Catholic Publishing at the Crossroads

Publishers of books and periodicals face an uncertain future in a brave new digital world.

(photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Depending on one’s point of view, the Catholic publishing world — specifically books and periodicals — is:

a. in big trouble
b. experiencing massive growing pains as it deals with change.
c. facing exciting challenges and opportunities as it embraces the digital revolution. Or,
d. all of the above.

The Catholic publishing world has certainly had its share of losses, and recent years have been difficult on several publishers.

Print periodicals have been battling a steady decline in renewals, combined with skyrocketing publishing costs for several years. The economic downturn that began in 2008 has caused some consumers to view religious books and magazines as luxuries. On the other hand, there is a growing demand for digital information from the under-45 demographic., the online book seller, recently announced that sales of e-books now outpace sales of printed books. Sales of mobile devices such as Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook are growing exponentially, and along with this, a demand for mobile applications that contain all types of information and entertainment formerly purchased in hard copy.

Author and commentator Russell Shaw believes that demand for hardcopy books will decline sharply.

“I’ve thought for a long time that the amount of books published will be greatly reduced, and that’s true for both secular and religious books,” Shaw said. “Books will still be purchased by an elite audience, while the majority will be tweeting and twittering and watching their screens.”

Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, believes that time is running out for any publisher that has not taken digitized books seriously, even while the need to “retain some capacity for old-fashioned books will always be worthwhile for a niche market of those who still want them.”

Tim Walter, executive director of the Catholic Press Association, sees a difficult challenge for Catholic periodicals as younger readers demand free content on publishers’ websites: “Everyone knows that the print product is still the financial foundation of those other media forms. Without the revenue that comes from subscriptions and advertising, what will support those digital platforms? Writers want to be paid for their work, whether it appears in print copy or on the Internet. We’ve been conditioned to expect free Web content so long as we pay our $40 per month for Internet access. That’s like paying so much a month to a grocery store for the privilege of entering, but then just taking all the food you want. No money would get to the food vendor with that model.”

Most Catholic publishers are learning to ride the digital wave. Some are just testing the waters. Others have already dived in. Yet questions remain: How much, how soon, and where is it all leading? Will printed books disappear within 10 years, as some have predicted? Or will there still be a market for them in the foreseeable future? Catholic publishers must try to answer these questions with one eye on a mission to spread the truth and the other on their bottom line.

The Register, for example, which has had four owners in its 84-year history, almost ceased publication at the end of 2010. In spite of several cost-saving measures over the past two years, including reducing the frequency of its print edition to biweekly while significantly upgrading its Web presence, it had not been able to meet rising production costs with subscription and advertising revenue — and even with donations. The newspaper’s publisher since 1995, the Legionaries of Christ, found itself caught in a perfect storm of a bad economy, rising costs and a scandal involving the order’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel.

The Register’s former sister publication, Faith & Family magazine, a full-color quarterly for Catholic families, also was struggling. In February, it found a new home with Bayard Publications, an international communications group owned by the Assumptionist order.

The privately owned company would not release any transaction details, but it did release this statement: “Bayard Inc. is a global publishing apostolate owned by the Augustinians of the Assumption. Bayard’s principle mission is evangelization through media and education. The continued presence of Faith & Family magazine as it ministers to young families committed to Catholic teaching and traditions resonates with Bayard’s global mission.”

Another recent change in relationship involved Sophia Institute Press, a longtime publisher of both vintage Catholic classics and works of modern authors. Sophia hit a financial roadblock and was also put up for sale late in 2010. Although many of its titles were in high demand, accumulated debt had prevented them from being reprinted. A recent partnership agreement between Sophia and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., is intended to save the nonprofit publishing house. Thomas More’s president, William Fahey, launched a fundraising campaign in late March to cover Sophia’s most pressing debts to enable reprinting back-ordered titles and to begin publishing some new titles. According to Fahey, half of that goal was met during the first week of the campaign.

Complete Changeover

One company that left hard copy behind several years ago and never looked back is the Morley Publishing Group, Inc., publisher of the former Crisis Magazine and now of the popular news and commentary website Inside Catholic. Editor Brian Saint-Paul says that the 2007 decision to cease printing Crisisand move to an online format was “controversial, even among our supporters, but in the last three years, we’ve demonstrated that this was the right move to make.” Saint-Paul noted that skyrocketing postage and printing costs, plus falling renewal and new subscriber numbers, were the writing on the wall. Today, Inside Catholic has as many as 150,000 unique visitors (as opposed to hits) each month. Although subscription income has vanished, so have the expenses of printing, mailing and maintaining office space: The editorial staff all work from home. For now, fundraising is covering all but the tiny percentage of expenses offset by banner ad revenue.

The next frontier for Inside Catholic is a mobile-device application. Saint-Paul noted, “People simply do not want to read anything longer than 800 or 1,000 words from a computer screen — it’s just not comfortable. So we had to leave behind one of the main features of Crisis — lengthy, analytical pieces related to our mission of integrating the Church’s social teachings with democratic capitalism. A mobile device provides a more comfortable reading experience. You can sit on the couch sipping tea, or read in the bathroom or on a train. Longer articles will be a reality once more. So, in a way, the app will enable us to return to our Crisis roots. It will be a true magazine again.”

