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Catholic publishing dithers between business and apostolate: everything from Thomas Aquinas to 'junk for Jesus.'

"Addiction, prayer and spirituality. Bibles, lots of Bibles, even a few commentaries. We sell at least one (Thomas) Merton book each day. (Henri) Nouwen sells well, too. But forget the social issues. Can't give them away. We do a little theology. Thomas Aquinas still sells, along with some of the other big names. But they come in a lot for devotional stuff.

"Medjugorje still sells. And, oh yes, the new catechism. We've got orders for over 700, but can't get the thing in. People are already asking for their money back.

"We've already sold 14 copies of Peter Hebblethwaite's Paul VI. That's not bad for a $30 book. That's about it."

So spoke Jim Kirkpatrick, who works at one of Chicago's better Catholic bookstores. A former seminarian, Kirkpatrick is no mere peddler. He knows the ample stock and he has a computer that can count. But he's ambivalent about the future of Catholic publishing.

"It's the stuff people are buying that troubles me. Much of it is not the stuff that challenges and that has substance. There'll always be a Catholic press, I guess, but just what it will print I don't know. It might be just junk for Jesus."

Kirkpatrick's observations echoed the sentiments heard in other general bookstores in recent years. There are 1,600 Catholic bookstores in the United States. Perhaps half are specialized, with an inventory limited to their particular mission. The specialty stores range from those that stock strongly conservative obey-the-holy-father books to those that carry Matthew Fox's creation spirituality.

Most of the highly focused outlets are conservative. Some shops do not even carry the documents of Vatican II. At least one store, along with egregiously bad art, carried only books dealing with the Kilroy-like apparitions of the Blessed Mother.

"We need to find other outlets," said Gregory Augustine Pierce, owner with Mary Buckley of ACTA (Adult Catechetical Teaching Aids) Publishing in Chicago. "We have to get like the secular publishers.'

Pierce was right. Presently, in spite of the introduction of megastores and discount marketing, only about 40 percent of secular trade books are sold through bookstores.

However, Catholic books - many of them of high quality - can't seem to find markets where they can capture the attention of the faithful. Even the pamphlet racks, once a sure sign that it was a Catholic church, are largely gone. ("Can|t stock them," one publisher said. "Too much theft.")

The limited outlets appear to result from a combination of congenital anti-intellectualism in a church that still thinks immigrant, still suffers from a lingering paranoia, and has a need for control that dates from pre-Vatican II days. In addition, Catholic reading is hobbled by a cautious diocesan press and an inability, thus far, of publishers to find new niches in the marketplace. (A nonscientific check of at least 50 diocesan newspapers found only two book reviews, although most had weekly movie reviews and ratings.)

Other Christian publishers - especially evangelical - do not have such obstacles. M%at is printed in the catalogs and on the book jacket blurbs is reinforced from the pulpit, the radio microphone and the television screen. Few Protestant writers get pilloried by their institutional reviewers the way John Courtney Murray, Edward Schillebeeckx, Richard P. McBrien, Leonardo Boff, Charles Curran and others have been.

"It makes for a much easier sell for them," one Catholic publisher observed a bit wearily. Too many Catholic publications still review a book through the bishop's bifocals.

A million readers

Pierce believes that Catholic publishers can find new niches in which to place their titles. "Look," he says with risk confidence, "there are, say, 50 million Catholics in the U.S. Half of them are kids. So you've got 25 million. Ten million are Hispanics and that's a special market. Now, you're down to 15 million and only about one in 15 of these will visit a Catholic bookstore in a given year. So, there we are, competing to sell books to a million people. We have got to expand that market.'

Pierce was putting together the galleys of one of ACTA's new books, a collection of brief, scripture-based meditations for busy mothers. It is a good book and he's excited about it. (The book appears similar to That Man Is You, an import that sold 200,000 copies years ago and is still in print.) "We can put these in maternity stores, in hospital shops, maybe use them as premiums for businesses that market to mothers." Pierce believes that, if he can break into new markets, he can sell 100,000 copies.

We can do pretty good with those 1 million readers, however,' said Mary Carol Kendzia, president of Twenty-third Publications in Mystic, Conn. "Perhaps one of them will visit a Catholic bookstore only once every three years, but others visit often and buy upward of 10 books a year. There's enough room for all of us."

Kendzia is president of the 85-member Catholic Book Publishers Association, a group of friendly competitors, founded in 1987, which continues to add a few members each year. It has recently gone ecumenical admitting a few interested Protestant and Jewish publishers. The group recently held a prayer service in New York. In Pierce's words, "We view bookselling as an apostolate."

