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Monday, July 10, 2006

Three Problems

Over the course of the last six months, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the Catholic publishing world. The long and short of the problem is this: it's not clear to me that certain aspects of the Catholic publishing industry are entirely moral. The difficulties revolve around the marketing of Catholic non-fiction.

Husband and Father
As anyone remotely associated with publishing knows, the best book won't sell if it is not marketed. One of the premiere ways to market a book is to make sure the book's author is in front of as many audiences as possible talking about a subject as close to the book's subject as possible. In order to do this, the author must necessarily travel to meet those audiences. This creates the first problem.

I am consecrated by my marriage to be a husband and a father. I am not consecrated to be a preacher. Thus, even if my talks and books convert tens of thousands of people to more fervent practice of the Catholic Faith, it is not at all clear that I have done a good thing.

After all, to do one thing, I must necessarily fail to do another thing. I cannot simultaneously be at home with my four children (all under the age of seven, btw), and be in front of an admiring crowd in Kiev or Ottawa. I am not holy enough to bi-locate. Thus, to do one thing means I necessarily forego the other. But my sacramental charism is to be husband to my wife and father to my children, not to be apologist extraordinaire to the people of Ottawa or Ottumwa.

When I die, Christ’s first question will not be “How many people did you convert?”, rather, it will be “Did you take care of the wife I gave you? Did you care for the children I sent to you and your wife?” I somehow doubt He will be impressed If, by way of reply, I give Him an autographed copy of my latest book.

Creating a Cult
Indeed, He might ask me specific and rather pointed questions about that autographed book. You see, in order to flog any book, the author must successfully create a cult. Books are not sold primarily according to content, they are sold primarily according to the fame of the author. People buy authors, not books.

Now, this is not a problem if I write secular novels: mystery, history, romance, etc. But if I write books promoting Catholic doctrine, I am necessarily setting myself up as an authority, a quasi-Magisterium.

I will certainly not explicitly say I am infallible. In fact, I will explicitly say I am not infallible, but that won’t matter. My marketing will necessarily imply that I am an authority, a man who should not be questioned by mere mortals.

People buy surety, not equivocation. Whether you are Archbishop Sheen or Dr. Scott Hahn, EWTN or Ignatius Press, you must project an aura of sure knowledge and implicit holiness to sell Catholic non-fiction. Every successful author, every successful Catholic publishing house, has a cult following.

So, the problem is simple.
Only saints are supposed to have cults.
I am not a saint.
Therefore I have no business using the Catholic Faith to create a cult.
But in order to create a successful Catholic non-fiction publishing business, in order to make my house payments and feed my family as a Catholic non-fiction writer, I must create a cult.

Fear-Based Marketing
And this leads to the third problem. The most effective way to create a cult, to market a book that explains some aspect of the Faith, is to follow the example of secular marketing: I must scare people.

If you consider nearly any religious book, indeed, nearly any book or product you know of, you will quickly recognize this fact. Car, beer, clothes – all of these ad campaigns are based on fear. If you don’t buy the right product, you won’t be part of the in-crowd, you won’t be socially accepted, your life will go to hell in a hand-basket.

Similarly, Catholic non-fiction appeals to the same base emotion.

Buy this book if you really want to save your family/friends/neighbors from a life of misery. Buy this CD or your life, single or married, will never be as happy as it could be, as it should be. You won’t understand what you need to understand. You will be left behind, apart, alone.

Every apologetics book is explicitly or implicitly marketed by appealing to this fear-based dynamic. So are most of the other non-fiction books, Catholic or not.

But this message is directly opposed to Jesus’ message, to the first words of John Paul II’s pontificate, to one of the themes of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical :

Be Not Afraid.
God is Love.
Perfect love casts out fear.

Catholic marketing, like all the other kinds of marketing out there, is designed to instill fear. “First, be afraid. Second, be very afraid. Third, buy this book, this CD, this movie, give money to this apostolate, or you will always live in a terrifying world, you will always be afraid.”

As a result of these considerations, I have concluded that I should dramatically scale back my participation in this industry. I have taken a position as director of adult formation for a parish in Grapevine, Texas.

While Bridegroom Press will continue to operate, publishing books, CDs and calendars for Catholics around the world, it will no longer be my primary focus.

The travel takes me away from the family I claim to nurture, the marketing implicitly makes me out to be something I am not, and the marketing ethics seem to be diametrically opposed to the Catholic Faith I claim to profess.

I don’t know how other Catholic writers square this circle, I just know that I have to change something right now, before I walk too much farther down this path. Paul preached the Gospel, but insisted on earning his living as a tent-maker. I cannot go far wrong emulating him.


Ron said...

Now I'm scared that you won't write anymore! You can't win. P.S. I'm still saving up for some of your books. But I promise not to read any of them! Would that work?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I'll continue to write this column, if only because I'm a curmudgeon who likes to complain about the world. :)

And I'll continue to write books because writers don't know how else to interact with the world. Decent people go out and change things. People like me just write about how things *should* be changed.

I just have to figure out a different way to market things effectively. I also need to try to put my ideas into practice and see if I can make them work.

So, as I say, I'll continue to write and publish. It just won't be my primary paycheck anymore.

I think St. Paul's example is the safest way - he continued to make tents as he preached the Gospel.

Tracy Fennell said...

Well, welcome to Texas!

Good luck in your new journey.

Karen E. said...

As always, Steve, prayers for all of you. :-) It sounds like a wonderful move for you, Veronica and your adorable kids.

denise said...

Welcome to Texas! We need you, here!

I am extremely upset about the way some people are taking "pop theology" to the level of a cult, mainly because of the aggressive training some authors has given their sales staff. They use every nasty little tool in the cult-builder's kit to promote a line of supposed authority that is completely unconnected to Catholic tradition.