The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy!

A recent book review of Eric Shuster and Charles Sale’s The Biblical Roots of Mormonism describes the book as “a 258-page overview of about 350 Latter-day Saint beliefs referenced in the Old and New Testament.” On the face of it, the book sounds like an extended exercise in proof-texting. I’ve talked about a few potential problems with such easy “likening” elsewhere but I haven’t read this particular book myself, so I can’t comment on its quality. Instead, I want to focus on the rhetorical approach of the book as described in the review. The book is an example of a larger trend in the marketing of recent LDS books generally: the marketing of stuff “made easier.”

According to the reviewer, the authors of The Biblical Roots of Mormonism “forewent a prolific tone in their writing and settled appropriately for a more matter-of-fact, practical approach to their descriptions of LDS beliefs.” The book’s “organization and simplicity that make it worth owning,” and the “fast-paced” chapters are “easy to scan through in a hurry.”

The reviewer underscores the virtues of simplicity, practicality, and speed. Anticipating a critical response to their approach, the reviewer adds:

With each topic averaging less than a single page of commentary, the book is no in-depth analysis of any one of its many subjects. But where critics might accuse it of being shallow in its brevity of doctrinal descriptions, others will surely hail the authors’ self-discipline for not cramming in deeper-than-necessary theological minutiae to impress scholarly circles. Their aim, to show Mormon biblical roots, hits the bull’s-eye.

This quote doesn’t really need breaking down, but as promised, I’m making this easier by doing so!

Rather than writing with “shallow brevity,” the authors exhibited “self-discipline” by not trying to “impress scholarly circles” with “deeper-than-necessary theological minutiae.” Surely, such “minutiae” would only be included for that reason rather than exemplifying a rigorous attempt to understand a difficult or contested reading. Indeed, common sense tells us that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; truth, like an arrow, slices to the center of the target. Certainty is the goal, we can recognize the truth by the bold period instead of a question mark at the end. (Arrows don’t fly in squiggly lines anyway.) Things are simpler when you just say what is so.1

This approach, characterized by its foregone certainty masked as simplicity, appears to characterize a whole series of books which have been heavily promoted by Deseret Book. David J. Ridges promises to make everything “Easier” in the Old and New Testaments, Isaiah, Jeremiah, The Book of Revelation, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and even Mormon Beliefs and Doctrines.2

Ridges’s books have evidently sold well. His BYU Education Week classes are well attended according to his wife, who offers this explanation: “he is prepared to give them doctrine, not just opinion, which is what they are there for.”3

This approach doesn’t seem to be new. You can probably point me to other blog discussions on the same topic.4 It has been over twenty years since Louis Midgley’s classic, scathing review of a Book of Mormon commentary:
The flaws in Doctrinal Commentary are ones common to much of Mormon scholarship. The tendency is to divert attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, and back towards what we already know.”5
What’s the problem with such-and-such “made easier”? Midgley puts it succinctly: “Such efforts…tend to close the door on the untapped possibilities within the scriptures.”6 Such books may seem very familiar, lack imposing footnotes, and assume an audience with a low reading level. Such books more often seem to offer answers to their own questions without demonstrating how the answers were arrived at, without giving the readers ideas about how to ask their own questions.

To the extent that such books encourage us to “read scripture as if it were naive philosophy” they may exemplify what LDS philosopher James Faulconer stunningly compares to “idolatry”:
Those who read the scriptures in this way take the gospel to be a set of doctrinal propositions that one is to learn, and they take the scriptures to be a record of those principles and propositions behind which the ‘theological’ gospel hides. When we read scripture this way, it is as if we assume that God is simply a poor writer–or that he chooses poor mouthpieces–and finds himself unable to lay out clearly and distinctly, in an ordered fashion, the principles he wants to teach us. With amazing hubris, we assume it is our job to do the work he was unable to do, the work of making everything clear, distinct, and orderly.7

Faulconer favors a “disruptive reading,” one in which we try to find questions in scripture, questions which call us to repentance and to new perspectives.8 But I don’t see many books which seek, in that way, to make things “harder,” we see seven steps to better such-and-such, and things “made easier.”

Sales alone can’t explain this situation. The recent Massacre at Mountain Meadows book sold quite well, for example, and it isn’t the lightest reading I’ve encountered. I can’t merely sigh and say “it’s always been like this,” either. When Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon was selected as the 1957 priesthood manual the correlation committee “turned down every chapter,” Nibley explained. “But President McKay overruled the committee on every chapter. He said that if it’s over the brethren’s heads, let them reach for it.”9 Deseret Book has recently put out a few books which seem to elevate things to an exciting new level,10 but for the most part still seems to favor the pop-spirituality or doctrinaire commentary (and cute wall hangings!).

What prevents more books like the ones in footnote #10 from being written and published? I concede that I see a legitimate place for more devotional, homiletic, or traditional LDS style commentary. My instinct tells me there are many factors contributing to this genre and to the lack of other types of approaches from mainstream LDS publishers.

But I still have to ask: why do we so often have to make things easier?


1.  All quotes from Jacob Hancock, “Book review: ‘The Biblical Roots of Mormonism’,”, 28 December 2010. Of course, the promise of making things easy is not unique to Mormonism.

