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Press Room

October 24, 2012

Made in Winona: Saint Mary's Press


Company hidden on the SMU campus sells 500,000 books a year, has transformed design of youth Bibles

Millions of new books, their pages crisp between glossy covers and spines free from creases, have been shipped out of Winona’s bluffs to classrooms around the globe in the past six decades.

What started as a one-man operation that for years printed work in a basement used for laundry services at Saint Mary’s University has grown to be a powerhouse in the Catholic high school religion textbook and teen Bible publishing industry.

Saint Mary’s Press, which is separate from the college though it remains on the small campus, has sold 565,000 books worldwide in the last year alone, said CEO John Vitek. New titles are produced yearly, and the businesses’ nearly 60 employees routinely push the boundaries of the publishing world with fresh, innovative ideas.

And the full-functioning publishing house continues to write new chapters to add to the company’s already storied past.

A growing business

It all started in a cramped room tucked inside DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis.

In the early 1940s Christian Brother Alphonsus Pluth began using an old mimeograph machine to print Catholic teaching materials for schools affiliated with the Christian Brothers of the Midwest.

The practice led to the creation of the first edition of “Living with Christ” in 1943, and Saint Mary’s Press was formally launched.

Pluth continued in the next decade to publish and revise more materials, and the business eventually outgrew its space at the high school.

In 1954 Pluth moved the mimeograph and the small press he’d amassed two hours southeast into a larger space in a basement on the SMU campus, owned by the Christian Brothers.

The success of the company continued, and in 1967 a new building was constructed on campus to allow the business to evolve and expand.

Forty-five years later, Saint Mary’s Press has done just that.

‘We tend to not be rule followers’

The mimeograph machines are gone, and the remaining printing press sits in the entryway, an original once dilapidated and since restored.

Eight years ago, Saint Mary’s Press decided to significantly edit how it operated and sold its presses, collating machines, bindery equipment and other devices traditionally needed in the book-printing business.

The company then installed five high-speed photocopy machines — three that print in black and white and two in color — able to assemble a book in about five to 10 minutes, depending on its length.

The transition has allowed for about 80 percent of books to be created on demand, meaning that the business never has more than 30 days of inventory of any title on hand, Vitek said. It’s also eliminated the mass quantities of books that had to be printed, then stored in warehouses until they were purchased, and has resulted in savings between $50,000 to $100,000 in excess inventory every year.

The way the company prints books isn’t the only pronounced difference between today and just a decade ago.

Saint Mary’s Press embarked into the Bible publishing business in the late 1990s.

It didn’t just dabble, Vitek said — the company has transformed the way other Bible publishers design their books.

Before creating “The Catholic Youth Bible,” Saint Mary’s Press decided to include commentary alongside the text, as well as print the thin pages in two colors.

Other Bible publishing companies that Saint Mary’s Press inquired with advised against the innovation.

That’s not how it’s done, they said. It would be too expensive.

Saint Mary’s Press went ahead anyway, calculating that if it sold 50,000 copies within five years it would make its money back.

It shipped 160,000 the first year.

“The Catholic Youth Bible” since has been translated into seven languages and remains the company’s most popular product.

“We’re doing things that no Bible publisher has ever done before,” Vitek said. “We just kind of tend to not be rule followers.”

‘Who knows where it will all go’

Saint Mary’s Press continues to work on staying near the forefront of Catholic textbook and teen Bible publishing.

It hasn’t ignored the ubiquity of electronic gadgets or the rise of online books. The company last year had about 800 users of online textbooks, Vitek said. In 2012, that amount increased to about 7,000 per text.

The shift has created challenges.

“In the print world, you can design it once,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what printing press it’s going on.

But “you have to design that ebook to render or look good on an iPad, then you have to redesign it to look good on a Kindle ... You have to design for every device.”

The extra work makes designing an ebook about five times more expensive than a print book, a cost that has to be passed on to the reader.

“People expect that because it’s on the Web, it should be free or cheap,” he said.

What the addition of online textbooks means for a company unafraid to stray from tradition remains to be seen.

“Who knows where it will all go,” Vitek said. “Nobody knows.”

One thing, though, seems clear.

“We don’t follow the norms of the publishing industry,” Vitek said. “I think, bottom line, that’s why we’re still around, because we just keep pushing.

“We don’t sit around and go, ‘That was cool enough.’”

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