What Model for Spreading Mormon Culture?

Ever been in one of the few LDS stores outside the United States? or in countries that don’t speak English?

The selection can be quite discouraging. When I visited the store near the São Paulo Temple in Brazil a few years ago, they carried a few books in English, a lot of art, trinkets and items with little or no language-specific content, and a handful of books in Portuguese. From what I’ve seen in online stores for other languages, the situation is similar elsewhere.

This is really not surprising, when you think about it. Language-specific materials are usually only produced by the Church, and never in sufficient quantities to stock or even support an LDS store. Members generally can only purchase those materials available through LDS Church Distribution in their country.

But, I don’t make this observation to point out the difficulties that Church members face when they don’t speak English. Instead, I want to ask what cultural products should be modified for other languages, and how that should happen.

Both here on Times and Seasons and on my blogging home, A Motley Vision, what Mormon culture is and what it includes have been discussed. I argued last December that some Mormon culture was not only inevitable, but vital to the success of the Church.

I was particularly impressed by Wilfried Decoo’s post Mormon identity and culture from last March. There Wilfried drew a distinction between the gospel culture and local cultures, the non-Mormon environment that most members live in, and suggested that Church leaders will need to preserve many elements of Mormon culture so that they remain consistent everywhere while evaluating elements of local culture to make sure that they do not conflict with the gospel.

My own interests lie in elements of Mormon culture that mostly didn’t enter into Wilfried’s analysis. When Church members create their own cultural expressions, i.e., when they write a novel or a song or paint an image or collaborate on a film, no one expects the blessing of church leaders. Yet these expressions are distributed at least among English-speaking members, and increasingly among non-English-speaking members, where local members go so far as to make their own translations at times.

The Church has its own distribution system for Church-approved materials–presumably those items that Wilfred suggests should be coordinated to avoid conflicting doctrinal beliefs in different places. But this limitation to approved materials leaves out a lot of the 5,000 to 10,000 items from a variety of labels, publishers and producers available to members in English.

Here in the U.S. we distribute many items not distributed by the Church through a system of LDS bookstores largely led and controlled by Deseret Book. [I addressed the problems this causes in a three-part post on A Motley Vision here, here and here]. These stores cover the Mormon corridor well, the rest of the western U.S. adequately, for the most part, portions of the rest of the U.S. occasionally, and the rest of the world in a spotty fashion.

But beyond the problems of coverage, this distribution system is hampered by the same kind of problem that Wilfried saw among local leaders, who “in order to fashion an extremely standardized and thus safe ‘gospel culture,’ impose restrictions well into the realm of the acceptable.” LDS stores simply don’t carry works that they believe any customer might object to as “inappropriate.”

Outside of this system, some material is distributed directly and at conferences and conventions. The rise of the Internet as a distribution method has helped this direct distribution significantly, but even this distribution is hampered, principally by the difficulty in letting members know that an item exists.

In a few cases, some materials have been distributed through channels that are not specifically Mormon, often when the appeal is wider than to just Church members, or when the distribution channel is highly automated and no longer requires intervention of a human evaluator to judge what should be included. However these channels are also hampered by the difficulty in letting members know that these materials are available.

The situation is even more complex for members of the Church who don’t speak English. Except for LDS Church distribution, there aren’t many options for distributing privately produced Mormon works. I’m sure that xerox copies of shorter material (the kind that were collected in Especially for Mormons) are passed among members at Church and at LDS functions, and sent person to person by email, when access is prevalent enough. But these methods aren’t very reliable, and I don’t think they work well for longer works.o

Above all for these members, we need to remember the difficulty of translation. The going rate for translation is something like $0.10 to $0.12 a word (often long manuscripts can be done for less than that, but certainly not for less than $0.05 a word). When a book-length work is 100,000 words ($10,000 at the going rate), who will pay for the translation?

Given these factors it might seem impossible for Mormon cultural materials to be distributed among members who do not speak English (outside of LDS Church distribution). Even within the English-speaking portion of the Church, I find the situation frustrating because of the impediments to wide distribution. So I wonder if there isn’t a way of distributing Mormon cultural works that solves some of these problems, especially those faced by members who do not speak English.

The current model assumes a high degree of conformity and is centered on Deseret Book. For non-English speakers, it is assumed that materials will be translated from English and distributed through local LDS stores.

But there are alternatives to this model. One often suggested idea is to skip Deseret Book and the current LDS stores in favor of distributing through the channels available in the U.S. The rise of the Internet has led to a class of online stores (such as Amazon.com) that list virtually everything — they make almost no judgment about each item, not even whether an item will even sell. Since everything is listed, it is easy to be included. LDS items are listed, of course, but not always as LDS items. It is often impossible to know that an item is in fact Mormon from its listing on these stores. This idea also faces problems outside the U.S., where national distribution systems still make judgments about whether an item will sell or is of interest to their customers, and where online stores aren’t as frequently used.

Another model assumes that LDS stores will eventually expand into most other areas of the Church as the concentration and income levels of members justify that expansion. What isn’t clear is how long this will take. When there are a million active Spanish-speaking members of the Church, it is hard to believe that so few have Internet access and enough disposable income that even a small Internet store can’t be supported. In contrast, the German language, with about 10,000 active members supports a small publishing company that has published about 50 titles (all translations of Deseret Book titles) since it was founded in 1986.

