SAN FRANCISCO — One of the tragedies that devastated the Church in the 1960s and 1970s was a decline in Catholic publishing. Old-line houses such as Benziger and Bruce dropped out of the market. Few established presses survived.

Ever since, however, a new constellation of Catholic publishers has emerged.

John Wright, director of marketing for World Library Publications and president of the Catholic Book Publishers Association's board of directors, says there has been yearly growth in the Catholic book publishing industry.

A lot of that growth has come from publishing houses that are faithful to the magisterium.

Among others, successful Catholic nonfiction publishers include Ignatius Press, Sophia Institute Press, Our Sunday Visitor and TAN, and recent small publishers such as Ascension Press and IHS Press.

Older houses seem to want a piece of the fidelity market. St. Anthony Messenger recently purchased Charis, the Catholic imprint of Ann Arbor's Servant Publications, and secular publisher Doubleday is publishing Scott Hahn's books.

These newer houses, by comparison, are often the inspiration of a single person. Ignatius, Sophia and IHS, for example, all got their start with an individual who published Christian classics.

Ignatius Press, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, began with Father Joseph Fessio's desire to make accessible the work of Adrienne von Speyr, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Louis Bouyer, Henri de Lubac and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“Our first book was The Heart of the Worldby von Balthasar,” said Tony Ryan, who has served as Ignatius' marketing director for 23 years.

“When Father Fessio started Ignatius, he asked veteran Catholic publisher Frank Sheed if he had any tips,” Ryan said. “Sheed said that the first 10 years would be flat-out purgatory and added that if we were still around after 10 years we would probably make it as a publisher.”

Not only has Ignatius succeeded, but it also is the largest U.S. publisher and distributor of Catholic books, magazines, videos and music. It receives more than 600 unsolicited manuscripts each year and has published more than 1,000 titles, 800 of which remain in print.

Sophia Institute Press' genesis was also connected with the desire to make Christian classics accessible. The press' inception is closely tied to publisher John Barger's own Catholic conversion in the 1970s.

“I couldn't find much [St. Thomas] Aquinas or [Hilaire] Belloc or [G.K.] Chesterton,” Barger said. “I could only find them in out-of-print editions from publishers that were defunct. I thought that we ought to get some of these books back in print.”

Sophia published its first book, a reprint of Dietrich von Hildebrand's Marriage in 1984, followed by many Catholic philosophy titles that did not sell well.

Sophia continues to publish classics by deceased authors but has also branched out to offer titles by the living. Five years ago it published What Went Wrong with Vatican II by Ralph McInerny. Ever since it has been publishing an increasing number of books by living authors.

“We've been seeking new authors who can speak to the world the word it needs to hear,” Barger said.

IHS is the new kid on the block. It published its first book, a reprint of Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity, in 2001. Focused primarily on the Church's traditional social teaching, IHS has reprinted 11 titles since its inception.

What such presses have demonstrated is that there is a still a market for the classics.

“Big publishers like Doubleday have moved back into Catholic publishing in a big way,” Barger said. “That's a sign that they think there is a Catholic market out there.”

Indeed, Doubleday's success is notable. That success stems primarily from sales associated with two of its authors — Scott Hahn and Ronald Rollheiser.

“I think it's safe to say that with the publication of those two authors in the late 1990s, Doubleday was able to resume a real presence that we had historically enjoyed within the Catholic publishing industry,” said Michelle Rapkin, director of Doubleday's religion publishing program. Hahn's books alone have sold several hundred thousand copies for Doubleday.

“Hahn has brought a very strong tradition of exposition of biblical topics for the layperson in a way that not a lot of other writers have done, even in Protestant publishing,” Rapkin said.

While Doubleday's success is impressive, Rapkin said it is still a drop in the bucket compared with the $2 billion Protestant publishing industry.

A Renaissance?

While most of the modern Catholic publishers think there is something like a renaissance taking place in Catholic publishing, they are hesitant to define it.

“Given the fact that we've had continual growth amid the situation following the Second Vatican Council, I would say there is definitely a renewal of the Church in America,” Ryan said.

He pointed to the growing numbers of conversions to the Church as one sign of renewal.

Barger was a bit more cautious.

“Today, in print, you can find most of the Catholic books that you would want — the ones that I had to get from used bookstores — but you have to know what you're looking for,” he said. “During the 1940s and 1950s you had crossover Catholic authors like Walker Percy, Evelyn Waugh and [Bishop] Fulton Sheen, who were read not just by Catholics but also by the general public. There is a dearth of Catholic authors today.”

Publishing books, however, doesn't necessarily mean they will sell. Last year, Sophia Institute Press made a financial appeal to its readers for support. It was also forced to reduce its staff from 15 to nine and back out of direct-mail efforts.

“We're publishing the same number of books each year, but we're putting them into bookstores because it's cheaper,” Barger said.

He pointed to the increased amount of competition and noise clamoring for people's attention from television, radio and the Internet.

“Our public has shrunk,” Barger said. “Five years ago our average reprint sold twice as many as it sells today.”

The average Catholic title competes with approximately 78,000 additional books published each year. On average, Catholic houses publish fewer than 2,000 Catholic titles annually and the average Catholic title sells fewer than 5,000 copies.

“The capacity to put out good Catholic books is greater now than it ever has been,” Barger said, “but we don't have as easy access to the audience who would read them, nor do we have authors who are writing in such a way that they can bring about a renaissance in the culture.”

Ascension Press publisher Matt Pinto agreed. He thinks the larger renaissance is what has taken place among lay people within various ministries.

“Clearly, in the macro sense, there is a renaissance,” Pinto said. “All of these apostolates that have arisen over the past 20 years desire to bring what they have been given to others.”

Pinto sees that as promising.

“There is a new vibrancy and enthusiasm that is tangible,” he said. “That didn't exist 15 years ago. We need to create new techniques and use them for the cause of Christ.”

Pinto thinks a new paradigm is required of Catholic publishers, one that balances the nature of an aposto-late with the realities of economics. It's a paradigm he has used successfully at Ascension since the publication of his first book, Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons? in 1998.

“We produce less books with more focus,” Pinto said.

Ascension Press creates five to 10 projects per year, compared with the industry's 24-48. Ascension's first five books have each surpassed the 10,000 sales mark.

“The days of simply publishing a Catholic book where you knew there would be a large number of readers simply because there was a large Catholic culture are gone,” Pinto said. “The modern Catholic publisher must create titles that they know they have markets for rather than creating titles simply for the nobility of creating them.”

Tim Drake is based in St. Cloud, Minnesota.