22 May 2008

Content analysis of a Deseret Book catalog

Finally! It has been a long month+ indeed but I am back. Since my last post, I have been swamped with exams, graduation, vacations, and the beginning of bar review, with nary a moment for blogging. But I have a much lighter schedule now, and should find time for more regular posts.

After that aside, I would prefer to jump right into the meat of the post. Of course, it turns out that the intro to the post really is the meat so here goes...

I've been meaning to write this post for about six months now. I wanted to analyze your typical Deseret Book catalog, which I receive approximately every month or so, to see what was in it, how the items were placed relative to one another, and in what proportion. I kept putting it off because I would get the Christmas issue and say, "well the Christmas issue is going to have a little more kitsch than a normal catalog, so it would hardly be fair to judge them on that basis." Then you get a Conference edition, and then its Mother's Day, and it would really be unfair to judge a company on the basis of what is essentially the catalog version of the sappiest Hallmark card ever. Hence my delay.

Earlier this week, the summer issue of the catalog arrived in my mailbox. By this point, my patience is nearly exhausted and so I forge ahead. In the final analysis, what I was missing all along is that Deseret Book does not just put out bad holiday catalogs....they are ALL terrible! Like raze it to the ground and let's start from scratch terrible.

The title and first page of the summer catalog feature a new book by everyone's favorite motivate-a-Mormon, John Bytheway. His most recent book carries the unfortunate title Golf: Lessons I Learned While Looking for My Ball. My wife finds this funny, since it tends to bring to mind musings by Brother Bytheway on his testicular integrity. Pages 3 through 11 run the gamut from really bad Mormon historical fiction through really bad Mormon adult fiction all the way to really bad Mormon youth fiction. On pages 12 and 13, we stumble upon the first items that might endanger us with actually learning something- a book on pornography (in the shape of an iPhone no less- now you've reminded me that I can get porn on one of those, I really have learned something!) and an audiobook on Mormon perspectives on C.S. Lewis. If I am not mistaken, catalogs ought to lead with something that a well-adjusted intelligent person with disposable income might actually want to purchase, kind of like that "hook" that sucks you into the latest novel, but here Deseret Book makes us wait until we are nearly halfway through the catalog. Not good business, people, not good business. It might be time to call Sheri Dew back into the Relief Society presidency as a third counselor.

Next we find a solid six pages of videos and music, more or less LDS-related. I don't listen to Mormon music (other than a little Mo'Tab on Sundays) or watch Mormon movies, so I can hardly have an informed opinion. However, I do hang out with Mormons in and out of Utah all the time, and I have never even seen one of these CDs, much less heard them (except of course Mo'Tab) so I don't think that Jenny Phillps qualifies as either a "highly requested recording artist" or worthy of a greatest hits album. And if you think you need six CDs to contain all of Michael McLean's best songs, let's talk another time.

On the next two pages, we find that from last month's Mother's Day issue, almost entirely female-oriented, Deseret Book is going to remind women of their place this summer. You get two pages full of motivational material, but don't worry, nothing that might require you to open your scriptures. It's nearly June, so its the men's turn, right? Father's Day, as in your average ward sacrament meeting, is a small footnote in this catalog, relegated to page 26. The contrast with the previous women's material could hardly be greater. The men's pages are dominated by historical and biographical literature (but not of the fictional kind), featuring LDS heroes such as Brigham Young, Hugh Nibley, and Henry Eyring, and other notable figures such as US Presidents, the Founding Fathers, soldiers and pilots. None of that sissy namby-pamby emotionalism for the Priest....oh wait, never mind. See page 28. The Holy Secret by James L. Ferrell. Is that like Oprah's The Secret? And more importantly for Mormons, will it make me rich like Oprah's The Secret? Finally, no good catalog for Father's Day would be complete without a half page of the one gift that every dad already knows that he doesn't want -- TIES, especially the ones that are good to wear to the office or the courtroom, like ties with Captain Moroni and the Stripling Warriors.

