Sophia’s Secret

Going ‘directly to the laity’ gains solid sales for new publisher of Catholic classics, old and new.

One man’s passionate response to his belated discovery of the riches of Christian truth has taken shape in a tiny publishing house which is providing readers from ’round the world with beautiful new editions of classic Catholic books. The man is John Barger, one-time agnostic and former college professor. His publishing firm is Sophia Institute Press, headquartered in an old mill building in Manchester, New Hampshire. In barely a decade, Barger’s labors have brought back into print some of the finest medieval and contemporary works of Catholic teaching and spirituality, each produced in a handsome format, with striking covers, and—most notably of all—textual editing and typefaces which make them exceptionally “reader-friendly.” Sophia’s success—sales of its every title mount monthly—offers a compelling evidence of the depth of spiritual hunger among Catholic laity here and abroad.

“We put books into the hands of laymen, and we are convinced that great Catholic books are meant to be read by people who want to grow holy,” Barger explained. “Previous editions ended up on the shelves of Catholic libraries. We are determined to publish for the educated layman—for the Catholic in search of spiritual direction.”

Apparently there are more educated laymen than major publishing companies estimate, for Sophia sold over 46,000 books during 1993 and plans to publish as many as seven new titles during 1994. Over the past four years, Sophia has sold 4,000 copies—in cloth—of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas alone. All of this, and much more, from a company which ’til recently operated out of Barger’s home and which has yet to realize a profit.

That Sophia is a labor of love becomes unmistakably clear upon hearing Barger recount the torturous but tenacious pilgrimage by which he became a Catholic Christian.

“I grew up as an unlettered and untutored pagan,” Barger recounts matter-of-factly. “I yearned to know the truth, but despaired of looking.” Undergraduate years at Antioch College in Ohio—a school noted for its liberal, even left-leaning, convictions—but confirmed Barger in his reluctant conclusion that there is no objective truth to which the human mind can aspire, finally, to apprehend. “I gave up on education,” he declares. “This came in 1965—I was by then at the University of Maryland. I kept asking, ‘What is the good? I want to know how to live’.

So he joined the United States Air Force. Providentially—as he readily acknowledges today—he was assigned to a base near Charleston, South Carolina. There, Barger attended classes at The Citadel, and there he met Kent Emery, now on the faculty of Notre Dame. “He taught semantics, including Aristotelian rhetoric and Plato’s Gorgias. And he kept making the claim that through language we could come to know the truth. His claim made me mad: I had searched and searched and couldn’t find the truth.”

Barger found himself “working on airplanes at night and during the day seeking the truth—at The Citadel. Then Emery hinted that he was not only a Christian, but a Catholic. ‘Of all things, don’t be a Catholic!’ I thought to myself. I felt betrayed.” Fortunately, Barger remained true to his quest. Consequently, “Emery turned me to Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. It was the first book I’d ever read that at least understood the questions raised by (Darwinian) evolution. It opened my eyes—that maybe everything I’d taken for granted was wrong.”

Then came the writings of John Henry Newman, the nineteenth-century English convert to Catholicism. “That was the first time anybody showed me Newman.” Other classics of Catholic life and thought followed—”and they turned me around,” Barger remembers. “It was a complete revolution of my view of the world. After one-and-a-half years of struggling against it, I was baptized in April of 1974. So there was only one thing to do: I went to the University of Dallas to study philosophy.” Five years later, Barger received his doctoral degree, but his learning had in one sense only begun.

“So I taught philosophy at Magdalen College [in Maine], but I was picking up a bit of new books—Frank Sheed, Romano Guardini; the kinds of books the educated layman can read. Despite my doctorate, I’m not really a scholar.” [There are many admiring readers who merrily dispute Barger’s generous disclaimer.] “I thought to myself: if only Chesterton had been published in the 1960s, if only the Catholic Church had been prominent in those days . . . But people are even more desperate to know the truth today than they were then, when I was young.”

Teaching of course had its rewards, but for a reader who (as most readers tend to be) also was a passionate pilgrim, the lure of books finally overcame the call of the lectern. Not surprisingly, given the circuitous route his previous spiritual questings had taken, Barger sort of stumbled into publishing in 1983.

“One of my students was Paul DiIulio. During the summers, he hired me to paint houses with him. And we talked about books. And eventually we decided to do something more in line with our talents.” That “more in line” was, of course, publishing—though neither man had at the time the foggiest notion of what publishing would entail.