2.  I want to strongly emphasize that I believe Ridges seems like a good and well-meaning man, but that is all I will say about his character in this post. My criticism is leveled at the authored, not the author. A list of his books, including the “Made Easier” series, is available here.

3.  Whitney Butters, “BYU Education Week’s David Ridges keeps attracting ‘Isaiah Trekkies’,” 11 August 2010.

4.  For one such example, see Ben’s “A Pillar of Light, The First Vision, and History for the Masses,”, 29 May 2009. Ben notes that “academically trained historians, especially within the Mormon tradition, wish that the faithful masses had a better understanding of the history of the Church,” and wonders about factors which inhibit what he sees as a better understanding.

5.  Louis Midgley, “Prophetic Messages or Dogmatic Theology? Commenting on the Book of Mormon: A Review Essay,” FARMS Review 1:1, 92-113, see here.

6.  Ibid.

7.  James L. Faulconer, “On Scripture,” in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 211. A review is forthcoming on this new Faulconer volume.

8.  Ibid., 215.

9.  C. Wilfred Griggs, “Hugh Nibley, Mentor to the Saints,”

10. See here, here, and here for examples. I acknowledge that the inclusion of these footnotes might be considered inappropriate given my promise that this post would be “Made Easy.”

61 Replies to “The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy!”

  1. Great post. I’d say that Mormonism, to borrow from Givens, has a paradoxical emphasis on democritization, even with the importance of authority. In a way, I see the moves of correlation, along with these para-LDS marketing trends in books, as belonging to a movement that seeks to provide an equal playing field for the mind, often by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Pres. McKay’s optimistic comment about the value of Nibley would never pass today. In that way, the bureaucracy has succeeded in taming the leadership.

    In another direction, one of the interesting things about the Pew forum report was that Mormons were the highest (or among the highest) percentage of religious groups that read about religion. That seems like marketing gold, and Oxford UP has definitely noticed.

  2. Thanks, Jacob B.

    As a post script to this post, I realize I crammed a lot of issues into this blog post, but I’ll probably explore the themes further later on and wanted to get some preliminary thoughts out there.

    TT, OUP has published some of the best recent LDS works I’ve read, as you note there is a market for them. But these books don’t show up in the Deseret Book catalogs and main displays, if they wind up on those shelves at all (I felt a little unnerved when I heard Deseret Book declined to carry Givens’s Viper on the Hearth. For a time they carried Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, and they still carry Rough Stone Rolling. This gets into some of the politics of publishing, etc., which I am too ignorant about right now to make confident recommendations). Perhaps this sort of dominance only affects the Mormon corridor, though.

  3. This “in a nutshell” effort seems akin to the once-and-future “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church” series of RS/MP manuals (albeit those with endnotes): proof-texting a limited number of (correlated) doctrinal points, whilst ignoring the remainder of their works.

  4. I’ve somewhat accepted that Church manuals will likely remain as they are for the foreseeable future, but that only increases my anxiety in the area of non-correlated books. Non-official books (like the ones advertised each year by Deseret Book which happen to coincide with the particular Sunday School course) should offer a variety. If you want such-and-such made easier, fine, have at it. What if you don’t, though?

  5. Just to disrupt your reading of Jim Faulconer, while he favors a disruptive reading I don’t think that is all he favors. Certainly we should focus on what we don’t know and investigate our assumptions. (What in the LDS tradition we often call “the false traditions of the fathers”) However simultaneously it seems undeniable that there are readings and beliefs we are sure of. I think helping people see that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    It’s like sugar. Nothing wrong with sweets so long as that’s not all we eat. Nor should we do away with carbohydrates entirely or else we’d quickly run out of steam.

  6. Clark, I plan to talk a little more about Faulconer’s “disruptive reading,” including some of his caveats, in the review of his book in the next few weeks.

  7. LOL. I’m all for disruptive readings, mind you. (Hey – I do like Derrida as much as Jim does) However that leads to a theology that is purely a negative theology. And, all apologies to Meister Eckhart, but a purely negative theology is no theology at all.

  8. It is remarkable to me that DB does not carry Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. Oh, wait! It does anything but make the Book of Mormon easier, so maybe it is not so unfathomable after all.

  9. Ironic here is your scathing review of books which simplify things, and then pointing to such counter-examples in footnote 11 as two picture books and a book called “making sense of…” which basically simplifies the D&C by giving context. While I own and love all three of these books, I’d say they still fall under the same genre of religious literature.

    Some books in the “easy to read single-tome” genre are better than others, but they still essentially are the same genre.

  10. Matt, re-read this bit:

    “What prevents more books like the ones in footnote #10 from being written and published? I concede that I see a legitimate place for more devotional, homiletic, or traditional LDS style commentary.”

    The books mentioned in fn 10 aren’t perfect, and they certainly try to remain accessible to average readers. (The two “World of” books don’t include footnotes, for instance, which is noted in the reviews). But they do take a more academic approach in the way they make use of more current scholarship and introduce Latter-day Saints to new ideas.

  11. Fascinating!

    The reviewer offers us a review of a review of a book the reviewer has not read. I do appreciate the irony: dumbed-down literary criticism (the critic not having read the book) offered up to draw attention to dumbed-down literature. At least this critic admits not having read the book; many do not. I thank him (or her) for that.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I have an axe to grind. I am co-author of the unread book, “The Biblical Roots of Mormonism.” I want everyone in the world to buy it and lift me out of poverty. So this is my self-serving proposal: Buy the book (or, if you must, pick it up at the library); read it; then tell me how awful it is.

