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VATICAN LETTER Oct-13-2006 (770 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Papal minibooks: Portable, affordable and rapidly disappearing

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican is preparing to publish Pope Benedict XVI's biggest book to date: "Complete Teachings, Vol. I."

At 1,376 pages, it's the kind of tome designed for libraries and specialists, covering the pontiff's output of speeches, messages, sermons and documents during his first nine months in office.

But the pope's writings are also finding their way into more bite-sized volumes that are enjoying unusual popular success, according to the Vatican publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

The pope's talks to families, diplomats, cardinals and young people have been issued in minibooks that sell for one euro each -- about $1.25. To its delight, the Vatican has found these smaller books rapidly disappearing; some of the more popular titles have sold tens of thousands of copies.

"The world is discovering that Pope Benedict is a pope who should be read," said Salesian Father Claudio Rossini, director of the Vatican publishing house.

"The reader who sits down with the works of this pope finds deep ideas presented in a simple and linear manner. There are many nuances and beautiful passages that open horizons, enlightening the present with ideas from history and culture," Father Rossini said.

"The pope captures readers with the force of intelligence, inviting them gently to follow his arguments, step by step," he said.

One of the more recent of the popular papal minibooks was titled, "The Beauty of Being Christian and the Joy of Communicating It." It is composed of two talks Pope Benedict gave to members of lay movements earlier this year.

Publishing speeches or sermons in individual volumes is something new for the Vatican. Some might ask, "Why bother?" After all, papal texts are already available at the Vatican's Web site.

But Father Rossini said the papal minibooks are appealing to people who want to give more sustained attention to the pope's thoughts. In addition, he said, they are portable, affordable and "fit in the pocket."

The papal book boom was apparent at the recent session of the Frankfurt Book Fair, in Germany, where the Vatican reported great interest in the smaller volumes -- such as those presenting the pope's talk at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland last May, or a brief collection of his spiritual thoughts.

For three or four days, Father Rossini said, people lined up at the Vatican's booth to see the latest offerings from the pope.

The Vatican brought along a preview copy of "Complete Teachings, Vol. I," but that's the kind of book that has a limited audience, with typical sales totaling 1,000-2,000.

"These specialist volumes which we produce rarely go beyond 1,000 copies," Father Rossini said.

By contrast, the Vatican publishers to date have distributed more than 900,000 copies of the pope's encyclical, "God Is Love."

Even the Latin-language edition of the papal encyclical quickly sold out, forcing a second printing in that language -- the first time anyone remembers that happening, Father Rossini said.

The election of Pope Benedict produced an immediate explosion in sales of his more than 100 previously published works, under the name Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The massive interest led the Vatican to take new steps to protect the copyright on the pope's writings, before and after his election.

The idea was not to profit on papal writings but to give the Vatican some control over the integrity of the texts and to prevent publishers from making money off these writings without the Vatican's knowledge and consent.

Father Rossini said that, where appropriate, the Vatican asks book publishers to pay a small percentage of sales for their use of papal material. Newspapers, magazines and bishops' conferences can still publish papal texts without paying royalties, as long as the text is complete and the Vatican's copyright is noted.

Proceeds from sales of the pope's personal works, including those he wrote as cardinal, go directly to him for use in various papal charities, Father Rossini said.

Profits from other widely selling books, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, go to the Vatican's main financial administrative office, which has used catechism earnings to fund church projects in developing countries.

Father Rossini said the new interest in texts has generated a noticeable increase in work at the Vatican publishing house, which employs about 30 people.

"We've had to take it up a gear," he said.

Although the publishing house is located behind the Vatican walls, its recently enlarged bookstore in St. Peter's Square is open to the public. Last year, more than 450,000 people stopped in to buy or browse.


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