Reaching the Market

In the wake of last week’s news about Deseret Book taking Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, I started thinking again about what alternatives there might be to Deseret Book’s dominance of the LDS market. There seems to be little question that many more sophisticated books, although apparently some are books that make the most sensitive or religiously conservative uncomfortable, and as a result those books are mostly shut out of LDS bookstores.

That might be a simplistic explanation, and perhaps doesn’t cover all aspects of the problem. I’ve tried to discuss the problems with Deseret Book in the past (see The problem of Deseret Book Part 1: A Question of Size, The Problem of Deseret Book Part 2: A Question of Focus, The Problem of Deseret Book Part 3: Unresolvable? and Bad Move, Deseret Book). Let’s come up with some ideas for other ways to get LDS books to LDS consumers, especially those in areas not served by LDS stores.

Alternative distribution has, of course, a significant hurdle to overcome, simply because the first idea on how to find an LDS book is to go to an LDS store, although searching an online site like Amazon.com is becoming a strong second place.

The alternatives below are mostly things that publishers could implement to sell their own books, but they would be better implemented by independent companies that sold the books of all publishers. They could also be implemented simultaneously. Some don’t even exist at the moment, even in the U.S. national market. This is probably true for a reason–bookstores are probably more efficient than those that don’t exist. But even these might be right for the LDS market because bookstores are often far apart or don’t even exist in many markets. Some alternative need to be used in those cases.

Here are some alternatives:

  • Amazon and other online retailers: Already Amazon carries the vast majority of LDS books, and many other  online retailers are not far behind.
    Pros:

    • Online retailers usually have very large audiences, much larger than Deseret Book and all LDS stores together.
    • It is relatively easy to get books listed on most of these retailers.

    Cons:

    • LDS Books are often hard to find because the books aren’t labeled as LDS in any way. While Amazon does have an LDS or Mormon category, it is only for books whose subject is Mormonism.
    • Each title is one among as many as 5 million or more.
    • Authors and publishers still have a significant amount of promotion work to do to let consumers know that the book even exists.
    • Only 10% of sales end occur on line.
  • An Independent LDS Online Retailer: By this, I mean a retailer independent of Deseret Book.
    Pros:

    • Depending on how the retailers policies are set up, it should be easy to get books included in its catalog.
    • As an LDS store, its organization would be more like that of brick and mortar online stores, and the items it carried would all be identified as LDS.
    • The store’s selection would probably be better than brick and mortar LDS stores.

    Cons:

    • Since no such store exists, sourcing LDS books might be a problem, especially if major LDS publishers choose not to sell to the store.
  • Book Clubs:
    Pros:

    • Sales are mostly easier-to-handle bulk sales.
    • Book Club consumers are often quite loyal and sophisticated.

    Cons:

    • There are probably not many clubs, so the sales they represent are marginal.
    • The require a lot of organization and interest by consumers.
    • Authors or publishers need lists of clubs to market to or ways of identifying the clubs.
  • Book Fairs/Event Sales:
    Pros:

    • Its easy to meet large groups of people at events, and often many sales can be made in a short period of time.
    • Book fairs can be very attractive to groups wanting to use them as fundraisers.

    Cons:

    • Book Fairs can’t really be done in Wards and Stakes anymore, given Church restrictions on fundraising.
    • The number of regular events each year isn’t very large–it is difficult to build a business just on that.
  • Direct Marketing (aka catalog sales):
    Pros:

    • Relatively easy to set up and administer.
    • Effort needed is in growing and maintaining mailing list and pesenting materials.

    Cons:

    • Requires building a mailing list of 10,000 names or more to make significant sales.
  • Person to Person Marketing (representatives in each ward/stake):
    Pros:

    • Would probably give the best coverage of the market.

    Cons:

    • Just to cover all LDS stakes would require more than 1,000 representative.
    • Sales in a single stake may not be enough to support a full-time representative.
    • Turnover and getting reps to do what is needed would be a significant management headache.
  • Multi-level Marketing:
    Pros:

    • Allows growing a network of representatives quickly.
    • Also brings in sales quickly and maybe at a higher rate than other things.

