Catholic publishing and market transformations
a reading revolution
The second UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries (FOCUS 2011) will take place in the Italian city of Monza. For three days, from June 6-8, two-hundred experts from 37 countries will participate in debates and workshops on the theme, “The Book Tomorrow: the Future of the Written Word.”
Copyright, intellectual property, e-books and digital libraries are among the themes that will be addressed by editors, authors, librarians, journalists, sociologists, politicians, bloggers, and researchers at the Forum in Monza.
Irina Bokova, the Director General of UNESCO, expressed her concern that the increase in electronic books and content available on the Internet, is having serious repercussions in the market, transforming the industry and affecting not only editors but also authors and readers. UNESCO’s has therefore organized FOCUS 2011, a platform for analysis, dialogue and exploration of new possibilities in the area of written communication. Catholic publishing houses are not immune to these new developments, but are fully immersed in the difficult situation in which the book sector is submerged. The crisis, which is economic, cultural but also religious, affects them precisely at this point; for example, the decrease in religious vocations. Seminaries, novitiates and religious communities which were major buyers of books have ceased to be so due to the decline in vocations and the closure of houses of formation.
In addition, non-specialized bookstores generally do not carry religious publications. Some out of choice: they do not desire this type of product. Others, because they know that the consumer of religious books will look for them in specialized stores; nonetheless, points of sale for these books are considerably reduced very simply because the bookstores do not order them.
We should note, however, that not all printed material has been affected in the same way by the crisis that the editorial sector is currently experiencing. Versions of the Bible, liturgical books, Catechisms, and texts for the teaching of Catholic religious education in schools, continue to register high sales. These books finance others that have greater difficulty in the market, such as narrative books. These books, when they are well-publicized, do well but generally only for a short duration. They end up lost amongst the many other new books, of every type, that hit the market. At least if they are not classics.
For several years now, technological progress has increased uncertainty in the editorial sector. The sector has not been able to overcome the difficulties of an acute economic and cultural crisis and must now deal with a new reality: the electronic book and other instruments designed to furnish content to the reader without the use of paper. This technology, to tell the truth, has been welcomed enthusiastically by users who see in it a means for expressing a certain rebellion against a cultural industry, similar to what happened with music downloaded from the Internet.
The religious book however, and here we are referring expressly to Catholic ones - despite experiencing greater difficulties compared to other sectors in the editorial world which derive from the ecclesial situation described above – has great possibilities on the electronic horizon. As long as the publishing houses adapt themselves to new circumstances and overcome the routine to which they had become accustomed.
In the first place, it is important that Catholic publishing houses are grouped by language on one Internet portal. In this way, their catalogues, new items and news can be published and electronic books can be offered to those who are interested. Traditional printed books, which will not disappear, can also be advertised. All of this can be accomplished without doing harm to the editorial line which characterizes each publishing house and remaining faithful to their foundational identity.
There is probably no other network in the book sector, which is as defined, detailed and universal as that of the Catholic publishing houses. It would be a shame if fragmentation or special interests suffocated the creativity, spirit of service and missionary impetus that should be a part of the printed and electronic book sector, as in other areas of the apostolate.
The question of support is relevant but more important is the question of content. Of course, the technical conditions of reading in the immediate future are of maximum importance. The electronic transmission of texts and they way in which they are read represent a revolution in reading in our time. The same happened with developments from rock, clay, papyrus and leather; when the manuscript succeeded the scroll, and when printing was invented.
A reflection on the future of the book in the Church should not, however, only include considerations of the means: if we will continue to caress the full-weight of a manual volume or have access to all of the knowledge and the written production of the past and the present in only one electronic book. Because what is truly innovative today is that the restrictions on a book which before was unalterable, has changed; now one can interact with it, change it and reduce it.
When printing was invented, the publication of books was controlled by a king, by the universities or in the hands of professional printers. And if a new idea was born, a new book was written, so that the ideas of others expressed before or at the same time remained in other books. The objective of this was to allow for a permanence of a thought upon which, through integration or opposition, culture was constructed. With the advent of the electronic book, how is this function exercised? How is the authenticity of a text of the Word of God, of the prayers of the Church or the Catechism guaranteed? The written word, guarded by the Church, needs to be transmitted in all of its purity to future generations. Decisive steps are now needed to clarify how to provide this service to the truth in an electronic universe.
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