For the past decade, I’ve suggested that Deseret Book is one of the significant impediments to the growth of Mormon culture outside those elements involving worship. LDS books, music, film, art and other cultural products, especially innovative ones, are hampered by Deseret Book’s size, focus and control of the market for LDS materials.
What can we do about it?
I won’t recount my logic in those three posts, so I encourage those interested to read them. My logic here depends on the analysis I gave there. In the last of these three posts, I discussed a few options that the Church could consider that would resolve the problem of Deseret Book’s dominance of the LDS market: splitting Deseret Book into a publisher and a retail chain, and then divesting the retail operations like the Church divested of its hospitals in the early 1970s.
Before I continue, I should make it clear that I’m not suggesting that any grave errors in judgment have been made. The problem that Deseret Book has become developed over time, in spite of the fact that its managers, board of directors and so on have made decisions that most people would agree are in the best interest of the company and of the Church. It is the collective effect of these decisions and other circumstances that created the problem.
Of course, this means it is not likely that the Church or its for-profit arm, Deseret Management, will see a need to make changes any time soon. I suspect that they don’t see a problem. But regardless of whether or not they see it, the problem exists. Deseret Book has become too dominant, tries to fill too many roles, and exerts too much control over others in the market.
Short of changes to Deseret Book made by the Church, I think there are only a few things that can be done outside of Deseret Book. These things differ according to who can do them.
For its book publisher competitors, almost any growth is good growth, but growth that reduces the publisher’s dependence on Deseret Book’s retail stores is the most helpful. Its almost always in the publisher’s best interest to diversify where its goods are sold, but I’ve certainly seen some publishers whose policies (minimum order quantities and minimum annual purchases, for example) discourage resellers that are just starting out.
Publishers might also gain from titles and products that are significantly different from what Deseret Book publishes. The most significant growth comes from finding a strong-selling title or product that hasn’t existed in the market before. We’ve seen these before, usually from Deseret Book’s competitors, and Deseret Book has eventually acquired the companies that introduced these products.
Deseret Book’s retail competitors have perhaps the most difficult challenge. Retail sales in brick and mortar stores can be very difficult, since LDS stores not only compete with Deseret Books stores and its Internet presence, but also with Amazon.com and even some mainstream stores, in the Intermountain West. The Internet may actually be one of the best places to compete, given how poor Deseret Book’s website is in comparison with Amazon.com and many other Internet bookstores. BUT, since non-LDS Internet bookstores do a poor job of identifying what items are LDS, an LDS Internet bookstore can provide what neither Deseret Book nor Amazon.com does.
Another area where retail stores may be able to grow is in areas not served by current LDS stores. Deseret Book doesn’t have a single store east of the Mississippi, where a few dozen scattered stores serve some areas and many areas there have no LDS store at all. Outside the U.S. may be problematic, but I believe there are opportunities there also.
This is all well and good for those in the industry. But what about consumers. If we as consumers are frustrated with Deseret Book, what should we do?
I’m sure some readers will say that if I feel this way I should “vote with my feet,” and simply not purchase from Deseret Book anymore. I wish it were that simple. First, books are not widgets. While most widgets are exactly the same as any other widget, one title is almost never interchangeable with another. Even with the simplest of genre series books (think Hardy Boys mysteries, for example), while the plot, characters, and writing style are almost identical, each book in the series is different. I may say that if you’ve read one, you have read them all, but there are people who have read, and purchased, them all, and find differences in each book in the series.
Because each title is different from every other title, even if they are on the same subject, it is sometimes not possible to substitute one book for another. Deseret Book’s position as the publisher for the General Authorities makes this even more an issue. An Apostle’s book usually can’t be replaced by someone else’s book on the same subject, even if the other book is better!
Another difficulty consumers will have “voting with their feet” is that Deseret Book’s position is so dominant. Yes you can avoid shopping in a Deseret Book store or at Deseretbook.com, but you may end up purchasing a book labeled as “Shadow Mountain,” “Eagle Gate,” “Bookcraft,” “Covenant,” or another Deseret Book imprint, not realizing that it is a book published by part of Deseret Book. And even if you avoid those books, Deseret Book is also a distributor for some publishers, so purchasing one of their books will also add to Deseret Book’s bottom line.
As a result, consumers have a hard time “voting with their feet” on Deseret Book. There simply isn’t always a good alternative to Deseret Book. And unlike many causes, this one simply isn’t important enough to justify the kind of all-out boycott seen in, say, civil rights campaigns.
Of course, where possible consumers should shift their buying to alternatives. Buying through your local non-Deseret Book LDS store is always a good idea, and even more so, if you live outside of the Intermountain West. Even buying directly from the publisher is better than buying the same book from Deseret Book.
Unfortunately, not all ways of avoiding Deseret Book are equally useful. Finding and purchasing books on Amazon.com instead of Deseret Book may help — but it doesn’t help build competitors to Deseret Book in the LDS market. If your purchases of LDS books decline because of avoiding Deseret Book, then you aren’t really helping create competition, you are actually making it harder for the whole LDS market.
The idea behind all this isn’t to put Deseret Book out-of-business or even hurt the company. Far from it. We would be worse off without Deseret Book. The purpose here is to put more balance among those that create, distribute and sell LDS books and other products — to give Deseret Book more competition so that it strives to do better and serve more LDS Church members.
I’m not entirely sure that all this will eventually give the LDS market more balance. I hope it will. But finding a better balance depends on Church members and those businesses in the market putting more effort into creating, finding and even providing better alternatives.
I hope we soon see what those alternatives are.