Others suggest that with income levels so low in many countries around the world, Mormon materials should be given away for free on the Internet. Doing so, they believe, will demonstrate demand and stimulate the development of distribution of physical copies as well. I’m not sure, in this case, who will pay the costs of creating or translating these materials, and if the physical materials don’t exist (i.e., the materials only exist on the Internet) is it even possible for an author to benefit at all from such a giveaway? In addition, I’m not sure that enough local members will have access to the Internet or, if they do, know where to find these free materials.

I’m persuaded by many elements of these models. I suspect that for English-speaking members, the best move is to expand the ways that materials can be found. While I’d like to see new LDS stores, retail stores can be very difficult to start and run given competition from Internet-based businesses. The Internet stores that list LDS materials need better classification or tagging so that it is possible to find virtually all LDS materials. It would even help to have an LDS equivalent of Amazon.com — someone that carried Mormon materials without the judgment of “appropriate” that Deseret Book and most LDS stores make. I can also see the benefit to developing demand by giving away materials for free, provided that there is a mechanism in place that helps develop permanent, stable distribution of physical as well as virtual materials.

For members that don’t speak English, none of these models is itself very persuasive, in my opinion, since they don’t address the single biggest difficulty — the time and cost of translation. My suggestion for solving this difficulty is simple: don’t! At least not when it isn’t necessary or when the work isn’t of long-term value (i.e., works by the prophet, some works by apostles and reference works like the Encyclopedia of Mormonism).

Instead, local members should produce their own materials. They can then express themselves in ways that fit their local culture as well as the gospel, and the financial benefits, if any, go that much more to local members. I think local materials are also more likely to build and support local distribution. And, if the work is of international value, it can then be translated into English, which is more likely to have the kind of distribution that can afford the cost of translation.

I’m sure there are more models or elements that should be considered when examining how Mormon culture is spread. I’d love to hear comments on what those are, or what models should be used to spread Mormon culture.

29 comments for “What Model for Spreading Mormon Culture?

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    August 19, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    How about working on the teaching of English as a second language? A lot of countries promote it anyway (Japan has a huge industry for it, since learning English gives people a window into a world culture in books and movies, as well as access to education and work opportunities), many have English as a second language due to history (Philippines, India, etc.), and many Mormons acquire it as they serve missions with English-speaking companions and mission presidents, and/or attend BYU-Hawaii or other campuses. All the reasons that regular Japanese people have for learning English are many times stronger for Latter-day Saints, and I think they apply to other nations as well. English is the second language of many educated Mormons worldwide, and the techniques for teaching it are well known, and the motivation for learning it for Mormons is strong, precisely because it gives members the ability to participate in greater depth in LDS culture, and get the direct benefit of LDS scholarship, such as the works of Hugh Nibley and works sponsored by the Maxwell Institute.

    I know there is a flavor of cultural imperialism attached whenever Americans talk about having people in other countries learn OUR language, but the fact is that English has replaced Latin as the international communications medium, driven not only by historical factors such as the dominance of Britain and then the US, but also by technology like the Internet, that has so much of its content in English.

    As local members gain English fluency, they can undertake to translate works that they find valuable, at first on a volunteer basis, and if the demand grows, on an increasingly commercial basis. One should also recognize that what is barely adequate pay to a US translator may be more than generous for a native of another country. If the local translator can be reimbursed from sales of the translated book, it may be enough incentive for many Mormons to take it up as a part-time business, as well as to increase their own CV in order to get paying employment in translation work.

    I think most of the local, native language works are going to be done by more-educated members of the LDS community, and the chances are that most of them are going to have conversational English skills. My guess is that the first works will focus on local LDS history and biography, and faith promoting experiences. Such fact-based accounts would also be more marketable in an English translation, which could be done in many cases by the original authors.

    Japanese Saints have produced a Church history in Japanese, and a biography of Tatsui Sato, the first convert after World War II, who worked at translating the scriptures in updated editions, the temple ordinances, and books like Jesus the Christ by Talmage. The history is still only available in Japanese, while the Sato biography has been translated into English to meet the demand from the many Americans who knew brother Sato.

    The local pages of the Liahona in each native language are a training ground for this kind of writing. Indeed, it is possible that one form of book would simply be a compilation of articles from those pages, especially the biographies of faithful members.

  2. August 19, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    I don’t have any brilliant ideas, but I do wonder if what we’re really interested in is the spread of Mormon culture, why we don’t begin with the works that don’t require much or any translation — visual arts and music (and then film — still major translation costs, but it’s easier to subtitle a film than translate a novel). The beauty of this model (and for all I know it could already be happening) is that there would be the possibility of works flowing back to the English speakers as well. I would buy a CD of a Romanian choir singing both LDS hymns and local hymns/folk songs. I could probably be convinced to buy CDs of works in languages that I don’t know if the music sounded cool.

    If the market then develops for these types of cultural products, then, perhaps, there will then be demand (and resources) for translations.

    Many of the works in the LDS Church’s International Arts Competition are very cool. I don’t know that I want to see a bunch of cheap, tourist trap knock offs of them. But low-cost, but quality prints/photographs of works would be cool. And maybe there’d even be a market for originals and/or high-end reproductions. [And maybe there already is — I don’t have the level of income to know about such things].