    Cons:

    • The margins available to pay representatives may not be high enough to support a MLM network.
    • Many people consider this sales model to be ethically questionable.

I don’t know if the above will help authors or publishers directly. I hope it will. It could also give publishers, authors and others ideas for what to do to build their sales. Better yet would be if this led to an idea to improve and strengthen the independence of the LDS market.

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95 thoughts on “Reaching the Market”

  1. .

    I have a suggestion. An entity such as AMV or the AML could set up a store on Amazon which strives to include every single available LDS title.

    I don’t know how flexible the aStore structure is, but it has several advantages:

    1. Amazon already has all the inventory and everyone wants their product carried on Amazon anyway.

    2. It allows a noncommercial entity (eg AMV, AML) to use their branding in a commercial way without a huge investment as all the product and necessary software is provided by Amazon.

    3. If it can work for Hannah Montana surely it can work for us.

    4. A way could be set up to alert the aStore’s owner that a new product is available.

    There are undoubtedly more, but these are the reasons that leap to mind. Potentially, this could be a great source of income for someone.

    Ideally, I would rather it NOT be through Amazon as profits for the publishers are so much lower that way (so much lower that it’s hard to imagine increased volume ever making up for the profit difference), but this is a relatively simple, efficient and effective solution.

  2. .

    In other news, I think it’s unethical to create any sort of sales structure that requires working on church units. I know I would be uncomfortable buying from such an organization.

  3. .

    (one more comment on #1)

    Although a smallish percentage of sales occur online, that number is only going to grow. And ebooks are primed to start expanding rapidly.

    An aStore could well serve as a window-shopping experience. Go to the store to see what’s out there then shop around and buy at the best deal.

    And just as AMV now has a deal with Amazon, I’m sure small publishers would be prepared to cut a deal if people purchased from their sites. Especially since any % cut to AMV (or AML) would be less onerous than what Amazon would have taken.

    I know I would certainly be happy to cut AMV (or AML) a percentage to anyone who purchased The Fob Bible through a link from them.

    (available june first!)

  4. In other news, I think it’s unethical to create any sort of sales structure that requires working on church units. I know I would be uncomfortable buying from such an organization.

    I couldn’t agree more and add to that MLM. No. Please no.

  5. Something I’ve wished existed is like a Netflix for books. You know, something where I pay a monthly fee and they send me the books on my list. I get most of my LDS/Mormon books through ILL so renting books through an online service would be more expensive than that, but it would also be more efficient because I could enter my entire list of books or edit it at any time. It would also probably be a little costlier than Netflix because the shipping on books is expensive. I actually researched this idea a bit (about year ago) and I know that there are book rental sites out there but it seemed that their selection of LDS/Mormon books was pretty slim. Also, theoretically this idea wouldn’t be too expensive to implement because whoever ran it would only have to buy the books people wanted to borrow. Also, this would be a good way to make available copies of out of print books–which might be more expensive to rent depending on the title. If people ended up liking the book enough to keep it they could just not return the book and their account would be charged for the book (like redbox DVDs) or they could go online and purchase it through their account. If they failed to return the book after a period of time they would automatically be charged for it.

    I actually think this would work and I’ve toyed around with trying to set it up myself but being a mom is what I’m doing these days. If AMV wanted to try it that would be awesome.

    I also have a sales idea regarding poetry and short fiction but maybe I’ll just email you guys that one since this comment is getting long 🙂

  6. Oh, the other option: instead of renting the books people could swap the books. You know, for every title you want you have to send out a copy of something else. This sounds more logistically challenging, but would probably appeal more to cheaper people.

  7. .

    I think with a more widespread ebook conversion, “renting” books would be simpler. Sort of a book with an expiration date for a cheap price.

  8. There are a bunch of LDS online bookstores. Of course, none of them sells just books, just like brick-and-mortar LDS bookstores don’t sell just books. Google LDS (or Mormon) bookstore and you’ll find them.

    Richard Paul Evans started a book MLM a couple of years ago–Bookwise. I think I recall them supposedly having a selection of LDS books, but I don’t know if it’s true.