Variety of Offerings

Unlike Morley, other publishers have more than a single product. They manage diverse offerings that can include trade paperbacks, curricula and pamphlets, as well as periodicals. They must make a profit on print products while still investing in the uncertain and ever-changing world of digital technology.

One year from its 100th anniversary, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., is the venerable powerhouse of the Catholic publishing world. With products that range from books to periodicals to bulletin inserts to collection envelopes, OSV does not see the digital platforms as the be-all and end-all. But it is certainly taking steps to make use of them.

“The advantage at OSV is that we always had a mindset of being a content company, rather than format-focused. Whenever we analyze a new project, we ask: What is the best way to get this particular content into as many hands as possible?” said marketing director John Christianson. For OSV, that might be a book, a pamphlet, a piece of catechetical curriculum or free online articles or the Our Sunday Visitor paper. OSV sees no point in abandoning tried-and-true printed material when there is still a need.

OSV is proceeding cautiously with e-books. Currently, there are 15 OSV titles available for the Kindle e-reader. The Daily Take blog is available to Kindle readers. And in the works is a mobile edition of the entire OSV website, which includes news, blog commentary and free educational content, as well as the complete OSV catalog . These forays into new digital platforms are described by Christianson as “experimentation mode. We know it’s not enough to just have information and expect people to find us. We have to meet them where they are, and trust that the revenue will eventually follow.”

Catholic E-Books

Another major player, Ignatius Press, can only be described as “confident.” With 2010 sales at an all-time high, the San Francisco-based publisher intends to go full-steam ahead with their traditional array of books, music and DVDs — but also to continue an aggressive digitizing project that began one and a half years ago.

“We have a full-time staff person putting virtually all of our new books and many of the old ones into e-book form,” said marketing director Tony Ryan. “When Father Fessio returned to us from Ave Maria University, he realized we had to jump on this. Right now, the vast majority of our sales are still hardcopy, but some e-books are doing pretty well.”

A recently released second edition of The Ignatius Bible has sold about 6,000 e-books versus 27,000 print editions. The next digital challenge facing Ignatius is to produce more MP3 audio books.

“Producing these is a slower process than e-books,” Ryan said. “And there’s the expense of hiring a professional reader. So far, the sales are low, so we’re not sure whether this will catch on or not.”

Ryan also mentioned recent initiatives unrelated to the digital revolution. Ignatius has been working with several mainstream Christian publishers to make products available to the Catholic market. The Ignatius edition of Zondervan’s new Catholic audio Bible is one example. And a special edition of Abby Johnson’s pro-life conversion story, Unplanned, was the result of an unusual collaboration among Ignatius, Protestant publisher Tyndale House, and the evangelical group Focus on the Family. “When we first contacted Tyndale to see if we could do a joint effort, their first reaction was that this was a wild idea. But they thought about it and were soon on board with the idea. It was a way for them to penetrate the Catholic market.” A little more than two months after its release, the Ignatius Unplanned is already in its third printing.

In the Steps of St. Paul

Catholic publishers are finding new ways to evangelize in the digital world — and keep the printed word alive. If St. Paul were on earth today, would he be developing an iEpistles app? Sister Kathryn Hermes of the Daughters of St. Paul thinks so. The Daughters, a large congregation dedicated to spreading the Gospel through the media, made a decision two years ago to embrace digital development. Sister Kathryn was designated by her superior to direct the initiative.

“It began with lots of research and consulting,” she said. “We developed a new editorial process by which we could start to prepare manuscripts to be digital content from the beginning. We took on a new way to work together — instead of another [digital] department, we have cross-departmental teams, pulling together those who have the talent, expertise and information to do a specific project. Learning to think digitally was lots of extra work, but with the hope and excitement of spreading the Gospel to a new digital ‘continent,’ we made the effort.”

The Daughters have been dealing with the challenge of change for many years. Once upon a time, the sisters printed and bound their own books on the lower levels of their sprawling Boston motherhouse. These tasks have long since been outsourced. Two print periodicals have closed down, and the third, a children’s magazine, has been transformed into the online J-Club.

Along with the drive to make digital editions available has come difficulties in distribution. The Daughters’ effort to do so on their own was not an efficient way to use resources. A digital distribution agent, or aggregator, now handles the process of moving e-books to online retailers and keeping track of sales.

Recent successes include mobile applications that have received high customer ratings. These include an interactive Rosary, beginning contemplative prayer guide, saint of the day, and an iMissal app with daily liturgy and other devotions. Sister Kathryn said that authors designing apps must re-imagine themselves as “creators of content” who “pull print, audio, images, design and marketing all into one.”

Sister Kathryn summed up both the challenge and the hope of the digital era in a way that must resonate with all Catholic publishers: “The most difficult challenge of all is the constantly changing nature of modern media. You realize that every choice you make is going to be temporary. You have to have a way out of each plan you make so that you are ready when the next change comes along. … Some experts think print will be gone in 10 years. We have to rethink everything in case that turns out to be true. We have no choice, since it is our mission to use every method of evangelization there is, to find and serve people in whatever space they move and live, and to let God encounter them in those spaces.”

Register correspondent Daria Sockey writes from Venus, Pennsylvania.




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