  3. Kent
    August 19, 2008 at 4:33 pm


    Could you explain a little more how you think teaching English will help get more Mormon culture distributed?

    As far as I see, teaching English as a second language will reduce the demand for Mormon materials in other languages and may increase the number of translators available. But as far as I can see, the lack of translators is NOT the problem.

    As you observe, English is the lingua franca in the world today, so in most languages there are many members who also know English, and purchase materials in English from the U.S. Still, we don\’t see much translation happening!

    I think that the amount of time and effort required is simply too daunting. It also seems foolish to take on such a project if there isn\’t any way to expect that it will be distributed. If you have tried to translate any materials from one language to another, you know that it takes huge amounts of time. The professionals I\’ve talked to (and my own experience doing some translation agrees) that it can take at least a half-hour per page to do a good translation, and often much more when the text is difficult. Personally, it takes me much longer than that, but I\’m not as dominant in other languages as a good translator should be. If I didn\’t know how what I translate will be distributed so that someone could benefit or how I would be paid for my time, I wouldn\’t undertake this effort.

    I suspect that without some way for the translator to know that the translation will be distributed, if no payment is forthcoming, the translators we already have among the members of the Church won\’t be willing to invest the time necessary to complete many translations. I don\’t see how having more translators will solve the lack of any way to distribute works.

    Of course, I admit that the same problem applies to local authors. Without any way for their locally written works to be distributed, why should they write?

    But I\’m certain that there are more potential authors among members that speak a language than there are potential translators. So it should be easier to get works originally written in a language than to get works translated into that language.

  4. Adam Greenwood
    August 19, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Very good post. I agree that, ideally, farflung church members need informal church cultural products as much as they need correlated doctrinal products.

    One thought that comes to mind is making more of an effort to broadcast and translate cultural events, either in the Conference center or those cultural extravaganzas that local Saints tend to put on when the Prophet visits their country for the first time in a while.

  5. Adam Greenwood
    August 19, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Another thought–and this is crazy, I know–is allowing members to write thoughts and meditations in the celestial room and making copies available in other celestial rooms. There would probably be enough members in most language groups to make some amount of exchange possible.

  6. Kent
    August 19, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    William, you have a very good point.

    And, for what its worth, I think that music and film are often easier to sell and distribute than literature. I avoided saying “book” or “title” in the post for precisely because music, film and other forms of expression should be included.

    And I think they are included. I know that some music has been done in Spanish, at least, and some films have been dubbed or subtitled by LDS filmmakers. I also have heard anecdotes recently about some members in South America who have even subtitled some LDS films themselves so that they can be seen by their fellow members. [Its a copyright violation to do so, but that doesn’t always stop people.]

    But, I should observe that the upfront, out-of-pocket investment for music is generally much larger than for written works. Recording music requires a studio of some kind (at least a quite room where you can put the musicians and equipment), equipment and the time of the musicians and engineer, and unlike film, it can’t really be subtitled.

    Film is much more practical for this idea, but since LDS film is in many ways still a nascent industry, I’m not sure there are enough films available yet to get formal, stable distribution of products going from just film alone. If all LDS films were subtitled or dubbed into a language, would we have more than 50 items? Would we have more than a half dozen new items a year? [My own estimate is that a language needs at least 50 items and a dozen new items each year to stimulate development of a traditional for profit distribution chain.]

    You are certainly correct that music and film are easier to translate. And they should be part of the mix of items that get distributed.

  7. Kent
    August 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm


    Great ideas, both. The latter, of course, requires approval from the brethren, and, to be honest, I don’t think that they would go for it. But the broadcasting of Church cultural events seems like something that should be done anyway.

    I think that this is the kind of idea that should be posted in the forum on the LDStech website. IMO, this is one of the best places to make suggestions to the Church that involve any technology whatsoever. And since the forum is open to the general public, additional messages agreeing that a suggestion is a good idea help make the point.

  8. August 19, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Kent, I’m guessing that the free, on-the-fly translation available for Web pages will make online information the most accessible source for non-English speakers. And there are plenty of sites that post weekly talking points about the various lessons, etc., that would be useful on a weekly basis, so we’re not just talking about translating blog posts. There are also dozens of books posted free online (Signature and FARMS are two sites that have posted a couple of dozen each).

    It would only take one letter from a Spanish Mormon to a GA thanking them for making so many Signature titles available free online to light a little fire under Deseret to get on board with a similar feature offering LDS classics free online (where text translators can at least make the gist of the text available to anyone). I don’t know if this offers much of a business model, but I think it is where the technology is headed.

  9. angrymormonliberal
    August 19, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    The judgment of appropriate and not appropriate is what makes a Mormon bookstore outside of the Mormon Corridor. If a book store carries books that the local members find inappropriate, they will not patronize the bookstore. It’s a lovely idea to have the online equivalent of Sam Weller’s with instant translation, but it’s unlikely.

