Years ago the AML list defined Mormon Literature in a very broad sense, saying that it included works written by, for or about Mormons. It includes a lot of works that I like or admire, but that don’t talk about Mormons or Mormonism at all. Under this definition, Mormon literature includes Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, Clayton Christensen’s The Inventor’s Dilema and even Sam Taylor’s The Absent Minded Professor (yes, the one the movie is based on).
In spite of the fact that AML list has gone the rounds on this question many times, I think there’s one aspect of this issue that hasn’t been discussed or examined well. And, if you look at the question from a marketing and publishing perspective, its even more difficult.
For example, the AML list definition also includes works like Angels in America, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet and even a multitude of blatantly anti-Mormon works, written to persuade members to leave the Church. But no LDS bookstore would even look at such works, let alone stock them.
The problem is that deciding when something is LDS or Mormon is done on different levels and from different perspectives. The AML list definition works well for academic use, for example, but doesn’t work for bookstores. Not only does the AML list definition include items that bookstores won’t carry, but bookstores carry some items that don’t fit the AML’s definition, but which are of interest to LDS purchasers.
This is not only whether or not a work is anti-Mormon. I’ve always felt that while the term LDS refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term Mormon includes the other Mormon churches: The Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), the Church of Christ, Temple Lot, and even the The United Brethren, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and other polygamist groups! Until now, works representing these groups have been limited to doctrinal works, and LDS bookstores are therefore not likely to carry them. But what happens when they produce fiction?
And what about non-Mormon books that happen to discuss Mormonism? Should LDS bookstores stock these works also?
Of course, only one LDS operation (Deseret Book) has even attempted a definition of what is “appropriate” and that definition has itself become controversial. Every other LDS bookstore seems to decide on a case-by-case basis, simply reviewing each product and deciding whether or not it is right for its clientel. Part of this decision is a judement of whether or not the item will sell, so not everything rejected is “inappropriate.” But clearly some products are rejected as “inappropriate.”
Booksellers can’t simply include everything, like academics can. They have an audience to worry about — one that might stop purchasing from them if they sell works deemed offensive. I’m sure Deseret Book still today gets complaints from some customers that books it sells are “inappropriate” in some way.
But I believe that LDS bookstores will have to soon be open to more than what they are carrying now, simply because of competition. Bookstores in general (not just in the LDS market), are suffering because of the growth of Internet sales, especially Amazon.com. [I plan to post on Amazon’s role in the next few weeks.] Unlike brick-and-mortar stores, Internet stores offer everything, regardless of whether it is slow selling, or even whether or not it is offensive to one group or another. As a result, LDS bookstores will have to carry more, to compete with Amazon.com and Deseretbook.com and other Internet stores with larger selections.
I don’t expect large increases in inventory, but I think that stores need to give their customers a reason to shop there instead of online. Better customer service is part of the solution. More knowledge and better information about the titles that exist is also part of the solution. But most importantly, knowing and presenting what is actually Mormon is also part of the solution. Since Amazon.com doesn’t and likely can not know what is Mormon and acceptable, LDS booksellers can gain more sales by knowing what is Mormon and how.
But, its not just bookstores that need to make the decision about what works are right for a Mormon audience. Reviewers and media with an LDS audience make this decision. Libraries with Mormon audiences also have to make these choices, although the US culture is generally more tolerant of the idea that Libraries hold everything.
Distributors, wholesalers and bookstores outside the LDS market also have to make these choices, if they want to cater to LDS purchasers. But, of course, outside the intermountain west, these companies are poorly equiped to make such decisions — they don’t necessarily have employees with the knowledge needed to make these desicions.
What does all this mean for authors, booksellers and for the public? I think there are two possible changes that will help improve the market for Mormon products. First, I believe booksellers need to improve their knowledge of Mormon works and products. Second, I think producers of Mormon products need to educate not only LDS booksellers, but also others in the market — libraries, distributors and wholesalers outside the LDS market, and even the consumer — about what products are in fact Mormon and how those products are Mormon.