The Mormon market and the passion/pop gulf

Last month, Seth Godin wrote a post that both illuminates and complicates the realities for Mormon arts and culture. He outlines what he calls the passion/pop curve (make sure you click on the figure in the post to make it bigger so you can actually read it). The curves live on two axes — the first is the number of users/customers/fans. The second relates to content and brand. One one end you have edgy/obsessed and on the other you have vapid/trite. As Godin explains:

That bell curve to the left represents acceptance by the focused/excited/tastemaking community. Those are the people who love microbeers and haute couture and Civil War memorabilia. Like all market curves, there’s a sweet spot. Go too nutsy on us ($90,000 turntables, for example) and even the committed will flee. Go too pop, though, and we’ll avoid you as well.

And…

The bell curve on the right, you’ll notice, is bigger. This is a second market, a bigger market, the market of pop. These are the folks who go to the Olive Garden for a nice Italian meal instead of the authentic place down the street. They too want something that’s not too edgy and not too (in their opinion) trite.

And here’s the kicker

The reason you need to care is that gap in the middle. Every day, millions of businesses get stuck in that gap. They either move to the right in search of the masses or move to the left in search of authenticity, but they compromise. And they get stuck with neither.

One of the issues for the Mormon market is that we layer on a limiter to the graph — that is, not only do you have to deal with the passion/pop curve, but that the number of users is limited to those who buy into the Mormonism of a product (or of the product’s creator) as a viable category. Or in other words, the numbers on the y-axis go down. You have the same edgy/vapid issues that come with the x-axis, but it’s harder to hit the target because the y-axis has shrunk. This is less of an issue for those hitting for the pop curve because it’s always bigger, and this is definitely true of the Mormon market, e.g. Deseret Book. But even there, you still have to make the case to the consumer: you need this particular product because it appeals to your tastes AND it’s Mormon.  You have to sell them (and reassure them) on both aspects of the product.

And this, of course, is why artists dream about crossover success. But crossovers are rare and lead to difficult decisions when it comes to the next work that the artist creates.

Certainly one solution is to minimize the Mormonism of your work and simply aim straight at the larger market. This is what many Mormon speculative fiction and YA authors have done; some with great success. Filmmakers, actors, visual artists and musicians have also had some success. I suppose you could argue that some of these artists have not minimized their Mormonism, and certainly the work they create is still worth seeking out, but even if you are Orson Scott Card, there are certain things you can’t do and remain a viable part of the mainstream market.

Let me give two examples of my perceptions of the passion/pop curves and the Mormon market to illustrate the difficulties of the market:

First example: There is a market for Christian punk. That means that there are enough Christians who are in to punk bands that define themselves as Christian to support CDs and live shows by Christian punk bands. There are many reasons for that. One is that there are a lot of Evangelical Christians in the U.S. Another is that as punk moved beyond it’s initial phase it developed styles and communities that could accommodate the idea of Christian punk — straight edge, in particular, with it’s emphasis on not drinking alcohol and doing drugs, opened room for young Christians to see punk as a viable means of expression. In addition, Christians began to understand the appeal of counterculture moves and to define themselves as counterculture. This doesn’t mean that it’s been embraced by the pop side of the Christian market. I don’t believe that the major Christian labels and the radio stations they feed (control and sometimes own) play punk, but as a niche genre, it’s big enough that a career is possible. In addition, neo-punk/third-wave punk (whatever you want to call it) is a vibrant and open enough genre that Christian punk bands that are good and that don’t push the preaching too hard can gain fans who aren’t Christian per se.

I don’t know that there is the same market for Mormon punk. Certainly, there was the mini-ska explosion in the early ’90s in Utah, but to my knowledge that market didn’t take hold to the extent that Christian punk has. Mormon culture also doesn’t have quite the diversity that Evangelical Christianity does. Certainly there are Christians who don’t like tattoos, but it’s definitely much easier to find a place as a tatted and pierced Christian skate punk than as a tatted and pierced Mormon skate punk — and esp. to find compatriots, to create/join a scene. In addition, because there is a real emphasis on youth outreach programs as well as so many different types of congregations, marketing the scene is much easier. You can find a place to play if you are a Christian punk and get youth leaders to bring their kids to a show. Christian punk is marginalized but the margins are much blurrier and bigger. With Christian punk, Christian is a limiter along the y-axis, but it’s nowhere near as limiting as Mormon is. The overall curve has more people in it.

