The Catholic Book Trade: Brand Loyalty for Niche Publishing

In Feature Articles by Kevin DiCamillo

One area of publishing where brand loyalty reigns is in religious books in general and Roman Catholic books in particular, largely resulting from market fragmentation.

By Kevin Di Camillo

“Your Author is Your Brand—or Are They?”

Kevin Di Camillo

Kevin Di Camillo (Photo: Ashley Austin)

Earlier this month at the Yale Publishing Course the students (especially the ones who were editors) were told early and often that “your imprint, your publishing house is not your brand — your authors are your brand.” And the venerable chestnut was rolled out that, “No one goes to see a movie because it comes from Universal Studios (or MGM or Paramount): people go to see their favorite stars or directors.”

However, one voice did push back well and noted, “But people DO actively seek out Pixar movies for their children.” Which is absolutely true.

Still, there can be no argument that if Stephanie Meyers or Veronica Roth or J.K. Rowling or Stephen King switched imprints, or even publishing houses, any of their readers would care. Or, for that matter, even notice.

The one area where there may — may — be brand loyalty to a publishing house is the Religious Trade in general and the Roman Catholic Trade in particular. In general, because the fault-lines between Protestant Publishing Houses (Thomas Nelson, Augsburg Fortress) and Roman Catholic ones (Liturgical Press, Paulist Press, Loyola) falls nicely along denominational lines: no Roman Catholic who is looking for a Catholic title is going to spend any time looking for them in a Protestant House, and the inverse is true as well.

The Roman Catholic Trade and the Popes

Within the Roman Catholic Publishing Community itself, however, there are Houses and imprints that do, I would argue, have unique followings — even if those readers, as a demographic, are aging — and not being replaced.

The easiest example of this are the official Church publishing organs, LEV (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Vatican City) and, in the United States, the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Washington, DC). The former produces the official texts of the Church such as The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and usually any important papal exhortations, apostolic letters, and encyclicals. These originals are, of course, written in Ecclesiastical Latin, and then translated by the semi-autonomous ICEL (International Committee on English in the Liturgy, also located in D.C.), and then published by USCCB — although other more conservative houses may (and do) pick them up as well (Pauline Books and Media of Boston is an example of this). If an official papal writing looks like it may prove popular, a General Trade house may also publish it.

However, if a Pope is particularly a popular author, he may go with a trade publisher for a book that is not an official papal pronouncement. St. John Paul II published with almost all the major General Trade houses: Rizzoli, Warner Books, Doubleday/Image, Knopf, Times-Mirror, Viking, Random House, and HarperCollins. Pope Benedict’s wonderful biography of Jesus of Nazareth was released by Doubleday, while his God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est—technically an “encyclical letter”) was published by Ignatius. And the current pontiff, Francis, had his Light of Faith published by LEV and then the English version was made available by Pauline Books and Media of Boston.

Any book by a pope (living or deceased) is sure to carry with it an automatic imprimatur/nihil obstat so that the reader probably won’t care too much about who published it. However, books about popes (or any other theological matter) are a separate story, and it is here that Roman Catholic Brand-Loyalty kicks in.

Catholic Publishers in America — and their Readers — Left, Right and Center

On the far-right (or, in Church-speak,“ultramontane”) there are publishing houses like Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ’s Ignatius Press of San Francisco, which, upon the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005, received a whole new lease on life by re-issuing Ratzinger’s former writings as “Now Benedict XVI”. Fr. Fessio is one of only a handful of Jesuit-ultra conservatives (the other notable being Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ) in the world of publishing in English. Any liberal Roman Catholic who has read more than a few books (and wants to read a few more) would not look to Ignatius Press for their next book. The cognate in terms of conservative “devotional” works to Ignatius is TAN publishing which, incredibly, stands for “Thomas A. Nelson,” a publisher who has absolutely nothing to do with the Protestant house of the same name, Thomas Nelson. TAN, which was bought out in 2008 by St. Benedict Press, specializes in a back-list of pre-Vatican II titles such as St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary and St. Leonard’s The Hidden Treasure of the Mass.

