Going National?

A comment yesterday by JB Howick on my recent post The Internet is killing the LDS Market? made me realize that everyone in the LDS market is faced with one crucial decision: Should I go national?

I addressed a part of this question some time ago in the post Fiddler-Envy and the Elusive “Cross-over” Work, in which I expressed doubt about removing the Mormon elements from works, so that they can reach the “national” market. But the question is really larger than that.

The decision of whether or not to sell a work nationally can be quite complicated, and depends a lot on the subject, genre and abilities of the author and publisher. But regardless of whether it is the right decision for a particular work or author, going national has implications for the LDS market as well as for the author, publisher and for the work.

How does this affect the LDS market? Well, regardless of whether the work has been groomed for the national market, titles that sell nationally are rarely sold in LDS stores (look at how many LDS stores stock Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series which is based on the Book of Mormon).

Any time a title is sold in the national market instead of the LDS market, the LDS market is weaker — LDS stores don’t get the sales (unless they carry the title, which generally doesn’t happen), and LDS publishers don’t have the title.

This isn’t always a bad thing. Generally, national publishers can do a better job of selling than LDS publishers, at least for titles that have a subject and writing that fit the national market (and that are then accepted by a national publisher).

But it is also not exclusively a good thing — since every title not in the LDS market means a weaker market. IMO, that’s a bad thing — it makes it harder for LDS-specific literature and a more mature LDS culture to develop.

This is a kind of dilemna — what may be better for an author who reaches the national market could weaken the LDS market. And what is true for authors is also true for publishers and booksellers. Publishers have to decide whether to sell to the national market, and how much to invest there versus the LDS market. Like additional titles, additional publishers also strengthen the LDS market. In a similar vein, LDS booksellers need to decide whether or not to stock national titles in addition to LDS titles, and which titles to stock in either case.

The problem with all this is that we need both. LDS books and products need a presence in the national market as well as a separate LDS market, so that those books that can’t make it in the national market have a place to go. LDS customers need to be able to find LDS titles and products at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble as well as at Deseretbook.com and Mormonpavillion.com. We need LDS titles to be available from an LDS wholesaler (see ) AND from the major US wholesalers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor and perhaps a few others).
This issue is one that everyone in the LDS market has to explore, given their situation. I don’t think that anyone (except perhaps some authors) has the balance between the two right yet. Most LDS publishers (including yours truly) do not. The LDS bookstores I’ve been in generally do not.
I don’t have all the answers for setting this balance. I do know that it is a balance — setting how much effort is put in both areas. But at a minimum, titles need to be available both places. We need to abolish the mentality that there are some titles that belong only in the LDS market because, after all, LDS book purchasers don’t buy exclusively from LDS stores, and as I observed a week ago (see Where is Mass Market Mormonism?), LDS bookstores don’t reach even half the potential market in the US!

Somehow we need to expand our presence in the national market, while maintaining an independent LDS market.

It won’t be easy.

4 thoughts on “Going National?”

  1. Kent has opened a topic that exposes a number of issues.

    1) LDS Isolationism: I love my Church and I have no problem with being a peculiar people. The regrettable result, though, is a growing isolationism. Members of the LDS Church are an island in a widening sea of weakening secular morals (I’ve seen more sex on broadcast & standard cable TV in the last two years than in the previous decade), and increasing friction between everyone who’s a part of the growing General Christian movement and everyone else who isn’t.

    This isolationism has both social and economic impacts. I’ll leave the social discussion for sociologists. From a business perspective, it means at least the following:

    (a) once a business is labeled as a “Mormon business” it’s stuck with it. At one time Deseret Book tried to break out of the isolationism by creating its Shadow Mountain imprint. However, LDS-centric books are appearing under that imprint with greater frequency, which I take to mean the experiment didn’t work.

    (b) The Saints only buy LDS stuff from LDS stores. All of our books are available through national wholesalers, which means all of our books can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com, and a ton of other Internet retail sites. However, few of our LDS titles sell through those outlets. One of our most popular books, “Challenged by the Book of Mormon,” hasn’t sold twenty copies through our national wholesaler in two years.

    (c) New LDS companies tend to plan their companies to implicitly accommodate LDS isolationism. Which is a fancy way of saying Mormons only want to sell to Mormons and only start to think outside the box when their companies begin to fail.

    2. National Vs. Regional: The national markets don’t understand us and many LDS companies don’t want to work in the national market. As Kent pointed out, the problem is that most Saints don’t have convenient access to an LDS-only store. On the surface, it seems this is solved by convincing national chains to carry LDS books. This is certainly a challenge, but the problem isn’t quite that simple.

    (a) The National Chains: We’ve been working with Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and a dozen more national chains for four years. Not one of them understand the Mormon market, and most don’t care if they ever do. The fundamental problem is that the Saints don’t shop for LDS stuff at non-LDS stores (isolationism). If the national chains don’t see sales, they don’t place products.

    Wal-Mart is closest to the people, and from a publisher’s perspective, they’ve done the most to try to connect with the market. Wal-Mart buys most of its books from Andersen Merchandisers. AM’s religious book buyer isn’t LDS, so they contract with John Rose out of Salt Lake to help them choose which LDS books to buy and which not to buy. At a recent meeting with Mr. Rose, he made an interesting point. He said, “We’re happy to carry LDS materials because people who shop at Wal-Mart tend not to shop at LDS bookstores.”

    Regrettably, most national chains haven’t gone to anywhere near this effort to sell to the Saints.

    To help everyone understand the scope of this problem, let me tell you the statistics we sent to Wal-Mart/AM to justify our request for serious store placement.

    Approximate U.S. LDS membership: 5,690,672

    US Wal-Mart Stores serving large Mormon populations (10,000+): 304
    Estimate of LDS membership served: 3,621,500
    Estimated books sold per store per month: 1906

    US Wal-Mart Stores serving any Mormon population: 1080
    Estimated books sold per store, per month: 843

    (b) LDS Attitudes: However, the big chains are not exclusively at fault. As I mentioned before, the Saints buy LDS stuff from LDS stores. The problem is actually worse than this. My estimate is that 60% or more of all LDS stuff is bought through Deseret Book. The perception that they are the “Church’s Publisher” and the “Church’s Bookstore” is nearly impossible to compete with, which is why so many LDS publishers either fail or shift their focus to the national market.

    I can remember my college economics professor teaching me that the presence of money doesn’t make a strong economy. The flow of money does. Economies are strong when a lot of people are regularly buying a lot of stuff. The greater the diversity of products sold and businesses that sell them, the stronger the economy. I’m oversimplifying something awful, but basically, if the Saints want a stronger LDS economy, they need to regularly spend their money at a lot of locations. Which they do, just not in a way that promotes the health of the LDS economy.

    3. The Lure of the National Market: Here’s my last topic. Even if we were able to address the entire LDS market (ignoring for a moment church activity, locality, language, and culture), we’d still be a bean in the chili of life. 12 million Mormons compared to the U.S. market of 300 million people means successfully navigating the national market will bring in 25X the revenue, which is why most medium and large companies serving the LDS market also serve the national market. (If you account only for active members of the Church, which is about 33%, the number jumps to 75X. If you account for only active, English-speaking members in America, the multiplier jumps to about 300X.)

    Exacerbating the problem (in other words, making the national market more tempting), is the fact that it’s difficult to market to the Saints.

    (a) The Church knows were all the Saints are, but they’re not telling anyone. (I’m personally convinced, though, that Deseret Book has access to the membership lists, but the nature of DB’s competitive behavior is a topic for another day.) I don’t inherently disagree with the Church’s “no commercial use” policy, but it’s had two results. First, nobody knows where the Mormons are (I’ll talk about that in a moment) and second, many Mormons believe that it’s wrong to “commercialize” the Church by selling Mormon stuff or only to the Saints. (This last point is professionally offensive. The Bible teaches that the worker is worthy of his hire….)

