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Marketing Catholicism

The difficulty in getting a booth was one indication of the phenomenal growth in the Catholic Marketing Network’s trade show this year—only the second such event ever held. Catholic Answers was on a waiting list, and we learned just a few days before the opening that we could have space. A frantic scramble to pack and ship materials, get airline and hotel reservations, and print handouts, then Maureen North and I barely had time to pack ourselves and get to the airport.

What we found when we arrived in Somerset, New Jersey (about forty minutes west of Newark) was a welcome surprise. The CMN show occupied the huge Garden State Exhibit Center, adjacent to the hotel. Last year, it had only filled a hotel ballroom. This year, the ballroom was scarcely large enough for the registered exhibitors and retailers to have lunch.

Why should those involved in apologetics and evangelization care about the success of a mercantile venture like CMN?

Because, like it or not, most catechetical and apologetics materials are bought from Catholic bookstores or catalogues. As Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said in an address to CMN, “We can’t go where you go; we can’t do what you do . . . only you [laity] will have the opportunity to evangelize among your peers.” Lay people constitute 99.992 percent of the Church, he said, and lay-run apostolates and businesses and individual laymen will reach most people with the gospel.

But how to get the word out? Catholic Answers has survived and grown largely through word of mouth. If we are to reach the millions who can benefit from our materials, we need a means of reaching them. Direct mail is one way, but a central meeting-place of information would also be useful.

Until now, there has been no unified forum for orthodox retailers to meet with those who produce sound products. Only this January, while attending a conference on marketing Christian books, I asked, “How do we market Catholic books?” and received mainly shrugs. The Christian Booksellers Association certainly admits Catholics, but its thrust is unmistakably Evangelical, and Catholic publishers get lost in the shuffle. It’s also confusing to busy store owners to have to wade through tons of non-Catholic materials to find the few decent Catholic books. And some publishers are Catholic in name only.

How did CMN solve the problem? It requires members to sign a statement of faith and purpose affirming loyalty to Church teachings. The result? Hundreds of exhibitors who were orthodox, helpful, and genuinely joyful. The CMN show had the air of a spiritual conference—although orders were placed for a great deal of merchandise. The organizers sustained the spiritual ambience by scheduling morning rosary and daily Mass, setting aside an adoration chapel, and offering talks by such well-respected Catholic leaders as Fr. John Hardon, S.J. ” 

That is something that will always be a part of CMN trade shows—a spiritual component to balance out the commercial one,” says Cheryl Kuskowski, conference coordinator.

In the evenings, Catholic entertainers amused and uplifted participants. CMN may be the only venue where Catholic performers can present themselves to Catholic entertainment buyers. Featured artists included Irish pro-life singer Dana; the Catholic rock group Gabriel’s Harp; Tony Melendez, who plays guitar with his feet; and Leonardo Defillipis, who offers a one-man show on St. Maximilian Kolbe.

To be honest, I didn’t see much of the entertainment. At the end of a nine-hour day, standing and talking with the hundreds of show-goers and other exhibitors who visited our booth daily, I was ready for dinner and sleep. Those conversations were what the CMN show were really all about. As Karl Keating writes about the Long Beach conference in this issue (“Snapshots,” page 3), such gatherings provide one of the few times that orthodox Catholics, especially those with apostolates, can get together. Renewing old acquaintances strengthens our sense of community: The Catholic Answers booth was just catty-corner from that of Ignatius Press, manned, in part, by former Catholic Answers staffer Mark Brumley. Mark was generous to us trade-show newbies with suggestions for surviving the show and for presenting our materials more attractively. Just up the aisle were Bob and Penny Lord, whom I had met at the Catholic Radio Institute earlier this year. Around the corner was Jim Drummey, of Catholic Replies fame (he took the photo of Maureen and me that appeared in last month’s “Snapshots.”) And a few rows over was the Envoy magazine booth, overseen by Matt Pinto, another one-time Catholic Answers staffer. Frequent This Rock contributor Steve Ray was there to sign his book, Crossing the Tiber, and it was good to meet him in the flesh after trading so much e-mail.