    Best wishes to all,

    Chuck Sale
    “The Biblical Roots of Mormonism”

  12. Folks: I am Eric Shuster, the co-author of “The Biblical Roots of Mormonism,” the book mentioned in the lead of this blog post. One must understand the target audience and intention of the content of any book to be able to accurately critique the book itself. I have no problem with being lumped into a “make it easy” pile of books, it was clearly one of the goals of the work. However, the primary targets of the book are two-fold: 1) Mormons who want desire to understand the connections of their doctrine to the Bible; and 2) non-Mormons who desire to understand if Mormon doctrine has any biblical roots at all. Our objective was to lead the reader to the scriptures, but to leave the heavy-lifting of studying and pondering to the reader. The Holy Ghost is the real teacher, not the author of the book. As an author I want to get people to think, and to get them to think it is often best to keep things simple. May the Lord bless you and your loved ones always. Your Brother, Eric Shuster

  13. Blair, DB still publishes every Nibley Book so they are picking books from the genre of “Made Impossibly Hard, and poorly footnoted”, Also, technically do print and market the “Church Historian’s Press” Books, so they are picking books from the genre of “Top of the Barrel” History as well.

    I can understand why the church would pass on “Viper on the Hearth” and with it’s publication, Givens had his relationship and stuck with Oxford for the more accessible “By the Hand” etc.

  14. Chuck, thanks for stopping by. You noted:

    The reviewer offers us a review of a review of a book the reviewer has not read.

    This post isn’t a book review, as I tried to make clear in the opening paragraph:

    On the face of it, the book sounds like an extended exercise in proof-texting . . . I haven’t read this particular book myself, so I can’t comment on its quality. Instead, I want to focus on the rhetorical approach of the book as described in the review.

    When I write reviews I usually take a different approach. You can see a selection of my book reviews here. Many of them are also posted at the Association for Mormon Letters website here (under reviewer name, Hodges).

    Also, this blog post is also not an exercise in formal literary criticism by any stretch. Rather, it’s something like a short essay on something that has been bothering me about many LDS books. I’ve only spoken to a good friend who has read your book, and then relied on the mormontimes review for my extended thoughts. If you think his review misrepresented your book I’d appreciate reading any clarifications you have to make. Were I to write a book review I would read the entire book first. If you’d like me to formally review your book you can contact me at lifeongoldplates (at) yahoo (dot) com and I will send you my mailing info. As a fellow Latter-day Saint I intend no hard feelings and wish you the best.

  15. Having read the two posts from the co-authors, I have to agree that one must consider the market to which a book is directed. Unfortunately, that is just the point BHodges is making. Does this market exist and persist because we pander to it?

  16. Matt, is Shadow Mountain a name Deseret Book published under? Nibley’s earlier volumes were published under that name. DB may have bought them out I guess, I really don’t know. His recent One Eternal Round was published by DB. I guess we’ll agree to disagree on whether all of Nibley’s books are impossibly hard or poorly footnoted. Anyway, I didn’t claim DB doesn’t publish any books I like to read. I cited counter-examples (the ones you already referred to). You’ve added a few more. I’m glad they’re carrying the JSPP stuff. Are they carrying Reid Nelson’s recent book on the opening and closing of Japanese mission from the UofU press? If not, why do you think they aren’t?

    You also said you can understand why the church would pass on Viper on the Hearth, I’m interested in your thoughts there. As far as Givens sticking with Oxford, I don’t intend to confine the discussion to books with the DB label. Why wouldn’t DB push (or even sell) By the Hand or People of Paradox or his <very Short Introduction or Hardy’s Understanding or his Reader’s Edition or Skousen’s new Earliest Text etc. etc.? It could be a financial decision, it could be an ideological decision, it could be a combination of both and more. The question boils down to this, Matt: Are you satisfied with the selection at Deseret Book, or the approach in many of the LDS-targeted books currently being published?

  17. Eric Shuster, thanks for taking time to comment. I agree that the target audience should be considered when looking at a book and I try to factor that in when I write a book review. In this post I wanted to talk about the sort of expectations publishers or the LDS book market generally seem to have, based on the sort of books we see published most often.

    With that in mind, I am interested to know how you and Chuck would answer my questions, or if you would disagree with the way I am asking them. Why do we so often have to expect other people to make things easier for us? Why do we want a book that makes things “easier”? Aside from any benefits such a book might contain, what are the potential pitfalls in such books? What do you think of Midgley’s point that the tendency of many of these books is to “divert attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, and back towards what we already know”?

  18. I don’t mind a book that makes things easier for LDS. What I have concern over are books that make statements regarding teachings, then do not show how they arrived at their point. Worse, when there is more than one way to understand a passage and only their preferred way is mentioned, or is insisted on as the only and right way to read it. This includes church manuals (April 6 1BC reading of D&C 20:1 comes to mind).

    When a statement in a book becomes the gospel truth regarding a passage of scripture, suddenly we’re getting lost in the woods of our own creeds.