  9. Ken has been promoting growth in the LDS market for years and God bless him.

    Most of the examples Ken suggested when taken on their individual merits (and all that have been subsequently suggested via comments) are impractical for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is exposure. Most independent LDS publishers have all our inventories available via Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, etc., but we must still tell the LDS audience about the books or it doesn’t matter. Simply put, *availability* isn’t the problem. *Notification* is.

    We (WindRiver Publishing) are promoting a solution. We’re still working to get the independent bookstores on board, but we believe it will work, and it starts with the premise (missing from so many attempts in the past) that there’s plenty of profit to go around!

    We started Zions Catalog & Merchandise (http://www.zionscatalog.com). It’s in development, but what it will be is as much competition for Deseret Book as can be had with a federation of independent bookstores.

    The program combines direct advertising (a catalog) with an “immediate response” retail presence (online & phone). Best of all, participating independent bookstores participate in the profit — up to 35% of each sale made through ZCM. (For the record, the ZCM project receives *no* payment for products sold directly through independent bookstores. We’d be delighted if no-one bought online, providing maximum profit to the bookstores.)

    The reason the project is important is because we estimate that HALF of any independent bookstore’s customer base really belongs to Deseret Book because of DB’s catalog. We want to return that customer base to the independent bookstores.

    The effect is to create a “super LDS bookstore chain” made up of good people working together that’s more than twice the size of Deseret Book.

    The obvious question is, “how are you getting your contact list?” The answer is simple. Since Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency, national commercial list providers have been busily building LDS contact lists. I have no clue how they did it, but they’ve done it, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of contacts. It’ll open the doors to both independent publishers and independent bookstores to finally compete on fair ground with DB.

    I’d love to hear people’s opinions about the project. You can reach me via email: keith@windriverpublishing.com.

  10. While we’re on the subject…

    To give you an idea of how important notification is, and how hard it is to get noticed in the LDS market, there are hundreds of LDS blogs visited by thousands of Saints, and though I’ve not visited all of them, I’ve found only a precious handful that post advertisements (e.g., http://ldspublisher.blogspot.com/).

    Why don’t most LDS blogs support the LDS artistic community? My suspicion is that many Saints have a latent belief that it is somehow “wrong” to combine anything about the Church with commercialism.

    It’s regrettable, because the laborer is worthy of his hire, LDS blogs have an enormous audience, and could have an enormous affect on market growth. (hint, hint…)

  11. .

    I hope your plan works because I agree: just getting people AWARE of what’s available is the big trick.

    A question: what are the hurdles for inclusion?

    A comment: I actually think most members don’t think LDS art is good enough to be worthy of their attention. But awareness can help modify that opinion.

  12. Which publisher’s products will the catalog feature? Only WindRiver’s? Or will other non-DB/Covenenat publishers be able to list products as well?

  13. I think most LDS don’t think they should have to pay for a brother or sister’s artistic endeavors, period.

    /cynicism

  14. Th, in #1 has a fairly good idea, I think, and unless I’ve misunderstood JB’s Zions Catalog, it serves a purpose JB is missing–listing every product available. As I understand it, publishers pay for space in Zions Catalog, so not everyone will participate.

    I think this is important, especially in a market that is used to Amazon.com, which effectively does have everything.

    [But I don’t want to say that JBs venture isn’t valuable. I think it could be very helpful.]

  15. .

    I thought—looking at the ZCM site—that they were paying to include. But I don’t understand how that would work. (But then I didn’t read everything there either.)

    But I agree with Kent on this: whatever product aggregator may arrive, to be successful it must have EVERYTHING. Perhaps it would be helpful to allow users to filter results? Sort of like Google has for Image Search. Then, for instance, MoJo’s racy book could be included (for completeness and for those who would be interested) but those who don’t want to see it won’t have to.

  16. .

    My first sentence wasn’t clear. Rewrite:

    I thought–looking at the ZCM site–that they were paying others to include works their works in the ZCM catalogue.