The publishers have a cautious faith and a salesperson's hope. The Catholic market isn't booming but there appears to be great quantities of books out there, and the publishers are largely in the black. While some books should never have left the threshing room floor, most are sturdy and thoughtful.

The publishers appear to average at least 10 submissions a week. Larger publishers get even more inquiries and manuscripts. "Some just aren't very strong," Kendzia said, "but there is a lot of thoughtful material coming in."

"I try to look at them all," Greg Pierce said. "If I can't use the book, I try to point the author somewhere else." Mike Leach, publisher at Crossroad, said, "We try to think up a book, something that will be a good topic in three years. Then we go out and look for someone to write it. But we still take some books that come over the transom."

Catholics publish at least 1,000 books each year, far more than the poorly remembered "good old days." Spirituality, scripture and recovery make up the bulk of the general output. Much of the roster is deinstitutionalized material, aimed at the Christian on pilgrimage.

It wasn't always this way. U.S. Catholic publishing has had a limited and narrow history. Until the 20th century, immigrant priests, most of them with limited education themselves, were the interpreters of Catholic thought to the masses. Isaac Hecker, convert and priest and founder of Paulist Press, described his first meetings with priests at Holy Cross College, circa 1844, as "a pleasure to speak to (these men). They were well-educated in their circle of Catholic education ... but otherwise behaved as strangers."

Anti-Catholicism was the pornography of the Puritan culture. The nativist movements of the 1840s and 1850s and the American Protective Association of the 1890s put Catholics on the defensive. The hierarchy was too busy building churches and finding jobs for its people to concern itself with lofty thought.

The intellectual efforts of the American priests were pretty much confined to a hell-centered theology and apologetics. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species caused evolution the linked with atheism; Sulpician piety permeated the seminaries; priests were urged to be humble and obedient to their bishops and to avoid the "vanity" of learning.

In 1907, according to the late church historian John Tracy Ellis, lightning struck. The Holy Office issued a syllabus that listed 65 heretical propositions, and in that same year Pius X issued an encyclical, Pascendi Dominici, condemning the errors of what he called "modernism."

According to Ellis, there probably weren't a half-dozen heretics in the entire modernist camp, but the paranoia it inspired has affected the church to this day. Viewpoints became fixed with mindless certainties. Virtually any spark of intellectual thought was watered down by the need to secure an imprimatur from the bishop who declared that a "book may be safely read without damage to faith and morals."

In addition, members of religious orders required an imprimi potest - "it may be printed" - the approval of the superior general or some delegate. As a result, entire congregations of teaching religious went decades without publishing anything but Catholic spellers.

All books dealing with faith and morals required the approval of the censor librorum, censor of books, often a careerist on tenure track toward a bishopric, before the final nihil obstat could be granted. Publishers who failed to fall in line often had their whole list declared suspect. Cautious church leaders still remain protective of what Pius IX termed the "ignorant masses" and conscious of the "mind of the bishop."

John McHale and his wife, Katherine, are president and vice-president of Christian Classics of Westminster, Md., which was formed in 1966 by Jay W. Eckenrode out of one of the ribs of the Newman Press, a quality publisher which Eckenrode bad founded in the late 1920s.

McHale worked at Newman for nearly 20 years, until four years after it was absorbed by Paulist Press in 1962. In those days, Newman's Catholic competition was pretty much limited to Bruce Publishing and Kenedy Publishing, both of which were later acquired by Macmillan and quietly faded from view.

Thoughts in the attic

Christian Classics has survived in reasonable comfort by publishing some of the old pre-Vatican II chestnuts, including big tomes such as Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Butler's Lives of the Saints and patrology by Johannes Quasten. "We've reprinted the Summa four times in the past eight years," McHale said. "We can take advantage of the new technology and do a short run of, say, 2,000 copies. We can bind half of them and save the rest until the orders justify binding them. We can even do a run of 500 copies and make money."

Christian Classics is an attic stuffed with Roman Catholic thought. One can still find M. Eugene Boylan's This Tremendous Lover and Caryll Houselander's The Reed of God - classics that anticipated the theology of Vatican II by 20 years.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the 40-page Christian Classics catalog is that none of its authors is American. It underscores Ellis' dim view of the first half of this century when Catholics had to import G.K Chesterton or John Henry Newman for a good essay, Hilaire Belloc for some controversial history, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene for a novel, Maisie Ward for good biography, or her husband Frank Sheed for thoughtful theology, Leon Bloy for social insights, and Jacques Maritain for all else.

