Choice in LDS Books

Those who have read my previous posts (yes, those from last Fall, when I last gave myself enough time to write here) know that I think the market for LDS books is crippled. It is only able to supply a relatively narrow range of books to a relatively narrow audience, and as a result either ignores or turns-off a large portion, perhaps even the majority, of those who might purchase LDS books.

I’ve thought quite a bit about what causes this problem, and I think I’ve caught on one issue that contributes. Surprisingly, its ground that members of the LDS Church know well and cover regularly in Church lessons. This issue is Free Agency, or in commercial terms, choice.

Let’s make the issue more concrete. When you go into an LDS bookstore, you can purchase any thing in the store, and possibly even out-of-stock items, or you can even choose to purchase nothing. But what about the items that are not in the store? That the store has decided not to carry?

Many years ago I heard a talk on tape by Camila Eyring Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball, that addressed this very subject. Sister Kimball pointed out in that talk that if you don’t know about a possible choice, you don’t really have a choice — your Free Agency has been diminished because that choice isn’t available.

It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that bookstores must limit your choices. They simply can’t afford the floor space to allow you to choose among all available LDS books. And, probably, giving you all choice can even cause confusion. [I’ll admit that when I go to the most complete sources of books in English (Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and some other Internet stores), I sometimes become confused by the amount of choice — on some titles its possible to find so many variations that you don’t know what to buy! But this isn’t the case with LDS books.]

However, I don’t think that LDS bookstores are only limiting customer’s choice based on what fits in their stores. They also limit choice based on what they think is acceptable to their audience. Deseret Book is a prime example. Their policy of excluding some titles because they didn’t feel that those titles were “appropriate” for their audience is well documented — remember the fuss when Deseret Book dropped a Richard Paul Evans title?

Less well known is what I recently learned from a contact at Signature Books, who reports that Deseret Book hasn’t purchased any new title from Signature in five years (they apparently still purchase some backlist titles). Those titles also don’t show up on Deseret Book’s website, so customers don’t even know that they exist. While I know that many don’t like Signature Books (even the most conservative will find some of their titles valuable — their publication of important historic Mormon documents, if nothing else), it seems a little harsh to not even look at a book simply because of who published it.

Now I’m not suggesting that Deseret Book has to carry Signature’s titles or those of any other publisher, regardless of the reason for leaving them out. Deseret Book’s decision in and of itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that the entire industry follows Deseret Book’s policy! Perhaps not in the details, but virtually every LDS Bookstore, with a handful of exceptions, limits what they carry to only those titles that they are certain no one will complain about.

Its one thing for a single bookstore or chain of stores to decide not to carry a title. Its another for the entire industry to leave a title out in the cold. And then if the entire industry refuses to carry a particular publisher, without even evaluating its most recent offerings, that seems like a problem. Haven’t we lost choice in the process?

There’s an aspect of this that makes this situation still more complicated. If you adopt the position that stores should evaluate and leave out objectionable books, on what basis should they do so? Who decides and how do they decide? Why should store managers have the right to hide the existence of books from me just by being hired or by investing in a bookstore?

Please don’t assume from my arguments here that I’m arguing for bookstores to be completely permissive. I don’t think that everything should be in LDS bookstores. At a minimum, outright anti-Mormon literature should be excluded from most LDS bookstores — at least those run for faithful members. But I don’t know where the line between encouraging freedom of choice and not promoting evil should be drawn.

I do know that I’m very uncomfortable with current practices, which seem to be based as much on rumor, gossip and cultural politics than on objective evaluation of content and reputation. I also know that these policies are limiting the size and reach of the market.

23 thoughts on “Choice in LDS Books”

  1. Unwillingness to read anything that is not “Church-approved” has limited the perspective of many a Mormon.
    You should visit this site: http://www.christianlivingonline.net.
    I am the publisher of a Christian newspaper that serves Christians living in my region. Every month, hundreds of new Christian readers ask to be added to our online alert of a new issue. And every month, dozens of Mormons ask to be removed.
    Why is that? Aren’t Mormons Christian? 

