Robert Whelan on the English Catholic publishing empire that started 18 years ago around a kitchen table It has always been said that Catholics are not great readers. I don't know if there is any solid basis in research for such a claim, but certainly my own limited experience of trying to sell books to the foot soldiers of organisations with large Catholic memberships would tend to support this. Many of the Catholic publishing houses of the last century have ceased to exist, or have been taken over by conglomerates, so it comes as all the more of a delightful surprise to find that a successful Catholic publishing operation is flourishing in Oxford, and that it was started by two converts.
Family Publications, Iike many other publishing ventures, started on a kitchen table, but it happened to be the kitchen table belonging to Valerie and Denis Riches, which was an advantage. Valerie was already well-known for her work in defence of the family through the Family Education Trust, better known as Family and Youth Concern, which she had joined shortly after its formation in 1971. The FET had always concentrated on carrying out and publishing research into the causes and consequences of family breakdown, so its bulletins, books and pamphlets were an essential part of the work. When I worked with Valerie for a few years in the 1980s I was deeply impressed by the way in which Denis would get home from work as managing director of a leading communications company and immediately pitch into the nitty-gritty work required to keep an operation like FET on the road. He developed considerable expertise in designing, laying out and typesetting FET publications, so was not surprised to hear, when Denis's retirement was approaching, that he was planning to develop a sideline in publishing.
The name Denis chose for the company — Family Publications — reflected Valerie's work, which he had always shared, in this vital apostolate, and he soon became involved in publishing books on family topics which were a bit too large or too specialised for FET to undertake itself.
His first book, however, was a specifically Catholic commission. He was asked to help with the publication of the reflections of Fr Patrick Rorke SJ on his 50 years as a priest, including three years as a prisoner of war in Japan. The book, called Greatness of Heart, was supported by Fr Rorke's fellow Jesuits and friends, including Leonard Cheshire, so Denis undertook to publish 1,000 copies. Within six months he was reprinting it, and he had found his career of the Third Age.
Denis was by now being approached by other authors, and being asked for books by other publishers, so Family Publications became both publisher and distributor of Catholic titles. What started as a part-time diversion soon became a full-time apostolate, and can now claim the publication of over 60 titles, and a catalogue of over 1,000 books available from stock.
Books have been copublished with the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Catholic Truth Society and with the leading American Catholic publisher Ignatius Press, for which Family Publications has been the main British and European distributor since 2001. The election of Pope Benedict XVI has caused a gratifying spike in sales, as Ignatius had long been Cardinal Ratzinger's publisher. If you want this Pope's hooks, they've got 'em.
Best-selling authors include Fr John Edwards SJ, Fr Jerome Bertram of the Oxford Oratory and Fr Cormac Rigby, whose weekly column is such a popular feature of The Catholic Herald. Denis had been a fan of Fr Cormac from his days as chief presenter of BBC Radio 3 and they became firm friends in 1994, sharing their experiences of second careers, as Catholic priest and Catholic publisher, and their mutual love of music, theatre and ballet. When Fr Cormac was diagnosed three years ago as having cancer, Denis persuaded him to publish a selection of his sermons. The Lord Be With You was so successful it had to be reprinted within two months, and has been followed by two more collec tions of sermons and a CD of Fr Cormac reading some of them. Volume Four is due to be published in the autumn.
Miracles are always good for sales, and one of the current best-sellers, Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman, was launched by Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and Archbishop Vincent Nichols at the English College in Rome to coincide with news of a miracle in Boston attributed to Newman's intervention. It beats winning the Booker.
After 18 years Denis has retired from day-to-day activities and has appointed Colin Mason as managing director. Corm, like the Riches, is a convert to Catholicism who lived for almost a year at Mount St Bernard Abbey, then studied theology at Heythrop. He spent several years working for the pro-life cause, then achieved a meteoric success in the City where he became a director of a project finance company. I asked him what made him leave behind the excitement of life in the Square Mile for something as traditional as publishing religious books.
"We are in a battle to reclaim the culture," he says. "When you look at something like Big Brother you realise how urgent the problem has become. But there's no quick fix to bring about Utopia: it is going to be one brick at a time. Each person who takes the time to read a good book is cementing the foundations of civilisation."
Family Publications has recently become a company limited by guarantee with charitable status, under the patronage of Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham and Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow.
So what about the old chestnut that Catholics don't read books? "It hasn't been my experience," says Denis Riches. "When you look at our sales figures, and the number of titles we publish, it looks like there are quite a lot of people who are searching for good literature concerning the Catholic faith."
Denis has just turned 80, but there will be no letting up. There's always another book to get to the printers.