Mormon publishing house hires its first female director

Barbara Jones Brown, head of Mormon History Association, takes the reins at Signature Books and is eager to widen its reach.

Signature Books, a longtime publisher of scholarly Mormon works, has hired its third director — and its first female chief executive — since its 1981 founding: Barbara Jones Brown.

Brown, currently executive director of the Mormon History Association, soon will step down from that position and into the Signature Books job.

She replaces Gary James Bergera, who is retiring after managing Signature from 1984 to 2000 and again since 2017. Bergera is also managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, which funds Signature and other philanthropic work.

“I have huge shoes to fill in taking over Signature,” Brown said, but she is “really excited” by the job that will bring together her background in writing, publishing and Mormon history.

“There are so many fantastic scholars who write on Mormon and Utah history whom I have met through MHA,” she said, “but that haven’t been tapped by Signature yet.”

That includes more female authors and subjects, as well as books by and about Black, Indigenous and people of color. She also hopes to address 20th-century topics.

Signature has done “a great job” in its 40-year history, Brown said, pointing to works by renowned historians, D. Michael Quinn, Leonard J. Arrington, Martha Bradley Evans, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Rod Decker and John Sillito, to name a few.

“I don’t want to diminish that in any way,” she said. “I just want to work on expanding the tent.”

After earning an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University in journalism with a minor in English, she got a master’s in American history from the University of Utah. Brown worked for the history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where she served as content editor of the award-winning 2008 book “Massacre at Mountain Meadows.” She is currently co-writing the book’s sequel. She also served as historical director of Better Days 2020, focusing on women’s suffrage.

“I am not afraid of tackling difficult topics and publishing unflattering history, since I’ve worked on the massacre and post-Manifesto polygamy,” she said. “History is history.”

The world of publishing has evolved since Signature was born and produced long, expensive volumes, Brown said, so she would like to push for shorter, more affordable works and look into the feasibility of more audiobooks.

Accessibility, she said, is a “big part of my approach.”

Evans, a Signature board member who led the search committee for a new director, praised Brown’s integrity (“she is what she presents herself to be”) and her ability to “bridge public and scholarly” history.

Plus, being the MHA overseer taught Brown how “to manage people in a complex organization,” Evans said, while working at Better Days tapped the new director’s skills at “finding ways to communicate complex issues to a broad audience.”

Evans, who teaches architecture and urban planning at the University of Utah, said Brown is respected by scholars across the spectrum — from the LDS Church’s history department to area universities and outside groups like the Western History Association.

For Signature, Evans said, the combination of Brown’s experience, personality, networking and adaptability is “golden.”