Second example: I think Zarahemla Books has a gap problem. I love roaming around on the right side of the passion curve and especially just outside it in the left side of the gap. I’m not quite edgy/obsessed. I’ve always been a fairly lukewarm consumer of art with some pop sensibilities. But at the same time, I’m very much not pop. And so I love the work that Chris Bigelow is publishing. I’m a believer in the broadly appropriate/middle way type of Mormon literature. But it’s a difficult niche to be in if you’re trying to sell books like Chris is. It’s too edgy to be in the pop curve and sell many copies. But it’s not edgy enough to bring in the ex-Mormons, etc. And on top of that, it’s too middlebrow and not edgy enough to bring in the literary snobs. And then you add in the genre stuff — autobiographical fiction (On the Road to Heaven), short story (Long After Dark), cyberpunk (Hunting Gideon), Mormon folk realism/horror (Brother Brigham) — and you add another layer that moves you away from the standard middlebrow Mormon reader. Thus, we have Julie Smith complaining about the autobiographical fiction aspect to On the Road to Heaven while someone else writes to Bigelow to express discomfort with the talk of boobs. We have ex-Mormons writing negative reviews of Brother Brigham saying it’s for Mormon sheep who literally believe in evil spirits while culturally orthodox Mormons are complaining that it has nudity and adult situations. In addition, because there’s such a range of genres in their offerings, you don’t end up with the kind of easy variations within boundaries that can create a tight scene. What ties all the titles together is not as easy to define as, say, chick-lit or emo or cosplay or collecting Hummel figurines.

Now, even thought these two example suggest that passionate Mormon artists face difficulties in the current market, it’s not all bad news. As Godin reminds us, both the pop and passion curves are constantly changing (this year’s edgy is next year’s trite). And all it takes is one hit to change people’s perceptions of a market category. But right now, I’m afraid that the kind of stuff that I like is either very niche, and it appears to be a niche that’s either squarely in or very close to the passion/pop gulf, or it’s so niche niche that it doesn’t even exist*.

* Or maybe it does. Is there some Mormon punk/post-punk scene out there that I don’t know about?

19 thoughts on “The Mormon market and the passion/pop gulf”

  1. I’m afraid that the kind of stuff that I like

    And what would that be, exactly? (That’s not meant to be snarky.)

    I knew what I wanted to read, but it just wasn’t there, so I wrote it. I’m curious to find out what it is you want or if you’ve defined it.

  2. I like the stuff Zarahemla Books has published (and like even more two of the upcoming titles — Angels Falling Softly being one of them). I like some of the stuff Irreantum has published. I like early OSC and some of his Mormon offspring (Brandon Sanderson and Dave Farland, in particular). I like much of the stuff we published on Popcorn Popping, esp. the work of my fellow AMVers.

    I’d like to know more about the Mormon ska scene (Swim Herschel Swim and co.), and I’d be totally in to Mormon punk and post-punk if that kind of thing existed.

    I’d like to know more about the Mormon theater scene — specifically the work of J. Scott Bronson, Eric Samuelsen, my co-blogger Mahonri Stewart and what’s going on with the New Play Project.

    I wish Margaret Young would get back to writing fiction (even though I understand the reasons behind her projects with Darius Gray).

  3. I think you have pegged the situation quite well.

    But the optimist in me wants to emphasize what Godin says about the curves shifting all the time. While Zarahemla’s titles may be edgy today, or at least outside of the curve in some way, they may not be in the future.

    My own experience with the book market leads me to think this is true. John Jakes produces a popular line of historical fiction novels in the 1970s, and suddenly historical fiction series are hugely popular, instead of sitting in the gap between the popular and the non-fiction history preferred by the passionate. Even Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series might be seen in this way — her novels’ seem like they ought to be in the gap between the no-sex material of the passionate Christian and Mormon markets on one hand, and the popular sexually-oriented Anne Rice vampires on the other.

    With any book that seems to fall into a gap like Godin describes, you have to ask yourself “is there no market for this book because no market exists?” or “is there no market for this book because there have not been books to create the market or demonstrate that the market exists?”

    But the publisher must realize that regardless of which of the above questions is true, publishing in a gap like this is quite risky and often unrewarding.

  4. The comparison to the Christian world is apt. There is an additional factor to bring to the equation. In the Mainstream Christian world, an established church would have no problem actively promoting its pop culture works, events and artists from the pulpit, in the programs, bulletins and newsletters, and any other official way imaginable. A Christian punk or pop or rock group coming into town relies on local congregations to spread the word. And the local “Christianet” delivers.