    Besides, it might be a bit of a shock to have some of those old books available all over the world (and some of the Mexican Mormon books in English)

  10. August 19, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    It’s amazing to me: 1) how much church material has been translated into other languages, and 2) how many languages church material has been translated into, 159 so far. (106 “print” Book of Mormon languages, plus English Braille, Spanish Braille, and ASL)

    To see the languages of the church, and what has been translated into those languages, go to this page at http://www.ldscatalog.com It is also under “List of Available Items by Language”, which is under “Other Language Materials” link on the left side-bar of the main page.

    All those listings are available in PDF and can be downloaded or viewed online if you have Adobe Acrobat Reader available to your browser.

    The “Print PDF” link doesn’t actually print (at least not for me), it brings up the PDF in another browser window.

    For languages that have a lot of members, or are fast growing, there seems to be a lot of material: Spanish, French, Tagalog, Chinese (Taiwan and Hong Kong).

    I’d be interested to know some of the stories behind some translations. For instance, there are only about 400 Ethiopian (Amharic-speaking) members (4 or less branches, last I checked) of the church, but there is a full BoM translation in Amharic.

    For some languages, the Brethren may wait until there is a demand before authorizing a translation. But for other languages, I suspect that some translations were authorized under a “if you build it, they will come” kind of speculation, or divine instruction.

  11. Earl B
    August 19, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I think the Church could do a hugely better job with their website. The English one is pretty good, but if you want a real “treat” go to the Spanish or even worse one of the less common languages. The Spanish version of the Church website is horrible in my opinion. I expected it to correlate (nice Mormon word) to the English site, NOT. It seems that with the number of Hispanic members in the church, that everything should be available. I don’t see it on the Spanish site. You can’t search the primary manuals for example. Perhaps the thought is that not enough people in those countries use the internet, I don’t know, but I do know I was very frustrated trying to find Spanish materials on the site. It was very limited.

  12. Steve
    August 19, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    The problem with a distribution system that makes no judgment of appropriateness is that almost all Mormons want to be assured that the material they are purchasing is appropriate. Most Mormons want a broader range of material than is deemed acceptable by Distribution and Desseret Book. But most members also want to be assured that they are not buying “anti-Mormon” material. There needs to be some sort of filter for any system to work; a filter not only for materials that seeks to undermine faith but also a filter that selects high quality. Right now most of cultural materials are circulated among a relatively small “in-group.” This group is cohesive enough to act as its own filter by recommending materials to friends etc…. But if the broader range of Mormon cultural materials is ever going to reach a wider audience that audience is going to need a filter so that people can be assured that they are getting the best stuff.

  13. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Dave (#8), I’m afraid that I don’t see using free, on-the-fly translation available for Web pages as much of an alternative. They simply aren’t good enough.

    I’ve used them a lot, and I still use them either for getting a very general idea of what a web page is about, or for a first and very rough draft of something I want to translate. The result is too often unintelligible to be really useful as you suggest.

    It is possible that these translators may be useful in the future, but I think we are at least a decade a way from the use you describe.

  14. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 1:00 am

    angrymormonliberal (#9), I understand your point, and I agree that this is true today. But I’m not sure why it is true. Is it true because most Mormons really expect that from a bookstore? Or is the portion of members that actually goes to LDS stores simply so used to seeing only “appropriate” material that they are uncomfortable seeing other things there? After all, many of these same people are very used to going to many Deseret Book stores in Utah and seeing non-LDS books in the non-LDS sections of the store.

    Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I hope that a change like what I described is possible.

    As for your statement “Besides, it might be a bit of a shock to have some of those old books available all over the world (and some of the Mexican Mormon books in English),” I’m not quite sure what you mean. I’m not suggesting that old LDS books be translated necessarily (in fact, I’m for minimizing translation in general to those works that are of real value, unless it somehow helps develop distribution), so I don’t know why you think that “those old books” would be “available all over the world.”

    As for “Mexican Mormon books in English,” I’m only aware of perhaps two or three titles published in Mexico that were originally written in Spanish. Everything else is translations from English. So let’s see what get’s written before we decide that such works would be a shock to anyone in the U.S., or if they would even notice that the book was originally written in Mexico.

  15. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Bookslinger (#10). You are right. I can’t fault the Church for the translation efforts it is making.

    But I think you might have missed the fact that I was talking in the post about materials outside those approved by the Church (i.e., Deseret Book materials instead of LDS Church Distribution materials).

    Remember, the Church is only providing those materials absolutely necessary for local units to operate. Yes it includes the scriptures, lesson manuals, forms and supporting materials. It also includes doctrinal works that the Church believes are of high value.

    But by and large the materials in LDSCatalog do not include novels and fiction, music not found in hymnals, films not meant to be used in Church classes, etc.

    As I stated at the beginning of the post, it is these latter materials that interest me. And, as Adam Greenwood suggests in comment #4: “church members need informal church cultural products as much as they need correlated doctrinal products.”

  16. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 1:20 am

    Earl B (#11):

    You are right.

    But even worse is the problem non-English-speaking members face when they try to use other websites, especially those involved with distributing the kind of materials I’m talking about in the post. Deseretbook.com, for example, is only available in English — I’m not sure how many people would need to buy a book in Spanish if they can read enough English to navigate the website. Of course, Deseretbook.com isn’t the only culprit — basically everyone else is the same — English only.