    When we do not help the reader to think in new ways, we are reinforcing the dumbed down approach. That is very different than supplying an easier way to understand a passage, and then allowing the person to continue working on it later.

  19. Blair,

    I read some of your book reviews. Excellent. Thank you for directing me to them.

    I took no offense from your blog post and I intended none in my comment. In fact, my underlying point was supplemental to yours, though I can see how this was obscured by my using your piece to make it.

    Originality is a demanding pursuit. So much is derivative: opinions about opinions about opinions. Originality combined with simplicity (as distinct from simplism or banality) is the gem stone without price. I have searched for it throughout my years as a ghost writer and editor. Rilke is a master of this combination, as is, for example, Norman Maclean (“A River Runs Through It”). For example, who cannot be moved by this sentence: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” A simple sentence. Not a single spare word. Not a single word to add. All is said in that sentence.

    Human relations “made simple”? I think not.

    I submit that we talk too much about things, as I am doing here. What is needed is more direct pointing. That was the intention of our book. We kept commentary to a minimum, pointed directly to the Old and New Testaments, and left the rest to the reader.

    Whether we realized this intention is for others to decide. But I think it is safe to say that honest deciding requires examination of the original.

    Best wishes,

    Chuck Sale
    “The Biblical Roots of Mormonism”

  20. Chuck Sale,

    Do you have anxiety that someone reviewing your work rhetorically frames it within the (sub)genre of things-made-easy? Or does this framing seem to you to be a compliment to your work? It seems to me that you would feel anxious about it since you yourself say, “But I think it is safe to say that honest deciding requires examination of the original.” It is just this manufactured hedge of things-made-easy that will keep many of your readers from an “examination of the original.” It seems to me that folks who read things-made-easier read such material because they don’t want to mess with the complicated stuff whereas the folks who read things that complicate a topic or text are just the ones who will wrestle with the “the original.” So I guess I am just a bit confused.

    As for audience, what kind of reader did you have in mind when you were writing? This is a question that I rarely get to ask the authors that I tend to read since they are almost uniformly deceased–but since you are here with us, do tell!

    On a totally unrelated note, I am curious about what kind of royalties per copy one can expect from a book like this. I only broach this potentially sensitive topic because you have already demonstrated a willingness to discuss the volume in terms of buying and profits and such. Does a co-authored book mean that you get 50% of the normally expected royalties? Book writing and publishing is an issue near and dear to the hearts of many on this blog so your insight would be valued.

  21. I wonder to what extent we might be confusing being simple with being simplistic. Again, I dont have any specific knowledge of this book, though i do know something about the genre, and i certainly know something about the topic, but it seems to me that the drive to be simple can easily fall into the simplistic. I’m wondering how we guard against that risk?

  22. Blair, let me first say that I bought “Making Sense…” based on your review of it, so no hard feelings, and all that Jazz.

    Shadow Mountain, so far as I know, was always an imprint of DB. It’s odd that Nibley’s Books were published under SM though, as it is considered their “general” imprint, ie- books for non-mormons. But it may have had a different role for DB before DB purchased Bookcraft and redefined it’s business units. Mormon Literature DB doesn’t account for anything printed on this imprint before that occurred, so I don’t really know much about that.

    Ok, to double cheack, I opened a Chat at DB and asked

    >Has Shadow Mountain always been an Imprint of Deseret Book, or was it acquired, like Bookcraft?

    DBHelp1 : Thank you for contacting Deseret Book. This is Brett

    DBHelp1 : That is correct. Shadow Mountain was an imprint created and maintained by Deseret Book.

    >Thanks so much, I have one more question. How does Deseret Book determine which non-DB books it will carry? For example, I see you carry Terryl Givens’ “by the hand of Mormon”, but not his “Viper on the Hearth”. Is it a matter of what is available, or market analysis of what is believe to sell?

    >or something else?

    DBHelp1 : There are several factors involved with carrying a book.

    >Sorry, odd question, but a friend is wondering why Reid Nelson’s book from U of U press is not carried on LDS missionary work in Japan

    DBHelp1 : I can’t say why or why not a book is not carried. The author would need to speak with the buyers the book was submitted to. Sometimes it’s the content, idea, or price of the book for why it’s not approved.

    DBHelp1 : Due to popularity, sometimes books are only listed as special order books and we do not actively carry them online or in our retail stores.

    >So, it’s basically a check as to whether the book will sell well. A good example may be something like Massacre at Mountain Meadows where Oxford only printed 4000 as a test to see whether there would be any demand for it before printing more.

    DBHelp1 : That may be correct.

    DBHelp1 : For example the Viper on the Hearth fits into the Special Order category.

    >Thanks so much, this has been highly informative.

    So I was leading the witness there at the end, but I think it comes down to the fact that Deseret Book’s mentality is still that of a newstand type bookstore (like Walden Books). Thy are not going to warehouse books in their back lot which they are not sure they are going to sell or that they do not publish themselves. Also, they are not going to publish books that either they think will have a low sell rate or “content, idea, or price” are an issue.