More towards the center of things is Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota, the publishing arm of the Benedictine Monks of St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University. However, here a Catholic who knows even a little about books knows that not only will these books be less-right-or-left, but perhaps functional: The Book of Blessings (which is exactly what you think it is: everything from the “Blessing of a House” to “Pets”), is a semi-official church text. “Lit Press” also produces a shorter Benedictine Breviary (that is, an official prayer book for the laity and Religious Priests, Deacons, Brothers and Sisters)—but the language is definitely a more inclusive translation.

A catechist (literally one who teaches the Catechism) or Director of Religious Education (DRE) of a Parish or Sacristan in need of church materials would know to turn to LTP (Liturgical Training Publications, published by the Archdiocese of Chicago). In addition to books like The Sacristy Manual (which tells you what you need for every possible church function, both liturgical and devotional), LTP also does their version of the Missal or the book necessary to say the Mass.

The Catholic Book Publishing Company (TCBPC) of Totowa, New Jersey has made its long-life blood on two lines: official church books like Bibles, Breviaries (both the one- and the four-volume sets, which, until the Second Vatican Council, all clerics had to pray from every single day, under pain of mortal sin), and Missals, and devotionals (books- and booklets on popular devotions like the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross). Again, any Catholic who has darkened a church doorway more than a few times a year would know enough not to go to TCBPC for A Book of Prayer For Gay and Lesbian Christians

That exact book (written by Wiliam Storey of Notre Dame) ironically shares the same “TCBPC” publisher moniker, but in this case that stands for “The Crossroad Book Publishing Company” which is an independent publisher (read: not owned or run by any aspect of the Church or its various Religious Congregations or Orders) that in the past has been twinned with Seabury, Continuum and Carlisle Books. Crossroad, which has published Why Catholics Can’t Sing and Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? in the past, has a following of like-minded liberal Catholics—and has had a big hit with (by papal standards, the liberal) Pope Francis’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus. Its parent company is Verlag Herder of Germany.

And every American Catholic whose parents grew up through the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is probably familiar with Maryknoll Magazine, a social justice serial that deals with the Church’s mission to the poor and suffering in the most far-flung regions of the globe. Ironically, it is Maryknoll’s book publishing arm, Orbis Books, which is seemingly always in hot water with the Vatican (to the point of having a few of its books “banned”, which always a great thing for publicity and sales), though it is run by the Maryknoll Missionaries, a group of Religious priests and brothers based in Ossining, New York. Right-wing Catholics who still attend the Latin Mass would never be caught dead with an Orbis title in their hands.

One of the best things to come out of the Second Vatican Council is the Scripture Study and hermeneutics that had languished in the Church for so long. Indeed, as the joke goes, “Catholics didn’t even believe in the Bible until 1965.” However, Paulist Press, especially under the great Old Testament scholar, publisher, and editorial director, Rev. Lawrence Boadt, CSP, grew a list of scripture-study books that was (and is) the industry standard.

The pattern then becomes a bit more clear and simple: the best Social Justice books are published by Orbis. The finest scripture-study texts are from Paulist. Catechetical material is the province of LTP. A First Holy Communion gift-Missal comes from The Catholic Book Publishing Company. Ave Maria Press (from Notre Dame) can be relied on for gift-book material, too. And for magazines and news-monthlies that will not upset grandparents, Our Sunday Visitor, Liguori, and Franciscan Media nee St. Anthony Messenger Press will serve.

Now while bibliophiles and editors know immediately whose logo or colophon belongs to which Catholic publisher (and if that publisher is right, left or center), the reader—the customer—may not know it in an obvious way, but they may know it instinctively. What I mean by this is that, while they may not think or say, “I need to buy a new book by Catholic Book Publishing Company” (if they are of a conservative bent) or “I wonder what Orbis books is publishing to rile the Vatican Curia” (if they are liberal), they may be directly marketed by those companies and become de facto customers for life. Which made direct mail a good investment for the marketing departments of these companies.

Which is one of the reasons why Roman Catholic publishers tend to stay in their silo: it’s good business to know who has bought your products in the past as a gauge to who will buy it in future.

