Re-publishing Mormon Doctrine

5.27.10 | | 23 comments

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.

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23 comments: “Re-publishing Mormon Doctrine

  1. Wm Morris

    Wow, I forget how long copyright lasts — 2056 is a ways away.

  2. Th.

    .

    Too long, imo.

    But MD would be a coup for a small POD publisher looking for a slow-but-steady source of income. I’m guessing . . . . Valor will pick it up. They picked up Skousen, after all.

  3. Kent Larsen Post author

    Yes, Life of the Author + 70 years is too long. I can see maybe Life of the Author + 25 years or something.

    BUT, this all assumes that the McConkie family controls the copyright. We don’t know for sure that the copyright to Mormon Doctrine is owned by them.

  4. Th.

    .

    You’re right of course about the copyright.

    According to this, DB owns the copyright. Not sure that’s a reliable source though. And I don’t have a copy to check the frontistuff.

  5. Th.

    .

    I suspect that if DB either owns the copyright or has some sort of contractual control over it we’ll know shortly because the book will stay out of print. I’ve no doubt there are small companies anxious to snap it up Right Now.

  6. John Mansfield

    Here’s a question for you folks in the publishing world: Would retiring a book like this sometimes be done to make room for a newer replacement?

  7. Kent Larsen Post author

    Absolutely, John.

    That possibility had occurred to me a few days ago, but I forgot to include it in the post.

    In a way I suppose the Encyclopedia of Mormonism might be a replacement for Mormon Doctrine, but that seems an unlikely reason in this case because the Encyclopedia seems to be selling even fewer copies that Mormon Doctrine (at least on Amazon.com).

    I do think that something would have to be in the works already, and I, for one, would be mildly surprised that no one had leaked information about it yet.

  8. mary ann

    Interesting post. I’m really curious why a decision from the church to stop publishing MD is so unbelievable to you. Here you’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to come up with ANY other explanation, and none of them really satisfy.

    The amazon thing, for example. Sheri Dew’s new book Say It Like It Is is ranked 681,039 at amazon, but I doubt DB has it on the chopping block.

    Maybe there’s a reason, but I don’t think you’ve found it yet.

  9. Kent Larsen Post author

    Mary Ann, the reason Sheri Dew’s new book wouldn’t be on the chopping block (no matter whose new book it is), is simply that it is new. DB probably printed traditionally, and has a lot of copies to sell. They’ll give it some time to sell before they take it out of print.

    Mormon Doctrine was at the end of the inventory on hand. They had a printing decision to make. If they wanted to keep it in print, DB needed to invest thousands of dollars in printing more copies (or increase the price by 50% for a POD edition).

    I’m sorry that you don’t find my explanation satisfying. I’ve sat in meetings where we went through books one by one and made the decision whether to take the book out-of-print or not. Given that, my reasoning seems very sound.

    Especially opposed to an assumption that is contrary to Deseret Book’s statement about why the book is going out of print and that relies primarily on conjecture!

    The principle problem with the idea that the church was part of this decision is that there is simply no evidence for it.

  10. R. Gary

    Some of the quotes in Gospel Principles 2009 “were updated to reference materials that are more accessible to members of the LDS Church worldwide,” church spokeswoman Kim Farah explains. “For example, the series, Teachings of Presidents of the Church, is referenced because it is available in 28 languages, while Mormon Doctrine is only available in a few.” (The Salt Lake Tribune, 12/31/2009.)

    There were no quotes from Mormon Doctrine in the pre-2009 Gospel Principles manual. None. There were only four parenthetical references guiding the reader to further information in Mormon Doctrine. In three of these cases the text preceding the parenthetical reference did not change and in one case the preceding text was replaced with a quote from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith.

    The only (not Mormon Doctrine) quotation from Bruce R. McConkie found in Gospel Principles before 2009 was replaced in the 2009 edition (p.249) with a quotation from Russell M. Nelson and if you follow the reference to Elder Nelson’s talk, he is not only saying the same thing, he is quoting Bruce R. McConkie!

    For the record, Mormon Doctrine is 52 (not 42). Sam Weller’s and Benchmark Books both specialize in used books (not new books). In spite of all the rumors, more than a thousand errors NOT found by McKay, Romney, or anyone else. Mormon Doctrine’s second edition was approved by Spencer W. Kimball on behalf of the First Presidency after 50 (not 1000) changes. And from 1972 until he died in 1985, the First Presidency and Twelve “often” turned to Elder McConkie on matters of doctrine. (Ensign, June 1985, p.16.)

  11. Kent Larsen Post author

    “Sam Weller’s and Benchmark Books both specialize in used books (not new books).”

    Um, not exactly. Both sell used books, that is true, but they also sell new books, and in substantial quantities. But this is really beyond the point that neither is a good representation of the whole market.

    As for the rest of the history, I suggest you look at:

    http://www.examiner.com/x-19393-Salt-Lake-City-Mormon-History-Examiner~y2010m5d24-A-brief-history-of-Mormon-Doctrine-the-book

    IIRC, many years ago I saw an image of the actual report that listed the 1000+ errors.

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    D. Michael Quinn, if I remember right, has the number of original errors at something around 1200 in his _The Mormon Hierchy: Extensions of Power_, and then says something like only a “few” were changed. The first error, I think, was in the audacious title of the book. I suspect the book simply fulfilled the measure of its creation (read: is proven out-dated).

