Aquinas’s Opera Omnia in thousands of bookstores

In St. Thomas Aquinas’s day, book distribution was an uncertain affair.  Individuals copied out books by hand for themselves; university scriptoria offered new copies as well as second-hand manuscripts; the Dominican network ensured that certain works were copied for their libraries in various cities.  But the fate of a book once written was, so to speak, in the hands of God.

Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae was his most widely circulated work, but the parts circulated independently.  The Secunda Secundae took on a life of its own as a handbook for confessors, accounting for nearly forty percent of all manuscripts of “the Summa.” [1]  His lectures on the Gospel of Matthew apparently bounced along country roads in loose folios in the back of a wagon, because a chunk of his text was lost to view for hundreds of years before turning up by accident in a library in 1955. [2]  Even with the advent of the printing press, Aquinas’s Summa circulated at first in pieces. [3]

Our own efforts to spread Aquinas’s works have been less random than 13th-century manuscript distribution, but hardly systematic.  After our first in-house, casually produced editions, we registered for an Amazon Advantage account and began selling exclusively through Amazon.  The results have been gratifying but difficult to predict.  Our volumes are in steady use at a liberal arts college in California and a graduate theology program in Florida; the biblical commentaries have been used for a summer program in Italy; we get requests from individuals around the United States.  One of our board members, Peter Kwasniewski, was visiting Prague recently when he noticed Aquinas Institute volumes on a family’s bookcase.  The wife of the family said she was studying St. Thomas for her graduate degree and had taken these volumes out of the university library.

“It is my dream,” she said, “someday to own my own Summa.”

And spreading the Summa—with all the rest of Aquinas’s Opera—is our dream.  One step toward that dream was realized this past month:  we signed a contract with Ingram Publisher Services to distribute our books nationally, with the possibility of plugging into their international channels in the future. Since we use offset printing, we need to print several thousand copies of the books at once and then store them in a warehouse for shipment. [4]  Ingram will handle storing the books, shipping, marketing, sales, and the Electronic Document Interchange (EDI), and distribute not just to Amazon but to thousands of major and minor re-sellers in the United States, including thousands of college and university bookstores.

Over the years, other distributors have requested to carry our books.  It is such a hassle to set up the EDI system for each re-seller that until now we have simply remained with Amazon. But due to ongoing problems with Amazon, we recently reconsidered our options. Luckily, our book sales have grown enough for us to be of interest to some of the larger distributors. We researched several companies, and Ingram seemed to fit our needs best.  They could provide marketing to the kinds of people who would be interested in the works of Aquinas.

When we first talked with the folks at Ingram about how to set up our books on their system, they couldn’t find a trace of our books anywhere in their records.  They usually have at least some data about every book out there, but for us they had nothing. It was exciting:  right away, this meant that they would not have to worry about duplicate sets of information or having the wrong information mixed with the right information.  But for the future, this meant that there are vast, untapped possibilities and sales channels for our books. Basically, no one has ever heard of us, and we still sell a decent number of books per month.  What will happen when people hear of us?  Ingram is excited, and we are excited.

Eventually, Ingram will market our e-books as well. We want to get the e-book thing just right before we publish in that market, though. There are many electronic editions of the Summa out there, many of them for free, but none with a Latin-English text. Bilingual e-books present challenges, but we have several neat ideas that we hope will prove not only useful to our readers but even innovative in the realm of e-books.  More on that to come.

At the end of this month, John Mortensen will have a thirty-minute meeting with sales people at Ingram assigned to marketing our books.  In those thirty minutes, he needs to explain to them why our volumes are unique or neat or useful in a way that will help them sell the books to retailers who can sell them to readers.  With that in mind, we are hoping that you will take a moment to write to us with some feedback.  We need to know:

  • who buys these books?
  • what are they used for?
  • why are these books used instead of other editions?
  • what would you like to see done better?

This is a historic moment not just for the Aquinas Institute but for the promulgation of St. Thomas’s works.  Please take a moment and give us your perspective!

 

[1] Leonard E. Boyle, “The Setting of the Summa Theologiae,” in Aquinas’s Summae Theologiae: Critical Essays (Brian Davies, ed.; Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield: 2006), at 16.


[2] H.-V. Shooner, O.P. in ‘La Lectura in Matthaeum de S. Thomas (Deux fragments inédits et la Reportatio de Pierre d’Andria)’, Angelicum 33 (1956): 121-142.


[3] Jean-Pierre Torrell, Aquinas’s Summa: Background, Structure, and Reception (trans. Benedict M. Guevin, O.S.B.; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 93.


[4] Using print-on-demand is still not an option for us, and won’t be until that technology can match the quality of offset ink printing, and do that on the right paper quality, paper color, sewn binding, cover color, gold stamping, format size, and so on.

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