Why A Market for LDS Books?

I’m glad Eric started with the basics in his post on Why Mormon Literature? I agree with his assessment, especially his final point, the need for an audience. The more I work in the world of Mormon books, the more I’m convinced that developing an audience for all the arts is what is necessary to build our culture.

But this idea of building our culture and the related idea of even working in Mormon art, literature and other cultural expressions begs the question “why?” Why do we need Mormon culture? Why do we need a ‘market’ for Mormon books, art, music and other cultural goods?

Beyond the issue Eric addressed that a lot of Mormon books, film, music, etc. are not very good, I’ve heard LDS Church members question the need for culture at all. “The Gospel is all we need!” say some. Others say that the Church gives us, in the scriptures, lesson manuals and doctrinal expositions, all the ‘literature’ we need. Why do we need books written by someone else? Still other members question the validity of anything written or created by someone who isn’t a general authority!

Of course these views are a little extreme. [I’m not setting up a straw man here, I have heard them, and I’ll bet others have also.] It is relatively easy to show that they aren’t doctrinally correct — we’re told to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and to “do many things of our [own] free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;” (D&C 58:27). Somehow the Church manages to pay the bills for the Museum of History and Art, so that the results of this work is collected.

Eric’s post addresses a lot of why we need to build our culture. Yes it helps to read, hear and see works that come from our worldview. Seeing these things clearly add to our experiences as members of the Church.

Let me go a little farther than Eric went and mention a couple more reasons why culture and cultural expressions are important.

1. Culture is a necessary part of any group, social organization or society. The Church is no exception. As a result, we have and will continue to have a Mormon culture regardless. If it doesn’t get expressed in the arts, then we are all poorer as a result. It is then harder for us to examine ourselves, our worldview, as Eric puts it, and it is harder to communicate that worldview to others.

2. Culture is a support to the Church. We all know cultural Mormons, members who stay members because of the culture they grew up in, or who sometimes even join the Church because of its culture. Obviously doctrine and testimony are better reasons to join and stay, but culture has a role in keeping some members here — and many times it keeps them members until they learn the doctrine and gain a testimony.

OK, so if we accept that Mormon culture is necessary, is it really necessary to have all this buying and selling? Can’t artists just contribute to the culture without extracting money somehow? Couldn’t the Church just provide the cultural goods?

To a great degree, the answers here are basically economic answers. The need for a ‘market’ actually follows the need for the culture — if you want art to exist, the artist needs to be able to live. Short of an idealized StarTrek world where food magically appears in ‘replicators,’ artists won’t create as much art without being able to earn from their art enough money to eat and live. As it is most artists of all kinds work non-art jobs to support their ability to create art.

While the Church has, since the days of Brigham Young at least, been one of the major patrons of the arts, it can’t possibly be the only conduit for culture. The need from members for cultural expressions is too large for limited resources, and the range of artistic taste is too broad for any organization to handle. [The market as it is can’t handle this range — but that’s the subject of a forthcoming post.]

So independent efforts must be made. That means publishers, music labels and film studios other than Deseret Book. It means stores and websites that sell LDS products. It means theaters that show films and plays and musicals. It means museums and all sorts of cultural institutions. It means the LDS Booksellers Association.

These businesses and organizations not only profit from our culture, but are some of its principal supporters. They are, in fact, the infrastructure of our culture. Without them it would be much, much more difficult to transmit cultural works from the artist to the public.

While the Church, through its distribution centers and through local chapels, does have a kind of infrastructure, this infrastructure isn’t really available to anything that isn’t directly involved with Church activities. That leaves everything else to the bookstores and other institutions.

So, yes we need a market.

I just wish the bookstores realized better how important their role is. In my view, they could do a lot more.

16 thoughts on “Why A Market for LDS Books?”

  1. I am really enjoying reading all these great posts here. Thanks William for inviting all these thoughtful people to add their insights to LDS literature. We need more of it. 

    Posted by Dallas Robbins

  2. I think you have the causal arrow in the wrong direction. Markets can be created; but it is much easier to ‘find’ natural markets.

    Bookstores exist to serve the existing natural markets; not create new ones. Why do you think they are all willing to accept like a 1% mark up in their fight to draw the Harry Potter buyers?  

    Posted by lyle

  3. Kent,

    What could or should bookstores be doing? Doesn’t the primary responsibility for marketing lie with the publishers?
     

    Posted by Eric Russell

  4. Lyle:

    You are right. But I think a lot of our difference is in semantics as much as anything. IMO, a market is not the demand for a product but the mechanism constructed to serve that market — that is, the marketing efforts, the infrastructure, the companies and the product created to fill a need or desire. We create a market after we have defined a need or desire.

