Out-of-Print Mormon Lit

In a comment on my recent post, Looking at Our Niche Comprehensively, William wrote the following:

And he and I actually had the same idea — I think creating and prioritizing a list of out-of-print titles is a great idea. Last night, I was trying to come up with some ways to do so that goes beyond just having people post comments and/or e-mail Kent (both of which would be fine, but some sort of running polling system would be cool).

William is right that putting together such a list would be very useful. And since this is a part of my publishing program, I thought I should respond in a little more detail and point out some difficulties.

There are some clear advantages to compiling such a list.

A list lets publishers know what titles should be done. No publisher knows whether publishing a public domain title is likely to be worth it or not, so it doesn’t make sense to spend time and effort searching for public domain titles and trying to figure out which title to publish first. So providing the list makes it more likely that these works will be published.

In a sense, publishers are already finding LDS public domain titles, at least in a haphazard way. Amazon shows two different recent editions of Added Upon, for example. I think I’ve seen a dozen more public domain titles that have been published. [Though I don’t think that these publishers realize that this has interest in the LDS market or how to reach it — I don’t see any marketing efforts to church members for these titles.]

A list also signals the publisher which works are likely to draw sales. At least those that proposed and promoted getting a title on the list are probably interested in purchasing it.

Such a list can also help increase knowledge of LDS literature. The titles that appear on such a list are likely to be those that are studied.

But, I do think there are some problems with coming up with a list like this.

First, no one is likely to pay much for creating such a list, or pay for the information. As I observed above, when you are hoping to make a profit by selling just a few copies of each title, you can’t afford to invest a lot of time into discovering which title to print. As a result, I don’t think there’s much motivation out there to create and prioritize the list. A haphazard approach of just publishing each title as it is discovered is cheaper.

Second, creating and prioritizing a list requires knowledge of the titles themselves. I don’t know ANYONE who has much knowledge of the titles available in the public domain. There are many people with knowledge of more recent titles, those covered by copyright. And it would be interesting to get a list of recent titles. But I don’t think we’re likely to get much information on older titles — say those by Ora Pate Stewart, Julia McDonald, Howard Driggs or anyone except maybe Nephi Anderson.

We are fortunate that we have a list of titles, BYU’s Mormon Literature Database. But this database isn’t complete (I’ve suggested several titles 3 or 4 times in the past year, and they haven’t yet been added. And items like the stories in the Young Women’s Journal, and other early Church publications haven’t yet been indexed, and don’t show up in the database). And it certainly doesn’t have information that would help anyone make an informed decision as to which titles should get priority over others.

In fact, most of these public domain titles haven’t been read by nearly anyone in the last decade or more, so how can anyone judge whether or not they should be put back in print? Even among academics, Mormon literature isn’t studies much, so these works don’t get much of a reading.

Third, I’m not sure how many people will feel about participating in such a project. Its likely that the work in this project would go unrewarded — except for perhaps the pleasure of seeing a title recommended show up in print.

But despite these significant hurdles, I think that the idea is important and worth pursuing. The problems I’ve raised can probably be overcome. We could perhaps find people to read some of the public domain titles and evaluate them. I think it is possible to find software that would allow members to rank the titles on a list.

What do you think?

13 thoughts on “Out-of-Print Mormon Lit”

  1. Great analysis, Kent. I’m not so concerned about the public domain titles as the titles from the past 40 years that are no longer in print.

    I understand, though, that dealing with the copyright issues (as well as the economics of printing that paying for copyright would lead to) probably makes most of them an unattractive option for re-publication.

    But yeah, I think that it could be worth doing to include both public domain and copyrighted works (and esp. if we could add summaries/reviews in addition to the rankings).

    How do you tell if a book is still in print?

  2. Determining if something is in print is generally quite easy, and most of the information is available online.

    I generally start by looking the title up on one of the online retailers, such as Amazon.com. On Amazon, you can often tell if a title is in print because the title listing says “Buy New” in front of the price (often followed by a link to buying “Used and new” copies. While those items that are not in print say only “Used and new”. The “Buy New” means that Amazon thinks it can get the copy from the publisher, instead of from used bookstores and third parties.

    Of course, the most definitive way to tell if a book is in print is to contact the publisher. Most online bookstores do list the publisher’s name, and a google search can often yield the publisher’s website or some kind of contact information. There is no downside to asking the publisher if a copy is available for sale and if the book is in print, since the publisher is generally trying to sell copies of the titles in print.

    In some cases it might be simpler to check the Books in Print database, which is available from many public and academic libraries. If you are willing to pay the fees, you can also search it directly from booksinprint.com

  3. In 1999 Gideon Burton re-published three works which had recently gone out of print, under the publisher name Tabernacle Books. So these were not public domain. They had just gone out of print with the origional publisher, and I guess Gideon acquired the rights somehow.
    The books he republished were:
    a. Douglas H. Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods and Other Mormon Stories
    b. Eugene England’s essay collection, Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel
    c. Donald R. Marshall’s short story collection, The Rummage Sale

  4. I am keenly interested in older and out of print LDS literature (well, really all LDS literature) and I would love to read and evaluate books. I’d even do it for free! A list like Mr. Larsen mentions would be well worth the time spent on it.

  5. Andrew:

    Gideon Burton and I are trying to put these titles and others back in print under the Mormon Literary Library series.

    I hope to have an announcement ready this weekend.

  6. Laura:

    Glad to know it.

