Deseret Book president on church’s new openness: ‘We can’t pretend it wasn’t taught’

On showcasing more works by female authors and artists: “We would look foolish,” she says, “if we didn’t have more content for and about women on our shelves.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deseret Book's downtown location in Salt Lake City in March 2020. The commercial publisher and retailer is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For more than a century, Deseret Book has been a sought-after brand for Latter-day Saint leaders, scholars and authors, and remains the go-to retail outlet for rank-and-file members seeking church-related books.

Owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the commercial publisher has produced landmark volumes of theology such as James E. Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ” and LeGrand Richards’ “A Marvelous Work and a Wonder.” But its stores also sell paintings, music, knickknacks, even jewelry.

Overseeing the entire enterprise is Laurel Day, who rose through the ranks to become Deseret Book’s president in 2021.

In these excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, Day talks about her vision for the global company; the new openness in detailing the church’s unvarnished history; the increasing visibility of women; the part she plays in deciding what is published and what is put on — and sometimes pulled off — the shelves; and Deseret Book’s role in building the worldwide faith.

How did you get your first job at the publishing house?

I got hired in 1998 as a part-time marketing event specialist, and it just so happened that the job market at the time had more jobs than people. Deseret Book was desperate … and I was the sucker that took it. It was 25 years ago, which is hard to believe. … I went to grad school somewhere in that story. It’s been where I’ve kind of learned the business. And I’ve loved it.

How about becoming president?

The prior president, Jeff Simpson, had been called to serve as a mission president with his wife, Karen, so there was a change happening. …They interviewed a couple of us within the organization and asked me if I would be willing to take the assignment. I loved the job I had before this — I always say I climbed a ladder I never meant to get on — but I’m so passionate about the work.

(Courtesy) Laurel Day, president of Deseret Book.

Do you have final say about what is published and what is put on the shelves?

Certainly, the buck stops here at some point, but we have an editorial board that reviews manuscripts for the imprint of Deseret Book and any of our imprints. Sheri Dew chairs that board… and I report to her.… There are things over which I do have the final say, and other things where we consult our editorial advisory board… to make sure we aren’t doing anything outside of the bounds that we should be doing.

Have you seen a change in emphasis over the years?

The internet changed everything. There was a time where you could put a compilation together of messages that Elder So-And-So gave, and the members would eat that up, because it was the easiest way to get that content. That’s not true anymore. You can’t do compilations. Are we doing fewer works with general authorities and church leaders? I would say yes, because now we’re more reliant on their time and their ability to help put those things together. But inspirational titles, fiction titles, historical fiction, offerings for children, those have always been a part of the Deseret Book legacy.

What about women?

Our customer base is [by] far majority women. And women want to learn stories about other women, and they want to read the words of women. We’ve done a lot of work to cultivate relationships with female scholars and historians and inspirational writers so that we can have those offerings available. I would say that’s less about Deseret Book having some intentional agenda and more about the world we live in. We would look foolish if we didn’t have more content for and about women on our shelves.

What’s your overall vision?

For a really long time, we were focused on a white American church. So one of our key priorities is to make sure that we’re doing a better job representing the wide range of members of the church, not just internationally, but in this country. We also feel a responsibility to help members of the church see their place in the church. I have a very nontraditional life. I didn’t get married till I was 41. I don’t have children of my own. I have stepchildren and stepgrandchildren from my marriage. I lived in this church for essentially 40 years, not feeling kind of that traditional trajectory that I thought I was going to fill in. Deseret Book has a unique opportunity to help not just make the tent bigger, but help people see there’s a place in the tent for them.

OK, let’s talk about the “Let’s Talk About” series [which covers some sensitive issues in the church].

We recognized that there were conversations happening related to the [church’s] Gospel Topics essays. We felt like we needed to address those topics for members who are seeking faithful, reliable content. … “Race and Priesthood” [about the church’s former priesthood/temple ban for Black members] is one of those topics. What we were hoping to accomplish with [scholar Paul Reeve’s] book was to gather in one place the best historical scholarship on what was happening at the time, what was being taught in the church, and what were the actual lived experiences of some members. … What Paul Reeve did in 120 pages is phenomenal. And I know there are those who have found that book to be incredibly helpful. I feel like part of what our responsibility is to support the church in their push to make sure that members are getting access to accurate church history. And I feel like that book does that. … I wouldn’t say it comes down hard on Brigham Young. I would say what it does is it uses his words to say these are things that were said. We can’t pretend they weren’t said, and they’re impacting our Black brothers and sisters. And so if more white members understand the history of those restrictions, and what was said because of those restrictions, and what was propagated for so long because of those restrictions, then hopefully we can better teach and talk about this important topic and the impact it still has on families, and it still has in our culture — and teachings that the church has disavowed. We’ve got to do a better job of being educated so that we can say, “We don’t actually believe that. That’s not part of our truths,” but acknowledging that it was taught, and we can’t pretend it wasn’t taught.…We really are just trying to say there are ways to have thoughtful, faith-filled conversations about topics that maybe you’re not discussing in your 50-minute Sunday school class.

(Tribune file photo) Historians say Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put in place the faith's former priesthood/temple ban for Black members.

What have you done at the company to eliminate racism?

We’ve done really important training with our store associates. We want people to come into the stores and [feel] they’re welcome. We’re working really hard to make that happen…[As part of the church’s mission], racism has to be rooted out. And the only way it’s going to be rooted out is if we’re willing to do the work to dig it out. And to do things differently than we’ve done them in the past. We did bias and belonging training [with employees], which wasn’t specific to racial inclusion, but we all have blind spots. …We need to change the way we see each other. This is a bigger conversation in this country and world right now.

If Deseret Book publishes or carries a book, is that a tacit endorsement from the church?

No, it’s not; it wouldn’t be fair. We are people, and we are doing the best we can to vet the products that we carry. We certainly have stringent protocols for what we publish, but the church is not involved in our day-to-day affairs. People can trust that Deseret Book is run by faithful members of the church who are trying to do their best to support and honor the mission and purpose of the church. And we’re human and fallible.

What happened with [Operation Underground Railroad founder] Tim Ballard’s books?

We always knew that those books were his personal opinion. And we indicated as such. …. But, frankly, I think anyone who was involved in those decisions would tell you that it’s a decision that they would like to have back.

Were you involved in deciding to pull the books off the shelf?

Yes, ultimately, I take ownership of the decision, and we returned the publishing rights back to the author.

This screenshot, taken Sept. 24, 2023, shows this Tim Ballard book available from Shadow Mountain Publishing, a registered trademark of Deseret Book, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The book was removed from the Shadow Mountain site after an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune.

What are some forthcoming projects you have that excite you?

We’re looking to expand our events for women. We have launched a new brand called Magnify. There’s a podcast that will have gathering events for women. We have a children’s animated series that we have just wrapped up and will be launching next spring. … We’ve got a beautiful book called “The Shepherd and the Lamb” coming out from [apostle Gerrit] Gong this next spring. … We’re also looking to expand our international offerings on our Bookshelf app.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To receive full “Mormon Land” transcripts, along with our complete newsletter and exclusive access to all Tribune religion content, support us at Patreon.com/mormonland.

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