  17. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Steve (#12):

    I tend to agree with you. I’d love to see some speculation about how such a filter could happen. I’m afraid I haven’t given the idea enough thought.

    You may have made me modify somewhat what I just told angrymormonliberal in comment #14. There I gave the impression that perhaps most Mormons don’t expect any guidance at all from bookstores. I should have said that, as you suggest, most Mormons don’t necessarily want the “appropriateness” standard that Deseret Book and the current industry uses.

    It would really be good to figure out how to set and promote a more liberal standard, one that allows a greater variety of expression.

  18. Steve
    August 20, 2008 at 2:25 am

    How such a filter would be constructed would be difficult to figure out. The key would be for the institution to establish a reputation as a trusted clearinghouse for LDS materials. And the trick would be appealing to the broad spectrum of Mormons without alienating any segment of them. I think as long as there is some standard for appropriateness this could be achieved. Also perhaps if the quality of material is high enough this balance could rest on a wider fulcrum.

    Back in the day record companies used to represent very potent filters by selecting and promoting quality acts. It used to mean something if someone was sighed with RCA or Capitol. Now it means nothing. No one knows or cares who Coldplay is signed with. The filter is gone. I would love to see someone able to pull this of with LDS materials, especially someone with the resources to pay for some translation.

  19. angrymormonliberal
    August 20, 2008 at 8:14 am

    Steve, you’ve got a much more rosy view of what ‘normal mormons’ want than I do…lol

    Growing up in a small Utah-like town, when one requested a Levi Peterson book, it was looked at somewhat askance. The best sellers in the independent bookstore were those horrible Mormon ‘thriller/romance’ novels that sprouted like mushrooms during the late 70’s and 80’s. So, one was faced with crafts, stickers and stamps or Mormon thriller-romance.

    Although, a on-demand publishing house might provide a partial answer to your question. If the materials could be printed fairly cheaply and sold in a variety of ways, catalog, internet etc. They could be kept in digital format and only printed when ordered, thus vastly reducing the inventory gamble. This could also affect music publishing in a good way if scores were available from a central clearinghouse, or a couple of competing institutions. (it plays hell with ISBN numbers though, and the library world is all pissy over non-standard print runs)

    You might be interested to know that a few anti-mormon novels have popped up on my radar this way, people selling these (usually horribly written) parables of their deconversion via various self-publishing websites. I’ll dig up a title or two if your interested.

  20. Tony
    August 20, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Is there a Mormon culture? Or are there different subcultures? I see an LDS culture in Utah that is very different from anything I see where I live. And do we really need a Mormon culture? Aside from the serious consideration of how best to spread the gospel in a multi-cultural world, I find the very idea of a Mormon culture — if such a thing exists at all– a fulfillment of Terryl Givens\’ complaint that we too often make sacred the trivial and trivialize the sacred.

  21. Wilfried
    August 20, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Thanks, Kent, for this interesting contribution and for citing me! I apologize for this late reaction and little presence at T&S lately, but have been in Belgium for the past four months with little time for blogging. Just some quick thoughts:

    The question of availability of Mormon materials, and of interest for such materials in other countries is indeed an interesting one. Roughly seen, from my European experience, we have to take into account a pretty diverse membership in local units in the mission field (including stakes grown out of missionary districts, basically not very different).

    A unit would count a rather large group of “core members” (by lack of better word) – converts from lower social levels, economic immigrants, many women from those realms – who seem satisfied with what the Church offers in terms of material, who come to Church out of a fundamental dedication and for its social environment. A smaller group, with more educational background, able to read English, with access to internet, will show a need for more and turn to non-official Mormon material. According to needs it can go in different directions. Some stick to the Deseret Book materials, and are willing to gather a lot, while a few, very few, want also different things and find it uplifting to e.g. access Sunstone-like material. Among a younger generation this last group seems to be growing.

    In terms of needs to be filled I think we also have to consider the factor of the host culture: (European) members, who live outside of the hub of Mormonism, have a lot of other input that surrounds them – just think of all the information programs on tv, debates, cultural incentives, reading tradition etc. I am not sure there is a big void to be filled. Add to that the lack of time active Mormons have in the mission field, considering the many hours of service in several callings.

    Tony (20) asked “Is there a Mormon culture”? It all depends how you define that elusive concept of culture. But there definitely is “something” that bonds us worldwide. And perhaps that something is more Mormon-American than some would like to recognize.

  22. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    angrymormonliberal (19), POD is already quite widely used among new and rising publishers of all stripes, including a number of recent LDS publishers (and that includes me.)

    You are right that it is only a partial solution. As I observed in warning self-publishers on A Motley Vision, POD doesn’t really sell books, it only makes them available.

    On demand services for books, however, are not quite the same as what you would need for on demand music publishing (of sheet music). But I have seen services that attempt to distribute POD music.

    I am interested in knowing about the anti-Mormon (and any pro-Mormon) books that you’ve run across. Drop me a note at kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org.

  23. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Tony, I think Wilfried’s post that I mentioned, Mormon identity and culture covers a lot of this issue of whether or not a Mormon culture even exists. I also weighed in on the subject in my post from last December. You should read these posts as a first step toward an answer. Wilfried is right that it depends a lot on how you define these things.

