I heard the following story at Sam Wellers about some local LDS Church units and selling books. I don’t know when this happened or who it was — no doubt someone here knows the story better than I do, or knows of a similar story — but it strikes me as the kind of thing that happens sometimes among LDS Church members.
It seems some stake along the Wasatch Front did their stake history, and after selling copies to everyone in the stake who wanted one, had a lot of leftover copies. So they packed them up in someone’s pickup and came into Salt Lake to sell them to the various book dealers, knowing that people who lived in their stake were now located all over the Wasatch Front. When the dealer asked how much the books cost, the stake representative quoted the retail price.
“OK, so how much is my price,” asked the dealer.
“The same. I can’t sell them for less than full price,” replied the stake’s representative.
“OK, then I’ll mark them up so I can make a profit,” the dealer concluded, trying to be flexible.
“Oh, then I can’t sell them to you. We can’t have anyone making a profit off our book. It’s a non-profit project.”
Undoubtedly those books are still sitting in someone’s cellar in that stake.
I’m not sure exactly what those involved in this project thought would happen. Their view seems wildly unrealistic, but somehow shows the expectations that we often have — that building the kingdom of God means that we sacrifice by giving up all profit, even though this implies that we will live only off of air.
In my limited experience, when the Church says that it is non-profit, it means this mostly in the tax and legal sense — that it isn’t seeking to profit from the sale of goods or services, and that all funds it receives are used for the purposes outlined in the tax code. As an accounting and business student at BYU and at NYU, I learned how vague the idea of profit can be. Do we mean gross profit, or net? Is it a profit following the FASB rules, or following the tax law? Which of many optional policies have been applied?
But regardless of all the possible ways of looking at profit, the motivations of outside companies and individuals usually don’t define whether or not an organization is for-profit or non-profit. The Church is free to buy services from an individual who is earning a profit on those services, and it is also free to sell products to others who will try to make a profit on them.
BUT, motivations matter very much when it comes to how we in the Church look at issues like this. Let’s take a stake history as an example. I’m sure it seems like a straightforward project. I committee sits down and writes the history of the stake, arranges for a printer, the stake may or may not pay for the printing of the copies, the copies are sold to members of the stake, everyone is happy.
But what if the committee wants to be paid for their effort? Perhaps that’s wrong, but then the Church pays employees to write manuals all the time. Why is this different? What if the history is written by an outside company that specializes in writing histories like this, both inside and ouside of the Church? Or what if one of the members on the committee owns a small printing business and will print the books and charge the stake for printing them? Or even sell the books directly to members (the stake just advertises that the books are for sale)?
Is this all so complicated that stakes should stay away from projects like this?
I think what we have to remember is that both stakes and members of the Church want these things. They want stake histories and doctrinal treatises and romances and adventure stories and book of mormon action figures and LDS art.
I know they technically don’t NEED them (whatever need means in this context). Yes the scriptures and the materials provided by the Church should be enough. Yet somehow we members of the Church want other things, we want stories that inspire us and action figures that our little boys (or girls, but let’s be honest, boys in this case) can play with. Culture is like that. We have what we need, but somehow we still end up expressing ourselves, our beliefs and everything else that is important to us in ways that we don’t exactly need, but that we do want. And some of us even think that this desire to express ourselves is also a NEED.
With this expression comes a market–a way of distributing these expressions, these cultural goods to those who want them. The Church doesn’t distribute most of them, so we have bookstores and publishers and music labels and jewelry manufacturers and distributors.
And in every one of these cases, the problem of motivation again appears. Does LDS Author A write to earn money or to inspire, or both? Is LDS consumer B purchasing a book because it really improves his spiritual life? or because its presence on his bookshelf makes him look good?
Motivations are tricky, of course. Not only is it difficult to know what someone’s motivations are, it is also unlikely that anyone’s motiviation is limited to just one cause. The author of the stake history is probably trying to give fellow stake members a sense of the heritage of their stake, and also get a little notariety and pride from writing the history. Its likely impossible to identify all the motivations.
But while I think motivations are important, especially on a personal basis, there is another important influence on us: the structure of the market and culture we are part of–the institutions, businesses, and standard practices in the market and the assumptions that consumers make about that market.
Huh? What does that mean? It means that we all have learned that these things we want–stake histories, LDS books, music and film, book of mormon action figures, etc.–are sold in certain places and in certain ways. We know that we find these products in LDS bookstores, and not in Christian stores or in general bookstores, for the most part. We know that we find out what is available by visiting the stores, or because we get certain catalogs in the mail (usually because we have purchased from a store in the past). The bookstores and publishers and manufacturers for these products know that certain kinds of products are sold in these stores, and others are not–that what is called LDS fiction is OK, but anything that might lead members to doubt or question is not. They also know that products are sold with a standard set of terms that make it so that they can profit from the sale.
These assumptions and institutions–the structure of the market–influence our motivations. We see another stake make and sell their stake history, so we assume that we can do the same with our stake–and maybe its OK to make a few dollars in the process, because it looks like that stake did also. We see an author or a publisher make a living off of selling Church-related books or music or other products, and its easy to think that we could do the same thing, or that the little book we’ve been working on might add a few dollars to our family income.
What is already being done, and what seems possible to do given the bookstores and other institutions in the market, now all seem legitimate–and the result is the latest piece of Mormon kitsch that might be offensive or silly to some of us, and cool or fun to others of us, and probably irrelevant to the majority of us.
Please understand that the above is descriptive, not proscriptive. I’m simply describing what does exist and how it works, not whether or not it should exist or how it should work. You might look at the market for LDS products and conclude that this is all an elaborate excuse for priestcraft–that the motivations behind creating and selling LDS products are illegitimate–our cultural expressions should be shared and distributed without any profit involved. Or, you might conclude, as I do, that this is a natural development from the desire to share our faith with one another, with some excesses on occasion.
Regardless, this market does exist, and it has an effect on our motivations and on the assumptions we make about how we live and share our religion. The good news is that the market and its structure can be changed. We’re not stuck with the institutions that we have now, nor with the assumptions made about what will sell and what won’t sell or about what Mormon consumers want. We’re not stuck with the assumption that speakers of other languages and members in other countries don’t purchase books and LDS products, or even with the assumption that Deseret Book is selling all LDS products or that its policies are what’s best for Church members.
All this can, and much of it should, be changed. We just need to be careful about our motivations and the motivations that the market structure influences in its employees, authors, musicians and producers, and even in its consumers.