Separate but Equal?

When I discover a new book-related service or resource, I always explore them with a great deal of hope — hope that this discovery will provide an answer the difficult problems I see in both the LDS market and in the woldwide market for books. Along the way I’ve discovered everything from Print-on-Demand printers like Lightning Source and BookSurge, social networking sites like Shelfari, Library Thing and (I suppose) Book Crossing, and a host of different online book retailers in addition to the majors like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

But despite the overall improvement that these resources have brought and are bringing to the market for books, these new services have all dashed my hopes for LDS books and Mormon literature. By and large they have done little to help me find Mormon books, and I sometimes wonder if they haven’t actually made it more difficult.

This happens despite an increasing awareness by Mormons of the Internet and the LDS presence here. I doubt that there are many LDS Church members in the US who have never heard of Amazon.com, and I’m sure that the vast majority even know or have visited DeseretBook.com. And I’m sure that among those who have purchased an LDS book in the past year, 90+% have purchased some book from either one or the other. But what is presented as “Mormon” in each case is very different. And neither has everything (in fact, a significant number of LDS books either aren’t listed or aren’t identified as LDS on either store!).

Traditionally, LDS books were sold almost exclusively in LDS bookstores. It was a segregated market — traditional bookstores didn’t buy LDS books because no one would buy them — non-members because they either had no interest in the subject matter or because they, consciously or unconsciously, associated a stigma with Mormonism; and members because it never occurred to them that a non-LDS store would stock LDS books. The only exception to this segregation sometimes happened in Utah, where Church members were the majority of the population.

The growth of the LDS Church and the rise of the Internet has forced changes. Like the racial segregation practiced in the US, it was never really “separate but equal.” The range of products available in the national market and the convenience of access to those products even today makes non-LDS market books much more appealing to the average LDS Church member. It is easy to live your life in the LDS Church and never purchase LDS market products (except for the LDS scriptures and magazines and a few other products prepared by the Church. But most LDS Church members could benefit from more (see Why We Need Mormon Culture).

The changes that arise from LDS Church growth and from the rise of the Internet are substantial. With a market less concentrated geographically, LDS bookstores have struggled to reach their potential audience. But instead of offering a solution for LDS stores, the Internet brought new competition (see The Internet is killing the LDS Market?), from Amazon.com and other retailers who carry everything (even LDS market books) and from a much wider range of books and subjects that compete with LDS-oriented materials for the reader’s attention.

Even if the Internet-based retailers make it easier for Mormons to purchase Mormon books and literature, this change isn’t without its own problems. Deseretbook.com seems to list several thousand LDS titles on its website (it doesn’t give totals). In contrast, Amazon lists nearly 4,300 books in the category “Latter-day Saints (Mormons)” — including out-of-print titles. But, the LDSBA shows something like 6,000 books in print, and in my own estimation, there are at least 7,500 books in print and at least 25,000 (conservatively) out-of-print. So neither Deseret Book nor Amazon has everything.

[Amazon also shows over 43,000 books when you search books by “Mormon” but these results are too large because they include almost every book that includes the word Mormon in it (thanks to Amazon’s “search inside” feature). Of course, not every book that might be considered Mormon mentions the word Mormon. For example, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series doesn’t mention Mormonism in the book, and the Amazon pages for the books also don’t mention the author’s religion. All this makes finding LDS books on Amazon a challenge at times.]

I suppose this all could be easier for the LDS consumer if the LDS market were completely segregated from the national market again. LDS bookstores would have books that other stores didn’t have, and would probably sell more. And communicating with consumers about what LDS books are available is up to the stores, not Amazon.

Alternatively, if the LDS market simply became part of the national market, LDS consumers probably would see a greater variety of products without LDS bookstores reviewing and limiting what gets carried in the market. Authors and publishers might also get better access to the market, with a lot more retailers and other parties to work with. Working with broader national markets can also make it easier to expand geographically to other areas of the world, where LDS Church members need cultural goods.

At the moment, we have a kind of hybrid — both LDS bookstores and participation in the U.S. national market. But that doesn’t quite work either — consumers are often confused about where to go. They either assume that Deseret Book has everything, or that they will be able to find what they want on Amazon. And when they can’t find what they want, they assume that it just doesn’t exist — that isn’t unusual in the LDS market after all.

But I’m not sure how long this hybrid will last. The situation is kind of like the Negro baseball leagues in the late 1940s. When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, there was, for a short period, a hybrid system — African-Americans either played in the major leagues or the negro leagues. But by the early 1960s, the negro leagues were gone.