I wish I could say that this was a particularly poor example of Deseret Book's offering, but in the end it may be the least pathetic catalog in recent memory. Even so, if you are looking for something edifying or thoughtful, with the exception of a small speed bump on pages 12 and 13, do not pass GO and do not collect the latest Mo'Tab CD, go straight to the Father's Day pages, four of the LAST SIX PAGES in the catalog. Everything you need from Deseret Book in four pages in a 30+ page catalog. Unfortunately, while I scan the horizon for someone to blame, I realize that it's US and no one else. The old law of supply and demand, biting us in our rears at the gas pump and at Deseret Book. And so in the immortal words of the late Jerry Falwell, I say: "I point the thing in [the Mormons'] face and say you helped this happen."


  1. Very well done. I found this interesting. A few years back Deseret Book opened a "coffee shop" up in one of their stores, of course without coffee. That caused Kellie to say, "A coffee shop without coffee in a bookstore without books." There is something to that. At some point, I plan on posting something on Deseret Book too. When I do, I will look to you for advice.

  2. If I am not mistaken, catalogs ought to lead with something that a well-adjusted intelligent person with disposable income might actually want to purchase, kind of like that "hook" that sucks you into the latest novel, but here Deseret Book makes us wait until we are nearly halfway through the catalog.

    Actually, the crappy Mormon fiction that occupies the first several pages of the catalog is apparently extremely popular, even among (otherwise) well-adjusted, intelligent adults. Relief Society book clubs eat this stuff up. And crappy Mormon fiction books are by far the most circulated books in the BYU Library--as I recall, they are circulated about five times more than the rest of the books, on average.

  3. the biggest problem with deseret book's catalog is that it gives a fair representation of deseret book. take a photo of an ugly person and you'll have an ugly photograph.

    deseret book, under the censoring eyes of sheri dew, doesn't have anything interesting because dew ensures that most everything of interest is banned (or made difficult to get). these examples are biased, but show what i mean. deseret book refuses to carry my book, discourses in mormon theology: philosophical and theological possibilies, because of a well-done essay by margaret toscano. they will not sell david paulsen monumental work in stores (only online), mormonism in dialogue with contemporary christian theologies because of the late eugene england's acknowledgment of racism in mormonism's history (even after jack welch and byu studies left their (later silent) stench of censorship. finally boyd petersen's award winning biography and hugh nibley was nearly banned from deseret book because of a single 'goddam' in retelling an account of verbal abuse nibley received during his mission.

    on my mission in hawaii, we discovered that we could get more mormon books quicker and cheaper by ordering them at borders.

  4. crappy Mormon fiction books are by far the most circulated books in the BYU Library--as I recall, they are circulated about five times more than the rest of the books, on average.

    I think I can hear the seventh seal opening...

    I once had a conversation with Terryl Givens who said that "some Deseret Book higher-up" (presumably Sheri Dew) refused to stock his book Viper on the Hearth by explaining to him that Deseret Book does not sell anti-Mormon literature. For anyone who has actually read Bro. Given's book, I think that makes it clear that those who are banning these books have not even read them to begin with.

    This is one of many instances where I am glad that I don't live in Utah. Deseret Book's attempt to buy up all the other independent LDS-related booksellers over the past couple of years is well-documented. The close relationship between Deseret Book and the Church tends to give it the de facto imprimatur of Church-approved literature.

    Out here in the "mission field," there is no Deseret Book and the LDS bookstores are few and far enough between that they can escape Sis. Sauron's gaze. Those independent bookstores (usually located a few blocks from the temple) tend to stock a lot of the same material as your average Deseret Book store, but often you can find some more interesting and diverse titles as well. When I am in Utah visiting family, I always enjoy Sam Weller's store downtown, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to go to Curt Bench's store, which I hear is fabulous for this sort of thing.

    I think that it is worthwhile to point out that the first three Mormon authors that come to mind when I think of good contemporary writing (in their respective genres of course) are Stephanie Meyer, Orson Scott Card, and Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance fame). I think it is interesting that they enjoy a significant fan following outside of the Church and (with the possible exception of Bro. Card, who is extremely prolific) they have not focused on writing "Mormon literature." They write literature as Mormons, but ask it to stand on its literary merits, not their Mormon ones.