    So for something Like Reid’s Book I’d say it is a sales expectation sort of thing (How different is his U of U book than the one he did for BYU press?). For Viper on the Hearth, It’s a tough sale (though a great book) because it is a very niche audience interested in reading the history of anti-mormon lit. from the perspective of a faithful mormon. In terms of Content, I’d always thought that the church had a policy on not publishing alternative texts to the actual Book of Mormon, outside of the official version, which Hardy’s first print was basically an alternative text, as is Skousens. But I may be wrong about that, as they do carry Skousen’s Books on the Website as well as the afore mention “made easier” books.

    Matt: Are you satisfied with the selection at Deseret Book, or the approach in many of the LDS-targeted books currently being published?

    Which brings me to the crux of it all. Deseret Book is a Popular Book Company, not a scholarly one. It’s more comparable to Zondervan or Lifeway than to Oxford. I think ot’s great that the church has gotten involved with the company and basically forced it to do the Joseph Smith Papers. Otherwise, these probably would have been done on a shoe string budget via BYU Press (like Skousen’s books prior to the Oxford Explosion).

    More personally, I’ve never been inside an actual Deseret Book, to my knowledge. The “Templeview Books” we have here is much more low key and primarily has the business model of ordering a few of everything in the Deseret Book Catalog. It’s a niche store, and I haven’t purchased a book there in a very long time. I did buy my daughter a nice sterling silver CTR ring their for her 5th Birthday, and I’ve purchased a puzzle or two there. But for books, I can always get a much better deal via the internet.

    Here are the Deseret Books from the last 10 years I have purchased that I liked:

    6 Events
    The Redeemer
    Truman Madsen’s Presidents of the Church
    The World of… Books
    Making Sense of the D&C
    The Spencer W. Kimball Bio
    The Savior and The Serpent
    The Joseph Smith Paper’s Project
    The Val Chadwick Bagley lift the flap books (My Daughters like these)
    Sacrament time (My 7 yr old daughter likes this)
    Sister Eternal (I like to read this to my daughters)

    Here are Deseret Books I purchased (or read) that I did not like:
    The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ vol. 1-3 (boring, not well formatted for reference)
    The Book of Momon Reference Companion (formatted for reference, but nothing in it that isn’t also available via Google)
    Fablehaven-(boring, but my wife really liked it)

    So I guess, I am mostly satisfied. I accept that Deseret Book is the equivalent of the average run of the mill christian bookstore.

    Sorry if this comment is super long and out of order, as I’ve been writing bits of it for about 3 hours now…

  23. Blair, I enjoyed the post. I’ve been hoping someone here would do a review of one of these “made easier” books. They deserve to be considered for a number of reasons.

  24. Matt, it seems your argument hinges largely on price and whether something will sell or not to a vague popular market. Am I reading you correctly?

  25. My motivation for co-authoring “The Biblical Roots of Mormonism” was simple. When I was an investigator, I knew only the Bible. I found modern revelation to be a distraction, even an interference. I was tuned to the Bible channel, but transmissions were being sent to me over the modern- revelation channel.

    When I asked Latter-day Saints – friends, missionaries, Church leaders, and scholars – for the biblical foundations of Mormonism, their responses were inevitably an alloy of modern revelation and the Bible – never the Bible alone. The same for Latter-day Saint literature. Nowhere could I find a disciplined argument for the Restoration that relied solely on the Bible. At the time, I considered this a weakness.

    Nevertheless, after some years, I crossed over. I have been a Latter-day Saint for nearly ten years.

    My co-author, Eric Shuster, is a tireless researcher. The research he had done for his first book, “Catholic Roots, Mormon Harvest,” was a head start on the research necessary for “The Biblical Roots of Mormonism.” I had been Eric’s editor for “Catholic Roots.” We became co-authors of “Biblical Roots.”

    That is how “Biblical Roots” came to be. My heart went out to those who, like me, needed to find the Church in the Bible before they could find it in modern revelation. I also wanted to open a window of understanding between Latter-day Saints and other Christians.

  26. Welcome to the fold, Chuck. The project of locating the Gospel in the Bible is a worthy and well-pedigreed one (look at the writings of Parley Pratt or Benjamin Winchester or several others from the 1840s). A lot of people on these blogs are anxiously trying to find a place for themselves within the Church based on their strong preference for “academic” materials, and sometimes people trying to live full spiritual lives in a different way seem strange or uncomfortable to them. (I say that as someone who really likes both sides in this ongoing Mormon version of a town:gown dispute.)

  27. Matt, it seems your argument hinges largely on price and whether something will sell or not to a vague popular market. Am I reading you correctly?

    Yes, it’s a basic Cost of Revenue issue. It costs to much for a company like Deseret Book to buy books it thinks, based on it’s Market data, will not sell. I’m not saying it’s precise, but Deseret Book, when purchasing from other publishers, seams to take the old school model of actually buying the books. This is good for the publishers it carries, and bad for the ones it doesn’t. On the other hand, the alternative is the Walmart approach, where it takes all it’s product on consignment, and if it doesn’t sell them, they just give them back to the publisher. This is bad for the publisher, as it basically means they never know how much inventory they have.