    In the LDS world, particularly in Utah, in an effort to not officially endorse any artists, it’s the exact opposite. The church does not allow mentioning concerts, events, or any other kind of promo. You can’t put it in the program, you can’t even tack it up on the ward bulletin board.

    Now I’m not saying that should change. I think a certain amount of neutrality on the part of the official church is a good thing. But it does mean that it is that much harder for an LDS artist to reach his/her audience.

    MRKH

  5. it is that much harder for an LDS artist to reach his/her audience.

    I must admit my ignorance to every single person/artist mentioned in this post and all the comments except for Zarahemla, Chris Bigelow, and Eugene Woodbury (because I reviewed Angel Falling Softly) and, of course OSC.

    I have no idea who they are; I’ve never heard their names. Now, that may be because I’m out here in the mission field (Zion, har), but I don’t know any member who would know these people from Adam or what they do. I wouldn’t even know where to begin finding them if it weren’t for this blog, and I only stumbled upon AMV a couple of months ago.

    So, yeah. There’s a serious disconnect between the artists and a wider pool of potential consumers of their art.

  6. This was fascinating to consider because, of course, I’m very aware of the gap with Zarahemla, and I think Signature has been tipping bins of books into a similar gap for years (at least with their fiction).

    So yeah, it’s taking longer than I’d like to find purchase and scramble out of the gap, and I often wonder whether I’ll run out of time or money first, but keeping at it in a small-scale digital way seems worthwhile and doable, at least on most days. With Zarahemla, I’ll probably need to do a major reevaluation of whether I want to continue as soon as I run out of my first batch of ISBN numbers (I bought 10 and have used 6 so far).

    On Utah ska, does anyone remember Stretch Armstrong? I grew up with the keyboardist and later became friends with the lead singer, with whom I still have lunch once or twice a year. They actually sold 20,000 CDs and seriously considered making a bigger go of it, but the band members split over making the sacrifices needed for that (touring, etc.).

  7. Both great points Mark and MoJo. I’ll have more to say about Mark’s point as I dive into my posts inspired by Rapture Ready!

    In terms of the disconnect that MoJo points to (as well as Chris), we’ve explored here at AMV several options of trying to reach the (potential) Mormon audience. And we’ve also explored many of the major difficulties of trying to do so. And I must admit that I’m beginning to lose my optimism.

    For example:

    I have met several members of my ward who have backgrounds in English literature (many who attended BYU) — the type of literary-minded folks who’d be a natural audience for the type of art that AMV explores, promotes, critiques. None of them have had more than a passing knowledge of the Assoc. for Mormon Letters (if even that) and none of them have heard of Zarahemla Books or AMV or Segullah, etc. Of course, they have now. 😉

  8. None of them have had more than a passing knowledge of the Assoc. for Mormon Letters (if even that) and none of them have heard of Zarahemla Books or AMV or Segullah, etc.

    I knew of Exponent (thus, Exponent II) through my aunt and my father subscribed to Dialog throughout the ’70s and that led into my knowledge of Sunstone.

    The rest of it, though, no. I can’t claim to having heard a hint of a whiff of a reference to them.

  9. .

    My book’s still available to stick in the gap, Chris.

    The concept of a gap is helpful, I think, because it’s such an apt metaphor on so many levels. Gaps between artists and audiences (MoJo’s hardly the only one who’s never heard of Scott Bronson) (sorry, Scott). Gaps between what’s available to readers and what they desire. Gaps between what writers want to write and what they think will turn six cents. Gaps between what’s being purchased now and what may be purchased tomorrow.

    In the end, I think we just have to keep making what we can and trusting someday we’ll make it work. Don’t want to miss an opportunity because the book wasn’t written yet.

  10. Scott who? Bronson? Never heard of the guy.

    Although, I did get a wee smile on my face a couple years back when that little controversy irrupted on Popcorn Popping over my play, “On the Romance of a Dying Child.” One individual tried to hurt my feelings by saying that I was a nobody anyway so why should she care about me, or words to that effect. She must have googled me or something because she came back later and said that I wasn’t so much a nobody after all.

    She apparently found out that I have seven or eight friends.

  11. .

    And not only that, I know who you are too! And it would be a stretch to say that you and I are close friends. I doubt you even remember meeting me.

  12. .

    No, I was hardly ever there. In fact, if you press me, I can’t even place a time. Perhaps I’m making it all up? It’s possible. I’ll hold to my illusion for now, though.