Christian Classics survives by bringing out new books that can capture a segment of the market and by marketing to target groups such as associate pastors who often don't see the mailings addressed to the pastors.

The explosion of American Catholic publishing may have SUM in 1948 with the publication by secular publisher Har-court Brace and Co. of Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. This autobiography, which readers learned later had been partly censored by his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, reached The New York Times bestseller list in a few months.

Suddenly, American Catholics had native talent. Merton made spiritual reading acceptable for laypersons. They no longer had to rely solely on the anti-intellectual Imitation of Christ or one of Daniel Lord's dime booklets (over 10 million sold) that filled the pamphlet rack in the back of the church.

A year later, Merton's Seeds of Contemplation became the first meditation book that Catholic commuters could take out of their briefcases on the suburban express.

According to Sheed & Ward's current marketing director, Chuck Blankenship, Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity sold at least 500,000 copies since it appeared in 1946. An Australian who immigrated to England and later the United States, Sheed created a lay-owned firm that enjoyed a lofty reputation in Catholic publishing.

But Sheed resisted the trend toward paperback and the company gradually faded until most of its backlist had become part of the all-paperback Image list- Barely a dozen cloth titles survived in the back pages of the Andrews & McMeel catalog. (The late Jim Andrews was once managing editor of NCR. When John McMeel who had worked for Frank Sheed, became chairman of the board of NCR, he persuaded the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co. to adopt Sheed & Ward in 1985. An independent Sheed & Ward in London distributes its 60 annual titles through Christian Classics.)

"Catholic publishers have a harder job selling their books to an American book-buying public that has grown prosperous and that has a penchant for certainties," Blankenship said. "Catholic writers take a more realistic approach to this life. They don't promise instant outcomes. They ask for more investment. Some Christian publishers, especially those tied to TV shows, can bring out an inspirational book and sell 20,000 copies in the blink of an eye. Catholic publishers can't do that.'

Like other publishers, Sheed & Ward has its chestnuts. Michael Quoist's Prayers has sold 500,000 copies since 1963 and S&W reprints it every other year. Parish ministry material, which is distributed with permission to reproduce pages, sells well in spite of its $39 price. The old-line firm, that almost died, now publishes 30 titles each year and has a 200-book backlist. Virtually all of the production is in paperback, although some of the books are bound, primarily for libraries - a practice shared by other publishers. (Typically, The Catechism of the Catholic Church is expected to do a first run of 250,000, only 100,000 clothbound.)

"I think we're becoming more ecumenical, too," Blankenship added. "The Spring Arbor Distributors, the main channel for the Christian Booksellers Association, is now beginning to put some Catholic books on the shelves."|

Writing up a storm

A complex combination of changes within the church and an explosion of technology has changed the face of Catholic publishing. Few authors seek the imprimatur in spite of recent Vatican efforts to renew it. Priests, religious and laity are writing up a storm, aided by ready access to references in English, a rising interest in scripture scholarship (there are at least 90 scripture programs available), the new field of feminist theology, a plethora of 12-step programs covering everything from drug and alcohol abuse to postnasal drip, and an endless procession of spirituality programs.

The new technology permits authors to present publishers with camera-ready copy and to produce books in print runs as low as 1,000 copies and to still turn profit. (A Catholic "bestseller" would be any cloth-covered book that sells over 8,000 copies.)

Greg Pierce, who admits to publishing the occasional clunker, observed, "There's a lot of junk out there. Some of it actually gets into print. But I'm against trying to control the market. Let the public decide what it wants to read. The junk pushes the good stuff."

Ave Maria Press is tucked into one corner of the University of Notre Dame campus, far from Touchdown Jesus who fronts the library and hovers over the football field. Founded in 1865, it may be the oldest Catholic publishing house in the country. It is still owned by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which administers the university. It does a wide range of catechemical and spiritual resources, together with some high school religion texts. Its genius is that it limits itself almost exclusively to low-cost paperbacks, most well under $10.

According to Managing Editor Frank Cunningham, who joined them over 20 years ago, Ave Maria's marriage preparation book, Together for Life, has sold over 6 million copies. "Our Henri Nouwen book sold over 300,000, and Joyce Rupp's Praying Our Goodbyes sold over 100,000 before we turned it over to Fawcett as a trade book."

Ave Maria Press is one of the not-for- profit publishers, many owned by religious orders. Their status gives them a marketing edge. They can send bulk mail at lower postage rates and they am exempt from real estate taxes. Thus, Ave Maria can do mailings of 55,000-85,000 without going broke. "We are anticipating at least 50,000 sales of Joyce Rupp's new book, May I Have This Dance?' he said. "It will sell for $8.95 and we can capitalize on the success of her last book.