    Of course, there is the digital approach, but that is going to collapse DB into merely being a brand identity anyway. Which brings up another point. On top of the basic COR issue is the question of what DB is doing with it’s brand. They are not simply “Mormon Books” but cater to a very specific sub-genre of Mormon Books, which I would say is the popular genre. This is vague to us because “Popular” is, of course, ever shifting. For example, there seems to be a real shift in Popular LDS books towards more openness. DB is not a thought leader in deciding what is popular, but is more of a “late adopter”, going after low hanging fruit. It’s going to be individual contributors like Givens and Bushman that are thought leaders, and DB is always going to go with the safe bet of “Sell it is it is written be a GA, an Ensign Staffer, or a BYU professor”. That Model has worked for them for a very long time, and I don’t see them venturing out of it without a very good reason.

    My sister runs a women’s sports publishing company, and so I’ve been around this stuff for about 20 years. I’m no expert, but these are just my suspicions.

  28. Didn’t DB basically squeeze out other competing chain bookstores? Your financial considerations would take on a whole new meaning in that circumstance. Again, books which are decently marketed, like the MMM book, do great at DB. Why don’t we see more of them being pushed there?

  29. BHodges while DB did do that in some ways I suspect Amazon had far more of an effect over the last decade. It’s hard to be a small independent bookstore period. Indeed even DB has struggled adapting to the new situation. A lot of the criticisms of DB are (in my mind) better seen as DB trying to maintain its core audience against the effects of the Internet on booksellers.

    (i.e. I see a lot of the anti-DB rhetoric while understandable ultimately overheated and missing the larger context)

  30. Clark, would you say, then, that the current continued stream of made-easy type books is dictated mostly by the market? In other words, this is really what your local book-buying Mormon would want to buy? I don’t think it can all be attributed to one factor, that’s true, but I wonder about why these books are made. More importantly, I wonder what sort of problems they might present a reader, or what benefits they offer, etc.

  31. The Mountain Meadows book would be safe for Deseret Book in the way Matt W. describes since it was written by church employees and promoted with an article in the Ensign. (By the way, relatives in New Mexico told me that as part of his mission there, one of the authors (Walker, I think) went around giving a lot of firesides on Mountain Meadows.)

  32. John, can you give me a better idea of your meaning when you say “safe”? You refer to the way Matt is describing it, so are we talking safe in terms of profitability?

  33. I mostly mean safe in the commercial sense that it is something a wide swathe of Latter-day Saints will think of buying because it was written by the Assistant Church Historian, the director of the Church’s museum, and a BYU prof and because they were clued into it by that piece in the Ensign. Other senses of safe contribute to this commercial safeness; their book could only feel more “approved” by the Church if President Monson had written a foreword. Few other works have this one’s advantage of being more or less commissioned by the Church.

  34. On top of what John said, Oxford only published 4,000 of it in it’s initial print run, so even they were not willing to take that much of a risk. I’d say it running out of stock before the ink had even dried was a good key indicator to all book stores to pick it up on a larger scale.

    I definitely agree with Clark here. That’s what I meant, talking about the cost of carrying inventory. If Amazon decides to sell a book that it thinks will have a very small market it can either buy 5-10 for it’s warehouse, or, better yet, not buy any at all, and for almost no cost, just advertise for the publisher on it’s site and take a cut if the publisher sells the book, thus letting the publisher deal with it’s own inventory issues. On the other hand, if DB decides to carry a book, it’s model dictates it has to have one in every store, or it goes into a special order queue. DB hasn’t adjusted to the idea that it can market things on it’s site that are not available in it’s stores, and so it does not carry LDS books like “Viper on the Hearth” on it’s website.

    As to the publishing arm of DB, i think that is an entirely different issue. You could ask why DB didn’t publish MMM, and the fact is, that it would have tarnished the reputation of MMM to be published by DB. Which lends itself ultimately to your bigger question, which iin my mind would be “Why does DB have a bad reputation?” Is it because DB is the Mormon equivalent of Hallmark? Or is it because DB is Mormon at all? That I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see.

  35. Maybe Deseret Book is preventing the dumbing down of the search for books on Mormon topics. If their catalog and website prominently featured every worthwhile book and nothing else, then all readers looking for such things would need to do is consult Deseret Book. Perhaps there are people who wish everything in their lives was made easy that way, with some voice of authority telling them what is good to read. It could even be that this comment of mine isn’t one quarter so clever as I would like to think it is.

  36. To John Mansfield – I may use your last sentence as my own last sentence in all future postings everywhere. With attribution, of course, but don’t count on it. I laughed for ten minutes. Thanks for that.

    “It could even be that this comment of mine isn’t one quarter so clever as I would like to think it is.” (John Mansfield, as translated from the original Greek.)

  37. Just want to say I appreciate the authors for taking part in the thread without becoming overly defensive. Chuck Sale, your description in #30 of your motivation gives me a better feeling about the book than I would have had otherwise.