    Posted by Sally

  2. Follow up to my first post:
    Did you pass the test? I mean…
    Did you roll your eyes? Did you hesitate? Did you get defensive, angry or resentful?
    See, I’m Mormon. In fact, have been my whole life.
    My paper is a non-denominational newspaper that includes all Christian faiths in readership and representation. In fact, all Christian churches in my region see the paper as valuable and allow me to place stacks in their churches for their members to read.
    Well, I shouldn’t say ALL Christian churches let me place papers… the Mormon church doesn’t.
    I understand why the policy is the way it is… and I’m not upset. Ironically, members from other wards who get email notifications of the paper ask – sometimes angrily demand – to be removed from the list.
    One woman said, and this is a quote, “My church has a newspaper that I get every week and that tells me all I need to know. I don’t need a Christian newspaper.”
    Sad.

  3. Hi Kent! Glad you’re back, and thanks for the as-usual thought-provoking questions about the LDS book market.

    [Signature’s] titles also don’t show up on Deseret Book’s website, so customers don’t even know that they exist.   

    Now this is interesting, because my book, The Pictograph Murders (Signature Books 2004), does appear to be listed   on Deseret Book’s website. What’s up with that?
     

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  4. To be perfectly blunt, Sally: Perhaps it’s because your paper represents the sort of culturally conservative, evangelical-oriented discourse that just doesn’t appeal to many Mormons. In addition, Mormons who are culturally conservative — and those who aren’t — already have online and print publications that are geared specifically towards a Mormon audience.

    The fault may not be with the Mormon audience (which I’m not saying is without fault), but with the content.

    Regarding Mormons asking to be removed — are these subscribers who have specifically opted in to your online alert? Or are they e-mail addresses that you have farmed from somewhere? If it is the latter, then it should be obvious why they ask to be removed. If it is the former, and you are truly interested in reaching a Mormon readership, then perhaps you should take a close look at the content you provide. 

    Posted by William Morris

  5. Sally, I didn’t roll my eyes, but I did raise my eyebrows in wonder. Did all the Mormons who ultimately requested removal from your online alert list request initially to receive your alerts? That is, how did you come by their names in the first place?  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  6. Sally,

    I agree that in general LDS Church members have a problem with shying away from religious materials that are not Church approved (even that is a bit quixotic — authors like C.S. Lewis enjoy as strong or stronger popularity among Mormons as they do among other Christians).

    But I’m confused on one point — how do the Mormons that ask to be removed get on your online alert list in the first place? And how do you know that they are Mormon? Are they saying that the reason they want to leave your alert list is that they are Mormon? I’m a little confused on this point.

    After giving your newspaper a look, I don’t think what you have in the newspaper will bridge the rather wide gap between mainline or evangelical Christians and Mormons. Its a substantial gap, one that involves not only basic doctrinal issues like grace, free agency and the nature of God, but also substantial cultural issues such as dance, styles of dress and the slang and terminology we use on a day-to-day basis. And on the trivial level, it gets into things like “ctr” vs “wwjd”!!!

    I do appreciate your note, and I agree that these issues shouldn’t cause as big a gulf as they do. There certainly should be a lot of things that bring us together, both in terms of religious dialogue and in shared cultural exchange. The problem is that neither side does much to bridge the gap.

    I have to admit, you have started me thinking on a few of these issues. Perhaps I’ll write a blog post on this in the future.

    Kent

     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  7. Sally, now that I’ve read your second post, I have to claim that I did not roll my eyes, but I did assume that you were a non-Mormon unaquainted with the dominant (i.e., Utah) culture.

    I should also mention, regarding your not being able to place newspapers in LDS Chapels, that the reason probably has more to do with the authority structure of the various churches involved than any objection to your content or to non-denominational content. To put it simply, local LDS bishops don’t have much leeway in approving outside material to be left in chapels, while most local Christian pastors only have to justify their actions to the deacons of their congregation (if I understand how they work correctly).

    Are you able to place your newspapers in Catholic buildings also? — their authority structure is probably most similar to ours, and therefore more likely to decline.