"We try to publish books for people who are finding the experience of God in the daily rhythms of life," Cunningham continued. "It's a challenge for us. Our mailing lists are highly clerical, but our book club, Spiritual Book Associates, is now 25 percent laity. We still need to find ways to reach those people who have a spiritual hunger but who have moved beyond denominationalism."

At New York's Crossroad, one of the larger publishing houses, Mike Leach agrees. "We publish for people who are trying to make sense out of their lives," be said. "We publish books that will help people to get up in the morning. We want to move them from the moral to the mystical, from the dogmatic to the pastoral."

Crossroad was formed in 1980. With a staff of only a dozen, all of whom have books in their veins, it turned out 85 books in 1992 and has a backlist of 650. "Our selections reflect the church," Leach said. "We publish Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger but we also publish Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung."

"Preaching and teaching should be fresh," Leach continued. "People are tired of a constant emphasis on morality by the teaching church. They have heard an that and, for the most part, they agree with the church. They are looking for some cutting-edge stuff.

"Women are our new market. They are becoming our best authors and buyers.' (Example: Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is has not only become a bestseller, it has also been awarded the prestigious Louisville Grawemeyer Award, worth $150,000.) "It isn't just feminism," Leach added. "There are 40 million women who read the Bible. Our only real problem is making a book public."

Spiritually sells

Leach and other publishers confirmed the crying hunger for books on spirituality. "Look at Scott Peck's book (The Road Less Traveled, a species of theology lite). It has been on The New York Times bestseller list for years," he said. "There are at least four books on that list that are described as New Age, which could readily be considered spiritual books.

"Catholic books are every bit as good," he continued. "They may even be better because they're meatier. And people are buying them, even at $20."

"Our staff sees this as an apostolate," said Paulist Fr. Kevin A. Lynch, publisher and editorial director of Paulist Press. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, clearly agreed. The congregation was founded in 1858 and the press opened just seven years later. Heeker's dream was to have an outlet in every diocese, publishing leaflets and books aimed at evangelization of non-Catholics and education of Catholics.

New York's Paulist Church had a library, but few others did. Hecker wanted to establish at least 2,500 reading centers in parishes, but the idea never caught on. (Today, of the nearly 19,000 parishes, barely 1,500 have libraries.) "Alas, our Catholics are not a reading people,' Archbishop Martin Spalding of Louisville observed in 1871. It has changed only a little since.

Paulist remains the biggest publisher. In 1992, they released 90 books and maintained a backlist of over 700. Harper-SanFrancisco boasts a bigger list, but appears to be cutting back of late.

"We're interested in evangelization at all levels," Lynch said. "We also are interested in ecumenism, education and especially in addressing the alienated and the marginalized."

Paulist builds literary cathedrals. Their Classics of Western Spirituality, which has met substantial critical acclaim for its scholarship and excellent translations and is widely used in universities, is now into its 74th volume, all still in print.

"I think American Catholicism came into its own after Vatican U." Lynch said. "Soon after, Catholic publishing began to prosper. It has had steady growth since the 1970s and was really booming in the 1980s. We're in a bit of a slowdown now, mostly because of the economy. But well recover."

The Catholic publishing event of 1993 was to have been the appearance of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a 600- page recipe for salvation that has received mixed reviews by the few who have seen it. Already released in Italian, French and Spanish, the English version is still being vetted in the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this time for its use of inclusive language. Although it cites no theologians after John Henry Newman and is notoriously weak on scripture, reviewers suggest that it has strong pastoral merit and core teachings that should serve as refrigerator magnets to each Catholic's soul.

Sixteen publishers, most not-for-profit, a" to the terms of the United States Catholic Conference which, according to one publisher, Unit over backward to be fair.' Publishers had to sign on for at least 2,000 hardcovers or 5,000 paperback catechisms. Advance sales are good. One publisher has allegedly sold 25,000 copies. But even the bishops are growing impatient. They have written a polite but firm letter to Rome in the hope of nudging the control-minded bureaucrats.

When the catechism does appear, it could boost sales of other books. It will surely prompt commentaries and teaching-aid books galore.

"The industry is doing fine," Leach said. "I think we're all having fun. There has to be room for ever" in ad church or there'll be no room for anybody."

Tim Unsworth served for eight years as Midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly. His next book, Here Comes Everybody: Stories of Church, comes out this month from Crossroad.
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Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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