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.