    I’m just curious on the reasons for these reactions. I’m not surprised at the LDS reaction to your newspaper. I agree that it is frustrating, but I do also understand the Church’s desire to control what happens in local ward buildings.

    Still, there should be a mechanism for overcoming this issue. One of our weaknesses in the LDS Church is a lack of ecumenical effort. And you are to be congratulated for your willingness and efforts in this area.

    Kent

     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  8. Ah, Kent has said it much better than I have. If you do decide to reply, reply to him, Sally.

    🙂

    BTW, it’s good to have you back, Kent. You add a needed dynamic to the blog and you get me thinking about things. 

    Posted by William Morris

  9. Deseret Book had a perceptible liberalization in its book carrying policy, even in the religion section, but more so in its much expanded “secular” section about five years ago. If you want atheist perspectives on religion you can find them quite easily in the secular sections, but the religion sections are much more tightly controlled. There is a good selection of religious reference type books from non-LDS authors last I checked, as well as a much more ecumenical variety of books on topics like marriage and family relations. I stopped by the downtown SLC Deseret Book much more often after that change.

    I agree selecting based on publisher is kind of silly, but Signature seems to want a reputation that is contrary to its financial interests. What we need are more independent publishers. The last group (Bookcraft, Infobases, et al) are now merged into some conglomerate owned by the Church.

    Maybe someone should make an LDS mutual fund, so that the policies of these organizations would be more common consent oriented, and less implicitly agents of official dogma. That change is probably happening, but ultimately it is hard to acheive without separation of Church and Publisher.

    Other than Signature and the academic publishing houses, who else is out there that is independent anymore? 

    Posted by Mark Butler

  10. In response to your comment on Deseret Book, I hope you’ve taken a look at my posts last Fall on Deseret Book’s position (see part 1 at http://motleyvision.blogspot.com/2005/10/publishing-problem-of-deseret-book.html, part 2 at http://motleyvision.blogspot.com/2005/11/publishing-problem-of-deseret-book_04.html, and part 3 at http://motleyvision.blogspot.com/2005/11/publishing-problem-of-deseret-book.html )

    I hope in my analysis it was clear that I was principally referring to Deseret Book’s LDS section. Of course, Deseret Book is a somewhat confusing store in this regard — is it trying to be an LDS bookstore? or is it trying to be a general interest bookstore? Can you be both?

    FWIW, the Bookcraft/Infobases group was merged into Deseret Book. The Bookcraft nameplace still persists as an imprint of Deseret Book, at least for the moment.

    Perhaps a mutual fund would move things in a more egalitarian direction, I don’t know. Of course the biggest difficulty with the idea is that the Church or any of the other players would sell out to a fund like this. As you imply, the Church seems to see that it is in its best interests to own Deseret Book, both as a chain of bookstores and as a publisher.

    As for other independent publishers, there are a few. The largest is Covenant Communications (which also owns the chain Seagull Books), and right behind it is Cedar Fort, which recently purchased Horizon Publishers to solidify its position. Both of these companies concentrate on the more traditional parts of the LDS Market — Romance Fiction, Historical Fiction, Doctrine, etc.

    Beyond these two, there are many small firms (including my own, Mormon Arts and Letters ), but few are more than self-publishing ventures and fewer still try to publish in non-traditional areas. None of us have any market power, to be brutally honest.

     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  11. Sally, I joined Crossings, a Christian book club, got a nice bag, which I still use every Sunday, but thought the books were just mediocre crap. Same with most LDS fiction I’ve read.

    Why must we sugar coat our experience to think them spiritual? Nobody in real life lives like these people. 

    Posted by annegb

  12. Anne, the answer is, of course, that we don’t need to sugar coat our experience. Fortunately, there is Mormon literature that doesn’t fall into this trap. Unfortunately, it generally isn’t published by LDS publishers, and therefore isn’t well known. Authors such as Don Marshall, Doug Thayer, Levi Peterson, Neal Chandler, Margaret Blair Young, and many others have and are producing literature that challenges, and yet is basically faithful.

    I’ll try to post a list in the future of this kind of literature. It is out there. 