    We will work on a mechanism for letting everyone participate in adding items to a list and ranking that list. But I suspect that will take a while to get set up.

    In the meantime, the best resources are the Mormon Literature Database at BYU, the AML list archives, and Cracroft and Lambert’s book “A Believing People”, which serves as an overview of Mormon literature. These should give a start towards choosing authors and titles to read.

    Once you know what you want to look at, I’d try OCLC’s World Cat (http://www.worldcat.org) to look up books and discover which libraries near you have copies of the books you want.

  7. I’d prefer not to be a downer, but it’s worth noting the following:

    A) According to copyright law, all publications within the last 75 years (and sometimes even longer) are under copyright. By definition, there are **no** books in the public domain published within the last 40 years unless the authors or publishers specifically listed them as such with the U.S. copyright office.

    B) Most out of print books are only useful for two reasons: academics and trivia. The American psyche is geared toward the “new.” With rare exception, books older than two years are rarely profitable. My feeling is that most publishers publishing out of print books do it more as a labor of love (I’d be interested in knowing if this observation is accurate).

    C) I’m not in favor of publishing public domain LDS books (books older than 75 years) without commentary. The Church today has standardized on most doctrine, but these standards didn’t exist back then. The result is an (*ahem*) wide variety of opinion, and not all of it is compatible with the modern church. People shouldn’t believe Orson Spencer’s “Spencer’s Letters” just because the book is old (though many would), and the Church would just as soon no one read Joseph Fielding Smith’s “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage” (1905) because without a remarkably good doctrinal background (which, I’m sorry to say, most people don’t have, even if they think they do) the book causes more harm than good.

    Arbitrarily publishing old LDS material without commentary to help average readers understand them and relate them to the modern world usually fails to advance the cause.

  8. JB:

    A) Please continue to think this is true. I’m happy to find things that get missed by those that believe this. The most recent standard is actually life of the author plus 70 years, but not everything was grandfathered in to the most recent standard.

    B) Doggone! I guess I shouldn’t publish “A Christmas Carol” then. Its not new!

    Seriously, I do agree that the American psyche is largely oriented towards the new. BUT, there are a lot of exceptions. If there is anything to be learned from the influence of the Internet and ideas like Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail,” its that there are a lot of micro markets that exist for all sorts of things.

    I’m quite sure that you are NOT correct about publishing books older than two years. At the very least, that is much too short a window. But more importantly, it doesn’t explain things like the multitude of classic works in print (search for “Huckleberry Finn” on Amazon.com and see how many titles come up.

    In my own case, I have more than 30 titles in print, classics of literature, and I make good money on them — enough so that I believe if I can simply get enough titles in print that I can pay my salary from these titles alone (remember, I live in New York City). And no, I don’t mean doing 10 times as many titles — that’s more than I need.

    The key is knowing which public domain titles to pick. Not all titles bring in enough income to pay their way.

    C). Commentary always helps with public domain titles, because it gives you something new and some part of the book that is covered by copyright.

    But, I believe it will happen regardless of whether you think it should be or not. I know of several titles that have been done already. Nephi Anderson’s “Added Upon” was done twice last year! One classic LDS work that I don’t want to name, first published in 1950(its author died in 1983), now in the public domain, was republished in 2004 by a company that specializes in doing public domain works by print-on-demand.

    Unfortunately, the “arbitrary publishing without commentary” of old LDS material you worry about will probably happen anyway. Between Google Books, other e-books, and print-on-demand, I sometimes wonder if there will actually be out-of-print books at all in the future!

  9. I hadn’t seen this before! This is great!

    B10 Mediaworx would be happy to format and digitize the catalog into the 7 (probably 8, with epub) ebook formats we offer.

    (Well, copyright considerations taken into account, of course.)

  10. I have started to do some research for some literature I came into. I have several Relief Society Magazines from the 1950’s and 60’s. I have several Childrens Friend magazines from the 1950’s. I have two Juvenile Instructor mags one from 1921 and one from 1899 in mint condition. Then I have The Improvement Era and one of those is dated 1939 and the postage label is made to the home of Heber J. Grant. I wanted to sell these and wanted to know if you could possibly direct me where I need to go. I have found it hard to find somebody who buys old mormon literature and would appreciate any direction you could give me. Thank you. Just email me if you could help.

  11. Heather:

    I have no idea. I don’t deal in Mormon rarities and memorabilia. There are people who do — I have no idea who is reputable, if there’s demand for the products you have, etc. Sorry.

  12. .

    You have thirty titles in print, Kent? Really? You really need to get your website uptodate. I don’t count thirty items there, and many links are broken as well.

    I’m going into reprinting as well, but I don’t want to duplicate what you’re doing.

  13. MiriamThis is not a comment, but I do have a qtoeuisn regarding what to do if I want to convert to Mormonism, but my husband (of ten years) is not a Mormon, does not want to be, and is a practicing Buddhist (having been born and raised as a Buddhist). I am a former Roman Catholic, and married him with the understanding that I too would try to follow the Buddhist path (as I studied Zen Buddhism for many years). I have found less and less happiness as a Buddhist, and miss my Christian background. I also have no desire to return to Catholicism, but am really drawn to Mormonism, and everything I have read about it. I am wondering if anyone can offer advice, as I do love my husband very much, but I KNOW he would never convert to Mormonism, and probably would be very hurt and upset if he knew of my desire to convert to Mormonism. He is very happy as a Buddhist and has no desire to become a Christian. Please help! Thank you.

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