LDS books: Oxford Press finds profits in prophets
Bouncing around on the trend-tossed seas of 21st-century book publishing, Mormon scholarship seems to have docked at the granddaddy of all prestigious presses: Oxford University.
By all accounts, the unlikely partnership between the oldest university in the English-speaking world and an upstart American faith seems to be working. Mormon writers, particularly historians, get the academic credibility they crave and Oxford sells a lot of books.
Two years ago, Oxford University Press published Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard, three LDS Church scholars . The harrowing account of the 1857 slaughter of 120 unarmed men, women and children by Mormons in southern Utah met Oxford's standards for thorough, honest research and evenhanded narratives -- and it sold thousands.
"Every university press in the country, if not the world, went in the red in 2008, but Oxford made money and it was the Mountain Meadows book that was the margin of difference," says Jack Welch, editor of Brigham Young University Studies. "So everybody was happy with that."
Oxford has issued more than a dozen Mormon volumes, from Richard Bushman's Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction to C. Mark Hamilton's Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture & City Planning .
This spring it will release a literary analysis of The Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy, an LDS professor of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. Next year it will bring out a biography of early LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt and is considering a Handbook of Mormonism and possibly a multi-volume history of LDS theology. Every proposal is reviewed by established experts in the field, Mormons and others, to meet the publisher's scholarly requirements.
"People in the academy are beginning to have a broader view of Mormonism, not just as some sort of fringe group," says Cynthia Read, Oxford executive editor. "As an outsider, I see a desire on the part of the church to be more mainstream and transparent."
The internationally respected publisher didn't set out to corner the market in Mormon studies, says Read, who manages Oxford's acclaimed "Religion in America" series. But since there is no more American religion than Mormonism, "it was a natural for our list."
Long before Oxford discovered Mormonism, however, other publishers understood the importance and marketability of its founding prophet and history.
View beyond the mountains » In the mid-20th century, academic or trade presses outside of LDS population centers published important books on Mormonism.
In 1945 , Alfred A. Knopf offered No Man Knows My History , Fawn Brodie's provocative profile of Joseph Smith. Five years later, Stanford University Press brought out Juanita Brooks' groundbreaking history, Mountain Meadows Massacre . In 1957 , University of Chicago marketed Thomas O'Dea's sociological masterpiece, The Mormons , and the next year Harvard issued Leonard Arrington's magnum opus, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of Latter-day Saints 1830- 1900.
By and large, these were single books, not the development of a "series" or a publisher's "list."
That didn't happen until the 1970s, when Elizabeth Dulaney began to build a Mormon studies fiefdom at the University of Illinois Press. For almost three decades, Illinois churned out some of the most important works in Mormon history, including Jan Shipps' seminal exploration, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition and Bushman's Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism .
Illinois played a "crucial role in establishing the study of Mormonism, especially history, as a legitimate topic for serious scholars," says Philip L. Barlow, a Harvard-trained scholar who now is a professor of Mormon studies at Utah State University.
For nearly 30 years, the Midwest university dominated the LDS scholarly book world.
The British behemoth » Yet it was Oxford that published Barlow's book, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion , as its first foray into LDS history. Next the press picked up Terryl Givens' The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy . Both books received national acclaim and brisk sales, which gave Oxford confidence that its Mormon gamble paid off.
Meanwhile, Dulaney retired from Illinois so LDS authors turned elsewhere. A certain momentum developed as Oxford's weight in the academic and publishing worlds began to affect the landscape. Now other university presses, including Columbia, Yale, North Carolina and Oklahoma, are entering the market.
Academic as well as general interest in Mormonism never has been higher, says Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
"So many scholars inside and outside the church are now doing world-class work on the tradition," says Givens, who has published a half-dozen books with Oxford and has signed on for several more. "In addition to a general readership interested in things Mormon, members are voracious consumers of their own history."
Oxford is standing ready to pile their plates high -- with only the most seasoned dishes, of course.
The University of Utah Press has teamed up with Brigham Young University Studies to bring out several new volumes on Mormon history and culture, including The Best of the Frontier Guardian, edited by Susan Easton Black, a BYU professor.
Conflicts between the Y. and the U. are primarily on the football field, said BYU Studies editor Jack Welch. "We are drawn to this [collaboration] because we both want to serve our readers, and market realities determine that people may not find a book if it's in a place where they are not used to going."
Since 2005, when the U. published the best-seller, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, by Gregory Prince and Robert Wright, it has focused on the international church and 20th-century Mormonism, said Peter DeLafosse, acquisitions editor. As an example, he cites the forthcoming Mormons as Citizens of a Communist State: A Documentary History of the of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945-1990 by Raymond Kuehne, first published in a German-language edition by Leipzig University Press.
On its own, BYU Studies also has joined with other university presses, including Illinois, Minnesota and with Eisenbrauns, a publishing house in Indiana specializing in the ancient Near East and biblical studies.
Utah State University Press has "every intention to be one of the leading university publishers of Mormon studies, principally historical works but expanding to cultural studies," said John Alley, executive editor.
As evidence of both strands, Alley noted both William Smart's award-winning history, Mormonism's Last Colonizer: The Life and Times of William H. Smart as well as the forthcoming Peculiar Portrayal: Mormons on Page, Stage and Screen, edited by Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin.
"We don't publish as many books as Oxford does," he said, "but we've been publishing and selling successfully on Mormon history for 20-plus years and doing quite well at it, getting good reviews."