    Thus creating a market only occurs after we percieve the demand and start trying to make it.

    I’m not enough of a marketing or economic academic to know if that jives with their definitions or not. I don’t remember if this is the definition in my econ and marketing textbooks (I have an MBA, so I did take a few of those clases).

    So, I guess my point isn’t that bookstores need to “create” markets the way you are saying things, but rather that there are clear needs that bookstores aren’t serving. [One of which, BTW, I will cover later this week.]
     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  5. Eric:

    Marketing is something that EVERY organization (note I said organization, not company) MUST do to be successful. That includes Bookstores and Publishers.

    There is clearly a difference between the two, however. I suspect you are thinking of the marketing for a particular title — communicating to potential readers that “Brave New Title” exists and is worth their money and time to purchase. I agree that this is the primary responsibility of the publisher.

    However, Bookstores need to market also. They need to make sure that readers and other potential purchasers know that they exist, where to find them, what kinds of books they carry, and about promotions they or publishers have on the books they carry.

    But as I hinted at in my post, Bookstores are also cultural centers. While LDS bookstores, especially those outside of the Wasatch Front, generally don’t do this, bookstores have cultural events like book signings, discussion groups, bookclubs, etc. They serve as distribution points for information about events that are NOT Church-sponsored. And some even go beyond books to other art forms — such as Logan’s The Book Table, which has even sponsored one-man plays.

    The LDS market is crying for this kind of effort. When God’s Army came out, getting distributed in theaters outside of the Intermountain West took a lot of effort. They approached LDS bookstores, among other local members, for help in finding venues.

    Bottom line is that a good bookstore recognizes the literary and artistic needs of its community and helps fill them.

  6. Kent:

    Exactly.

    —-

    Regarding creating vs. finding etc. I think that Kent responded correctly to Lyle’s comment (which makes a good point). However, I want to just add a tagential argument that markets can be ‘created.’ Isn’t that what advertising and marketing are all about?

    Except that, of course, advertising and marketing aren’t always the best way of creating demand. This is why Kent’s point about bookstores being cultural centers is a good one.

    When I say that markets can be created — what I really mean is that consumers can be created. None of us, of course, comes ready made to go out and participate in the various markets that are out there. We all have to be initiated into them. A good example would be pop music. Most people I know became pop music consumers through an education received from older siblings, friends, cousins or from peers with older siblings etc. Or to take a more specifically Mormon example — scrapbooking. Yes, the fundamentals were there, but there wasn’t really a market there until companies began producing products and creating an ethos. Naturally there’s always a give and take between the producers and the consumers, my point is that for something like scrapbooking, much of the early work is based on educating the consumer on the existence, mores and parameters of the market.

    In my experience — and this is why I think Kent’s comments are right on — many Mormons have not been educated into what the Mormon market has to offer. Or their education has been rather limited. This is not a criticism of the consumers, but rather points to the fact that the Mormon market is rather underdeveloped.

    What is amazing is how quickly the market can explode and become educated if given the right tools — Mormon film is one example. I’d say that both Richard Dutcher and Halestorm have done a great job of facilitating word-of-mouth and other viral marketing phenomenon. I’ve never been in a priesthood meeting where someone has recommend a Mormon novel I have been in a priesthood meeting (several in fact) where Mormon film showings in the area were mentioned.  

    Posted by William Morris

  7. If the Mormon market has in some cases “exploded,” suggesting, as William says, that the Mormon market is underdeveloped, does this suggest that Mormons that comprise the “consumer” end of the market may not know what they want, and in some cases may not know what they’re supposed to want and what they’re not supposed to want? If so, does this make them vulnerable to bad turns in the market, where less-than-praiseworthy material is produced for their reading/viewing pleasure?

    Many bookstores, it seems to me, don’t discriminate between the praisworthiness of market niches. LDS bookstores sometimes appear to discriminate to the point where they seem undiscriminating. So where exactly does the “educating” of the LDS market occur and who decides what’s educational and what’s mere less-than-desirable market looking for a outlet/victim? 

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  8. P.G., I’m not quite sure that I understand what you are saying, but I think I agree.

    My take is that most LDS bookstores ARE overly discriminating, at least in terms of what they call “appropriate” (a vague and rather annoying term, IMO). These bookstores seem to favor materials that are hyper-faithful and avoid the issues that Utah Mormon culture seems to focus on most: R-rated movies, the Word of Wisdom, Drugs and Sex. In the process they exclude from bookstores a literature that is praiseworthy on other issues.

