Catholic publishers, with their strong links to schools, parishes, and academia, are climbing out of the trenches of the peak Covid years when all the institutions they serve took a hit—as did book sales. Looking optimistically toward 2023, executives at six publishing houses tell PW how they are moving forward.

High on the list of challenges: Catholic parishes have not yet recovered from a 20% to 25% drop for in-person pre-pandemic Mass attendance. And people who settled into watching Mass on TV aren't coming in for adult study programs either. "We don't have our audience back," says Rev. Mark-David Janus, president and publisher for Paulist Press. At the end of their fiscal year in June 2022, sales were down 4.5% over the prior 12 months. "About a third of our work is in academia—theology and religious studies—and that audience has been scattered to the four winds. We aren't primarily a parish-based publishing house, but parishes did do adult education classes with our books, and no one is doing much adult ed right now." Worse, says Janus, is that "the number of people who would otherwise know about us or find out about a book by word of mouth is down because people aren’t getting together."

Still, there are bright spots. Several publishers noted sales are up to Catholic K-12 schools, which reopened well ahead of public schools during the Covid shutdown; 2021-2022 enrollment was up nearly 4% over the prior school year. The National Catholic Educational Association called it the biggest enrollment increase it has ever observed and the first increase in 20 years. "Our presence in schools has allowed us to remain somewhat immune to the downturn since those curriculum sales are predicated on school enrollment," Loyola Press president and publisher Joellyn Cicciarelli tells PW.

Loyola also found that although it released fewer books in 2021 than in 2020, "both trade and curriculum sales rose in 2021 by nearly 25%, and 2022 is shaping up to be an even better year," Cicciarelli says. The draw, she notes, is the appeal of the spiritual practices of the St. Ignatius, a focus at the publishing house. "The roots of Ignatian spirituality are in the areas of prayer, discernment, and meeting people where they are, and for some readers that may or may not be in the pews—and sales of these titles remain strong."

Charlie McKinney, president and publisher for Sophia Institute Press, reports sales up 30% between 2020 and 2021 and, so far, it is seeing a 10% increase in 2022 year-to-date sales over 2021. He attributes this to establishing "deep channels into both the Protestant and secular markets," in addition to its core Catholic market.

Liturgical Press director Therese Ratliff says the company spent much of the pandemic period with "a focus on improving infrastructure and internal efficiencies, digital marketing, and website optimization, including improving our online presence through virtual events and experiences for our customers." The payoff: print subscription renewals "have returned to roughly 80% of pre-pandemic levels and our website sales have increased over pre-2020 by 45% in 2021 and an additional 26% in 2022," she says.

Waves of challenges

Catholic publishers, like their secular brethren, all face supply chain gridlock, paper shortages, soaring prices for printing and shipping, and adjusting to a remote or hybrid workforce. "Finding ways to deliver content that seems undeliverable is the newest challenge," says Ratliff.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, founder and publisher of Ignatius Press, says the publisher's start to 2022 was slowed by supply shortages at the printers, then "one of our two main printers had their system hacked and it took them a month to recover fully." And on top of that, Amazon, which all the publishers rely on significantly, "suddenly [was] attributing scores of our titles to another publisher, which has made the Amazon sales reports unreliable."

Bernadette Price, associate publisher for Orbis Books, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Brothers missionary order, quips, "It's tough to live in interesting times!" How interesting? Their sales flattened while their warehouse was shuttered for three months in 2020 because New York State classified it among non-essential businesses. They also had a hiring freeze that kept two key positions empty. Orders for colleges and universities, a key audience for Orbis, were also disrupted by Covid.

Price says, to fill orders, they pivoted to "full-out on print-on-demand with the spring 2020 titles as well as 60 historical bestsellers, including the works of James H. Cone, the father of Black liberation theology. His final work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, along with other works, like Father Bryan Massingale's Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, saw their sales explode in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

Janus sees a crisis in pricing. "Buying books is becoming a luxury item. It takes discretionary income. As our products get more expensive, we are casting a harder eye on where the audience is and we're looking at affordability. We are releasing 60 books in 2022. But as we’re preparing for 2023, the list will be shorter. The textbooks will be more pointed. The books on spirituality will be shorter and more pointed. When people need spiritual solace, we can’t charge an unconscionable price."

Going all-in on outreach

As difficult as the past two years have been, publishers are moving forward with optimism. All six publishers say they are stepping up social media and digital advertising. Orbis is updating its website with an eye to "working more closely with authors and organizations for targeted word of mouth," says Price. Ignatius is adding email marketing to spotlight its backbone offerings of Bibles, apologetics, and theological and philosophical works, along with titles that address pressing controversies such as abortion, marriage, homosexuality, and gender theory, says Fessio.

Cicciarelli says Loyola will look to new distribution channels and seek to amplify new voices in the world of podcasts and webinars. And they will do it from a new corporate headquarters. After nearly a century based in one Chicago neighborhood, Loyola moved its corporate headquarters during the height of the pandemic to a modern high-tech facility close to the O'Hare International Airport. It's designed to accommodate "our new, hybrid work model, providing a creative environment that our team finds ideal for collaboration and cross-department interaction," the company says

Sophia, which once marketed only to Catholic bookstores, has begun booking its authors on secular mainstream media programs as well. Their growth has prompted another problem—a warehouse space crunch. So, in early 2023, the company plans to double its space from four warehouses to eight, says McKinney.

Eyes on the mission

"What hasn’t changed about our business is the value of storytelling, rather than simply delivering information or teaching a lesson," says Cicciarelli. Loyola's aim, she says, is joyful children's books and solution-oriented titles for adults that "are informed by Ignatian spirituality and/or the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Our titles give readers permission to live in the mess, embrace the natural feelings and thoughts that come with it, and wisely discern their next step."

Publishers see a need for help when the world around people is often grim and frightening: War in Ukraine, culture wars at home, political and social polarization, and, for many, the grind of relentless poverty. McKinney observes, "There’s an anxiety factor at play, given all the uncertainties, which tends to turn people’s attention to the transcendent and to the Great Questions, which is what our books address."

Liturgical's Ratliff says, "As social issues roiled and headlines blared, we saw an increased interest in these topics. One of our monthly parish liturgical resources, Give Us This Day, pays special attention to current events and needs and includes both prayer for the church and society, as well as calls to action that promote justice and the changes needed to live into a better world."

Janus notes that "the stresses and strains of what Pope Francis calls 'everyday holiness' have been going up. The spiritual needs, individually and communally, are strong now." But at the same time, the ability to reach people with the Catholic message has gotten more difficult — and more urgent, he says.

So, Paulist is taking action. Authors and editors are asked to make textbooks more accessible for readers who missed years of learning the vocabulary of spirituality and theology. It's publishing a wider range of voices: More women who address a tradition that was primarily written by men; more Latino theologians; more LGBTQ authors. "Everyone has their own spiritual song. It’s a matter of how one understands it. You have to find meaning and purpose in something beyond yourself," says Janus. “We are the oldest Catholic press in the country, founded in 1865. Our mission has been the same: Looking to the intersection of faith and culture, and how we stand at the crossroads.”