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  13. I’d love that list. The ones you list, I’ve read short stories by them. I’m reading Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, and loving it.

    I noticed it’s printed by Signature books. 

    Posted by annegb

  14. Good for you! The Backslider  is widely considered one of the best works of Mormon literature, (and many call it the best to date), but I suspect the audience that might gain the most from it — those similar to its protagonist — don’t read it as much as they should.

    FWIW, this year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Backslider, and I understand Sunstone is planning a commemorative issue.

    Yes, it was published (not printed — publishers almost always send the books they prepare out to an independent printer) by Signature. Although I don’t know why Levi went to Signature, I do know that there hasn’t been many outlets for this kind of writing. Certainly none of the mainstream LDS publishers were interested. Some of the University presses might have been interested.

    This is one of the problems that the best LDS literature faces — Signature Books and the University presses are the only publishers that will accept these books.

    — with the exception of my own venture, of course .

     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  15. Kent:

    I’ve been thinking about this post, and I think that your last sentence is the most important point.

    “I also know that these policies are limiting the size and reach of the market.”

    I can imagine someone arguing against that conclusion, saying that the only reason the market for LDS books the size it is is because Mormon consumers have come to trust certain publishers/booksellers.

    I don’t think that’s the case. But I’ve always had this optimism that there were potential Mormon consumers out there who don’t deal with the Mormon market because they don’t see it as worth their while.

    So here’s my question, Kent. Do you see any signs that the size and reach of the market could be larger/extended?

    And, of course, the big question is — how?

    I don’t expect you to answer that all here, and we’ve already talked about this a bit in your previous posts on the Mormon publishing world. I just want to raise the question again. 

    Posted by William Morris

  16. >So here’s my question, Kent. Do you see
    >any signs that the size and reach of the >market could be larger/extended?
    >
    >And, of course, the big question is — how?

    Of course it can be larger. The international market shows great promise, I think, (I’ve posted on it before). I think LDS Bookstores could do a better job simply by marketing LDS books better — holding book signings, being more open to other categories, promoting Mormon culture, etc. And, of course, its in their best interest to do so. There is room for many new LDS retailers, both in physical locations (near all these new small Temples) and on the Internet (where we still don’t have an LDS equivalent of Amazon.com).

    To be honest, probably half of the things I could suggest come simply from copying what the best bookstores in the US do regularly.

    I’m not sure if that’s what you are asking, but regardless, I think there is a lot more that could be done.

  17. Hello friends:

    After a few minutes of casual overview of the posts and the newspaper in question I can’t but feel that the energy and time spent on the above arguments could have been put to better use. Just like a family, a business or life itself, Deseret Book has defined its markets, editorial and readership scope, plotted a course and remains steadfast on it regardless of what happens in the publishing world. There are 100 million wonderful and absolutely god looking women in the US, but I am delighted to be my wife’s husband. I have made my choice of one and that says absolutely nothing about the attributes of the rest.

  18. Malcolm:

    That’s great that you are delighted to be your wife’s husband. But I think your analogy fails at the point where you mention the 100 million wonderful women in the U.S.

    The type of diversity and choice in the marriage marketplace doesn’t really exist in the Mormon market. A more apt analogy would be that you have the choice of one Molly Mormon, one apostate feminist chick, and maybe a couple of shy Mormon girls who are interesting but elusive.

    DB has defined its market, but it also has the resources to shape is — perhaps even more so than other publishing companies. Yes, DB is somewhat subject to the whims and tastes of its customers. But for a variety of factors (many of which have already been discussed here at AMV), including the fact that DB is owned by the LDS Church, DB is in a position to set market parameters and eliminate competition that is fairly unique because the Mormon marketplace is rather unique.

    I don’t know what the solutions are. Nor do I hold any strong resentment against DB. I’m neither an author nor a publisher and what’s more I don’t at all mind being part of a minority audience/critical culture. But I fail to see how it’s a waste of time to discuss how things could be different and/or why they are the way they are now and what effect that has.

    Mormon literature is still very young. That means there could be room for different ways it could develop. Or perhaps not. I don’t think we really know. Some people think there is a non-DB yet Mormon literature interested audience out there that has yet to be tapped. Others think that the solution is to try and improve the genres that are already popular (and that DB caters to). etc. etc.