  13. But it’s not edgy enough to bring in the ex-Mormons, etc.

    This statement kind of surprised me — mostly because ex-Mormons are not a market. You Bloggernacle veterans should know that a group’s Internet presence doesn’t necessarily say much about the population at large. At least the faithful Mormons have a brick-and-mortar organization numbering in the millions. With exmos, what you see (on the Internet) is what you get. Sure there are plenty more, but for the most part they’re either not interested in being part of the cultural Mormon community or not aware of it.

    Then, about exmos not supporting Zarahemla Books: what am I, chopped liver? 😉

    I’ve just put up a post describing my adventures in book reviewing so you can see for yourself.

    I think the biggest challenge for Mormon lit is the Deseret, etc., vertical-and-horizontal monopoly. It soaks up so much of the demand from the core audience that it’s hard for anything else to take root. But correlation isn’t necessarily conducive to literature. If Deseret were kind enough to voluntarily chop itself into a set of independent bookstores and small publishers, that would probably eliminate the bulk of Mormon lit’s obstacles. It would also mean the LDS-interest publishing industry would start tacking dramatically in the direction of Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Bloggernacle. Inactives and even exmos would probably start darkening the doors of LDS bookstores to buy some books. Good or bad? Depends on your perspective…

  14. I think the biggest challenge for Mormon lit is the Deseret, etc., vertical-and-horizontal monopoly.

    I completely agree with that. Any other outlet is going to have to build itself from the ground up (e.g., Zarahemla), which takes a long time and a lot of money. Authors who want to publish more edgy things might still have an issue with an unproven press.

    My press is about as untried as you can get. I know I won’t ever get books onto Deseret Book’s shelves, but I do hope eventually to grow a big enough crossover list (with authors whose work is good but can’t get bought by traditional LDS publishers) to get it into digital distribution and onto mainstream shelves. There is nowhere to go in non-Deseret-approved Mormon lit but mainstream and THAT is going to be a long, hard row to hoe.

    Chanson, I read your post about book reviewing and I’ll comment over there about something that’s happening in my genre that I think is analogous to the atheist literature invisibility.

  15. Moriah:

    I fixed your URL for you.

    —-
    CL:

    Looking back exMos is definitely the wrong term to use. A better might be Sunstone/Signature supporters or something like that. Not that those folks don’t overlap with what Zarahemla is doing, but I think there’s a difference between seeking out The Backslider and the work of Brian Evenson and reading On the Road to Heaven. Some readers enjoy both. But my guess is that some don’t.

    I could be wrong.

    To respond to both comments: I pretty much agree. At the same time, I think what the two of you (and others) are doing electronically is the best that can be hoped for right now.

    Whether its Mormon literature or atheist literature or any other yet emergent market, the issue is not just the viability of the market as an interesting-category-for-authors/readers, but also the major changes that are disrupting the traditional publishing/marketing models. Sure, such disruptions may create opportunities (I think it’s very cool that Moriah’s B10 offers a .zip file with 7 different digital formats), but it also means that a lot of folks are confused about what all these changes mean for credibility of presses, for reaching potential readers, for making money, etc.

  16. Thanks for the fix!

    It also means that a lot of folks are confused about what all these changes mean for credibility of presses, for reaching potential readers, for making money, etc.

    The sci-fi/fantasy (thank you, Doctorow!) and romance genres are on the cutting edge of this. I’m an early adopter of the eBookWise, but I realize this may change as digital content becomes standardized a la mp3 formatting and a universal ebook reader becomes available. The .oeb format I offer is the open-source standard being worked toward, which is why I offer it.

    I have no doubt this will grow out to other genres, other sectors, but very very slowly and it will NOT take off until there’s a universal device and a universal format.

    Doesn’t this month’s Ensign talk about sharing the gospel via the internet? If we’re that technologically savvy with the gospel, I don’t see why we can’t be that savvy with literature/nonfiction/fiction.

    I intend to be on the forefront of that.

  17. Uh, sorry for the spam-like nature of that post. I tend to like to preach the gospel of e-books in general, not mine in particular and I’m excited about the possibilities that people like Baen have shown us.

  18. [blockquote]The sci-fi/fantasy (thank you, Doctorow!) and romance genres are on the cutting edge of this. [/blockquote]

    Absolutely. Some interesting thoughts by Seth Godin on the Kindle that relate to this.

    And…

    No problem at all. Commenters are welcome to tout their own efforts as long as they are adding substantively to the conversation. Which you most definitely are.

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