The future of LDS publishing: mini-reviews of three mini-books

I’m increasingly convinced that the LDS book marketplace is still in its nascent form. We have fits and starts of great literature, some remarkable early works of theological or devotional expression, but the market still seems to be crucially dependent on the Church for support and marketing of its pieces. Works on the periphery, outside of official Church imprints, struggle for a portion of mainstream recognition, while those published by Deseret Book, etc. are carefully managed and promoted. So, it’s not surprising that some LDS authors publish smaller books with smaller imprints, but the quality of some recent works is really quite impressive. Is micro-publishing the future of non-institutional LDS publishing? William Morris’ Dark Watch, Sam Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances, and Adam Miller’s Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan invite us to consider the possibilities for LDS fiction and nonfiction.

Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories is a compilation of short stories that William Morris has written (and in some cases published) over several years. Some of the stories are very short indeed, a page or two, more of an impressionistic swipe of color than a short story. The stories range in voice, time, and place, taking us as often into the distant future as the present (though only rarely into the past, perhaps showing a lack of desire to become the next Gerald Lund). Morris explores some interesting themes: the power of the gospel message over time, the inability to hide from the power of God, the desire for Mormons to assimilate into their local culture (and their ultimate failure to do so). But while the book is devotional in its own way, it is not pedantic. The quality of the stories is not uniform, but each is interesting and thoughtful as it tugs at the intersection between faith and personality. Scott Hales’ thoughtful review is helpful. Morris’ work suggests that Mormon literature continues to evolve and explore new forms, even though it cannot escape familiar tropes of LDS belief.

Samuel Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple is in some respects not an entirely self-contained volume: it requires familiarity with Article of Faith 4, but Brown’s book is also deeply informed by the worldview that infuses his excellent and much longer work, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. That earlier book lays a foundational perspective of Joseph Smith’s temple as the locus of establishing familial bonds that defy the grave, and Brown’s overall take on the first four principles and ordinances is offered with that overarching death-centric view. Along the way, the book explores the notions of faith and repentance as both individual responsibilities and communal duties. The notion of fragile faith, for example, is the result in part of a failure to understand how faith requires actions in the context of a group of believers as opposed to a solitary monastic life. Sam’s book is a not a sterile, dispassionate examination of the gospel basics; on the contrary, the book is very personal and very grounded. It is a pragmatic book that is designed to implement belief. As such it is an entirely appropriate and laudable publication for the Maxwell Institute’s new ‘Living Faith’ series.

Adam Miller likes to tread in deep waters, but not for the sake of getting wet; his posts here and his books consistently show that Adam explores profound topics in order to help us navigate them and come through with faith affirmed. Ultimately his retranslation of Romans, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is written with that view. Jason has reviewed the book already for BCC and I have no intention of reviewing that review. I will say that Jason’s review underemphasizes Miller’s rhetorical purpose, namely, to try to make Paul approachable, understandable, and especially usable. This is not an easy task. James Faulconer’s text on Romans 1 illustrates the difficulty of trying to plumb the depths of Paul without rendering him any more friendly to the reader. But Miller’s approach is different: instead, Adam abandons the text, or, more accurately, translates the text in true Latter-day Saint fashion. Reading his book alongside the KJV is eye-opening. The result is something wonderful, but not quite Paul. That may be a good thing.

These three books have a few things in common: they are short, they are cheap, and they all represent a significant amount of effort and deliberate thought. Brown’s book is not self-published but neither is it under a Deseret Book imprint. Another characteristic that these books share is a capacity to involve the reader and prompt action. It is not likely that any of these books will gain widespread readership, but at the same time their brevity and low cost make them easily giftable and easily read. This is a significant advantage in a social media-infused readership with little patience for long-form reading — people may actually have patience enough to read these books and appreciate them. It takes little to share a link to a passage or to pass a copy around. It is a sort of intellectual guerrilla publishing, showing flexibility of theme and distribution that the big presses cannot manage. That’s not to say that books like these will supplant Deseret Book anytime soon, but there are interesting possibilities here for LDS authorship.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for these reviews, Steve. I think that your characterization of my review of Adam’s book is perfectly fair. I appreciate your adding a complementary account.

  2. Paul Brown says:

    Are Maxwell Institute books any less devotional than those published by DB?

  3. Paul, no. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

  4. Nice. I wonder how self-publishing will end out in this mix. Electronic outlets and print plays into the question too. Thanks for this.

  5. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    Adam Miller’s paraphrase of Romans is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I expect I’ll be gifting it to others and recommending it to others for some time to come. I’m also looking forward to reading other titles from the same author.

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Good post–I was happy that Koffords published my essay collection–

  7. I am always impressed by authors who manage to publish their books without a strong backing from a large publishing company, whether that is through self publishing or just a smaller publishing company. I also like the idea of “intellectual guerrilla publishing, showing flexibility of theme and distribution that the big presses cannot manage.” Do you think the same idea of flexibility extends to smaller bookstores as well?

  8. Virginia, ultimately I think that sort of flexibility and niche marketing may be essential for brick-and-mortar bookstores to survive vs. Amazon. I am not sure, however, whether the numbers are there for that model to make sense. Ideally you’d have a specialty plus a range of general appeal.