Author By Grace

We were living in a suburb of Cleveland. It was a Sunday in 1994, and I took a phone call from John, a fellow Knight of the Immaculata and Notre Dame grad. He was in the beginning stages of writing a Catholic novel about Marian apparitions and had sent me a chapter. Now he wanted advice on the chronology of events. When would the era of peace promised at Fatima occur? That kind of thing. For about an hour, I gave him advice on writing, even though I was not a novel writer and never had plans to be one. “Your characters are too holy,” I told him. “Ninety-two percent of Catholics are either fallen away or go to church but don’t follow the teachings of the Magisterium, so your main characters should be fallen away or no one will read your book.”

My wife Bai (pronounced “bay”) hovered and listened to my end of the conversation. When I hung up the phone, she asked me if John would ever finish the novel. “Naw,” I said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“Well,” she replied, “you should write that novel. You know the subject, and you’ve always been a good writer.”

Thinking of James Fenimore Cooper, I agreed, and just for fun, I sketched out a few characters, then shuffled downstairs to bang out a few scenes. These awkward, misshapen sentences became the first chapters of Pierced by a Sword. On our wedding anniversary, December 8, my wife wondered aloud while reading the one-third complete manuscript if novels might be as effective tools for evangelization as audiotapes. A large, completely unsolicited donation came in the mail a few days later. I called the Mary Foundation Board of Trustees, and we formed our publishing division, Saint Jude Media. Thus, my amateur novel was originally conceived as a marketing test, a pulp guinea pig.

I wrote a letter to the 800 priests and nuns in the Mary Foundation database and asked them to start praying for all the future readers of the book. Heaven listened. We hired a guy to do some marketing research. He called Catholic retailers. The results? Laughter. Literally, people laughed at the idea. Catholics don’t read fiction, we were told. Free books? Forget it. Nobody reads “freebies.” How did we expect to pay the printer? For the record, we practically give our books away to Catholic retailers, too, and they have distributed many tens of thousands of copies as part of our network.

Pierced has become the most popular Catholic book in America during the past several years. It’s going into its sixth printing this Christmas. Since 1995, over 500,000 copies of Pierced along with my other two novels, Conceived Without Sin and House of Gold, have been printed and shipped. Just to give you some sense of scale, a typical Catholic “best seller” does 10,000 copies. This is a constant source of mirth to my family and friends—that I’m a novelist.

More gratifying than mere statistics, judging from the tens of thousands of e-mails and letters I’ve received, it’s clear that countless lives have been deeply affected by these novels. I receive and answer many thousands of letters and e- mails per year, and every day, I receive news from readers telling of conversion or reversion to Catholicism, increased participation in the sacraments, new or more fervent devotion to Our Lady, and even true stories and photos of children conceived and born because their parents threw away their contraceptives after reading the novels.

Getting Started

My degree is in history, but my background is in marketing and distribution. In 1991, as newlyweds, my wife and I decided to give away free Catholic audiotapes at a Catholic family conference we organized for Human Life International in Cleveland. At the time, I was a national marketing director for a company that makes those orange barrels you see on the highway. The talk was by my father, Bud Sr., and I called it “Marian Apparitions Explained.” It was the first of it’s kind: an inspired, cogent, and theologically sound historical summary of a topic causing much confusion in devout Catholic circles due to the increased and seemingly endless reports of apparitions around the world. We produced this tape against my father’s wishes, who did not and does not seek publicity. In fact, we got the recording from a bootleg videotape of one of his talks at a parish. He didn’t even know he was being recorded. “Tough,” I told him. “We’re giving them away.” We scrounged up some tithe money, bought an audiotape duplicator, and produced 500 copies for the conference.

Our first recording studio was the kitchen; my wife was eight months pregnant, and I held a towel in front of her and a boom-box tape recorder to get the “sound room” effect. We had copies left over, so we told attendees to write to us for the extras. Within days, we started receiving letters detailing incredible conversions along with unsolicited donations. The Mary Foundation was born, but it was not much more than a part-time labor of love, a “tithe” of the time of a newly married couple.

We didn’t ship “same day” back then from our one-bed-room apartment. We shipped every once in a while, when enough unsolicited donations came in to buy some more blank tapes and pay the postmaster. Our first major purchase, however, the day after the conference, was a piece of state-of- the-art commercial shipping and tracking software. We ran it on my wife’s 286 (for you PC-o-philes, it was an upgraded 8086). Within a year, we were punching holes in our apartment walls for networking wires to add workstations as the foundation migrated from one bookcase to the dining room, to the living room, to the bedroom, and finally to the shared basement of our two-story—a hot, stinky dungeon. We couldn’t figure out why our envelopes kept sticking together before we could take them out of the box until we discovered that our neighbor’s rickety old clothes drier was not vented to the outside; it was blowing into our “shipping center.”

