The Mystery of the Catholic Book Buyer
“Catholics don’t buy books,” someone who works in the publishing industry told me the other day. He said it with a laugh, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that sentiment expressed. Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a lot of folks in various roles in the bookselling world, and over and over again I’ve heard references to the fact that sales for Catholic books tend to be low. Even when you factor in market size differences (e.g. you’d expect sales of Protestant books to be higher since there are more Protestants than Catholics in the U.S.), there seems to be an impression that the average Catholic buys fewer books than readers in other demographics. I don’t have hard data to back that up and I’m not an expert on the industry, but I do know that I’ve heard more than one person who is an expert on the industry make that same quip that I heard the other day: “Catholics don’t buy books.”
What puzzles me about that statement is that it doesn’t fit with my impression of Catholics’ reading habits. When I first started hanging out in Catholic social circles I was amazed at how much these people read; I just assumed that books targeted at them must fly off the shelves. When I heard that that wasn’t usually the case, I was baffled. Was I mistaken that Catholics tend to be avid readers? Or was there something else going on?
I recently brought up the subject with a few Catholic friends who are also book nerds. Our ragtag think tank included published authors and people who have worked in the industry, and together we pondered the mystery of why books targeted at Catholics have reputations for not selling well. Here are the top theories we came up with:
THEORY 1: Catholics read in a wide variety of genres. When we considered what we ourselves had read in the past six months, the list included books in the categories of popular fiction, classic literature, political science, historical biography, science, world history, etc.—titles specifically about the Faith were only a small part of the mix. One friend suggested that maybe Catholics feel less of a need to read about their beliefs than folks in other branches of Christianity. According to this theory, the problem is not that Catholics don’t buy books, but that they don’t buy Catholic books.
THEORY 2: The market is smaller than it seems. There are around 67 million Catholics in America. However, there’s a big difference between people who are baptized in the Church and people who want to read books that proclaim authentic Catholic teaching that is faithful to the Magisterium. Perhaps some of the folks I talked to in the industry had misset expectations, due to the large number of people who might self-identify as Catholic but don’t really have an interest in exploring their faith.
THEORY 3: Modern Catholic authors have 2,000 years of competition. This was the theory I found most interesting: One thing that almost all other book buying demographics have in common is that they tend to read titles published within the last fifty years. However, when my friends and I went over the authors we’d been reading lately, the list included Augustine (d. 430), Aquinas (d. 1247), Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471), Francis de Sales (d. 1622), Thérèse of Lisieux (d. 1897), Evelyn Waugh (d. 1966) and Flannery O’Connor (d. 1964). So, for example, if a Catholic author releases a book about prayer tomorrow, her competition is not only all the other Catholic authors currently writing about the same subject, but all the Catholics who have written about it for the past two thousand years!
I don’t know which (if any) of these theories is the right one, and there may be other angles we missed, but I found it to be a fascinating discussion. I think it’s worth talking about, because the question of what modern Catholics are reading gets to the very heart of what modern Catholics value and how they see the world.
Also, one other noteworthy thing came out of these discussions: A few of the friends I talked to weren’t even familiar with the genre of books written for Catholics. They hadn’t exactly made a conscious choice to avoid it, they just didn’t know what’s out there. For anyone else in that position, here’s a public service announcement: Check out the catalogs of Catholic publishers like Ignatius Press, Our Sunday Visitor, Servant and Ave Maria Press, to name just a few. I’d love to see more Catholic bibliophiles buying titles from publishers like these; not because they’re good Catholic books, but because they’re good books, period.