How to Sell Pope Francis

A small, Jesuit publishing house in Chicago won the bid to print the pontiff's first collection of writings in the U.S. But this isn't just any mass-market book—and it's tricky to build a brand for the Bishop of Rome.
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The cover art for the Pope's new collection of writings, The Church of Mercy (Loyola Press)

Love him or hate him, Pope Francis has a great smile. His preternaturally straight teeth and crinkly-happy eyes are prominently featured on the cover of the U.S. edition of his first book of writings, The Church of Mercy, which came out on Easter Sunday. Apparently, this was intentional.

"His smiling face on the cover displays beautifully one of the major attributes he keeps talking about, which is joy," said Steve Connor, the director of new product development at Loyola Press. The small, Jesuit organization won the rights to print the book over several major publishing houses, he said, but that didn't necessarily change how the book was packaged. 

"One of the things we agreed to in getting the bid is that we wouldn’t change any of the language in book," he said. The collection, originally put together by the Italian professor Giuliano Vigini, was sanctioned by the Vatican, so the English-language version had to stay pretty much the same as the original text. "You don’t really have a lot of wiggle room to change what the book is about. How a major press would have done it is not much different than how we did it."

The one thing Loyola did have control over, though, was branding: How do you sell a book of theological reflections to a mass-market audience?

Make it pretty, for starters. "We wanted a beautiful cover, making it attractive for a U.S. audience to read," Connor said. The look of the book was one of the only things the press could control, which makes each design decision seem more significant: the subtle patterns that look like they were modeled after couch upholstery, the round, friendly font, the palette of sepia tones. These were all thought out—as Connor said, "the muted colors give a sense of seriousness to the book."

And, of course, there's the image of the Pope himself, the best salesman the Catholic Church has had since at least John Paul II. This was a logical choice, but it also creates a funny effect: Pope Francis's book looks exactly like the manifesto of any other famous person. If Rip Van Winkle were to wake from slumber and visit his neighborhood bookstore today, he might think The Church of Mercy is in the same genre as Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In or Rob Lowe's Love Life.

But, clearly, it's not. The writings and speeches in the book include topics like what it means to be a "full-time Christian," the role Mary plays in the Church, and the nature of truth in the 21st century. "A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems," Francis writes in an excerpt from his first encyclical, Lumen fidei. But "far from being inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all." 

This hints at the true purpose of the collection: evangelism. This shouldn't come as a surprise—after all, this is a book written by the Pope. It's also pretty explicit in the text. The 21st chapter is titled "Evangelizing" and starts out with this line: "Evangelizing is the Church's mission. It is not the mission of only a few, but it is mine, yours, and our mission." 

Apparently, it's working. "I know that pre-orders were quite substantial for us, and according to the Amazon algorithms, the book has been in the top 100 books on Amazon for the past three days," said Connor. 

For a small publishing house like Loyola, this is a pretty big deal. "Our average books sell between 5,000 and 10,000 copies," he said. "We’ve had some great bestsellers, but they are few and far between. A book like this comes along only once in a while." 

Their marketing strategy indicates a savviness that isn't just about sales. "It’s very Christian in its perspective, but I also think it’s talking about a quality that many people in the world are hungry for, which is mercy," Connor said. "I know for a fact that there are people that have drifted away from the Church that are just fascinated by him." 

Mainstream media outlets have adopted an adoring tone toward Francis, but clearly, secular publications aren't the only ones to see the Pope's potential to capture the popular imagination. It's just that for religious organizations, the stakes are higher: They're hoping Francis can revitalize the Church.

Plus, the Bishop of Rome is a great brand manager. "By his simple white cassock and silver cross, Francis is showing the world what he’s about," Connor said.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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