  17. Not only would my racy doorstopper necessarily be included, but all anti-Mormon works and all works with Mormon characters.

    Ideally.

  18. Marny (9): I too have seen a number of LDS online bookstores in addition to Deseretbook.com and Seagullbooks.com, but I have to say that none of them are worth mentioning, IMO. I haven’t seen any with a selection that even matches the slim pickings at DeseretBook.com, and the site features are very slim.

    I didn’t mention them because they don’t seem to be serious.

    As for Bookwise, as near as I can tell, it died late last year. There is a bookwise site up, but none of the pages after the home page work.

  19. William, your links to paperbackswap and bookswim are appreciated.

    But I assume (and I think we should point out) that neither of these does what we need done in terms of cataloging LDS books, of making it easy to find out what LDS books exist and browse among them.

  20. No, of course not. I was just showing that both ideas are being attempted. I have no idea how many customers they have, if those customers are satisfied, and if the ventures themselves are making money (or at least sustainable).

    ————

    I would assume that once could code content filters for users to apply if they had to sign in (or just have a rated-R ghetto).

    The only problem, there, is that I’m pretty sure that those who read the “LDS fiction” would shy away from any store that included any “strong” content and those who want the more literary and/or challenging content would ignore the “LDS fiction” titles for the most part. Then there’s still the question of will publishers play along. There’s still no large-scale, all-encompassing distributor to fulfill the orders and trying to round up each publisher could be a nightmare — even if it’s just some sort of affiliate program.

    I think the best bet is a use-at-your-own-risk but well-organized aStore per Theric’s first comment.

  21. JB, I admit that these ideas all have their failings (in fact, I included “con” information on each). And, I should emphasize that many of these ideas would do much better if they were done by independent organizations working industry-wide, instead of being implemented by a particular publisher.

    I do absolutely agree that “Notification” (For those that don’t know, business terminology calls this marketing) is the biggest difficulty. Publishers and even bookstores desperately need marketing (I sometimes wonder how many LDS Church members outside of Utah live within 25 miles of an LDS bookstore and don’t know that it is there). If you can’t communicate with potential customers, its pretty hard to sell much of anything.

    But I think that there are a few potential problems with Zions Catalog. As I mentioned above, I worry about the fact that there is no way for publishers to participate for free, which will mean that the database you are working from is not comprehensive. IMO, that would be a competitive advantage over Deseret Book and over Amazon.com as well (since Amazon’s listings are not categorized to allow the Mormon audience to browse very well).

    I do like your efforts to build a list of potential customers, and you were ahead of what I knew when you noticed the rise of LDS-specific lists at commercial list brokers–I didn’t realize they were available now.

    To be honest, I’m surprised that LDS bookstores are having such a hard time participating–it seems that there is no downside for them, and no cost either. Seems like it would be a no-brainer to join.

    As for LDS blogs, I tend to agree. But I don’t think that ads are as effective a way to do it as what we do here on AMV — reviews and lists of books that fit a particular post. I don’t claim that the links result in a lot of sales, but I believe they yield more clicks than traditional banner ads, which no one looks at.

    I can’t say why other LDS blogs don’t do more of this, except that for some it requires a little more sophistication than the blogger can manage, and for others they don’t want to look like they are biased or making a buck off their readers.

    But these are my suppositions. I don’t know that I have a great idea of how most bloggers feel.

  22. William (14) and Th. (17 & 18):

    As I read the site, it looks like publishers need to pay an advertising fee (several hundred dollars) to get their books included, and give ZCM a 50% discount off the retail price. Stock is sent to ZCM on consignment, and the publisher gets paid after it is sold.

    Of all this, I think the biggest hurdle is the advertising fee. If ZCM had some kind of basic listing for free, or a flat, low participation fee per title, then it think a comprehensive database would be possible.

    I also wonder if it might not be possible to work some kind of deal with publishers or bookstores–some kind of benefit or additional listing for adding unique addresses to the list. I’ll bet there are something like 1.5 million active LDS households in the U.S. alone, and it would be nice to see the largest portion of those members possible.

