Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why I dread getting the Deseret Book Catalog

Along with all the other junk mail we receive, we get regular mailings from Deseret Book. We live far from the intermountain west, so we can’t wander into a store and browse, and I used to enjoy getting the mailers to see what latest church books were available.

I have enjoyed reading LDS books over the years. The apostles’ books that were either the result of their year’s focus in talks (like Elder Maxwell’s) or those that are edited talk collections (like Elder Eyring’s) appealed to me, as did collections of Women’s Conference addresses (these were especially helpful when I was a new bishop many years ago; they helped me gain a better understanding of a key part of my flock). I’ve never been too big on LDS fiction, though I enjoyed reading the Tennis Shoes series with some of my kids, and though I didn’t read any of his other books, Gerald Lund’s book on the Hole in the Rock expedition was interesting because of a family connection to that story (not my family, but my wife’s; I have no Mormon pioneers in my heritage, just old fashioned American pioneers…).

I also have enjoyed a variety of biographies published and marketed through Deseret Book, including those of church leaders and prominent members. And recent efforts at church history like Massacre at Mountain Meadows and the Women of Faith series have been awesome.

But the catalogs that come in the mail trouble me. Now, I am a fan of the free market. I work for a huge corporation that is very happy that customers buy our very expensive products. But I grimace when I turn the page in the Deseret Book mailer and see framed temple pictures selling for $250 (and that at half price!), and Christus statue replicas for $100. I realize that several hundred dollars for an object of art isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, especially for some consumers. And I surely want artists to be compensated for their work. But the framed temple pictures are photographs. And the original creator of the Christus statue has been dead for some time.

Is there something wrong that there is a market for high priced trinkets of our faith? I can’t help but have the same question in my head as arose under different circumstances in the New Testament. Couldn’t that money be better used to help the poor?

I know I’m really on sensitive ground here. Each of us makes purchase decisions that are unique to us. One man’s luxury is another man’s normal. And our covenant to consecrate all we have to the building up of the kingdom doesn’t come with a ledger book for keeping track.

After each reading of Nibley’s Approaching Zion (and I haven’t read it in a while), I find myself thinking twice about many purchases – do I need to go out to that restaurant? Do we really need the low-fat hamburger? Do we need the artisan bread instead of the store brand?

I’ve lived enough places in the world to know that my middle class American standard of living is far above that of most of the world’s population, and, frankly, it’s well above many of my fellow Americans’, too. And so from time to time, like when the Deseret Book mailer comes, I find myself wondering about how I use my resources. Am I sharing my surplus with those in need? And what is my surplus? And how should I share it? Is a generous fast offering enough? Is there more I should do?

There are no set answers to these questions of course, and my answers will be different from yours. And that’s ok, as long as we periodically ask ourselves the questions.


  1. Large format art printing and framing is expensive work quite apart from any compensation to the original artists. I felt it was worth it to pay the $400 or so to put up a large print we liked in our living room five years ago. I assume it will still be hanging on some wall thirty years from now. When compared with the clothes washer I bought this fall or the garage re-roofing I took a couple days off to do last spring, it seems an appropriate expenditure if such a thing in a house is good to have at all.

    A friend is a great-granddaughter of LDS artist John Hafen and had a huge portrait by Hafen of his wife, about seven feet tall, a little funny in the townhouse her family owned ten years ago. I had seen it previously in her parents home three thousand miles away, and it would take some considerable expense of time or money to safely transport it. I'm glad she could take care of it and have it with her.

  2. To flesh out the expense of my living room print, the museum shop I ordered from charges 30 cents per square inch these days for Gicle prints on canvas of any work they carry. For a 28" by 42" canvas that is $353. Prints on paper are half that. We had it shipped unframed in a tube and had it framed in a local shop. I don't remember the price too well, around $80 I'm thinking, but it was a enough that I spent some time studying how I could do it myself before deciding that, unlike wiring lighting or patching drywall or laying floors or shingling roofs, this wasn't something I would need to do again and I should just let the technician have his wages and let his shop have its profit.

  3. John, I don't dispute the value of art. My son is an artist, after all, and I'd like for him to make a living! And we have some religious art hanging in our home that I'm sure wasn't cheap (all three were gifts to me, so I don't know what they cost, but I know they weren't free).

    That said, I do think it's healthy for each of us to reflect on the value of the icons we choose to surround outselves with compared with other ways we could use those funds. And, as I've said, I don't pretend to prescribe a solution for someone else.

  4. Paul:

    This post provided excellent food for thought. A few years ago my wife and I purchased a piece of framed art from Deseret Book for the clearance price of a *mere* $150. It has hung on our wall for nearly 4 years now. And I hardly ever notice it. I rarely take spiritual nourishment from it. If religious themed art is standard for LDS homes, then it might have been just as well for me to purchase an inexpensive print from the Church Distribution Center and a frame from either the D.I. or dollar store.

    I can't know for sure, for as you mentioned everyone's situation is unique, but I suspect that many people purchase expensive LDS themed art less out of concern for the starving artist and more for reasons similar to the scribes and pharisees whose works were done "for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments"(Matthew 23:5).

