishers, the lean times mean that they’re just being more careful about what — and how much — they publish.
“We’ve had a very respectable year,” said Joe Durepos, executive editor for acquisitions with Loyola Press. “We’ve been prudent about what we’ve published and have moved to a very Ignatian spirituality- and catechist-friendly list. We’re not narrowing our niche, but just serving who we are — Jesuits.”
He said, though, that Loyola is self-supporting and receives no subsidy from the Society of Jesus.
Loyola’s numbers are impressive. A recent book by Joe Paprocki, The Catechist’s Toolbox, has sold 60,000 copies. Jesuit Father James Martin’s My Life With the Saints has sold nearly 100,000. The publisher’s line of out-of-print literary fiction has also been doing well.
As part of their process, Durepos said they’ve developed a strong web presence that allows the publisher to be in dialogue with its customers. Durepos added that many of the publishing staff go out to do a great deal of speaking — at parishes, conventions and elsewhere.
“Our website is more clearly driven by content and is more about community,” he said. “A lot of publishers’ websites look like an online catalog. That’s not the case with ours.”
As one example, the Loyola Press site features its popular three-minute online retreats.
One longtime publisher, TAN Books and Publishers, was purchased in November by the Charlotte, N.C.-based Saint Benedict Press, a publisher of Catholic classics. TAN, which was established in 1967, has published more than 600 books but in recent years was struggling to survive financially. In order to prevent closure, TAN had filed for bankruptcy and was being operated under the protection of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
Under the new arrangement, TAN Books will remain an independent imprint under the Saint Benedict label.
“This is an exciting new day for TAN,” said Brent Klaske, vice president of sales and marketing for TAN, who will assume the general management duties out of TAN’s Rockford, Ill., offices.
“We look forward to providing a continuation of its existing publishing plan,” said Conor Gallagher, vice president of publishing with Saint Benedict Press. “This acquisition will make way for an increase in new titles and an ability to bring back into print many of the favorite titles which have been on permanent back-order as a result of TAN’s uncertain future.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.