    All that aside, it would be interesting to see it picked up by a small press. I hadn’t even thunk of that happening. Why not? Maybe the new editor/publisher will remove that stuff about the negro race. That stuff is still there, right? I don’t exactly have MD memorized. :)

  13. William Morris

    Yes, we all know this is one of your hobby horses, R. Gary. However, I do appreciate you representing this point of view. I think blanket condemnations or defenses of Mormon Doctrine are unproductive and unwarranted.

    I have a request, though: let’s not (and I’m talking to everyone here and not just R. Gary) turn this discussion (which should really center principally on the possibilities of someone republishing the work — which is within AMV’s scope) in to another back and forth on Mormon Doctrine and its validity for Mormon thought, quasi-doctrinal status, etc.

  14. R. Gary

    Yes, and we also know one of Mormon Doctrine’s topics — Gospel Hobbies — can be used as a smear tactic when reason fails.

  15. William Morris

    I’m simply describing what appears to be true based on your record in the bloggernacle so far, R. Gary. I’d be happy to be surprised. Very happy, in fact, because I like conservative voices (ask Adam Greenwood, who, sadly, hasn’t been over to play here in awhile.). And indeed sometimes AMV does manage to bring in Mormons of all stripes who can have some good discussion here that doesn’t happen elsewhere.

    I’m also very sincere when I say that I appreciate you weighing in above. I think oversimplifying things and over-dramatizing things like the 1,000 errors canard or any other approach from any quarter does a disservice to all of us.

    But I’m also not interested at all in turning this in to yet another round of R. Gary against the world. We’ve been there and done that.

    You treat AMV like you do all the other blogs, then that’s what you are going to get out of it. You take a minute to bring something new and within scope (that means more of a literary/cultural emphasis and less of a combative tone) then I’m happy to have you around.

  16. H. Bob

    I think it’s interesting that, despite saying that the Church tends to think of itself as “anti-creedal,” you assume that there’s something else out there in the wings to take the place of MD. If we’re anti-creedal, maybe taking a creedal work out of print works to our favor. Replacing one creedal work with another seems illogical.

    Of course, I also think it’s interesting to see how much tea-leaf reading goes on in this post. Kent assumes that the McConkie family owns the copyright (DB does–they won’t be relinquishing it). Kent “has been told” DB does some POD, and doesn’t know that they do publish e-books, and apparently assumes they’re so conventional or hidebound or something that they haven’t even thought about it. It seems like Kent’s knowledge of DB could be held in a thimble, but he’s holding forth as the resident expert.

    Speaking of gospel hobbies, Kent’s near-obsession with all things Deseret Book tends to meet the definition far better than R. Gary’s, don’tcha think?

  17. William Morris

    I’m not speaking of gospel hobbies — R. Gary was the one who brought that up. Blogs by definition and tradition have certain pet topics and issues. We all have our hobby horses. My point is that as presently constituted AMV focuses on Mormon arts and culture and to a lesser extent on Mormon publishing and marketing. The original post is already at the margins of what AMV does — doctrinal back and forths is not what I’m interested in and there are numerous venues across the web for that kind of discussion.

  18. William Morris

    Two more things:

    1. Thanks for clarifying that Deseret Book owns the copyright on Mormon Doctrine. I do appreciate it when incorrect or incomplete information is met with knowledgeable assessments of the situation.

    2. Not that this matters so much, but to respond anyway: Deseret Book’s e-books strategy appears to be pretty much in its infancy. That’s not so different from many other publishers — and the e-book market itself is still (depending on the genre) only 3-5% of the overall publishing market — so I think that conventional is the right the term to use (whether that’s a good or bad thing I leave up to others — probably like most things it’s a mixed bag). Hidebound, however, isn’t one that I’d use. In particular, DB’s use of web and e-mail platforms is better than many publishers, and it’s an area where the combo of publisher and bookseller definitely helps.

  19. Kent Larsen Post author

    H. Bob:
    “I think it’s interesting that, despite saying that the Church tends to think of itself as “anti-creedal,” you assume that there’s something else out there in the wings to take the place of MD.”

    Hmmm. Looking at what I wrote, I see that I said the Church was “historically anti-creedal.” I don’t claim that the Church currently has that exact stance. I think it is much more complicated than that. I don’t see the inconsistency you have chosen to see.

    “Kent assumes that the McConkie family owns the copyright (DB does–they won’t be relinquishing it).”

    Well, usually (90+% of the time) that is a valid assumption. And without knowing the source of your claim, I’m not sure that I can agree even now.

    I do know that recent copies of Mormon Doctrine do say that they are copyright by Deseret Book. I wish I had a dollar for every time that a publisher put such a claim in a book. Everything depends on the actual contracts that McConkie signed with Bookcraft (which was still independent of Deseret Book when McConkie died) and what happened to that contract in the years since McConkie signed it.

    If your knowledge is based on something other than this claim, please let us know what it is.

    As for my knowledge of DB, I don’t think I ever claimed to have extensive knowledge of the company. What little knowledge I have is based on my 20 years of working in the book industry here in New York City, and the past decade of observing (mostly as an outsider) the Mormon book industry. My knowledge is not complete by any stretch.

    And as for an “obsession” with “all things Deseret Book,” well, you’ll have to be a bit more specific. I do write about Deseret Book — its hard to write about Mormon publishing without talking about Deseret Book — but I don’t think DB is the focus of what I write by any stretch.

    Most of my comments about them were a few years ago when they purchased Covenant/Seagull, and I called a spade a spade. I was somewhat wrong about some of the predictions I made at that time, but I still think overall the move was bad for the Mormon book market. FWIW, it has been over a year since I last wrote a post that focused on Deseret Book.

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