The same may happen to LDS bookstores. For them to compete successfully with national retailers like Amazon, they will have to make major improvements and changes in their operations. And even if they do so, they will still have to face the fact that large national retailers can draw on the financial benefits of a very large audience, which allows national retailers to simply outspend their competitors, should they choose to do so.

In contrast, national retailers need only make the database and programming changes needed to attract an LDS audience. [This assumes they figure out that the LDS market is different from the Christian market and believe that it is worth their time.]

I’m not sure what will happen. LDS bookstores may be doomed in the long run. But even if the market does maintain some kind of separation, I hope it will somehow become more equal. That’s the only way that LDS stores will survive.

15 thoughts on “Separate but Equal?”

  1. Nice analysis, Kent. I think that it’s going to be a few years before this all shakes out, too. As you not print-on-demand has not lived up to it’s initial promise of keeping books in print. Nor are e-books going to take off until there is a better, cheaper appliance (Kindle is a good step on the way there, but it’s nowhere close to being ubiquitous in the same way MP3 players are).

  2. This is exactly why so many small LDS publishers come and go. They don’t have the resources to advertise effectively on a national level. And if Deseret Book doesn’t pick up their titles and list them on the website, 90% of the LDS buying public don’t even know they exist.

    There have been attempts to overcome some of this but they haven’t gotten very far. One Associated had a great idea with centralized fulfillment, POS tracking and a giant website, but so far it hasn’t materialized.

    A few people are trying to create databases or blogs to promote LDS books (http://mormonlit.lib.byu.edu/ and http://ldsfiction2.blogspot.com/) but it’s hard to gather reliable info.

    Not sure what the answer is but I’d like to see changes made so smaller publishers could not just survive, but also make an adequate living.

  3. Deseret Book also confuses the issue by selling books on DeseretBook.com that aren’t by LDS authors, like Eragon by Christopher Paolini. They do have “LDS” sections in their lists of book genres, but these are mostly books from LDS publishers and don’t list all LDS authors (for example, Shannon Hale’s books are under young adult fiction but not LDS YA fiction.

  4. Excellent point, Marny.


    Karlene:

    Yeah, it’s a shame that small publishers have such problems getting distribution for their titles.

    You also point to two good resources. I’m glad they exist. And yet, I don’t think either is going to do much to address the issues Kent brings up. The Mormon Literature Database is an excellent resources for scholars, but it’s a bit overwhelming and sparse (in terms of entry descriptions) for potential readers. And what “LDS Publisher” is doing with her new titles blog is great, but it’s a clunky, un-aesthetic format.

    Last year I posted my idea for a reader oriented site for LDS fiction. I don’t know that it would help small publishers because it would be aggregating the books and trying to form communities of interest around authors and genres and leave the selling to Amazon or some other e-commerce site.

  5. William:
    “As you not print-on-demand has not lived up to it’s initial promise of keeping books in print. ”

    Well, I didn’t think that’s what I was saying.

    And, in case its not clear, I was NOT saying that the services I saw were failures in general, just that they weren’t that helpful in the LDS market.

    IMO, Print-on-demand clearly does solve the problem of keeping books in print. But that’s the only problem that it solves. POD doesn’t make books widely available, nor does it categorize books properly or help consumers know what is available. I guess what I’m saying about POD is that it isn’t a panacea.

    “Nor are e-books going to take off until there is a better, cheaper appliance (Kindle is a good step on the way there, but it’s nowhere close to being ubiquitous)

    I’ve been studying the ebook issue for some time now also, and I’m not convinced that the device is the main issue. Its way more complicated than that — Consumer awareness and availability, the annoyances of DRM, market structure, etc., are all part of the problem.

    Surprisingly, the LDS market was actually something of a pioneer in ebooks, with the infobases collection. The collection included a huge number of documents, was available on both Mac and PC, and came about early in the development of of text collections as a product. It wasn’t as good as what can be done today, but it was very useful.

    [But I’d have to argue that the subsequent failure of this pioneering effort came after Deseret Book purchased Infobases along with its purchase of Bookcraft, and folded it into its PC-only and, IMO, inferior product, Gospelink.]

    In any case, you are right that ebooks don’t look like they will be much of a factor for Mormon books anytime soon.

  6. Marny:

    You are exactly right. LDS Church members look at Deseret Book as the equivalent of Amazon.com — or as the representative of everything Mormon. Unfortunately, the consumer generally doesn’t realize that it isn’t.

    You probably already know about my diatribe on Deseret Book:
    see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

  7. The problem is you are making this lament to a bunch of literary types.

    You really need to be making this pitch to the students at the Marriott School of Business.

