What Makes a Book Mormon Anyway?

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.

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Book Mormon Anyway?”

  1. Kent said: Of course, only one LDS operation (Deseret Book) has even attempted a definition of what is “appropriate” and that definition has itself become controversial.

    There you go picking on poor DB again! Let up on ’em, won’t you? 😉

    Kent said: “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.”

    Kent, I’m curious about the difference between how this kind of audience control plays out in an the insular LDS market and how it plays out in the national market (I’m fiddling with the idea in my next post on audience). Do you know if big, non-LDS booksellers and publishers deal with complaints, do they care, or what? Will a national-market bookseller pull a title off the shelf and send it back to the publisher because a handfull of people complain like I’ve heard LDS booksellers will do?

  2. I can’t speak from first-hand knowledge like Kent can, but judging from the PR/Mktg side of things, national publishers don’t have to worry as much about this. If something is deemed offensive by one audience, then it often becomes desirable to another audience.

    The one thing that we have seen taint publishers is misrepresentation i.e. an author/book isn’t actually what it purports to be. On the other hand, the largest, most recent scandal — James Frey and “A Million Little Pieces” — still led to quite a few sales after the scandal broke.

  3. Patricia:

    What! Me criticize Deseret Book?!!? Never!!! [Actually, I didn’t think I had — perhaps my feelings came through anyway.]

    By “audience control” – I assume you mean control by the audience, instead of the bookseller controlling the audience.

    The former clearly happens in LDS bookstores and, to a degree, nationally. Its a matter of the audiences’ expectations. Deseret Book has to meet a lot of expectations, principally from its customers, but also from its owner. I’m sure a simple call from an Apostle will go a long way to getting a book off Deseret Book’s shelves. (Note: I’m NOT implying that any of the Apostles would do so without due consideration. And I think there exist many books that would cause Apostles to do so, were they on Deseret Book’s shelves — pornography, for example.)

    William is right — booksellers outside the LDS and Christian markets don’t have these same expectations, so they are more free to carry what they think will sell.

    But even this is somewhat limited. Remember, still today there are communities where books have been banned (see the Banned Book Week site at the American Library Association website). The ALA information only includes attempts to ban books at libraries, but I’ll bet that bookstores also receive requests that books be taken off their shelves, and if anything, they are probably more likely to take something off the shelf than a library is.

    The bottom line is, every bookstore (even Amazon, although probably less so than anyone else) has an audience, and the bookstore can’t offend that audience and survive.

    And, even though what William says (If something is deemed offensive by one audience, then it often becomes desirable to another audience) is largely true, there are still some things that bookstores often don’t carry — Amazon.com, for example, has a “Content Policy”.

    But the point of this posting isn’t that there are limits on content, its that the limits that exist in LDS bookstores involve not only what is offensive, but also what is “Mormon”. Its that definition I’m talking about.

  4. Kent said:But the point of this posting isn’t that there are limits on content, its that the limits that exist in LDS bookstores involve not only what is offensive, but also what is “Mormon”. Its that definition I’m talking about.

    Me: Yes, I know. I just had a question and figured you might have something to say about limits regarding acceptable material as they are imposed by the audience. And IMO questions of what is or isn’t offensive are bound up with questions about what is or isn’t Mormon. In fact, IMO, some people reduce the question of what is Mormon or not to the question of what is offensive or not.

    I haven’t had any problem with my own published work, from booksellers or audience. But I know of cases where the Mormon audience has provoked booksellers to backpedal and caused authors, who were completely blindsided by the backlash, pain and worry. Such audience members have done so in the name of what is Mormon.

    I lack the vision and practical knowledge of the publishing and bookmarketing world to make any sweeping generalization about either one, but in the general frustration, high-strung behavior of, and even at times timidity of the Mormon publishing and bookselling industry I see reflections of cultural growing pains as a whole. So how can the Mormon audience and Mormon publishing/bookselling industry grow up together more gracefully? I think about these questions from my end as an author and audience member. Constantly.

  5. This problem doesn’t just exist in LDS literature, but in all forms of art. As humans its a natural instinct to organize and categorize everything. But rarely do pieces that make up a genre of art fit into nice uniform boxes. I don’t think we can expect LDS distributers to solve a problem that the genious minds of mainstream retail have been unable to. But these are good questions to consider.

  6. Minor nitpick: OSC’s Ender’s Game does talk about Mormons, at least once. Ender’s mother is (inactive) LDS, and her motivations and actions, as expressed by the school director Graff, are a big part of why Ender agrees to go to Battle School in the first place. I don’t think that part was in the short story, but it’s definitely in the novel. Of course, there is probably a Senior Honors Thesis worth of reasons why LDS people might protest Ender’s Game on content grounds… also, Card talks a LOT about his mission in the author’s notes for all the Ender books after that, because he stuck the action on a Catholic Portuguese-speaking colony of Brazilian origin, and he served in Brazil.

    The fiction I write, and hope to someday publish, always has LDS characters and themes. I tend to assume that if I ever do get it published, I’ll be asked to tone it down or make it irrelevant: if your Mormons aren’t the protagonist who’s on his mission but they’re more important than the random bunch of churchy freaks who gathered together to pray before they died (yes, I am still annoyed at Stephen King,) I think it’s hard to sell them. And Deseret doesn’t buy too many YA urban fantasy novels.

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