    This is the exciting thing about Mormon literature. We are where many of the late-modern national cultures (Greece, Romania, Argentina) were in the late 19th/early 20th century. Of course, things are complicated by the fact that the general culture most Mormons are part of is early 21st century. I think the intersection of all this is fascinating. Whether anything of lasting value comes of it remains to be seen. But if there is value to be found in it, AMV wants to be part of the discussion.

  19. I appreciate the debate raging, but I am going to have to side with DB on this. I work for an LDS bookstore and we carry many of the same products as DB. We have the same challenges they do. We actually carry a wider range of christian fiction than DB. BUT, it doesn’t sell. When we have to send half back every six months or discount it until it sells, what is that telling us? Basically, there are very few books that sell on their own.
    I am an avid reader and pride myself on keeping up with the inventory on our shelves. Literally. I read about 10 books a week. I like books by DB sponsored publishing and independent publishers. If the book is well written and thought provoking or inspiring, I can sell it. The problem is too many are just mediocre. That is definitely not the problem of the store who can’t sell it, but the writer. Sorry, but it is hard to sell what I have a hard time endorsing.
    Would you go to McDonald’s and ask them to leave something on the menu that they can’t sell? NO-they remove it and try something new.

  20. Laura:

    Some good points. Thanks for posting.

    When you say Christian fiction do you mean literary fiction like what Signature publishes or do you mean genre fiction — Mormon romance, suspense/thriller/mystery, historical fiction? I think there’s a big difference in how you stock, market and sell the two. I don’t know that that means that LDS bookstores will actually sell literary fiction if they try, but as far as I can tell, DB isn’t even trying. I just went to DeseretBook.com and typed in “Thayer” (as in Douglas Thayer) and “Parkinson” (as in Ben Parkinson). Both of have written fairly orthodox missionary-related novels (The Conversion of Jeff Williams and The MTC) that, imo, could and should sell a copy or two every month forever (as presents, etc.). The DB search comes up empty for both of them. Their titles aren’t in stock.

    Linda Hoffman Kimball’s enrichment-related titles are in stock. However, her fantastic (and again — very tame) and funny novel The Marketing of Sister B is not.

  21. Here we go again. This is a case where somebody does not want to be confused by the facts because he already made up his mind. DB does not have to, or is interested in “shaping” the market. They served a very specific audience with unique interests, and quite sophisticated, I might add in terms of what they want. I frequent a different book store just because of geography and spend at list an hour each week on the hunt for a good title. Since I am a convert to the Church I venture where “no one has gone before” (Talking about other members :)when it comes book stores. I fully agree with Laura. Your taste, interests and view of the literary world belongs to you, Will, and perhaps there are many in the same wavelength, but it remains a blip in the LDS readership radar screen. There are things that appeal to LDS readers and things that do not. DB should not have to carry the cost of “niche” items or broaden they offer if the customer base at large is not interested or the product does not fit into their own clearly defined editorial and distribution philosophy. I think with that I just sit back and let you be, friends. I promise. 🙂

  22. Malcolm:

    I don’t have time to respond in detail right now. But other than the assertion that “Deseret Book is only responding to what the market tells them,” I’m not sure what the “facts” are.

    If DB isn’t interested in shaping the market, then why do they engage in the specific marketing activies that they engage in? Why do they launch new categories of titles?

    And no, I haven’t made up my mind. In order to really make up my mind I’d have to have serious access to the way DB does business [Note to DB’s PR people — if you all want to offer that kind of access, I’ll seriously work on getting a grant to fund that and an academic who’d be better equipped to do that kind of study than I am.].

    I fully understand that DB isn’t going to carry some “niche” items — I don’t expect them to carry “The Backslider” or anything like that. But their commitment to even “faithful” literary fiction isn’t even where it was 10 years ago. That may be a decision purely based on customer feedback and sales data, but then that brings back to the question of how does DB — which has an very unique situation in the publishing world — shape or not shape the market. More on that later.

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