    My own view is that any group has its own culture, usually a miniculture of a subculture of the dominant cultures around it. You can’t avoid having a culture. Suggesting that it doesn’t exist is kind of like suggesting that air doesn’t exist.

    Of course, usually these small group cultures are manifest in shared stories, speech patterns and similar things, not sappy literature, bad art and trinkets.

    Do we need a Mormon culture? It will exist whether or not we want it. Each ward will have its own, each stake its own, and even each family its own.

    Now, if your question is whether or not we need cultural elements like the books, music and film that are sold in LDS stores, that’s another question.

    Read the posts. I think that they may help explain the perspective I have on this question.

  24. Kent
    August 20, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Wilfried (21): a thoughtful and useful comment. I appreciate your perspective and I think it deserves a thoughtful response.

    Roughly seen, from my European experience, we have to take into account a pretty diverse membership in local units in the mission field (including stakes grown out of missionary districts, basically not very different).

    I can see that in Europe. From what I’ve read (probably not as good as what you have experienced), I gather that Europe has experienced the kind of immigration that the US has, and perhaps to a greater degree. And the European Union’s mandate of free transit of people among member countries, means that the diversity is likely to increase, not decrease.

    But, I don’t think that this is true of other areas around the world — especially the third world — where, from what I can tell, there isn’t as much diversity.

    A unit would count a rather large group of “core members” (by lack of better word) – converts from lower social levels, economic immigrants, many women – who seem satisfied with what the Church offers in terms of material, who come to Church out of a fundamental dedication and for its social environment. A smaller group, with more educational background, able to read English, with access to internet, will show a need for more and turn to non-official Mormon material. According to needs it can go in different directions. Some stick to the Deseret Book materials, a few, very few, want also different things and find it uplifting to e.g. access Sunstone-like material. Among a younger generation this last group seems to be growing.

    I suspect these categories exist in the U.S. also, perhaps in different proportions than Europe. How are the U.S. and Europe different from each other in this respect, from what you can tell?

    Of course, the concentration and absolute numbers of Mormons in Europe are far from what we see in the US. The groups that turn to non-official materials (everything from Deseret Book to Signature, etc.) are much larger, and as a result a significant number of works are distributed.

    This all explains why there may not be much success distributing Mormon materials in many European languages (but doesn’t explain why there is a German publisher of LDS materials since 1986 with 50 titles in print!).

    The real question is where does this leave us with the two largest languages, except for English, in the Church. Where there are 10,000 active LDS Church members in German-speaking countries, Spanish-speaking countries contain at least 1,000,000 active members — where English was 20 years ago, well after the current distribution system for Mormon materials developed.

    In terms of needs to be filled I think we also have to consider the factor of the host culture: (European) members, who live outside of the hub of Mormonism, have a lot of other input that surrounds them – just think of all the information programs on tv, debates, cultural incentives, reading tradition etc. I am not sure there is a big void to be filled. Add to that the lack of time active Mormons have in the mission field, considering the many hours of service in several callings.

    Doesn’t sound all that different from members here in the U.S. They all, regardless of whether they live in the Mormon Corridor or in what I like to call Zion (New York City), have the same extensive inputs surrounding them. There isn’t a big void to be filled there either. But somehow distribution of these materials do happen here. Why is this different in Europe?

    I do think that your suggestions are different than what I’ve heard before. I’d just like some clarification about how all this actually affects distribution.

  25. Wilfried
    August 21, 2008 at 2:03 am

    Thanks, Kent. As to your questions:

    1) I suspect these categories [of people] exist in the U.S. also, perhaps in different proportions than Europe. How are the U.S. and Europe different from each other in this respect, from what you can tell?

    The situation I thought about is an “average” Mormon unit in Europe: some 50 people in church on Sunday, 5 to 10 leaders who carry the unit, and then many people in need, socially, emotionally, economically, often immigrants, illegals. I often think what an immense service a small group of saints offers to their fellowmen in those units. I presume you have similar situations in some parts of the U.S., like inner-city units on the East coast. Not so in Mormon territory where the units tend to be socially homogenuous and LDS social services established.

    2) [about input from the host culture] Doesn’t sound all that different from members here in the U.S. They all, regardless of whether they live in the Mormon Corridor or in what I like to call Zion (New York City), have the same extensive inputs surrounding them. There isn’t a big void to be filled there either. But somehow distribution of these materials do happen here. Why is this different in Europe?

    Oops, now I need to be careful. Yes, I think the input as to “food for thought” is different. Watch e.g. TV in a country like Belgium: main channels carry extensive news coverage, long and lively interviews on all kinds of themes, social & intellectual debates, documentaries on local and regional life & art, literature, humanitarian engagement, next to a lot of knowledge-games etc… I believe this influx makes a difference for those who hanker after more stimulating information. There may be less need for extra Mormon material among Mormons of that profile in Europe. Consider also that lots of the kind of Deseret-Book material are US-oriented. Lessens the appeal for the Europeans of the profile I mentioned. But it’s tentative as explanation. Certainly does not cover all aspects.

  26. Mike Lewis
    August 21, 2008 at 2:07 am

    In response to Raymond Takashi Swenson.