  38. I agree with Jakob. But back to my dead horse. One interesting thing to note, is that, if sales over the last 30 days on are an indicator, none of these “made easier” type books seem to be doing that well for Amazon

    Here are the top 20 accord to Titlez

    Fablehaven Brandon Mull
    Fablehaven, Vol. 5: Keys to the Demon Prison Brandon Mull
    Fablehaven – Grip of the Shadow Plague Brandon Mull
    To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson Heidi S. Swinton
    Fablehaven – Rise of the Evening Star Brandon Mull
    Fablehaven – Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary Brandon Mull
    The 13th Reality, Vol. 1: The Journal of Curious Letters James Dashner
    Christmas Jars Jason F. Wright
    Meeting Your Goliath Thomas S. Monson
    Wednesday Letters Jason F. Wright
    The Candy Shop War Brandon Mull
    Driven: An Autobiography Larry H. Miller
    Divine Signatures: The Confirming Hand of God Gerald N. Lund
    The 13th Reality, Volume 3: The Blade of Shattered Hope James Dashner
    The Great and Terrible, Vol. 1: Prologue, The Brothers Chris Stewart
    The Silence of God Gale Sears
    The Kiss of a Stranger Sarah M. Eden
    A Loving Heart: Dicken’s Inn Vol. 3 Anita Stansfield
    The 13th Reality, Vol 2: The Hunt for Dark Infinity James Dashner
    Believing Christ Stephen E. Robinson

  39. The reason there are so many “made easy” books is because so few of the saints want to work to learn the gospel. However, there are many of us who (like myself) grew up reading Nibley. I don’t like the fried fluff books.

  40. DB books aren’t purchased to be read. They’re purchased for others to read. They’re “safe;” they won’t injure tender testimonies. Perhaps an ideal gift an aunt/grandmother can give to a family member.

  41. I don’t necessarily buy into the premise that it is too difficult for Deseret to stock a full range of titles that appeal to a much wider LDS audience. Mormon scholarship is of interest to a large sub-set of members. Perhaps even more than are interested in corny LDS fiction or emotion-laden feel-good advice books.

    I believe that DB has locked itself into a model that it cannot easily break itself out of without incurring the loss of some of its reputation for “safe & soundness”. This “safe & sound” reputation is relied upon by a fair number of members. However, I don’t think it is a majority of members. Many are hungering for a more “real” experience from the company’s offerings which DB is not providing. This would include being more Christ-centered, more scholarship-oriented, and more real-life.

    If you look to the future growth of the Church, the globalization of LDS culture and the sizable demographic shift to younger generations, Sister Dew has not positioned the company to take advantage of these things. She has emphasized a number of smaller niches which are not growing very well. And the recent foray into home furnishings such as plates and bowls continues the insanity. She needs to stop relying so heavily on LDS fiction for women, lame artwork, and conservative political / lifestyle stuff and open the company to a more diverse set of offerings which cater to the whole LDS audience both in the US and abroad.

    But this will require a break from the past which she does not appear willing to make. I think the upcoming Deseret Bookshelf digital application reflects this “castle” mentality. Because DB has charged such high prices for its books and products it must continue to erect “barriers to entry” for other purveyors of LDS items. They cannot effectively compete across the wide range of interests so they must continue to create a wall around the offerings they do have to force the higher prices to stick. Why are they touting this product? Why are they not just making the items available at reasonable prices on the Kindle or iPad? Because they need the excessive income to support the bloated operation. Why doesn’t the website have a wide selection of scholarly works from different publishers, alternative LDS fiction or more unique artwork and sculptures? This is very easy to do and does not require copies to be all 40+ stores.

    They have eliminated all the competition west of the Mississippi by purchasing the other publishing companies of any size (Bookcraft) and by eliminating any significant retail competition (Seagull). As far as the rest of the US and Canada are concerned, they have the smaller bookstores on a dependent leash which is not easily broken.

    No one is in a position to serve the larger LDS markets in Mexico, Brasil, Chile, the Phillippines or Argentina. And we still have Africa and Asia to prepare for.

    I think it is time for new management and a new operating strategy to be implemented at the company.

  42. BHodges,
    Sorry if my comment was too trollish- it probably was. I have been thinking a lot about the saints of the pre-correlation church. Judging from official statements over the past century or so , it seems like the saints and the leadership openly discussed issues that many of the general membership today don’t even know exist, much less that the church was once aware of them, or had a position or non-position as it were. (I’m not thinking of anything too heterodox right now, just things like the historicity of Job or the flood, etc.) And it frustrates me. It reminds me of doing all the research and never publishing it. So a post about the “dumbing down” trend reminds me of that, and I imagine the saints sitting malnourished at a fine restaurant eating extremely low quality fare, because that is all that they are offered. Perhaps my perception is flawed, and lies in the realm of mythology, but it is troubling to me.

  43. Clark, would you say, then, that the current continued stream of made-easy type books is dictated mostly by the market?

    I think the DB bookstores primary market is gifts. I think they are trying to do the mainstream market with their bookstore but, as others mentioned, they haven’t figured out just in time inventory issues.

    I honestly think they are in a bit of a pickle since the bookstore market and internet market are quite different. I don’t think they’ve adjusted to the internet well.

    I should add that I do think there is a market for books that “popularize” various academic discussions. i.e. aren’t written in an academic way but in a way that explains things for regular people. One might say that some of Givens stuff does this.

  44. Yes, I’m not saying DB is effectively targeting this market. I’m just saying in my personal opinion this is a real market and one that DB could and should target.

    As I said right now they are primarily targeting the gift market. Which I’m sure works to a point. But I’d lay good odds their profits are still going down. This is at best a rear guard action and not something that will grow the company. My suspicion is that DB is, behind the scenes, running scared. That would explain a lot of their decisions. They are hardly alone. A lot of publishing, especially newspapers and newsmagazines, are doing far worse.