We added a second tape, the classic “Conversion of Scott Hahn.” We produced and distributed more than 70,000 audiotapes by the end of 1993, and more than 200,000 in 1994. Over the years we added talks by other well-known Catholic speakers. We now have Dad’s original talk in Spanish, French, and Chinese. Because we don’t speak Spanish, French, or Chinese, we don’t put our address on the tape. We print “Make Your Own Copies” on the casing. Our ethnic-American benefactors have shipped these foreign-language tapes by the thousands to their relatives overseas; I have an inkling that we have more Spanish and Chinese listeners than English listeners.

Only By the Grace of God

The Mary Foundation has only twelve current tape titles and only three book titles. We encourage people to make their own copies at home if that’s easier for them. We have never bought a mailing list (or sold our own mailing list). We do not take orders over the phone. There is no printed order form for our tapes. Our phone number is still not listed in the Cleveland suburban phone book. When the phone does ring, we answer it on the first ring. We have a small salaried staff of five, a few hourly workers, a cruddy office next to a bakery, no marketing budget, and until 1995, we did not even have letterhead, though we’ve used the most sophisticated computer technology since our first day. For our Internet site, CatholiCity.com (we pronounce it Catholic City), we were the third company in an entire city packed with Fortune 500 companies to have a T1 line.

Many modern, secular mail-order companies boast that they ship in 24 hours; we have been shipping our materials on the same day (i.e., in less than six hours) for almost eight years running, and unlike most secular mail-order companies, we’ve never been backordered on a particular item. Even so, all letters and e-mails to us are answered personally—tens of thousands every year. Each letter is signed by hand, and every phone call is returned promptly. We’ve never borrowed a single penny or paid a supplier late. We have tens of thousands of Catholics who give away our materials, forming what may be the most powerful distribution network of its kind in the country.

Why such success? There are many different ways to answer the question. I could give you the treacly “God is our copilot” answers, but this is not that kind of magazine, and I’m not that kind of storyteller. Hard work and grace? Sure. A nun once told me that the grace that saves souls never comes cheap.

Certainly, it has nothing to do with our personal piety, though this kind of work simply cannot be done for very long by workers who are often out of the state of sanctifying grace. My wife is a very talented mechanical engineer but struggles like every good Catholic mom I know to pay attention during our family rosary because our three psycho-boys are jumping all over her. One of our favorite ways of dealing with work-related stress is to have a big argument first thing in the morning (she’s, uh, strong- willed, and I’m, er, headstrong).

We grew up in large, fun Catholic families, but as with most post-Vatican II kids, we were poorly catechized. I vaguely remember doing lots of neat stuff with papier machê during religion class back in grammar school. By the time we got to college, with a handful of other orthodox students preserved by Loving Mystery Itself from falling away, we spent more time defending Catholicism than learning about it at the University of Notre Dame.

Grace initiated events in our lives. On December 8, 1983, along with seven other students, my wife and I consecrated ourselves to Immaculate Mary as Knights of the Immaculata (a.k.a. Militia Immaculata). Kolbe was our hero. “Just friends,” Bai and I parted after college. Seven years later (it’s a long, wonderful story) we got married on the same date, and because of our consecration, we were available and just naive enough to try anything, even things with divine repercussions we did not and could not fathom.

Serving the Market

From a marketing point of view, the explanation for our success is less mysterious. Strictly speaking, there doesn’t really exist a national distribution system for marketing Catholic books and tapes. Building a “direct” system from scratch makes sense. Mother Angelica did so with television. Fr. Fessio built from scratch with Ignatius Press and still heavily depends on mail order—direct marketing. Terry Barber did the same with Saint Joseph Communications. Most Catholic apostolates are in pioneer territory, making it up as they go along and hacking that old soul-harvest out of the Culture of Death Forest. The great Catholic falling-away of the late 60s and 70s also meant that the city-based Catholic bookstore network of the 50s was virtually toothless by the early 80s. The old guard was barely hanging on.

Not many people realize that Catholics comprise the largest demographic group in America after “male” and “female.” We’re 25 percent of the U.S. population, with the highest per capita income and graduation rate from college of any major religious denomination (yes, including Episcopalians and Jews). No wonder the politicians, the Rockefellers, and the rest of the usual suspects sitting at the green-felt-topped tables in the purple-marbled halls of power pushed for the pill in the 60s—Catholics were about to overwhelm the country. Kennedy’s election shook them. Yet, by 1995, our Catholic publishers had no trade association. Sheen’s television program was a memory. Doubleday’s powerful Catholic division, Image Books, was as an empty shell. The rights to the once-mighty name, Sheed and Ward, which now existed only on paper, were picked up for a song by the publishers of the National Catholic Reporter! Sixty million Catholics in the United States, and our readers have no national daily newspaper. Anne Muggeridge was correct: The vineyard was devastated, especially in the area of media and distribution. With the exception of Catholic Digest, which has lost circulation at an alarming rate in recent decades and has virtually no readers under the age of 40 from a marketer’s viewpoint, few of our best Catholic magazines have a circulation over 25,000. The distribution landscape is changing dramatically but slowly with the current Catholic counter revival as new merchants are answering the call, some with wonderful zeal and sophistication.