    I think your comment is important: "I do think it's healthy for each of us to reflect on the value of the icons we choose to surround ourselves with compared with other ways we could use those funds." I can't help but wonder if more spiritual and physical nourishment might have occurred by donating that $150 to Fast Offerings or purchasing food for the Food Bank. It may be water under the bridge now, but if I never reflect on my stewardship then I'm a bit off balance spiritually.

  5. I don't know that "price" factors into decisions - but it's purely what the market will bear. As a Church, we've built the most expensive mall in the United States, filled with stores like Porsche and Tiffany that 99% of Americans can't afford to support. But as long as there's "someone" who will pony up the money, we're glad to sell it to them.

  6. I'm troubled by the Deseret Book catalog also, and I also live far away from the center place. I really don't like the sentimentality and sappy-ness of the artwork and the even the dust jackets of the books -- I feel the company is trying to entice me to buy its products, using all the tricks in marketing, to make me buy because they have me emotionally hooked. I don't like that feeling of being used or acted upon in that way, so I haven't shopped at Deseret Book in probably fifteen years or more, and I throw away the catalog before if comes into the house so my wife doesn't see it. When I buy something, I like to think it is because I made a decision to buy it and there is value in the transaction where both parties are honorable, not that someone else made a decision to sell me something and I'm being acted upon. I'm not an enemy of Deseret Book -- I understand its purpose -- I just don't like its marketing style because of my perception of its perception of me.

  7. Thanks for the comments! Mike, I think there's some linkage between my post and the comment about the Great and Spacious Mall, though I intentionally didn't go there in my post; I had hoped to focus on individual choices.

    ji, I agree that DB is marketing their way into our homes, just as everyone else does. The company that puts food on my table certainly does the same trying to get people to buy our products, and I'm glad people do. But I get what you are saying; even the lower-priced kitsch (CTR jewelry, motivational plaques, and so on) leaves me cold.

    Andrew, I think your assessment of the long term value of the art you purchased is interesting and telling, and gets right to the heart of the matter. On the one hand, if I need to look at a print of a painting of the Savior each day to remember Him, there's something wrong. On the other hand, if I'm going to have art on my walls anyway, why not religious art? If I have my art there for the praise of men, well, then I suppose I have my reward.

  8. Paul, I've often wondered too about the high prices in the Deseret Catalog. But then, I wonder too about the reports in The Church News of whole families going to some faraway place to do humanitarian work. We struggle to pay for an in-the-car trip to go see our own family, let alone fly the whole lot of us to some exotic destination. Many people must have a whole lot more money than we do. I hope that what has been said in General Conference, that we'll be judged by the intents of our hearts, is true, and that we won't be judged by the size of our pocketbooks. I would love to support artists and buy originals or even fine prints; I would love to support an orphanage, or micro loans, or well-drilling or whatever other need there is. We're working toward that end but it always seems so far away. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Keep up the good work.

    1. I hear you, Rozy Lass! We have been a different places at different times in our lives, to be sure. When we lived in Venezuela, our standard of living was so high compared with most members of the ward in which we lived. It was hugely eye-opening to me (and to our children) and we were able to do some real good there with our time, our physical efforts and our money. Other times and places we've lived, we've been far from the top of the economic pyramid, and our efforts and contributions have been different.

      I do believe King Benjamin had it right: we will be judged by the intent of our hearts.

      I think of Filippino friends we had in another location we lived. They would have happily given their last crumb of food to someone in need, knowing that it would put themselves at future risk. The future was far less important than the immediate need. That was not a wise view from my western vantage point, but I suspect they could do nothing else because of their understanding and their real desire to serve others.

      Your comment reminds me of a line in my patriarchal blessing that gives me specific guidance in all this about sharing the blessings the Lord gives me. Now I have even more to think about. :-)

  9. I think that what is in the Deseret Book catalog represents an intersection of various forces and constraints.

    --Good Mormons have a strong spiritual life, and tangible goods aren't very important to that.
    --Yet Mormons tend to want to establish a certain atmosphere in their homes that reflects what is most important to them. Hence, we have pictures of the temple, statuettes of Christ, or whatever. (Also, wasn't it President Spencer W. Kimball that recommended we have a picture of the temple in our homes as a small way to try to convey to the rising generation how important temple covenants are, in order to encourage them to prepare themselves for it? I imagine a number of women in the church say to themselves as a result, "Well, if I'm going to have a picture of the temple in my home, I want it to be one that is really NICE.")
    --Mormons are also a thrifty bunch. I imagine we'd have a whole lot more great art for sale at Deseret Book if we were more willing to pony up for it. But since we're not, we get little inexpensive stuff. So Deseret Book sells little inexpensive stuff.
    --To me, Deseret Book's marketing messages seem more subtle than what is out in the world. They have to try to sell, yet without being priestcrafty.

    I personally like Deseret Book. I grew up in an area where the church wasn't so very strong, so I like being able to go into a bookstore that is so focused on all the values that I hold dear.