    You’d be much more likely to get productive results that way.

  8. Believe me, Seth, they care even less than literary types.

    This is, to a large extent, the problem with this subject — the development of the LDS market and the business of culture — is that so few people care.

    Writers don’t see that this subject effects not only their ability to earn a living at their trade, but to what extent their work gets read at all.

    And most business people don’t see the LDS market as lucrative (probably because it isn’t).

    I haven’t dealt with this as much as I should, but I do thing that my post on Why We Need Mormon Culture covers at least part of the issue.

    Like it or not, this stuff does matter. Its too bad that authors and businessmen don’t see the issue.

  9. To be dryly analytical about it:

    1) Truly talented writers are going to gravitate toward a big enough market so they can actually devote themselves to writing.

    2) An insufficient number of good editors in the Mormon niche.

    3) Good story is about conflict. To make an LDS based plot work, the conflict must involve the religion and that pretty much leaves issues that the type of people willing to buy Mormon-lit find icky.

    In other words, the very people willing to buy Mormon literature want faith promoting material and by it’s nature, faith promoting material tends to be sappy. Talented writers don’t want to write it and talented editors don’t want to edit it.

  10. This is so interesting! I sympathize with Seth–if only we could get some business types interested in taking this up! I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the business side of writing for a long time and it’s hard. I really appreciate Kent’s posts because they do so much to educate. And to Joe, I think you are over-simplifying things. Plenty of talented writers and editors are interested in the LDS niche. You just may not be aware of them because of the reasons that Kent points out. Also, while good stories do involve conflicts not all conflicts are offensive and not all LDS readers want patronizing literature. Faith promoting does not mean the same thing as sappy. Hmm. . .I guess you hit a nerve with me! I think this post does a lot to flesh out some of the complexities of the LDS market. If we all keep over-simplifying these things, nothing will change!

  11. Joe:
    Certainly “dryly analytical,” but I don’t think the analysis is complete. Let me point out a couple of things:

    1) Very few writers, even truly talented ones, make enough money to justify the time they spend writing. Any writer looking to make their living from writing will soon, most likely, be educated otherwise. Those knowledgeable about their chances have motivations that come from elsewhere, many times that motivation is connected with a specific market.

    2) Unlike with writers, editors are much more likely to be motivated by money. So the lack of good editors in the Mormon market is mostly a question of how much the market can pay. I also believe that most of the players in the market simply have misconceptions about what Mormon books are for and what can sell in the market. For the LDS market to be successful, those misconceptions must change.

    3) Your characterization of those interested in Mormon titles is simplistic. First because you assume that books are only about fiction, when the vast majority of books published are non-fiction. Second, because there are many different kinds of LDS readers, and many different kinds of possible conflict in literature. It just doesn’t follow that “the conflict must involve the religion” or that “the type of people willing to buy Mormon-lit find [this conflict] icky”

    My own estimate is that the current LDS market is only reaching 30% or so of active English-speaking LDS Church members. I contend that the rest of this potential market has been turned off by the quality of what’s available.

    I don’t have all the answers here, and your conclusion does have some elements that seem true to me. But I also think your conclusion implies that there is no possibility for good writing to arise. In fact, those acquainted with the more academic, more literary end of the LDS market know this is demonstrably false.

  12. Laura:

    “I sympathize with Seth”“if only we could get some business types interested in taking this up!”

    I’d argue that we simply need more of them (and my inner braggart wants to put me in that category–I think my MBA and 20 years in Book Publishing qualifies me). But I think you also have to realize that its not just knowledge that’s needed — its the ability to accomplish what is needed.

    “I really appreciate Kent’s posts because they do so much to educate.”

    Thanks, Laura, for your kind way of saying that I come off as a know-it-all!

    GRIN

  13. Kent, you can’t take ten paces on BYU campus without tripping over some fresh-faced entrepreneur who would jump at the chance to make some dough in some vaguely faith-related scheme.

    I think you’re being unduly pessimistic.

  14. Seth:

    My visits to BYU campus aren’t veryfrequent these days, so I’m probably out-of-touch in that regard. But I don’t think that their plans include books very often, especially not books intended for the LDS market. In my experience, these entrepreneurs, more often than not, have missionary pretentions in their schemes, not cultural promotion.

    It may be that I’m being too pessimistic, but the larger, and more important issue isn’t whether or not I should approach LDS business types with this information (I hope they will find this blog, and I plan to approach those I can find with my ideas also).

    The more important issue is whether or not the audience for this blog — primarily writers and readers — should care and whether or not they need to know.

    I suspect my answer to this question is clear.

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