FGC Publications & Distribution: A Short History
By Wesley Mason
Well, wasn’t there always a Publications and Distribution (P&D;) program? No, like everything else we had a beginning. While FGC always produced publications of some type, the genesis of the current Publications and Distribution Program seems to have been in 1972 when FGC first formed a Religious Education (RE) Committee. Previously, written materials for FGC Friends came primarily from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. For the first decade the RE Committee wrote, edited, published and distributed materials, primarily curricula for First Day School. Other FGC committees often asked the RE Committee for help with publications. When requests for publications came in to the office from Friends they were handled by whoever had some free time. This informal and ad hoc system was slow and unreliable because it lacked a designated staff and a budget.
In the early 1980s FGC faced a financial crisis referred to by some Friends as our “near death experience.” As an alternative to going out of existence the organization had to take a hard look at what parts of its work could be preserved. It turned out that one of those essential functions was the provision of religious educational resource material to Friends. In order to more reliably provide this service a separate Publications Committee was formed in 1982. Its mission was to provide assistance to the other committees in their publications work and to create a more reliable way to distribute literature to Friends. As the financial pressures continued throughout the early 1980s there was tension between the Finance Committee’s efforts to keep the organization solvent and the Publications Committee’s recognition that the work demands on the limited staff were excessive. The distribution function continued to be somewhat intermittent and haphazard.
In 1988 there was extensive exploration of ways to deal with the continuing financial losses related to publishing and distribution. Curricula and pamphlets produced by FGC invariably lost money. Possible consolidations with other Quaker publishers and booksellers were explored. Balancing the costs of distribution for the FGC published material by growing the distribution part of the program and selling more books by other publishers was explored and a decision was made to move in that direction. A distribution subcommittee was established in 1990.
Our decision to sell a wider selection of books was made easier to implement when in 1989 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decided to close its long-standing bookstore and transfer most of its stock and customers to FGC. Subsequently, sales at the FGC Bookstore increased dramatically. We hired staff specifically to deal with receiving and mailing orders with great improvement in this service. By 1995 there was enough business to hire a separate bookstore manager. Also during this time, after several alternatives had been tried, the P&D; committee took over management of the Gathering Store. FGC staff (with the help of volunteers) has continued to operate the Gathering Store ever since. With all these changes distribution sales tripled from 1989 to 1991, then continued to increase at a somewhat slower rate.
For a long time the cost of producing new publications had a major impact on the overall FGC budget because all the money for publishing had to be raised beforehand. Some publications were delayed for years while funds were being raised. After several years of discussion a Publications Revolving Fund was approved in 1994. Money from this fund can be withdrawn to pay for costs of new publications and then is returned over a three-year period.
The process of publications has varied considerably with different materials and books. Usually the idea for a publication originates and develops in a program committee. A small project committee, including the author(s), the publications coordinator, and members of the publications subcommittee and the program committee guides the process to completion. This process can be as short as a few months or as long as 10 years (that’s how long it took to produce the hymnal, Worship in Song.) The role of P&D; has been not only to help the process along but also keep the program committees “focused on reality.” How much will it cost, how many will it sell, what function does it play in the work of your committee, what need does it fill? A good manuscript is not enough. A good publication also responds to the needs of Friends, is grounded in a program committee’s work, and generates enthusiasm and excitement. A process of discernment is needed to assure success.
Some publications (Lighting Candles in the Dark, just reprinted and the Directory for Traveling Friends) are long time favorites. Others like Worship in Song and the Friends and . . . series of tracts sell surprisingly well, even after many years. During the 1990s the P&D; program benefited from the service of several long term, active committee members and the same staff person, Liz Yeats. As a result the work was organized in a more effective and efficient way.
Use of the website, www.fgcquaker.org, for publishing and distribution began in 1998 and the future direction for publishing in this medium is promising. At present Fostering Vital Friends Meetings Resources, several tracts, other resource material, and short pamphlets can be viewed and downloaded from the web. Anything carried by the FGC Bookstore can now be ordered online as well as by phone, e-mail or regular mail. Special orders including books not in the catalog and out of print books are encouraged.
Our current publications’ coordinator and bookstore manager both have brought extensive professional experience and great expertise to their work. A new computer system, purchased in 1999, allows us to track bookstore activity in a timely and precise fashion and to obtain accurate details about the business. During the past year we have undertaken an extensive evaluation and long term planning process which will guide us in achieving our goal of improved and expanded service to Friends.