    I do have two favorite artists whose work I would love to own someday:
    J Kirk Richards

    and James Christensen

  10. Deseret Book is run as a business, by the business arm of the Church. So its prices are an economic expression of supply and demand.

    1) Temple pictures are not a monopolistic system. The barrier of entry is very low (anyone with a half-way decent camera can get a great picture of a temple and blow it up for their wall), and a google search for "lds temple pictures" yields easily a dozen alternative sources for temple pictures art, some of which are free.

    2) I likewise do not think temple pictures are a perfectly competitive market. Deseret Book surely has the largest distribution and has an outsized impact on the market. If it raised prices it would not immediately be priced out of the market. Replacement products would take some time to gain market share.

    I would characterize the market for temple pictures as a competitive market, but not a perfectly competitive one. Supply is not artificially held down by a barrier of entry or predatory activities or collusion on the part of major market actors, and the bottom line is that the prices are high because...demand is high.

    For one reason or another, people (the market i ngeneral, that is) prefer Deseret Book doing the work of taking a stunning picture, printing it professionally, and framing it (or of contracting with those that do these things), rather than do this work themselves. The price Deseret Book charges is representative of what the market as a whole assigns as the value for this process of temple picture production. If it weren't Deseret Book would be unable to sell the pictures at that price and would begin to lose market share in the temple picture market.

    Deseret Book is run by very smart people who understand supply and demand. If the price they are charging for a temple picture does not match the equilibrium price dictated by supply and demand, they will quickly figure that out and will adjust the price.

    The fact that you think the price is too high says more about your economic value assignments relative to the market's than it does about Deseret Book. You either (1) have less demand for temple pictures, or (2) have greater opportunity cost, meaning that other expenditures in your life take greater precedence for you than they do for the rest of the market. This is not bad. Reasonable minds can certainly disagree as to the relative value of temple pictures--as you clearly disagree with the market's assessment of their value. I am not saying this in any way as a condemnation of your value assignments.

    I would finally note that I have no qualms with Deseret Book maximizing its profit by selling its products at equilibrium price becuase nothing sold exclusively by Deseret Book is absolutely necessary for saving gospel learning or Church service. Those things that are requried for conversion and service (scriptures, manuals, etc.) are sold by the distribution center--where prices are rarely an issue--or they are provided to the membership entirely free.

    1. Anon, thanks for that stunning economic analysis. You'll note from the OP I said nothing about BD's role in setting the price. It's all about whether people feel like they ought to be spending that money on church art or on something else, and more particularly about how I think I ought to be spending my money.

  11. I grew up with Deseret Book growing up along the Wasatch Front. I used to love visiting the store to find books and other products that would help me in my spiritual journey. Maybe I am in a different stage of my life, but as I look at the products that Deseret Book has to offer I am left wanting and a little bit cynical. This is especially true of many of the books that sell for $24.95 or more, and yet seem to have little in the way of substantiality. I've been especially dismayed by the proliferation of small gift books with only a few words from members of the First Presidency that sell for $20 or more. My priestcraft alarm starts going off in my head. Now, to be fair, priestcraft is sometimes in the heart, which is not something that any of us can judge from the outside, but it still makes me wonder...

    For me I feel like there is a more, I hate to say insidious but it is the only word I can come up with at the moment, issue at play here. It seems there is enormous cultural pressure to eschew "worldly" books, movies, and products in favor of Mormon counterparts. Walk into any Deseret book and you will see the Mormon version of the otherwise successful, but not exactly Mormon music, movies, books, and even games priced as high as the market will bear. A subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) form of bunker mentality seems to be driving the sales of these derivative products. It is as if people are afraid to exercise their agency in seeking out the best books, music, movies, etc., and have instead placed there choice in the hands of Deseret Book. And Deseret book is more than happy to fill this niche and take their hard earned dollars and cents.

    1. I think I agree with your second paragraph; it seems that DB has become a "safe haven" for many LDS consumers. I find myself wondering how many grandparents purchase gifts for grandchildren there, hoping they'll be read and/or listened to, and they are not.

      Again, I don't fault DB for operating a successful business model (assuming it is successful).

  12. Found your article after griping to my husband about the high cost of books while looking at their stupid catalog. I keep thinking are we as members so gullible and desperate for LDS media that we'll pay any price to get it? Or are we so brainwashed for storage items that we'll pay for fancy packaging because it says it's a year's supply as if DB is the only sole provider of these items? I don't need silly cheap trinkets sold at high market values to remind me of my covenants or fancy cases for my scriptures. I usually just toss the catalog out and go on with my daily life.

    At the same time, some Church related books would be nice and I miss reading them. However; 24.95 for a 100 page paperback book is outrageous and that money is better spent on gas and groceries for my family so the book will never get purchased.

    Enjoyed your post and thanks for letting me gripe.

  13. I too have recently been bothered by Deseret Book. The Seattle store has just undergone a major renovation. Half the store is now a distribution center and the other half D.B. I was turned off when I went in and David Archuletta was singing his version of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts". They even had a jar out where you could nominate your favorite Sunday School teacher for an award. It felt so gimmicky and wrong that I actually complained to the clerk. I felt bad doing it but it really bothered me.