Most Mormon books, music and film are like little fish in a pond. Fortunately, consumers of these Mormon products face the same situation.
I think the idea behind the metaphor of fish in little or big ponds is something students face as they approach graduation and start trying to find some kind of success in the world. Students have to decide what kind of success they are aiming for: do they want to be big fish in a little pond? or little fish in a big pond? Are they content to be important in a small company or a cog in a large company?
Of course there are myriad ways of applying this metaphor to life. It points out an important issue in life and in human culture: how we define the scope of our efforts and even our success. It is usually possible to influence how large a fish we become. But changing the size of the pond is generally quite difficult. [There is a kind of corollary to this on the sign at BYU’s entrance, where it reads “The World is our Campus.” At least when I was there we joked that it should say “The Campus is our World;” a truism in that it is impossible to maintain such a grandiose scope.]
So how does this all work with Mormon products? Are Mormon products trying to find their audience in a small pond or a big pond? Should I move between ponds? And is it possible to be available in both small and big ponds?
This issue of scope came up in the comments to William’s post about Mormon versions of Netflix, YouTube and iTunes. Netflix, YouTube and iTunes reflect the big pond (of course), while these Mormon versions are the small pond. I think the conversation warrants its own post.
Mormon products today are found in both places, to some extent. Most new books published for a Mormon audience do show up in Amazon.com, for example, and are available to nearly all bookstores in the US. The expansion of Internet-based stores like Amazon has essentially forced the producers of Mormon, Christian and other niche markets to participate in the national market.
This broad availability has even led some of those who comment here on Motley Vision to suggest that the Mormon market be abandoned in favor of working with Amazon, other Internet-based stores, and even national retailers.
I disagree with this idea. Regardless of how disfunctional the Mormon market is (and I think many of my posts here demonstrate just how disfunctional I think it is), we still need a Mormon market — we still need our own pond.
The issue really revolves around where the customers are, more than where the products are. The just-released Zogby/Random House report shows that 43% of book readers in the US purchase most often online. In contrast, the poll implies that 23% of book readers never purchase online. While not exclusive, this does point to two different markets, two different groups of customers purchasing books. I’m not sure how that works for the Mormon market, but the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen here and elsewhere points to at least two different groups of consumers looking for Mormon materials also.
So one problem with leaving everything to the national market is that some consumers will be left behind — they will no longer be able to purchase Mormon products the way they are used to purchasing them. Unfortunately, we don’t know what proportion of those that purchase Mormon products only purchase in stores and what proportion only purchase online. It is possible that the proportion that purchases Mormon products only in stores is quite high, so relying solely on the national market would reduce distribution significantly.
Another problem is simply how visible Mormon products are in the national market. Like it or not, many Mormon products simply don’t appear as Mormon on Amazon and other online stores. This makes it difficult for consumers looking for Mormon content to find everything that is available.
It may be that some of this latter problem will be overcome by improvements in the software at these online stores, allowing consumers to find Mormon projects easily. But even with improvements in the software, someone will still need to make the connection, to label those products as Mormon that are Mormon. Unfortunately, even if customers are asked to do this, a lot of products could be missed.
While authors and producers need to participate in both the Mormon market and the national market, success is at times determined by the view that they have of what pond they are in. A large part of the disconnect between the current LDS market and many potential customers is the view of the market — where many, especially younger consumers, look for books that speak to Mormon culture and experience, the traditional LDS market seems to be providing “appropriate” products, those that represent “traditional values.” These aren’t necessarily the same thing.
I’ve probably missed other issues on this issue, and I look forward to what you have to add.