  5. I, too, enjoy perusing the DB catalog to see if they will surprise me with a daring offer. (Rough Stone Rolling was the last example of such.) When I saw the title Golf: Lessons I Learned While Looking for My Ball. I honestly thought it had to be some kind of parody of John Bytheway. Then I saw it was written by him, and realized that, of course, it is not a parody. I died a little inside.

    But Seagull Book catalogs are turning out the same, perhaps even a little worse. In the front of the most recent issue you can find an essay by a woman who is in charge of merch selection. She relates a story of her softball team that lost 25 to 2 or something, and how she wrote her missionary son about how she was going to quit and he wrote her back saying "what about enduring to the end?" and of course, she realized what a great lesson it was, so enjoy the cruddy books blah blah blah.

  6. Thank you for pointing out that Deseret Book is truly an abomination. The last time I went in there, looking for a book, I realized there was in fact nothing of value in the store. And their unfair practice of buying out or refusing to do business with competitors is the most amazing display of capitalism gone bad. I'm tempted to make a glib comparison of Sheri Dew with Hitler's 1930s politics. Oh, OK, why not. To quote from a random web site:

    Once they succeeded in ending democracy and turning Germany into a one-party dictatorship, the Nazis orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign to win the loyalty and cooperation of Germans. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry, directed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, took control of all forms of communication in Germany: newspapers, magazines, books, public meetings, and rallies, art, music, movies, and radio. Viewpoints in any way threatening to Nazi beliefs or to the regime were censored or eliminated from all media.

    During the spring of 1933, Nazi student organizations, professors, and librarians made up long lists of books they thought should not be read by Germans. Then, on the night of May 10, 1933, Nazis raided libraries and bookstores across Germany. They marched by torchlight in nighttime parades, sang chants, and threw books into huge bonfires. On that night more than 25,000 books were burned.

    We, of course wouldn't do that. We'd just take over all retail book outlets in Mormon-land and then stop offering any book we didn't like.

    Sorry, hope that wasn't too far out of line.

  7. Instead of taking easy potshots at the catalog (anyone can do that!), list ten titles/topics you'd like to see in your local Deseret Book, keeping in mind that they can't offend any member of the twelve (Packer included) and that most of the active LDS population must buy it (the middle 80%) to make it worth publishing AND list an intended active LDS author who would be willing to/capable of writing it. THAT would be an interesting post.

    The stuff Des Book pushes is stuff that $ell$. The catalog is a reflection of our culture, not the cause of it. Sad but true.

  8. The last time I was in a Deseret Book store, I purchased an interesting-looking document from FARMS about the Book of Abraham.

    Now I find it hard to believe in the truthfulness of that scripture.

    I thought I would be safe there. I stopped buying any church books after that, for fear of what I might learn.

  9. No offense, Mel, but that sounds rather drastic.

    Do you remember what the article is called?

  10. Having written two books that were once carried by Deseret Book (although they are out-of-print now), I worry that you're generalizing a bit too much. I agree that there is a lot of bad things happening with the store, censorship, buying up the independents, and perhaps going for world domination, but I challenge you to read those awful books you're making fun of--some of them ain't so bad.

  11. I think if the books were "not so bad" they should be able to find some kind of marketing or readership outside of Church members. I'm not saying that only non-members have good taste in literature. (Nor am I saying that most Mormons have poor taste in literature, art, music, movies-- but I will insinuate it.) But there are tons of people that crave good reading, and why aren't they reading anything out of Deseret Book? Mormons are too willing to substitute a product's "Mormonness" for its quality.

  12. You get two pages full of motivational material, but don't worry, nothing that might require you to open your scriptures.

    Continuing the sarcasm: but isn't that exactly what Desert Book is for? To tell me what the scriptures say rather than requiring me to put one iota into "thinking" let alone "pondering" or "studying." Besides, if it came from Desret Book than it must be as good as canonized doctrine!

    If I hear one more Deseret Book picture book being quotes over the pulpit I just might scream. It would make for a very exciting sacrament meeting, don't you think?