This past week news reports confirmed that Deseret Book will no longer print additional copies of the 42-year-old classic Mormon Doctrine, essentially taking a classic Mormon work out-of-print. While the move is apparently because of low sales, many commentators on the bloggernacle and news sites have claimed instead that the Church wanted it out-of-print.
While that seems unlikely to me, the effect is the same. What might be more interesting is what happens to Mormon Doctrine next.
Deseret Book’s decision might seem strange to those outside the company, given Mormon Doctrine’s status as a widely-cited work and the demand some booksellers see. [A KUTV report cited Tony Weller of Sam Weller's Books in Salt Lake as stating that there is demand for Mormon Doctrine. I've heard a similar claim in an email from Chris of Benchmark Books in Salt Lake.] This view is bolstered by a perception that the LDS Church is trying to distance itself from the work, a view based on the removal of all citations to Mormon Doctrine from the most recent edition of Gospel Principles.
Historically, the Church has often been ambivalent to the work. When Mormon Doctrine was first published, President David O. McKay was unhappy with it, and asked Marion G. Romney to investigate its accuracy. Romney discovered more than 1000 questionable statements and doctrinal errors in the book’s first edition, which was pulled out-of-print at the Church’s request. Most of these problems were changed for the second edition, published six years later.
Subsequently, the second and third editions became almost authoritative among many members of the Church, which was odd given that the Church has historically been anti-creedal, refusing to create an official statement of belief like that done in other Christian religions.
But, none of this persuades me that the Church asked Deseret Book to take the work out-of-print. I can believe that the Church has decided not to emphasize Mormon Doctrine any longer. But with perhaps millions of copies in print, it is hard to see much advantage to doing so in the short run. And in the long run, the McConkie family can always contract with someone else to print the book (presumably the family owns the copyright).
Perhaps, then, the demand for Mormon Doctrine indicates the Church’s involvement? Well, perhaps. But I’m not convinced that the demand Deseret Book wants is really there. The statements by Tony Weller of Sam Wellers and Chris of Benchmark Books aren’t convincing, IMO. I’m sure they do see demand and that they are being honest. But neither Sam Wellers or Benchmark reflect the Mormon market very well. Chris, who I know personally, would be the first to admit that Benchmark isn’t anything like most LDS bookstores. And Tony Weller doesn’t even claim that Wellers is an LDS bookstore! It is, in fact, a general interest bookstore that happens to carry a lot of LDS books. Both stores cater to a more academic audience than the average LDS store.
A more accurate idea of the LDS market can really come from only one single source: Deseret Book itself. Its Deseret Book and Seagull Books stores represent the majority of the traditional LDS market. Deseret Book’s claim of low saless might actually be corroborated by one online source: Amazon.com’s current sales rank for Mormon Doctrine is about 500,000, the equivalent of perhaps 3-5 copies a month in my experience.
The decision to take a book out-of-print can involve a number of factors. And each publisher has different assumptions and practices that help them make that decision. I don’t know what Deseret Book’s standards are. Do they require at least 100 copies sold each year? 500? What if the overall trend has been up, but the sales are just under the cut-off? What if the book is particularly profitable–does that make up for fewer sales? Can the book be produced using Print-on-Demand? Or would it be better to sell it as an ebook?
My sense is that Deseret Book has quite high standards in this regard–where other publishers would keep a book in print, Deseret Book will dump it. In today’s publishing environment this seems somewhat strange, given that even the largest publishers are adopting POD and ebook formats as a way of extending the life of a book. I’m told that Deseret Book does use POD (usually increasing the book’s price by 40%-50%, I’m told), but won’t with Mormon Doctrine because the price would be too high and the demand isn’t strong enough. As for ebooks, I haven’t yet seen any Deseret Book title sold that way, unless you include those on its Gospel Link site, where Mormon Doctrine is still available.
Given that its standards are higher than other publishers, it seems possible that Mormon Doctrine will eventually get picked up by another publisher, assuming that the McConkie family still controls the copyright. If not, then its status depends on Deseret Book’s willingness to allow others to publish it. In additional to Deseret Books’ own Spanish-language edition, the company permitted translations into Japanese and into German, and the latter remains available. [FWIW, I've found bootleg copies of pdfs of the Spanish version.] Theoretically, Deseret Book should be willing to sell the rights to do other editions.
If so, then we will likely see Mormon Doctrine back in print soon. I not, well, I’ll bet that it goes back into print in 2056, the year that McConkie’s works join that other Mormon Doctrine in the public domain.