The problem here is, of course, the Vatican II generation is dying off and, if it is being replaced at all, it’s by a generation that may be Catholic-believers, but brand-agnostic.

New Catholic Niches?

So, what to do? The easy “answer” for the Roman Catholic Trade houses is to find new niches. This is, of course, harder—MUCH harder than it sounds when your readership is declining and not being replaced. But in one of the more inspired acts of a Catholic publisher, the aforementioned late Fr. Lawrence Boadt took a chance with “The Deacon’s Library” at Paulist Press in 2004 with two new titles. In ten years, 12 more titles followed on the success of the opening salvo. Part of the reason of the success was sheer numbers: while the numbers of American-born Catholic priests, nuns, and religious brothers has precipitously declined, the number of deacons (who are ordained and married members of the Clergy) has steadily risen. And continues to rise. 

And in publishing so many deacon-related titles so quickly, Fr. Boadt cornered a market: deacons (and their families, their pastors, their bishops, their parishoners) knew to look to Paulist Press for “Deacon Books,” because only Paulist was publishing those books by/for and about deacons. To be sure, while other Catholic publishers have published books on the diaconate since 2004, it’s a lot like being late to the party: one immediately wonders why Paulist (who now has a big piece of both the Scripture-study AND deacon market) wouldn’t publish a book on deacons that another publisher would (in a sense, this is the Religious Trade version of “exclusive submission” territory).

New Pope Brings Big Boost to Jesuit Publishers

So which areas of the Church are growing where other publishers could carve out their new niche? Surely the election of the first (South) American, Spanish-speaking Pope (and first Jesuit) has been a huge boost to Jesuit publishers like Loyola (Chicago) and America Press (New York). But no one has, as yet, made a real serious readership of Spanish-speaking Catholics (or Christians, for that matter). The canard used to explain this is that “Hispanics/latinos are an oral-based culture” (which is tough to reconcile with a tradition that begins with Don Quixote and runs through The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila and The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross all the way up through Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jorge Luis Borges. And if you to want to stretch just a bit: one of the world’s best-selling authors of the past 50 years is a Brazilian spiritual-seeker named Paulo Coelho.

However, as this year’s World Cup proved, Brazil has an intense rivalry Argentina, so one shouldn’t look for a lot of cross-over in South America. And in another one of those ironies, what made Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio such an attractive candidate to perhaps the most conservative groups of electors outside of the John Birch Society—namely The College of Cardinals — was that he was (1) the son of Italian immigrants (which sat well with the huge bloc of Italian cardinals, who have been trying to get an Italian back on the papal throne since 1978), and (2) he was from Argentina, a country which has a lot more in common with Italy in particular and Europe in general (as opposed to, say the Brazilian-Germanic Cardinal Archbishop, Odilo Pedro Scherer).

If it seems as though this is a bit too much about Cardinals, perhaps that’s where the next American Catholic niche will come from: Cardinals serve only one function in the Church—they elect the Pope. However, in their ecclesiastical and juridical roles as Archbishops they tend to do a lot of writing, especially to the parishioners of their archdioceses. In buying the foreign-language rights to the writings of the cardinals now (no one seriously believes a North American will be the next pope), a Roman Catholic publishing house could conceivably come up with a “Cardinal’s Library” at a low cost for the permissions—and, since the list of “papabile” Cardinals is so short, once one of those Cardinals is elected as the next pope, the American publishing house could re-jacket the book as “NOW POPE _____________.”

In this sense, the Roman Catholic Trade is mirroring the future of General Trade book publishing: a big part of the future lies in sales of foreign rights and permissions, and trying to make a market of Spanish-speaking Americans into Spanish readers. And luck. Or, divine providence.

About the Author

Kevin DiCamillo

Kevin DiCamillo is a freelance editor and writer whose most recent work has been on The Pope Francis Resource Library (Crossroad Publishing). He has published three books of poetry, been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. He has edited over 100 books for Paulist Press/HiddenSpring/Stimulus Books, Penguin/Celebra and Crossroad/Herder&Herder. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends the Yale Publishing Course.