Just as important and enjoyable was meeting strangers—those who knew about Catholic Answers and those who, until then, did not. After delivering a smashing keynote address, Bishop James Sullivan of Fargo, North Dakota, stopped by our booth to give us words of encouragement. (He also serves as episcopal moderator for CMN.) Two sisters in full traditional habit paused to chat. Although they were from the St. Benedict Center, a Feeneyite organization extremely critical of Catholic Answers, they ended up taking twenty copies of Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth—to use in a class, they said.

Perhaps most heartening were the many, many visitors who enthusiastically recognized Pillar—and were eager to see the Spanish version. We also had requests for French, Vietnamese, and more Tagalog Pillars. We gave out hundreds of copies of This Rock and took orders for Winning Converts and Where We Got the Bible.

Exhibitors were not above harmless pranks, either. Someone from Envoy surreptitiously left a photocopy of their latest cover on our display table. And when Maureen introduced herself to a TAN Books representative, he joked, “Oh, you’re the ones who stole our book!” (Actually, Bishop Graham’s book is in the public domain, and we published a new edition that includes his conversion story.)

When possible, Maureen and I took turns visiting the other exhibitors, and we came home with two suitcases full of books, pamphlets, tapes, flyers, and business cards. We also came away brimming with ideas for next year: new products we’d like to offer, better ways to present our materials, a resolution to arrive a day earlier to set up.

CMN, a coalition of apostolates and companies, was formed just two years ago. It has staged two exhibitions, the second having almost three times the exhibits as the first. The 1996 show had eighty exhibitor booths, and 1997 had 220. Next year’s show will have 250. For 1998, Kuskowski estimates about 1,500 registered attendees—three times as many as the first year.

From registration to liturgy to final breakdown, the show was run efficiently and helpfully—as when CMN president Alan Napleton met Maureen and me at 7 A.M. the morning of the show’s opening to let us into the exhibit hall to set up our booth before the doors opened.

But virtually all of the “staff” of CMN are unpaid workers. The time they spend setting up and running the show is borrowed from their real jobs, a loan that cannot continue indefinitely. The solution is for CMN to grow large enough to support a full-time staff of its own.

“The Catholic Marketing Network is a non-profit trade association,” Kuskowksi says, “which means that everything we take in through membership fees goes right back into putting on a trade show. There’s not enough to support a staff as well. We’re all volunteers. We’re here because we believe in what CMN is trying to do.”

The Catholic Marketing Network’s goal is to serve both producers and retailers of Catholic products by making the annual trade show the venue for “one-stop shopping,” Kuskowski says. In addition, CMN maintains a database of suppliers so that members can get help when seeking a particular item. Members receive a listing of all other members. Also in the works is a supplier directory.

In his opening talk, Bishop Sullivan asked: “Why doesn’t anyone know about the Catholic Marketing Network? In the coming year, are we going to read about you in the news, and, if not, why not?” The bishop urged Catholic marketers to engage in “planned collaboration”—cooperating freely with one another to increase overall effectiveness.

“Don’t worry about the profit or lack of profit,” he said, “but do what God wants. He is with you.”

He also warned against seeds of division and encouraged members to “invoke St. Michael,” and he said, “You must grow into a solidarity. Know that you are messengers of Jesus Christ and that you are working for God, and he will protect you.”

Perhaps it is hard to think of marketers and retailers as “messengers of Christ,” but the overwhelming impression I got from talking with Catholic bookstore owners is that they barely scrape by, sometimes even taking a loss, for the sake of providing solid materials to their communities.

After the show ended, we ran into one store owner near a parish church: She had been staying in the convent there, and she was about to drive her elderly car hundreds of miles back home. She was an apostle returning to the mission fields.

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