“We wanted to publish good editions of the Catholic classics. But nobody gave us money to do so. During the summers and during evenings I read about publishing,” Barger explains. “I went to direct-marketing school in 1984. If I had known how hard it was, I never would have gone into publishing.” But into publishing Barger and DiIulio went. “We borrowed $1,000 and began in the basement of my home. I slept on the floor of the bedroom because there were books stacked everywhere else, including on the bed. Only two years ago did we move out of the basement of our house. At the time, if all four of us [Barger and DiIulio had by that time gained two part-time assistants] were in the room at the same time, one of us had to stand. There was no alternative: these kinds of books do not sell that well!”

Well, one can almost assign a past-tense to that latter of Barger’s statements. For sales of Sophia books have risen to the extent that the press now has five full-time and four part-time employees. Through careful direct-marketing conducted by DiIulio, Sophia has secured book-buyers from all over the world—”Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Germany: we have no idea how they hear of us,” the publisher notes. DiIulio points out that he emphasizes “the catechetical nature and the immediacy” of Sophia’s books. For example, the press this year will reissue Meditations Before Mass, by the late Romano Guardini. “Guardini emphasizes the immediacy of the spiritual life: how can I draw closer to God?” DiIulio explains. Readers who are seeking a deeper communion with God somehow lay their hands upon one of Sophia’s flyers—or find one of DiIulio’s direct-mail flyers arriving in their mailbox.

Interestingly, Barger finds that Sophia’s customers—now numbering 20,000—defy political or ideological classification. “Our emphasis is on clarity, simplicity, and accessibility,” Barger continues. “Our approach is to publish books of spiritual instruction, consolation, and guidance.” Always, Barger draws upon his own experience as quester and reader. For it is vital to point out that Sophia does not merely reprint classic Catholic books. Rather, Barger diligently re-edits every work—not changing the text, of course, but providing his own original divisions of the text, including subheadings which convey the subject of each section within each chapter, drawing the reader into the full experience of reading. Moreover, each Sophia book offers a handsome and eminently-readable typeface. Margins are generous—making not only for an attractive and inviting page spread but providing space for readers’ notes—and dustjackets are bright and beautiful. This combination—this devotion to “the nuts and bolts of editing”—is, Barger believes, “the key to our success.” He even provides new titles for some works; for example, Sophia’s edition of the late Dietrich von Hildebrand’s previously-titled About Death is entitled, Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven. Sales have exceeded 8,000. Saint Thomas’s once formidably-titled Commentaries on the Ten Commandments and the Sacraments is published by Sophia as God’s Greatest Gifts. Sales have exceeded 8,100.

“By carefully reading and editing, by providing subheads which break the text, by providing a beautiful jacket, and by offering a new introduction that serves as a bridge from the reader to the book, we are able to present in a format that is more inviting than before books that once nourished generations of Catholics,” Barger adds. And quickly he suggests that the response to Sophia’s endeavors has “vindicated” both his own devotion to great Catholic literature and his confidence in an audience for “books that are meant to be read by people who want to grow holy. I am a simple man, not a scholar. I don’t have the scholar’s acuity of mind. But if I have one virtue, it is that I have achieved simplicity—which I think prepares me to be able to choose books for the vast majority of readers.”

Significantly, Barger is determined to guide Sophia Institute Press beyond its reliance on donations. “We are a non-profit corporation. We’re still relying on contributions for about 20 percent of our income. But some people use their non-profit status as an excuse for not operating as efficiently and as wisely as a profit-making company. We want to be able to make it on our sales alone.”

As DiIulio interjects, that goal is well within reach. “Now we can count on selling 5,000 to 6,000 copies of all our books.” In religious publishing, professional analysts define the threshold of “bestseller” status at sales of 8,000 copies. So, with a modest increase in audience, Sophia can expect to see each of its titles become a religious bestseller.

With 14 titles already in print, Sophia expects during 1994 to add fully seven new titles to its list. These include The Art of Living, by von Hildebrand, Prayer in Practice and The Rosary of Our Lady, both by Guardini, and Letters to Persons in the World, by Saint Francis de Sales. And Barger—ever fond of the writings of Cardinal Newman—hopes eventually, if not actually this year, to “put together Cardinal Newman’s writings on the topic of the Church, on precisely what the Church is.” As ever, the press’s stratagem will be to “go directly to the laity,” for while watching the fiscal bottom line, Barger said the firm well understands its vocation: “to meet the reader’s interest in spiritual living, publishing books akin to those by C.S. Lewis and to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.”


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