Demographics and income levels within the small subset of devout—or, as I like to call them, “normal”—Catholics, which to the best of my ability to research is 6 to 8 percent of the baptized, tell another story: Most devout Catholics are married, and being devout Catholics, they are struggling to survive on one income while being open to life. They don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars available, much as they would like, to buy up dozens of copies of $8 audios and $15 books to give away to their friends and relatives. Most people who write to the Mary Foundation want five or ten copies. So we give them five or ten copies. About 25 percent don’t send a donation because they can’t afford it or don’t want to. That’s perfectly OK with us. About 50 percent of the people who write to us send us something but less than it costs to produce and ship the materials. These folks are the backbone of our distribution system. The remaining 25 percent, being generous Catholics who implicitly understand almsgiving, send us enough to make up for the loss on the first 75 percent.

Your parish doesn’t charge you to go to Mass, and the donations probably break down along similar lines. And how can you put a price on the truth? Early on, a man (who happened to be the inventor of Miracle-Gro®) once gave us a donation of $2,000. Our largest donation up to that point had been $50. I called him up to thank him. I could hear him crying on the other end of the line. “I’ve been praying for 40 years for my son to return to the faith. He was hardhearted. He listened to your tape and called me last week and told me that he was sorry and was going to confession and would never leave the faith again. You can’t put a price on that tape. It’s priceless in the truest sense of the word. I want to help you give out more tapes so you can reach more people like my son.” He passed away soon after our phone call. This brilliant man had spent his entire life developing fertilizer so people in impoverished countries could farm unfarmable land. He had enjoyed material prosperity. He prayed six rosaries a day, and his daughter told me there was a line going past six blocks at this funeral. He was a saint. It still stuns me, as I recall the conversation, that a simple little audiotape was the instrument that converted his son. We didn’t even know who gave his son the tape.

Tapping the Demand

Within weeks of giving out our first few hundred tapes, I knew we had hit a giant underground river of demand: Devout Catholics have a tremendous desire to evangelize but don’t have the money to do so at current prices or the materials tailored to their needs.

We had a deceptively simple organizational challenge. All my wife and I had to do was figure out how to get our cost of shipping, production, and overhead below the average donation, which was a little above $1 per tape in 1991 and just above $2 in 1999 (about the same adjusted for inflation), including the 25 percent that went out with no donations. Sweat equity, Scottish lineage, working out of our home, and long hours cut overhead. Caught up in the excitement and dilemma of the foundation doubling in size every few months, my wife and I consciously decided to give up our social life outside of our immediate family. We innovated. We had production volume, cash flow, and spreadsheets clearly indicating growing demand, so we made blanket arrangements with our suppliers. We trained workers. Professional supplier representatives in suits, who couldn’t believe the production numbers we quoted them over the phone, would give us funny looks when they showed up at our apartment—until my wife, baby at her breast, pulled out her mechanical drawings. We designed our own packaging and base-coded our software with custom macros to reduce processing time. In the early days, we’d throw packaging parties, setting up utility tables in our apartment with volunteers flowing out to our open deck.

I worked full-time at my national marketing director job during the day and full-time at the Mary Foundation at night. Fortunately, my wife has a knack for what is called process engineering, the art and science of reducing the steps required to complete repeated operational tasks. Any extra money went into machines, computers, and timesavers. Starting with relationships harvested from our own benefactors, we built a very effective network of pro bono advisers: lawyers, accountants, engineers, packaging guys, editors, sound technicians, and mailing experts. Because it was my professional specialty, I wrote and continue to write all our product literature, our mail pieces, and much of the copy on our Web site. We studied, changed, and changed again, always ready to turn on a dime.

We were having the time of our lives, having babies, bootstrapping, and guerrilla marketing, spurred on by the conversions, the conversions, the conversions! We moved four times in five years to accommodate the appetite of our hungry apostolic “child” before the zoning laws caught up with us. Our prospective landlords always wondered why we wanted to see the basement and electric service before looking at the kitchen and bedrooms. Today, even after years with an outside shipping center, I continue to stay at home—our headquarters—to accomplish the bulk of my own work.