  45. To add, I do think DB has had some good books targeting those markets. Some have been better than others, but arguably some of the books following the SS curriculum are of that sort.

  46. I’ve been following these arguments about DB’s business model only in part, but I’d just add that to the extent that they have amazing market penetration for Mormon audiences, I find it surprising that they don’t see more of the scholarly Mormon books as either something worth marketing or selling as a claim that these books don’t sell to Mormon audiences. News flash! The only people who would buy Reed’s book on Mormon missions in Asia, or Givens’ books, or Hardy’s, are Mormons. Basically, the very audience that DB markets to, Mormons, also happen to be the overwhelming buyers of these books. It is not as if these books don’t sell at all. I’m skeptical of claims that there is simply a cost-benefit analysis in the decision to not market or carry these books.

  47. I’m not following you TT. I think the claim is that they target the mainstream of the LDS market whereas those books target a fairly niche part of the LDS market. Given that DB’s thinking is still primarily oriented around their brick and mortar stores it makes perfect sense as to why they wouldn’t carry them – because they’d have to have them at many stores and probably wouldn’t sell them. That means you have the expense of inventory without revenue coming in. In lean times that’s very, very difficult to make a case to do.

    The argument by some here is that DB could do what Amazon does and have a more “just in time” inventory system and move away from the physical store model. I’m personally a bit skeptical that would work for various reasons. However it’d make sense (IMO) if they could manage such an inventory system to have DB only titles that aren’t on Amazon. If books sell well enough they could move them to the physical stores.

  48. Clark,
    I think there are three problems with this defense of DB:
    1. It depicts DB as an entirely passive participant in the Mormon book market. As any good adperson knows, markets are created as well as followed. I have little doubt that if DB had the will to sell scholarship, they could create the market for it.
    2. There is an assumption that LDS scholarship doesn’t sell, which supposedly is the justification for DB not carrying it. The fact is that it does sell, in spite of DB not carrying it. Non Mormon publishers Mormon books because they actually sell quite well. Even Mormon publishers not carried by DB sell books. There are about 6-8 presses publishing LDS scholarship which is not carried or promoted by DB, which suggests to me that this field is not suffering from lack of sales.
    3. Honestly, the DB inventory management for its brick and mortar stores can’t be that difficult to manage. If the 20 copies of Givens book at one store don’t sell, drive 15 minutes to the warehouse or to the next store. There aren’t that many stores, and the ones that do exist are all within a pretty tight geographical circle, considering.

  49. TT,

    You state in your comment (#57) that DB has “amazing market penetration for Mormon audiences…”

    That is where I think we disagree. DB has purposely kept itself confined to a very narrow Mormon audience that wants “safety and soundness” products. This audience is almost entirely based in the US with their stores being fully confined to the western US. The only store they have east of the Mississippi is in Nauvoo.

    Because of their decision to limit their marketing to very safe and bland products, they have turned-off any growth they could have realized by targeting other Mormon markets. They do not target LDS scholarship or LDS art and sculpture (beyond the massed produced stuff from Lemon or Parsons). They do not target any international LDS markets. And they certainly do not target any alternative voices in LDS culture.

    Of the 13 million Latter-day Saints in the world (active, semi-active or inactive), they probably reach 3 million to 4 million through their stores. Of this number, they probably have a realistic market of 1 million to 2 million people that actually would be attracted to their offerings and almost all of them are women.

    They have a terrible website that is hard to navigate, limited in selection and does not allow for any “discovery” of new or exciting things. Because they are forced to charge high prices to keep this bloated organization going, they cannot compete with Amazon or the new digital world that is quickly overtaking us.

    When a company is faced with such a situation, it can either jump wholeheartedly into the unknown and make it work OR they can erect barriers and try to defend the little bit of territory they have left. That is why DB is creating this new digital application for the mobile computing market – Deseret Bookshelf. It is a defensive move to avoid selling their books at discounted prices through Amazon or making them available for the Kindle or iBookstore. I will bet you anything that the prices for electronic books they offer in the Deseret Bookshelf will continue to be astronomical. Just take a look at what they charge now in the Kindle store for DB titles.

    We desperately need competition in the LDS market for book publishing, book selling, and significant artwork & sculpture. However, because DB has destroyed that competitive market over the past 15 years through the acquisition of any company that dares to cross their path (Bookcraft and Seagull are the largest), we only have a hodge-podge of smaller publishing companies and lame LDS trinket makers. Compare the LDS market to the Jewish market (which is approximately the same size globally). Their offerings are much more vast and varied.

    This lack of a strong LDS market is most difficult on the Saints in Brasil or Mexico or the Philippines where we have more than a million members in each of those countries and yet they must rely upon the sparse offerings found in the distribution centers in their languages. These international Saints can be reached by the internet and can reap the benefits of having publications, LDS scholarship and writings in their own language beyond the conference reports, church manuals, Jesus the Christ, and the Articles of Faith. And yet, DB ignores them in order to satisfy the needs of the mountain west female LDS fiction market or to sell Beehive plates and bowls inspired by the Lion House pantry. It is a travesty, a real travesty.

  50. Excellent post at The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy!. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Extremely useful information particularly the last part 🙂 I care for such information much. I was looking for this particular information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *