Ideas for the field: reader-oriented e-commerce site

Note: this is the third in a series of posts of ideas for improving/growing/sustaining the field of Mormon narrative arts.

There are plenty of online stores selling Mormon fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. From the various LDS publishers Web sites to Mormon-oriented stores like LDS Living and Latter-day Harvest to national super sellers like Amazon.com.

The problem with publishers Web sites is that the selection is limited to what they publish ““ and often they only have a few titles of fiction or a few titles in a fiction category each year. Deseret Book has the widest selection, but even their offerings are limited and although somewhat organized by genre, they still don’t ofter a ton of support to the genre fan. And, of course, you can find almost anything on Amazon or, if it’s not there, Half.com.

What is missing is a way for readers who are in to a particular genre to become engaged with a specific genre ““ to become fans who keep up on the latest titles and news about authors, trends in the field, etc. Deseret Book does solicit comments on individual titles, but you have to know to seek out that title to read what people are saying.

To put it simply ““ it’s hard work keeping track of the field. The only really dynamic, comprehensive source I know of is LDS Film, but that’s a bit different because it’s mainly just a news portal.

Here’s my solution:

A reader-oriented, genre-themed LDS fiction e-commerce site. The site would be broken down into the following categories ““ Literary Fiction (including poetry and personal essay), Mystery/Thriller/Adventure, Romance, Speculative Fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror), and Young Adult (regardless of genre). The main page of such a site could aggregate the newest content from each of the categories, but the key feature would be the individual pages for each category (navigated to by tabs from the home page). These category pages would aggregate news (and author interviews and book club discussion questions) and events (readings and book signings, for example), recently published titles, the latest comments/reviews from individual book pages, and a top sellers in the category. One thing the Internet has proved quite good at doing is uniting readers, viewers and listeners with particular interests and providing them with a wealth of information about what’s going on in that genre. This, generally, then gets them to see themselves as part of a particular genre community (especially when there are mechanisms for them to participate with others in the community), which almost always means they consume more. I mean, it’s hard enough just finding a list of of what LDS fiction has been published in a given year.

In addition, I think such a site should include both books written for the LDS market, books from the national market written by Mormons and books featuring Mormon characters. In my experience, readers who are in to a particular Mormon publishing category will also seek out nationally-published works in the same genre that are written by Mormons.

Now, of course, there are two good reasons why such a site doesn’t already exist.

The first, and easiest to deal with, is that it takes a lot of work to keep fresh content flowing. Even if you had a team of dedicated section editors (who could ferret out and elicit) news/events items, you’d still need to get a critical mass of devoted readers/reviewers/commenters to have a dynamic site and thus enough steady content to attract a vibrant, sustained audience.

The second reason ““ the one that would be the least easy to deal with, the one that probably kills the idea ““ is the big question for any Mormon fiction e-commerce site: how do you actually sell the books? Do you end up becoming a bookseller that has to get in to the business of ordering (and returning) titles? If all of the publishers were willing to partner with you, then maybe it could work. But that doesn’t seem likely. You may be able to cut deals with some of the smaller ones, but I don’t know that Deseret Book and Covenant would be all that interested. They already have an e-commerce site ““ and a fairly successful one at that even if it doesn’t facilitate the types of community building I think are more interesting.

The only way around it that I can think of is to do an Amazon Associates program (since most of the DB/Covenant titles do show up there as well as titles from other Mormon publishers) and then cut referral deals with any publishers that don’t list with Amazon. This wouldn’t generate enough income to support a full-fledged book-selling organization, but it might be enough to pay server costs and perhaps to provide some money for marketing and to provide incentives to section editors.

Those of you who know more about the business of selling books may have better ideas on how this could work ““ but my primary point is that no one ““ not the publishers, the authors (although the authors are doing better than anyone), the bloggers (including AMV), the journals and professional organizations ““ is doing a very good job of providing a comprehensive way for devoted readers of the various Mormon genres to be total geeks about their fandom. I think that that’s going to have to change if we want the various genre markets to grow.

9 thoughts on “Ideas for the field: reader-oriented e-commerce site”

  1. Brilliantly astute idea. Who wants to do it? I do, but I don’t have the money or the financial backing…I’d gladly jump in with someone who had those things, though!

    Good ideas William.

  2. William, William, you’re reading my mind. 🙂 Actually, I have an idea that I think I’m going to try to dive into here very soon . . . just in time for my own book to come out. (_Bound on Earth_ will be coming out with Parables Publishing by the end of this year). I’ve been searching for marketing ideas for my own book, and I’ve also been thinking about how to tap into the LDS book club market for some time now. It’s a very large–and largely ignored–market, and hopefully I can get my little idea up and running in the next few months. I may even be contacting some of you for book reviews and other ways of contributing, if you’re interested. So stay tuned.

  3. I’d love to see it. One other problem would be tracking top sellers. There’s noy real way to track sales in LDS book stores like there is in the national merket. DB and Seagull list their top sellers, but not actual numbers.

  4. Good point, Jeff. The sales tracking thing would be nice (esp. for doing literary criticism that focuses on reception), but I was thinking for a site like this that it would be top sellers for the site only.

    I don’t see true sales figures being available for the LDS market for a long time. There’s no apparent benefit for the major players involved. I know the LDSBA did a top ten listing for a short while. Unfortunately, because it was only a top ten, there weren’t many genre and/or literary fiction books that showed up on the list.

  5. I agree with the other comments that such a site would be a good idea, and if you’re collecting those who can help, I’m in.

    But I do think that essentially you will end up with a bookseller of some kind, or a partnership with an independent bookseller or booksellers.

    There have been some attempts to provide the sales backend you would need (such as the recent “One Associated” attempt.

    I think I hinted at another piece to the back end some time ago in my post on why we need an LDS market wholesaler.

    Regardless, I think that you are on the right track. I’m more and more convinced that a large part of the problem is simply in the selection of the books. For some reason, LDS bookstores are hesitant to stock books from unfamiliar sources or sources that they worry might not be orthodox. As a result, there isn’t the equivalent of an Amazon.com — a site that basically includes everything.

    Of course, putting together all the pieces to make it work is a big challenge.

  6. William wrote above:

    In addition, I think such a site should include both books written for the LDS market, books from the national market written by Mormons and books featuring Mormon characters.

    While I certainly agree, this is far from easy. Not only is it often nearly impossible to know when an author is LDS, there arise problems of scope — what books to include.

    If we include EVERYTHING written by LDS authors, does that mean we include the technical medical handbooks with LDS authors? Or the textbooks written by the hundreds or thousands of professors who are LDS?

    If we limit this to just trade books (i.e., general interest books) — in itself problematic because many academic subjects are of general interest — then what about bestsellers that have NO Mormon content but are by LDS authors? Does Clayton Christensen’s The Inventor’s Dilemma (a best selling business book — no Mormon content whatsoever) get included?

    And then there is the foreign language issue. I recently obtained a copy of the first LDS book published in Italian that was not published by the Church. Ideally it should also be included. But rationally, doesn’t the site itself (navigational buttons, faqs, labels, etc.) also need to be available in Italian?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see such a site in operation. AND, I’m very willing to help with such a project. BUT, this is not easy on any level. We’ll need all the help we can get.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Kent.

    Re comment 1: Absolutely. A wholeseller would make things much easier. And I’m not collecting help. I’m just throwing the idea out there. AMV is enough of a project for me. 🙂

    Re comment 2: I don’t think you include everything by LDS authors. What I envision is strictly a genre fiction (including the genre of literary fiction) site. I think, then, the boundaries end up being fairly definable and you (hopefully) attract the most devoted readers in the Mormon market.

    Your absolutely right, though — it gets a lot more complicated once you extend beyond fiction. In addition to the problems you mention, what about film? Do you try and stock every film that has a Mormon (or erstwhile Mormon) character and/or actor? What about rated R films? etc.

    I think that gets too comprehensive. By focusing strictly on the genres that are found in the Mormon market and extending it to the titles by Mormon authors in the general market, I think you keep things manageable.

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