    A good example of this is Deseret Book’s policy of reviewing the books it brings in and excluding those that don’t fit their vague standard. The policy led them to exclude a Richard Paul Evans book and several others, according to local newspaper reports. I will admit that Deseret Book is in an unusual position because it is owned by the Church, but then other LDS bookstores follow this lead.

    On the other hand these bookstores do NOT seem to discriminate at all in terms of quality of products. This apparently doesn’t enter into their definition of praiseworthy!

    As for what Mormon consumers are looking for, I do agree that they don’t know exactly what they are looking for. But I suspect that this is true more because the market isn’t developed. Whole genres that exist on the national level basically don’t exist in the LDS market. I suspect in my musings here on Mormon publishing, this is something we will come back to frequently.

    Where I’m lost in following your comment is when you talk about what consumers think they are supposed to want. I guess the problem is that I wonder if consumers think they are supposed to want anything. I mean, our American society clearly communicates the value of freedom to do what we want. Why would anyone think that there is something that they are supposed to want? I don’t follow.

     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  9. Kent: “… our American society clearly communicates the value of freedom to do what we want. Why would anyone think that there is something that they are supposed [or not supposed] to want. ”…

    Hm, maybe my cracked Utah Valley mirror is showing. Yes, our American society does indeed communicate the value of such freedom, and yet conformity, in the American culture in general and also more specifically the LDS culture, seems to generate certains kinds of tensions.

    Are there no LDS-themed “must haves” that mark the culturally with-it Mormon? And are there no “must not haves” that mark the same? I’m talking about current fads in conformity, which perhaps are, anecdotally at least, of some concern among Utah Valley LDS. May not such anecdotal cultural conformity markers raise questions among individuals about whether they’re supposed to want, say, a book published by Deseret Book instead of a book published by Signature Books (hypothetically speaking, of course) regardless of quality? Or might not such alleged cultural conformity give individuals pause to wonder, perhaps, if they’re not supposed to want to see something risky like Brigham City (with that uncomfotable Sacrament meeting scene and some violence) even though they really want to? I’m well aware that the church takes no offical stand on such things, but culturally, language draws unofficial borders.

    Or am I just so isolated that I’m the one out of touch?

    What about my other question: Who decides what educates a market? Bookstores? Well, as noted, bookstores seem to run hot or cold where quality is concerned and many are invested in a particular market (or image). Publishers? Patrons? Where does the artist fit into this? May an artist take on the role of educating a market? If so, how might such a thing be accomplished? I’d like to hear what someone in publishing, such as yourself, Kent, thinks about what authors need to do to develop the market, or if they even can.
     

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  10. Hmmm, you are right that cultural pressure to conform probably does play a big role, especially in the Mormon-dominated areas like the intermountain west. But I’m afraid our conversation has gone beyond my analysis to date. I’ll have to think a bit more about this before I go too much further. Off hand, I will say that I think this pressure does have an impact, but whether it would actually influence them to purchase “less than praiseworthy” materials is beyond what I’ve thought about so far.

    As for who decides what educates consumers, that isn’t my term, but something William said, so I may again be getting a little beyond my thinking so far. I suspect that we are really talking about two different things here. First is informing consumers about new products and creating products in genres and subject areas that they haven’t seen before. Second is educating consumers about quality.

    The first is a marketing problem. Its something that a market does, when it is working efficiently. And consumers generally take a very passive role in the process – receiving but not searching for information.

    The second is a much more difficult and broad problem that includes more than the ‘market’ — it includes all of Mormon society. We simply don’t have the infrastructure that a full-blown culture has to do this kind of educating, and we are hindered by the infrastructure of Utah and US culture when we do try to educate. There aren’t schools (before the University) that teach Mormon literature, film etc. No general interest publications, radio programs, etc. to transmit cultural knowledge. We’re really quite handicapped in this regard.

    So, who does the educating? In theory its the cultural institutions — the ones we don’t have.

    As for what authors should do, I think again it depends on which of the above informational/educational processes you are talking about. If the former, authors need to write and promote their work, and the like (let me think about that, it may be a good future post). In the second case, authors need to do even more — they need to help create the cultural institutions that we need.

    The above isn’t very flushed out. I think there’s fertile ground for more thought and discussion here.
     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  11. I don’t have time to respond in full at the moment — but am loving this conversation — and will say:

    I agree with Kent’s analysis re: cultural institutions and will try to post some specific examples later.