  23. Mojo (19): anti-Mormon? no way. That’s the point at which you would kill off any credibility and turn away customers.

    Even the filters that William suggests in (22) aren’t likely to be good enough to keep people from occasionally running into an anti-Mormon title by accident, and once that gets out, you loose your audience.

    I do admit that sometimes defining what is anti-Mormon is defined differently (I know Signature Books publications are regularly called anti-Mormon in some quarters). But in general, anything that is clearly meant to lead members away from the Church can’t be included.

  24. William (22), you are right. I’m wondering if we don’t actually need two additional competitors, one to compete with Deseret Book (along the lines of ZCM, perhaps) and another, more universal, to compete with Amazon as a true Mormon, comprephensive retailer.

    You wrote: “Then there’s still the question of will publishers play along. There’s still no large-scale, all-encompassing distributor to fulfill the orders and trying to round up each publisher could be a nightmare — even if it’s just some sort of affiliate program.”

    Amen, brother.

  25. But in general, anything that is clearly meant to lead members away from the Church can’t be included.

    Can’t? I guess that depends on who’s runnin’ it.

  26. MoJo:

    As a Gen Xer who used to live in Oakland it’s quite likely that I throw that term around much too loosely. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any doubt that novels like your and other titles are completely marginalized and confined to certain neighborhoods in Mormon cultural circles. Thus the fuss when Chris tried to break Angel Falling Softly wider than some would have liked.

    Of course, I see AMV as being that semi-gentrified neighborhood where everybody frequents the Starbucks, the funky health foods store and the McDonalds.

  27. “To be honest, I’m surprised that LDS bookstores are having such a hard time participating.”

    It seems like an independent booksellers association complete with a master list of events and a by-zip-code finder of the nearest independent LDS bookstore would be a no brainer. Of course, were they to assert themselves too much one wonders what DB/Seagull’s response would be. Didn’t DB threaten to pull their books from Seagull’s shelves not long before acquiring them?

  28. .

    The only problem, there, is that I’m pretty sure that those who read the “LDS fiction” would shy away from any store that included any “strong” content and those who want the more literary and/or challenging content would ignore the “LDS fiction” titles for the most part.

    Everyone assumes this but the truth is we do not know. The internet results in different expectations. If no one tries it, we’ll never know. We’re fiddling with theory here, but this isn’t quantum physics: math is not reality.

    (I sometimes wonder how many LDS Church members outside of Utah live within 25 miles of an LDS bookstore and don’t know that it is there).

    Been there. And I still haven’t been to the bookstore within 25 in my new location. I do my buying online

    Of course, were they to assert themselves too much one wonders what DB/Seagull’s response would be. Didn’t DB threaten to pull their books from Seagull’s shelves not long before acquiring them?

    Yes, but screw DB. As long as people live in fear of DB, nothing good will ever happen.

    (Incidentally, that fear is, I think, the greatest proof that DB behaves as unethically as any illegal monopoly. By their fruits ye shall know them.)

    ——

    These are the facts as I see them:

    1. In the internet age, completeness is the ultimate virtue.

    2. The Mormon market’s reputation is avoiding (with extreme prejudice) some Mormon works.

    3. Somehow we need 1 while allowing subscribers to 2 to have their way.

    This is not impossible.

  29. .

    Three thoughts.

    1. I myself always have thought of Signature as Dangerous! Heretic! but when I finally got a catalogue in March there were all sorts of delightful things in there I now want. Generally, letting people see for themselves what is available and self-filter will allow for a wider variety of product to end up getting selected by a wider variety of customers.

    2. I don’t remember what my second thought was. It will probably come to me thirty seconds after I shut down the computer.

    3. It’s a lot more time-consuming to make an aStore than I had expected. I just spent an hour building one and it totally sucks. Go see.

    Problems: There is no good way to add large amounts of product at a time. Amazon won’t let everything be in one big pile and then add tags as appropriate. It has a mark-mature-content option, but it’s of limited worth. To add items to more than one category is tedious. Crossreferencing is a bear. To minimize clutter and confusion, all categories must be of one type (I chose publishers, but that’s a stupid one to choose if you can only choose one). And on and on and on. It would take months to get a reasonable store up and running. And frankly, I would rather spend my free hours writing books.