    It\’s true the Japanese members have produced some of their own works. There are two \”complete\” histories of the Church in Japan (one sponsored by the Church, and one written independent of the Church by local members), I just met with a man a month ago who finished a history of the first ward in Tokyo, there are several biographies, the one you mentioned and others including one of a family that went on one of the reenactments of the trek outwest, several collections of faith-promoting conversion stories (I\’m thinking of Shoei by Masao Watabe), and several collections of spiritual poetry written by members. Add to this the Church DVD produced for the 100 anniversary of the Church coming to Japan, and the NHK special on the Tabernacle Choir (for those who don\’t know NHK, this would be the equivalent of PBS\’s \”An American Prophet\” special), and there is quite the collection of locally produced LDS materials. When one considers Yuki Saito (perhaps the most famous Japanese member), her movies probably wouldn\’t make it into an LDS bookstore, but her poetry would. A small selection of this material has been translated into English, but the bulk of it is only available in Japanese.

    I\’ve seen similar collections of local material being produced in Bolivia and Argentina (albeit those materials tend to be of a less professional quality the content is generally comparable). Locally produced material may not be the problem. It\’s happening at its own pace. Translations aren\’t really a problem. The only stuff that\’s really been translated into Japanese from English are the official Church books, a few General Authority titles, and books by people with a connection to Japan. (I\’m thinking some stuff by Chieko Okazaki and, interestingly enough, On Wings of Faith, by Fred Babbel). The translations generally don\’t happen because money is involved. A translator often will take on the project as a favor to the author, or as a personal project. Don\’t forget, university professors live in a publish or perish community. Yes, it is risky to translate an LDS title unless you\’re a professor at an LDS school, but some professors take that risk anyhow. The translation gets done for free and the professor has another entry for his/her resume/CV. The costs of translating are exactly as was first described (my Dad\’s been in the business for the last 40 years), but no one actually pays those costs unless they\’re translating a book on the NYTimes Bestseller list or they\’re dealing with patents. Only in those situations is the payout worth the expense. (Twilight has finally proved its success to merit a Japanese translation). Outside of those more exceptional circumstances, most translation happens because a company will have an in-house translator (which produces less than perfect translations, but generally gets the job done) or a university professor needs an easy way to publish. LDS materials get translated because the members love to do it. That\’s the gist of the story.

    Translation isn\’t a problem, and by and large local talent is not a problem. (Just for the record I prefer local talent to translation… let people reinvent Mormon culture to fit their needs, and not just import Utah… In DC where I grew up, we had several members compile stories of the early days in DC, and there were a couple of limited prints that I\’ve been able to get a hold of, but you can\’t find in Utah… Since then, more members have moved into the area, mostly from Utah, and I feel like we\’ve almost been assimilating to Utah Mormon culture, but I like to think that my time in Utah has at least rubbed a little of DC Mormon culture the other direction…cultural development should go both ways in the Church). But, there is still a problem. The bookstore by the temple in Tokyo is nothing more than a U.S. Church Distribution Center. There was nothing there that you can\’t get in BYU Bookstore\’s basement. They don\’t even have the LDS Church history or 100 year commemorative DVD published by the Church itself. To get those you have to make a special order from the Presiding Bishopric\’s Office in Tokyo, and they\’re often reluctant to sell you those materials unless you\’re ordering through your bishop. As for all the other material I mentioned, you can generally only get a copy of that if you know the author personally. These books are generally published as a limited run for the author because the author believes they have a mission to accomplish in publishing the book. Even the ones that get larger professional publishers often have a very small run (On Wings of Faith went over under Bookcraft\’s label, but was still only available to a select few who knew where to look or were friends with the author). The exception would be Yuki Saito\’s poetry, which could be found in most major bookstores when it was first published.

    (Compare this situation to Santa Cruz, Bolivia where you can buy beautiful wood carvings of the temple in Cochabamba–a 6-8 hour bus ride away–in almost any store in the tourist district. I\’m not really sure why the temple carvings are available or how it got started, but there they are. If you ask the owners what the carving is of, they usually don\’t know it\’s the temple, just that it\’s a building the American\’s seem to like. Did I mention Mormon missionaries are pretty much the only Americans who actually go to Bolivia?)

    The problem isn\’t local materials or even translations. The problem is distribution. How do we make the materials available to a wide swath of members when they aren\’t concentrated enough to have a bookstore? How do you get the members all together online? If there\’s really a market for it, sounds like a great business opportunity. Who knows, maybe those limited runs I talked about would be larger if someone could put the members in contact with each other.

    That\’s basically it as far as this topic goes. I see the problem as being one of critical mass. It\’s not good enough that there are 1 million + members that speak Spanish. They\’re spread out across thousands of miles and 20 + countries. Maybe Germany has more success because the members, small in number though they may be, physically live closer together. Maybe the days for \”gathering\” to Zion haven\’t seen their end. We still need to gather, just in our own lands (or for me, in my city, DC). I think Southern Virginia University has a lot of potential in this way. If only we could replicate it overseas, then people would have a common gathering place (if only for the brief college years) and there would be a focal point where a real LDS bookstore could thrive. As people went back into the world for the holidays or after college is done, they would carry that new LDS cultrue with them to the rest of the Church in their land.