    (b) The largest LDS vendors (Deseret Book, Covenant, and distributor Sounds of Zion, etc.) refuse to sell their products to Internet-only endeavors, claiming it creates competition for existing independent bookstores (not to mention Deseret Book, who bought LDS Living’s website because it was too much competition). While true to a degree, this stifles market growth in the majority of the U.S. where no LDS bookstore is available to the Saints.

    (c) There are two ways to reach out to people: either by broadcasting (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV) or by direct mail (email, postal mail).

    There are relatively few magazines and newspapers that vendors can advertise in (you can find a growing list at http://www.LatterDayLifestyles.com). I content that there are no LDS radio stations (KSL comes close, but it’s not exclusively Church and isn’t listened to regularly by most of the Church) or TV stations (BYU-TV uses grants from the PBS people, which limits advertising). Where do LDS kids find LDS music to listen to? Right now, pretty much only at their bookstore (www.kzion.com tried to take this problem on via the Internet, but they never developed an advertising-based business model. Their site is currently inoperative. Hopefully, it’s temporary.) To make a long story short, there is not ubiquitous media (short of the Church’s own publications) that an LDS vendor can advertise in that a substantial portion of the LDS community will see or hear.

    Direct marketing and advertising requires knowing where all the Mormons are. There are ways to find the latter, but they’re closely kept trade secrets, and it’s still pretty expensive. The only successful general solution is Deseret Book’s catalog, but they’ve been limiting the field lately (there are other catalogs, but they’re not as successful).

    4) OK, one more quick topic. Kent mentioned the need for an LDS wholesaler. We created one two years ago (WindRiver Ditsributing, http://www.windriverdistributing.com) based on the national wholesaler model. Basically, we’ll distribute anyone’s products so long as they meet basic quality and on-topic requirements (no LDS erotica, please. And, yes, we’ve had the honor of rejecting it.). The idea isn’t catching on primarily because of the size of Sounds of Zion (good for them!) and the belief that if an author/musician/etc. can land a contract with Deseret Book, they’ll be distributed by the “Church’s Company” with all the prestige and credibility that brings (pretty hard to compete with.)

    However, what might address Kent’s concern for a wholesaler is simply a database, much like the UCC databases for products and Bowker’s ISBN databases (books-in-print), which everyone (especially the bookstores) can use to identify a product and everything about it. Building the database and web interface is easy. Getting all the retailers to use it wouldn’t be hard. Getting all the vendors to participate would be very difficult. Unlike UCC and Bowker, who must be used because they manage the ID numbers and barcodes, there’s nothing driving an LDS vendor to use such a service.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to post this, JB.

    FYI for AMV readers — JB is going to do a Q&A for the blog as soon as I can get him some questions.

  3. Have you heard the Glenn Beck radio spots that are running? He call STATES OF GRACE “The best Mormon movie I’ve ever seen” and “I saw it and loved it. My family wept.”

    There’s not too many Mormons here in Illinois, but that ad has certainly caught the attention of all the Evangelical Christian listeners who are fans of Glenn Beck.

    I bought the movie because of an Evangelical listener who told me about 1)Glenn Beck being a Mormon, and 2)Glenn quoting all these critics hailing it as the best Christian cinema has to offer.

    So my neighbor (the Evangelical Christian) buys it, we watch it and we love it. He even thinks the movie has now converted me to “true grace.”

    I very much believe that STATES OF GRACE has the rare – and historic – potential to break down many of the long-standing barriers separating mainstream Christians from us. Mitt Romney’s impending presidential campaign has already started to focus national media attention on the LDS Church in ways and at levels not previously seen. I’ve seen the polls suggesting that a significant percentage of the Christian base would have issues with Romney’s religious affiliation, and that misconceptions are still rampant as to what the LDS Church believes and stands for.

    Can STATES OF GRACE become the landmark film that Kimball and others have talked about?

    It answers simple misconceptions (ie. polygamy, Mormons dancing and our take on grace) and presents a view of LDS life that has never before made it to the big screen.

    In short, does this film have the potential to actually shift and mold public opinion?

    I may not be as well-versed as all of you, but in my neck of the woods, STATES OF GRACE is a hit among many of my Evangelical friends. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Comments are closed.