Mormons' sacred text goes public

For a year now, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been staring at the cover of Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven." The blockbuster bestseller - in both hardcover and paperback - tells the grisly tale of two Mormon fundamentalists who felt impelled by God to kill a woman and her daughter in 1984. Krakauer suggests the crime was a tragic but natural extension of the Mormons' fanatical faith.

If contract details are finalized as expected, the next bestseller about the Mormons will present an entirely different picture. Doubleday, a division of Bertelsmann - which also published Krakauer's book - plans to release the first authorized trade edition of "The Book of Mormon" in November.

Since 1830, distribution of the church's sacred text has climbed into thin air that Krakauer could only dream of - 120 million copies total and more than 5 million in 2002 alone. But the new arrangement with Doubleday will give the book exposure in entirely new markets.

Published in close consultation with the Utah-based church, this upcoming version will not include footnotes or cross-references that appear in Mormons' usual copies. It will, however, sport a new reference guide intended for nonmembers.

The price has been set at $24.95, higher than the millions of copies given away by missionaries or sold at token prices. Devout Mormons already own fine editions - sometimes leatherbound for more than $100. And a "reader's edition" - with historical introduction, chronology, and family trees - has been available for more than a year from the University of Illinois Press for $39.95. Liz Dulany, an editor with the press, said about 1,000 copies have been sold.

Nevertheless, Doubleday announced the publication of its new version in a dramatic two-page spread in the fall catalogue, next to "The Pat Conroy Cookbook" and a new children's book from Katie Couric. A first printing of 100,000 copies is planned. "It's like the Romans publishing the Gospels," says Richard Bushman, a Mormon and a retired history professor at Columbia University.

The attention of a major New York publishing house confers a kind of entree into mainstream culture. "If Mormons give this edition to their friends," Dr. Bushman suggests, "they're saying, 'Look, this isn't just a book that's narrowly sectarian, but it has general application.' "

It also allows the LDS Church to extend into a broader market and compete in the religious marketplace, says Jana Riess, the religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly and the author of the upcoming "Mormons for Dummies."

Ms. Riess notes that it's not the first partnership between the Mormon Church and a division of Bertelsmann. In 2001, Crown published "Standing for Something: Ten Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes," by the leader of the LDS Church, Gordon B. Hinckley.

It won't be too long before people will be able to pick up "The Book of Mormon" in airports and shopping malls, says Henry B. Eyring, a member of the church's Council of Twelve Apostles who also serves on its Scripture Committee. Mr. Eyring and the publisher expect this will be an attractive edition for Mormons to give their nonMormon friends.

Michelle Rapkin, vice president of religion books at Doubleday, says the book is the first of its kind. "The editions that I have seen either look very much like church pew Bibles, or they're very lavish, or they're small, mass-market paperbacks. What is not out there is a serious, elegant book that ... also appeals to people who are not necessarily religious."

The church is coming to realize that not everybody who picks up the book wants to be proselytized, says Grant Hardy, editor of "The Book of Mormon" that appeared last year from the University of Illinois Press. As a devout Mormon who chairs the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Dr. Hardy published his edition because he saw a need that his church wasn't meeting. " 'The Book of Mormon' is a rich enough text that it will reward all sorts of different approaches to it."

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