We’ve discovered that lukewarm and fallen-away Catholics are ripe for reversion. Ask them to pray a rosary, and you know what, they just might. Tell them that hell is a real place, and despite 30 years of agitprop from liberals, they’ll say, “I knew it! They lied to me. I’m going to confession.” Ripe, I’m telling you, like apples on a tree. All they need is for somebody to take a minute to hand them a tape or a book or send them an e-mail.

Evangelization is about the best things in life, which are always abstract and free: love, faith, and salvation. Evangelization is about asking, not teaching. Our materials always confront the reader or listener with a question: Having heard the truth, are you now willing to do something about it? And the novel is wholly in another category for its ability to speak to the human heart. There is no more powerful medium, with movies coming in a close second, for enchanting a soul with truth. It never ceases to amaze me how ink on paper, a story on a page, can create in the mind of a reader an entire universe of reality—a Catholic universe, more seductive than any of the shiny chintz and tinsel offered by prime-time television whoredom.

Lessons Learned

Practically speaking, there are a few things we’ve learned over the years, mostly by our mistakes, much by benchmarking and carefully studying the finest secular companies of our age: UPS, Lands’ End, Maglite, Domino’s Pizza, Federal Express (we wholesale stole the principles behind its spiffy new $22 million logo for our Web site). It’s critical that the book, tape, or Web site have the professional look, feel, and heft of a quality secular product. There is definitely a modern standard of quality, and we always do our best to match or exceed those standards. Think Toyota or Tropicana Pure Premium.

We hire only the best typesetters and editors and buy the best recording equipment and software. St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was not only ahead of his time but remains ahead of our own, accepted nothing less. His poor friars in the middle of nowhere in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s were the technological whiz kids of their age—by secular standards. Some of their inventions can still be found on modern offset printing presses. Our materials may be free, but they cannot be cheap, or they will fail. Nothing but the best is called for when Our Lady’s name is on the package. We always keep in mind that our materials are presented by our benefactors to others as gifts, and nobody wants to give a cruddy-looking gift to a friend.

Our Web site was a no brainer. We asked ourselves, “Would St. Maximilian have gone online?” We have never been intimidated by technology. Kolbe’s great insight was that technology is nothing more than a way to do things faster and for less cost. Think about e-mail: It’s simply a faster, easier, and cheaper way to send written correspondence. We studied the Internet for almost a year before we introduced CatholiCity—two years before most people were even online. We were waiting for Catholics before they got there.

Naturally, because it offered the surest way to influence souls, we gravitated toward the dirtiest, messiest job online: interactive services such as chat rooms and e-mail discussion groups. These services require a lot of personal attention, full- time staff, virtual volunteers working around the clock around the world. We set a high standard for behavior, eschewing such universally accepted on-line norms as phony names, known on the Net as “handles.” Most other apostolates won’t touch interactive. I don’t blame them. Believe me, the Internet is an absolute cesspool. If you’ve got kids, you’re a fool to let them near it, and I have very few Jansenistic impulses.

Because of CatholiCity, we finally adopted a logo and printed some letterhead because all the Internet consists of is pixels on a screen. Shiny little dots of light. Its true substance is what is going on in the minds and hearts of interactive participants. We moved to another level of evangelical tool: Now our “content” is provided live by our CatholiCity Citizens. Every month enough people show up to fill Fenway Park twice.

Our spiritual secret to success is based on Jesus’ advice: Ask and you shall receive. On our tapes, books, printed materials, and Web site, we ask people to do two things: to pray every day for the people who will hear and read our materials and to evangelize with those materials in a big way. It’s the prayers, the grace. Have we as Catholics forgotten how mysterious and powerful grace is?

A woman called me a couple years ago and told me her story. She lives in Alaska, and every year, she and her husband take that big-window-train all the way to New York to see her relatives. Her husband was your classic impossible-to-convert agnostic—honest, devoted, and wonderful. Kept all the commandments except the first. He had absolutely no desire to investigate the faith and could not fathom why his wife was so devout. For 14 years, she prayed for his conversion. So she’s on this train with him in western Canada; she’s reading my novel, and she puts it down on the seat to get a bite to eat. He picks up the book and starts reading. She doesn’t say a word while he reads, fearful he’ll think she wants him to keep reading. A week later, the train pulls into Penn Station, he closes the book, and he says to her, “I get it. I’m a Catholic now. I want to be baptized, go to confession, and go to Mass with you every morning.”

It wasn’t the prose. It was the grace. Fourteen years of grace merited by his wife, plus how many Masses offered by those 800 priests and nuns while I was writing? By my third novel, I had 1,200 religious praying for me and future readers. You don’t have to be holy to evangelize, just confident in the power of grace as perfectly sifted through the ultimate distribution system: the mystical body of Christ.

Author

  • Bud Macfarlane Jr.

    Bud Macfarlane, Jr. is the author of Pierced By a Sword, Conceived Without Sin, and House of Gold.

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