    ALSO: Educating the audience is a loaded term for some, but by that I don’t mean the ‘elites’ telling the mainstream members what cultural products to consume. I mean generally the process by which consumers become aware of and develop taste, awareness and expertise in a particular market. As Kent points out, that happens in many ways.  

    Posted by William Morris

  12. Thanks, Kent! I’m just beginning to think about these problems in an organized way. (Make that semi-organized). But I am  becoming a student of audience, and having a concept of audience is for me tied up in philosophies of community and language and consciousness. I know there’s a hungry–ravenous–LDS cummunity looking for … something, Utah Valley included, notwithstanding issues of conformity. They’re looking for good language, language that will add texture to their worldview without the violent aspects some language has. I’m not talking about the blood and guts language of violence, I’m talking about the kind of violence in language that a rather woeful bluegrass/country-and-western song sums up with the lines, “Who needs a knife/When you can take someone’s life/With paper and pen?”

    Sometimes bookstores seem to be stressed market resources, what with the advent of big chain bookstores and discount sellers. I have run across writers (not LDS, but I could see it happening) who refuse to sell their work through the big chains, only through the independents, and feel strongly that everybody ought to do the same. Do you, Kent, or anybody else, see this as a valid course for action for developing the market for LDS writing, etc.? Seems like at times it might at least be a little self-defeating.
     

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  13. I think it might be a valid course to take. In some ways, it’s how the Mormon film market has developed.

    Halestorm = Dave Eggers’ McSweeneys empire (sort of).

    At home I have a whole list of ideas on how this could work in a Mormon context. I’ll wait to see what Kent posts on the subject and then see if I have anything to add. 

    Posted by William Morris

  14. P.G., I think it depends on what chains you mean, but in general I’m not very impressed with the idea of refusing to sell books to a chain. It may be a valid protest, but the author who does it probably gets hurt more than the chains do. The result is probably fewer sales of that author’s book and not much difference for the chain. Unless, of course, the author is a significant one.

    Books and other media are a bit unique in marketing terms. They are loose substitutes for one another. On one hand, a consumer who purchases book A could still purchase book B. Traditional packaged goods — like laundry soap — are straight substitutes. When you purchase one brand, it means you don’t purchase the other.

    OTOH, books and media are leisure purchases. The average consumer who goes into a store looking for a book or two to read for the summer isn’t going to buy 10 books. And that consumer won’t go looking for another store just to find a particular author’s book when he started looking for a leisure read. The consumer just isn’t willing to spend that kind of time for a leisure read. Even with best selling titles, a book that isn’t in stock often means that the consumer purchases something else, rather than take the trouble to track the book down elsewhere.

    Of course, this depends on exactly what kind of book the consumer is purchasing and why the consumer is purchasing that book. Many times the consumer is looking for a particular book and will look many places. But the sales of most titles also include a significant number of purchases that are spur of the moment purchases. And these purchases are at risk.

    Now, by chain you might mean a couple of different things. First, you could mean the giant US chains — Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-million, etc. They don’t carry too many LDS books.

    You might also mean the two principal chains in the LDS market, Deseret Book and Seagull Books. Since the market is smaller, then an important LDS author might have more impact on them, especially with significant publicity. Rachel Ann Nunes could probably get consumers to purchase her books from independents instead of Deseret Book. But I bet even she would see a sales drop as a result of Deseret Book not carrying her titles.

    Bottom line is, that keeping books out of chains just hurts the author, it doesn’t have much affect on increasing sales at independents.

    Of course, there are alternate ways of selling books — Internet websites, direct sales, 800 numbers, etc. But will consumers really look for an author’s book in any of these places when they’ve already looked at a chain and failed to find it there?

    As for William’s suggestion, I’m not sure I agree or quite understand how Halestorm is like McSweeneys. It is possible to sell books outside of bookstores, of course, but you miss a portion of the potential for the book if it isn’t in bookstores. For most books, its a significant portion.
     

    Posted by Kent Larsen

  15. I skim a lot of blogs, and so far yours is in the Top 3 of my list of favorites. I’m going to dive in and try my hand at it, so wish me luck.

    It’ll be in a totally different area than yours (mine is about scrapbooking store) I know, it sounds strange, but it’s like anything, once you learn more about it, it’s pretty cool. It’s mostly about scrapbooking store related articles and subjects.

  16. I skim a lot of blogs, and so far yours is in the Top 3 of my list of favorites. I’m going to dive in and try my hand at it, so wish me luck.

    It’ll be in a totally different area than yours (mine is about scrapbooking store) I know, it sounds strange, but it’s like anything, once you learn more about it, it’s pretty cool. It’s mostly about scrapbooking store related articles and subjects.

Comments are closed.