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.