  27. Markie
    August 23, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    I just returned from attending the LDS Bookseller’s Association annual trade show/convention and this is a problem that a lot of authors/artists/wholesalers talk about. The problem is almost a catch-22 situation – there are few independent LDS bookstores in Spanish-speaking countries because there isn’t enough Spanish-language product to sustain them. And people don’t create the Spanish-language product because there aren’t enough outlets. A few years ago, my (very small) company produced a little “quiet book” in Spanish and Chinese. Because the books were not very verbal, the translation costs were extremely low (especially since my husband did the Chinese). But, we sold less than 200 copies of each – at those levels, they cost us more money to develop and produce than we made, so we had to discontinue them. Every year, we get someone who comes by our booth asking if we have anything in Spanish and saying that they are going to open a store in Latin America, but we never see them again.

    I agree that the internet provides a better means of distribution, and without the costs and risks of a physical store. The problem then becomes letting people know that such a site exists. You can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) use church membership lists or announce it in Relief Society. I did just find a Spanish LDS store online by googling it, so someone is trying this – I hope it succeeds.

    As for a Mormon retail ‘clearing house’ that does not judge the appropriateness of the material – that will be difficult. I have heard buyers for Deseret Book comment many times about the pressure they get from their customers to only carry “appropriate” materials. They get people who organize boycotts over what I would consider very silly things. Because DB is so strongly affiliated with the Church as an organization, they work very hard to avoid any suggestion of impropriety (to a sometimes ridiculous extent). The independent LDS bookstores (of which there are about 200 around the world (though overwhelmingly in the U.S.)) are much more varied. Some of them lecture the Bookseller’s Association for even allowing Signature Books to have a booth while others try to carry as wide a variety of Mormon thought as they can. It all comes down to the temperament and inclinations of the individual store owners – although there does seem to be a correlation between loving Mormon cultural artifacts enough to open a store and having strong ideas about what is appropriate.

  28. August 24, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Mike Lewis:
    I enjoyed your comment very much, and I wish you would drop me a note (kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org) because I think your information and knowledge could be quite helpful. I’ve been working on this issue for a few years now, and I believe that more cooperation among those interested in this issue might help reach the critical mass you speak of (I agree this is an element of the problem) and make it easier to find innovative solutions.

    I’m fascinated by your knowledge of the Japanese materials that have been produced. I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a comprehensive database of books by, for and about Mormons in other languages, so I would be very interested in picking your brain and getting the information you have.

    Given the development of technologies and market integration here in the US in the last 10 years, it seems a shame that books would go out of print, be available only from the author, or not be available here in the US, regardless of what language its in. It is too easy to get a book to appear on Amazon.com for that not to happen. Unfortunately, this market integration is relatively new and not as well known as it could be. It also has yet to spread beyond the US and the UK and Germany.

    Your thoughts and experience with translation are also fascinating, and largely in line with what I’ve seen, although I would emphasize that there is a kind of unspoken assumption that translation will happen instead of locally-written material. I think that both translations and locally-written material will happen (regardless of my preference for locally-written material, there are some things that simply must be translated — classic works, some reference materials, etc.). The problem is simply who will pay for the translation. You are describing situations where the translator has paid for the translation by donating his time. I worry that using that model to produce materials isn’t sustainable.

    Distribution is the key problem, IMO, and is the reason for this post. I don’t know what tactic or tactics will be used to overcome the distribution problem. The Internet is certainly part of the solution, but it isn’t the whole solution. I believe print-on-demand technology is also part of the solution, but it not only isn’t the whole solution, its not yet as ubiquitous as we need it to be.

    I’m simply looking for ideas for solving this distribution problem. How do we get materials (those that aren’t produced by the Church) into the hands of Church members?

  29. August 24, 2008 at 7:34 pm


    Please send me a note (kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org) and tell me what your company is. I’ll bet we have spoken before at the LDSBA. I’ve attended off and on for the past decade or more, but I skipped this year.

    Your experience with quiet books in translation is interesting. I’ve had some experience with a situation similar to what you describe, so I may be able to make some suggestions that could make even 200 copy runs profitable, depending on how you do it (I assume you did the quiet books in English also, right?).

    I also recognize the difficulty of the position that Deseret Book is in. But that position wouldn’t have such a big affect on the LDS market, if Deseret Book wasn’t so dominant!! We would be much better off today if Deseret Book hadn’t purchased its largest competitors — Covenant/Seagull Books recently, and Bookcraft in 1999. The fact that it is both a publisher and a retail chain also makes the situation difficult.

    I assume you are suggesting that any “Mormon retail ‘clearing house’ that does not judge the appropriateness of the material” would face the same criticisms that Deseret Book faces. I agree that it might. But I suspect that customers inclined to that criticism would continue to shop at Deseret Book instead of using this ‘clearing house,’ wouldn’t they? Such a resource doesn’t need to serve ALL customers, just some, along with those that have become disaffected because of the overly strict bias in the LDS market. More importantly, such a ‘clearing house’ should seek a reputation for completeness — for listing everything that meets a basic ‘not anti-Mormon’ criteria. That way, it would also list all the things that Deseret Book left out because their buyers don’t believe they will sell (a shockingly large number of items).

    Of course, this is all a theoretical exercise. I don’t know if such an idea would work or not. If you don’t think it will work, then what will?

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