The Problem of Deseret Book Part 2: A Question of Focus

11.4.05 | | 6 comments

This is the second in a three-part series on the role of Deseret Book in the LDS Market. As the largest player in the market and because it is owned by the LDS Church, it occupies a unique, but problematic, in my view, position. The first part discussed the problem’s that Deseret Book’s size causes.

The problem of Deseret Book goes beyond just its size. The company has a very real problem of focus, because it is in conflicting businesses and sells to audiences with differing expectations. But these competing audiences exist because of what Deseret Book has become and the businesses it continues to operate in.

Of course, Deseret Book’s most important audience is the Church’s hierarchy. Not only does Deseret Book have to turn a profit (yes it is owned by the Church, and as one of the for-profit companies the Church owns, it is expected to be profitable in order to support the Church’s mission), but it also has to answer to that hierarchy for the quality and content of what it publishes.

In addition, another important audience, Deseret Book’s customers (mainly Church members) also expect a certain orthodoxy from the publisher, probably even more orthodoxy than they expect of other LDS publishers simply because Deseret Book is owned by the Church and perhaps even more orthodoxy than the Church’s hierarchy expects of the publisher.

Of course, neither of these audiences is monolithic. Individual customers, for example, want one thing from the company in some circumstances and other things in other circumstances. Its easy to get torn between these audiences and between different individuals in these audiences. But so far these audiences are similar to what most businesses face — conflicts from customers and from owners or investors.

But Deseret Book’s situation is more complicated. Deseret Book is also both a retailer and a publisher, roles which sometimes conflict. When the company layed off staff for the first time ever in 2000 (if I remember correctly), my reading of the news was that the company was having trouble in its retail operations. However, the layoffs were among its publishing staff. Why? Apparently Deseret Book was trying to build its retail operations — at the expense of its publishing operations.

These roles also conflict when it comes to selling books. As a publisher it is in Deseret Book’s interest to sell to whatever bookstore can pay for its books. But the bookstore portion of Deseret Book wants preference in getting books before other stores get books. A mirror image of this problem happens when the publisher wants the bookstore to promote its titles instead of those of competing publishers. As I mentioned in part one of this series, one competitor mentioned that sales to Deseret Book’s bookstores dried up in the crucial holiday season, apparently because Deseret Book’s bookstores emphasize the titles of the publishing operation.

This is not only unfair to Deseret Book’s competitors, it also means that one of the two parts of Deseret Book looses. If the bookstores emphasize the publisher’s titles instead of a competitors’ titles that sell better, the stores end up with fewer sales overall while the publisher get’s a smaller sales increase.

Surprisingly, despite being a largely LDS publisher, Deseret Book sees competing motivations in its publishing operations. Yes, many of the titles Deseret Book publishes are specifically for the LDS audience (how many copies of 52 Weeks of Family Night can you sell outside of the LDS market?), but many are meant for a general audience — albeit one similar to the LDS lifestyle. Books like Christmas Jars, The Good Heart and Losing It! are meant for non-LDS readers as well as Church members.

One aspect of the conflict that can arise from these competing motivations is related to the degree of orthodoxy expected of Deseret Book. Every LDS publisher recognizes both the expectation of orthodoxy by most Church members, and what it would mean were a General Authority to publically criticize a book. [This has happened on several occasions.] For Deseret Book these expectations are even more significant. But because Deseret Book also tries to sell the books it publishes nationally, it must also try to satisfy the expectations of a largely non-Mormon audience.

A friend of mine recently compared Deseret Book’s publishing in this area to Chronicle Books, the San Francisco-based gift book publisher. While the books are clearly in the same genre, Deseret Books’ titles also clearly represent an LDS lifestyle — the cookbooks don’t suggest wines that go well with a dish, for example.

This situation is further complicated because Deseret Book’s size gives it the ability to try to control the LDS market, as I discussed in part one. In trying to reach out to the national market, Deseret Book sells books through a national distributor — a company that also distributes the books of other publishers and that makes them available to bookstores throughout the country.

But Deseret Book does not make all its books available through this distributor — it only supplies those that are aimed at a national market. Apparently the LDS titles are excluded to force LDS bookstores to purchase directly from Deseret Book, instead of through their distributor. This way Deseret Book knows who all the LDS bookstores are, and can probably make a good guess at their overall sales, if it wishes. It might also give Deseret Book leverage, because bookstores must have Deseret Book’s LDS titles (because it is owned by the Church). Getting cut off from these titles could easily kill off an LDS bookstore.

Unlike the difficulties caused by Deseret Book’s size, which mostly disadvantage its competitors, the problems of focus and conflict above not only cause difficulty for competitors, they also hurt Deseret Book to a degree. And as a result, everyone looses.

The final part of this series — slated for next week — will discuss how these problems could be resolved, whether or not they can be resolved, and what bookstores, publishers and customers should do.

6 comments: “The Problem of Deseret Book Part 2: A Question of Focus

  1. Chris Rusch

    I think that internet is the way to go. I interviewed at a local bookstore which is part of a major chain and one of the managers there said that sales were down because so much is bought online from places like Amazon. The solution I believe does not lie in bricks in Mortar, but in technology.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Chris:

    The problem with using the Internet to solve problems like this is simply that only a minority of LDS Church members use the Internet for religious reasons. This is one reason why use of stake and ward websites is generally less than 10% of active members.

    By my back of the envelope estimate, 5% of the active Church members in the US would be some 100,000 people (less if you exclude children). Does the amount of participation in the Bloggernacle and other LDS Internet resources suggest that anything close to these numbers is visiting on a weekly basis?

    This is even true of the Internet in general. Yes we’re closing on a majority of people using the Internet, but not everyone makes purchases there. Internet sales of books, for example, account for only about 10% of book sales in the US (if my memory of what I read about this is correct).

    I do agree that the Internet will continue to be a major factor, and may even eventually account for a significant portion of book sales in the LDS market. It has clearly contributed to the death of many LDS stores already. But I suspect that the Internet’s dominance of LDS book sales could be a decade or more away. In the national market, I’m not sure on-line book stores like Amazon.com will ever account for the majority of book sales. A lot of people like the bookstore experience, and will make a significant portion of sales there.

    Having said that, however, I do think a good independent online store could be a very important development. Deseret Book’s website isn’t that good (not compared to Amazon and B&N’s websites), and every other LDS book website is really substandard. I believe my own site (Mormon Pavillion), for example, is functionally much better than Seagull’s site — it just doesn’t have the number of products that Seagull does. [Feel free to tell me how I’m wrong.]

    But because a certain portion of the population will only buy books in brick and mortar stores, they will continue to be needed for the forseeable future. This is especially true in areas of the world where most LDS Church members don’t have the funds to have a computer. If no one else needs brick and mortar stores, they do.

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