“In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited there is a dramatic scene in which Julia [one of the central female characters] breaks down as she is confronted by her brother Bridey with the sins of her life — sobbing, she admits how easy it is to know with clarity what the Church expects of us: ‘They know all about it; they’ve got it in black and white; they bought it for a penny at the church door. You can get anything there for a penny, in black and white, and nobody to see that you pay.’ The Catholic Truth Society Penny Catechism has been available at church doors for over a century, bringing the Good News (and the hard truths) to saints and sinners alike.”
The man speaking is Pierpaolo Finaldi, the newly appointed CEO for the Catholic Truth Society (CTS), English-language publisher to the Holy See. We are sitting in a London restaurant on an October day, discussing the future of Catholic publishing in Britain and further afield.
Although the CTS has produced a variety of books, missals, prayer cards and much else besides, it is best known to generations of Catholics as the publisher of inexpensive pamphlets explaining the truths of the faith often for sale on a bookrack at the back of Catholic churches in the U.K. Even today, such pamphlets are still for sale. In fact, Finaldi sees them as a better value than ever. “As Catholics we don’t invest enough in our faith,” he explains. “The average Sunday offering in the U.K. is 40p [52 U.S. cents]; yet in the U.K., we buy 85 million cups of coffee a day. In London a cappuccino costs nearly £3 [$4]! For that you could buy a great little booklet that would bolster your faith, and you could use it again and again.”
The CTS has just celebrated 150 years of publishing. The enterprise was started by a young priest (Father, later Cardinal, Herbert Vaughan) who was inspired by what he had seen in the United States. It was there that Protestant tract societies at the time were handing out huge numbers of often virulently anti-Catholic pamphlets. “Father Vaughan decided to meet them on their own ground,” explains Finaldi, “and respond by publishing small inexpensive booklets and tracts that would educate and inform Catholics about their own faith and be a starting point for enquirers who were curious about the Catholic faith and its teachings.”
Today as Yesterday
Now, 150 years on, and 7,000 different publications later, the CTS is still very much in business and is currently engaged in the same work: namely, expounding the truths of the Catholic faith to believers and nonbelievers alike. From its beginning, the founders of the CTS recognized the importance of supporting both the intellectual, devotional and liturgical life of British Catholics. Prayer books of various sizes and lengths were the stable publications produced by the CTS, with its Simple Prayer Book alone having sold, so far, more than 20 million copies. “We currently publish in every format, from prayer cards to leather-bound altar missals and pretty much everything in between,” says Finaldi.
The CTS remains an independent charity. By convention, its president is the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster, and the chairman of the board of trustees is usually a bishop. As the CTS’ recently appointed CEO, looking after the day-to-day running of the society, as well as directing its publishing strategy, what are Finaldi’s hopes for the next 150 years of the CTS? “I have seven children,” he says, “and I’ve found that, as with many of my friends, your attention moves very quickly from obsessing about your own life of faith to thinking about what we can do to help our children to discover God and remain in the Church. I want to produce the kind of materials that helps people discover the attractiveness of the faith now and gives them the tools to pass it on to the Catholics of the future.”
CTS: Revised Edition
So how does Finaldi, and by extension the CTS, intend to maintain the continuity of tradition in the digital age? “The CTS has a brand-new website serving customers across the world,” says Finaldi. “We have a YouTube channel and are investing in podcasts. We are on Amazon, but we still have a hard presence through our bookracks in Catholic parishes across the U.K.” He goes on to say to Register readers: “‘Like us’ on Facebook or ‘Follow us’ on Instagram, and get news and updates of what we’re doing.”
That last part of Finaldi’s reply shows that the venerable CTS is just as up-to-date as any other high-tech publishing enterprise. Many see the digital revolution, long underway, as sounding the death knell, however, for traditional books and their publishers: not so Finaldi. “I have a Kindle, and, like many people’s, I know it’s sitting in the bottom of a drawer gathering dust. Kindle and e-reader sales have been in decline since 2011. With regards to books, the digital revolution seems to have come and gone. We are physical beings, and, as the Church has always recognized in her sacramental life, we need and love physical objects. Having said that, many of our books are available in e-book format.”
With 20-plus years of experience working in publishing, Finaldi’s views chime with those of many in the industry today. From 2017, there has been a steep decline in e-book sales. That year alone sales were down by 12%, and there has been no sign yet of a recovery since. In January 2019 e-books sales were down 4.9% from the same period in 2018. In fact, many working in publishing now question the long-term viability of e-books.
Hearing Is Believing
The opposite is the case, however, with the world of audio books. In contrast to the e-book format’s decline, there appears to be a veritable “audio revolution” currently sweeping book publishers. Simply put, audio books are the fastest-growing segment in the digital publishing industry, with the biggest market for audio books continuing to be found in the United States. In 2017, there were sales of more than $2.5 billion — up $2.1 billion in sales from the previous year. Furthermore, analysts reckon 26% of the U.S. population has listened to an audio book in the last 12 months; and, given the sales figures of recent years, it would appear a safe bet that this percentage is only going to rise.
Similarly, over the same period there has been an unprecedented growth in podcast consumption. In 2019, it is reckoned that 51% (144 million) of the U.S. population has listened to a podcast, up from 44% from the figures for 2018 (2019 Infinite Dial survey); 32% (90 million) of the U.S. population listen to a podcast on a monthly basis, up from 26% in 2018 (Infinite Dial, 2019). Furthermore, 22% (62 million) of the U.S. population are listening to podcasts weekly, up from 17% in 2018 (Infinite Dial, 2019).
So does the CTS have a strategy to respond to and capitalize on these phenomena?
“It most certainly does,” assured Finaldi. “I am an avid consumer of podcasts, probably an hour or two per day while I commute to work. We’re all so time-poor that being able to do two things at the same time is extremely attractive. I’ve really been helped by shows like Catholic Answers, Pints With Aquinas and many others, but I think there’s a U.K. Catholic perspective that is sorely missing.”
Whether e-book, audiobook, podcast or just plain paper book, the question for every publisher is: What to publish? What is Finaldi looking for in a pitch or manuscript submission to the CTS currently? “Every publisher has a sweet spot,” he says, “and it can be difficult to put into words. The CTS has always tried to steer a middle course of dynamic orthodoxy. We look for texts that are not too academic and also not too banal. They have to be current but not modish, traditional but not reactionary, faithful but not dogmatic (in the bad sense), beautiful but not frivolous, simple but not too austere. Sometimes a book is not perfect but deals with a subject that is important and therefore must be done.”
We are about to finish, and as we say good-bye, Finaldi returns to that missing “U.K. Catholic perspective”: “These British Isles have produced some of the greatest Catholic communicators of the last hundred years, from Chesterton and Belloc to Frank Sheed and Malcolm Muggeridge (all laypeople by the way), so it’s time to revive that tradition. Watch this space.”
K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent.