Signature

Signature Books recently announced that it has stopped publishing for an undetermined period of time. As one who is critical of Mormon Studies publishing generally, I see Signature’s move as unfortunate, though perhaps not unforeseeable. As I peruse my shelves I count not a few seminal works distributed by the press that George Smith built and I hope that most people join me in the hope that the press will soon be back in action.

I think it was easy, in discussing The Joseph Smith Papers, to effuse about the superiority of their product over previous editions. However, I can not overstate how important Faulring’s edition was to Mormon Studies (it is still the only volume to have the Joseph Smith Family Association’s endorsement, and it is the only transcript for Smith’s 1843-44 journals). We are all indebted to Signature for its publication. And we can count many titles that have not been superseded and which are equally or more important. To name just a few:

  • Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898
  • On the Potter’s Wheel: The Diaries of Heber C. Kimball
  • Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir
  • Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols.
  • In Sacred Lonliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

On top of scores of important volumes, Signature created the New Mormon Studies CD-ROM, which is a superlatively helpful resource and was tremendously expensive to produce. Even controversial titles like George Smith’s edition of William Clayton’s diaries, have become frequently cited by even the most conservative scholars. A loss of this valuable publishing work is a loss to every student of Mormonism.

Now, as was evident in the recent threads discussing and relating to George Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy I also feel that certain volumes published by Signature fail to meet the standards of their classic offerings. In many ways, I feel like I am part of a new generation. I wasn’t paying attention to Mormon Studies during the controversies of the 1990’s and didn’t have a hand in the game during previous swings of the pendulum. And though I have felt the cold chill of the odd interloper from the past, I feel like the Young Turks of Mormon Studies are in a different age, fashioning, perhaps, a new Camelot. I am sometimes disappointed by what seem to be publications that are anachronistic to that world-view, titles that are part of a different time or too friendly with polemics.

Looking across the current offerings on the Signature website, I see a confusing blend of the excellent, the flawed and the superfluous. I continue to hope that Signature sheds the past and emerges from this hiatus invigorated. If not, I still thank it for the good work it has done.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the announcement, J. I agree with all of the sentiments expressed in your post.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    J., I agree entirely. Best of luck to Signature.

  3. And let’s not forget that Signature’s contribution to Mormon fiction.

    Falling Toward Heaven, The Marketing of Sister B, The Conversion of Jeff Williams, Under the Cottonwoods and Other Stories, The Pictograph Murders and Vernal Promises are all fine pieces of literary fiction that are much more conservative than the publisher’s reputation would suggest and very much deserve to be read by all but the most squeamish of Mormon readers.

    Add in Canyons of Grace, Dancing Naked, the various anthologies and more that are a bit more challenging and you have a huge contribution to the world of Mormon letters.

    And, then of course, there’s Tending the Garden, one of the few anthologies of Mormon criticism to ever be published.

  4. I should add that although this is somewhat somber news, it is rather exciting to see some of the fiction titles that Signature plans to add to its online Signature Books Library.

  5. Thanks for this, J; I especially enjoyed your second-to-the-last paragraph. I also sympathize this temporary loss of Signature publishing; several of the books I looked most forward to in the last two years (McLellin journals, Smoot hearings, Nauvoo polygamy) were from that press, and I have numerous publications of theirs on my shelves.

    I also second #3, adding that their republication of Virginia Sorensen’s fiction is especially helpful.

  6. Nice post, J. Here’s hoping to see the presses rolling again at Signature sooner rather than later!

  7. And don’t forget my favorite: Evolution Mormonism. In my circles that was a very important book! Hope they’re back soon.

  8. J., I really like the ideas you expressed in the 2nd-to-last paragraph. I think much of what I see as being potentially valuable in the bloggernacle is the creation of a kind of new, middle way.

    Perhaps it is born of too much self-centeredness, but I’d just as soon not continue old battles that started before I was around. It actually reminds me a lot of how many of my generation feel about the culture wars of the Boomer generation in politics–wanting so badly to just move on past these tired old battles that seem to have become little more than semantics and ill-fitting binary labels.

  9. Didn’t Signature always lose money? Perhaps the financial crisis has hit those donating to Signature to keep it afloat.

    One thing folks forget is that there isn’t a large market for more academic oriented LDS books. We love them but it’s hard to recoup costs. Yes there have been new entries into the field including many more books from various university presses plus Kofford filling a nice niche between Signature and Deseret. But despite my criticism of some Signature volumes they have been invaluable in providing stuff that no one else is putting out.

  10. Clark, I believe you are correct. As I understand it, George Smith is or has been wealthy enough to keep Signature afloat, and it is certainly possible that his investments haven’t done well because of the crisis.

    And you are correct about Signature filling an important role, IMO. I wonder if some of the things that have been said about them by the more conservative in Mormondom haven’t pushed them farther from the mainstream.

    AND, I can’t forget to mention that Deseret Book has refused to carry Signature’s books for more than 5 years (probably more than 7 by now). In my view this kind of shunning of a company producing valuable works is inexcusable from both a business standpoint (smacks of DB trying to use its near monopoly power. It isn’t in their financial best interest in any way that I can see) and from the Church’s standpoint.

    This is another blow to an already damaged and divided marketplace for LDS ideas and products.

  11. This is indeed somber news. While I am critical of Signature’s insularism and, at times, lack of professionalism, I recognize that they fill a crucial niche in Mormon studies. If this is a long-term issue we will be poorer because of it.

  12. I don’t know if there will really be much of a loss of scholarship since Kofford has been filling that role lately (and less expensively too if I understand correctly). I see Kofford publishing most of the books that Signature used to publish and best of all shedding the negative rep that Signature had/has.

  13. What will become of Metcalfe’s Book of Abraham project I wonder.

  14. I was not aware that Deseret Book refuses to carry publications of Signature Books. I know that it has been many years since the Deseret Books I have visited have carried Dialogue or Sunstone. (I wonder if Deseret Books sees part of its mission as a sort of secondary correlation committee–if a publisher or publication is perceived as offending certain church members, it is boycotted by Deseret Book.)

    My understanding is that 7th East Press bit the dust when BYU stopped allowing it to be distributed on campus (and may not have the facts exactly straight on that). I wonder how much of an effect on Signature’s sales the decision of Deseret Book had.

  15. David, Sheri Dew has made an explicit pledge that nothing in Deseret Book stores will offend customers. (I believe the pledge was made in response to outcry over some Christmas book that had an adulterous affair as part of its plotline, and not to anything Signature had published). Clearly, it’s not working, because I’m offended by plenty of things there, but I don’t think I’m their target demographic :)

    Yet another way Mormons are better than Catholics–we still have a Nihil Obstat certification :) (Who says women don’t have any institutional power in the Church?)

  16. I just made a belated New Year’s Resolution not to use emoticons. Or at least not to use two in a single comment. Ugh!

  17. :) :) :)

    :P

  18. Was Sheri the one who decided to not carry Signature books across the board? I can see how some of their books would be offensive to some LDS, but many of their books are not.

    I am glad that Deseret Books does not control the BYU library (or at least I hope it does not).

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