    So this may be a solution but it’s not a very elegant one.

    (But feel free to buy stuff from me all the same.)

  30. .

    Nope. Didn’t take that long.

    2. As per a recent discussion with my friend RC on my blog, placing the available product in the market into broad daylight where everyone can see it will inevitable lead to several things. Among them:

    -mainstream purchasers of Mormon product will occasionally find worthy works among the smaller presses.

    -people interested in the marginal stuff will occasionally find worthy works among more mainstream Mormon product.

    -those generally dismissive of Mormon art altogether will find something that interests them the one time they give it a shot.

    -those already properly broadminded (ironic emoticon here) will be delighted with the unexpected breadth of the Mormon marketplace.

    Among others.

  31. I said: “But in general, anything that is clearly meant to lead members away from the Church can’t be included.

    And Mojo responded: “Can’t? I guess that depends on who’s runnin’ it.”

    Yes and no. No one running a store can completely ignore what their customers want.

    I do think that there is a portion of active LDS consumers would put up with anti-Mormon books being available in an LDS store in the interest of completeness. But you would loose the rest. And, just as bad, you wouldn’t sell any of the anti-Mormon books, principally because they almost always say the same things. There simply isn’t much value there. So if an LDS store did carry them, the low sales will make it difficult to justify financially, IMO, and impossible to justify if you include the sales lost from offended customers.

    Now, I exclude from the anti-Mormon books those academic titles that are sometimes termed anti-Mormon by people like FAIR. I do think that it is possible for an academic book to be anti-Mormon, but it is difficult, because obvious bias usually turns off academic publishers, and when they do exist, the fact that they are anti-Mormon isn’t as obvious.

    I can’t see it ever working.

  32. .

    Except that in an online store the rules are different. I don’t think truly antiMormon stuff is worth carrying, but I tend to agree with MoJo that it’s less likely to be impactful online than in brickandmortar.

  33. Th (32) wrote:

    These are the facts as I see them:

    1. In the internet age, completeness is the ultimate virtue.

    2. The Mormon market’s reputation is avoiding (with extreme prejudice) some Mormon works.

    3. Somehow we need 1 while allowing subscribers to 2 to have their way.

    This is not impossible.

    Seems right to me.

  34. .

    I think the term antiMormon is too broad to be useful. Would I carry The Godmakers? No. No Man Knows My History? Yes. Under the Banner of Heaven? Yes. And I would always sin on the side of inclusion.

    But I have no business in this sensitive artistic soul of mine. I don’t know whether that makes my input more or less valuable.

  35. Wm., I see now. We DO need an ironic emoticon!

    On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any doubt that novels like yours and other titles are completely marginalized and confined to certain neighborhoods in Mormon cultural circles.

    Mmmm, but I don’t consider mine Mormon lit. There are Mormons IN IT, but I didn’t *expect* tons of readers from that sector. Mine says FICTION on the spine for a reason. It’s the same way I don’t consider Twilight Mormon lit.

    My point only goes one direction, though, and that is all-inclusive-ness, which is to say: At Mojo’s Mormon Bookstore, you would find every book written by a Mormon, containing Mormon characters, or about Mormonism in any facet. It would be a complete resource for all things Mormon and, yes, Kent, that would include anti-Mormon literature.

    Mojo’s Mormon Bookstore would NOT be in the business of leading people to or away from the church. That’s Deseret Book’s job and it does it very well. Mojo’s Mormon Bookstore would be in the business of COLLECTING and CURATING (term du jour in bookland) and offering for sale those works which pertain to Mormonism in any way–and, in the process, trust the customer to know what is best for his/her spiritual standing and purchase accordingly. I absolutely do not believe in protecting people from themselves.

    Getting the LDS public to understand that Mojo’s Mormon Bookstore exists and exactly what it’s about (with appropriate categorizations and tags, cuz I also know how I’d organize it) would take a while and some concerted advertising, that’s true, but that’s what mailing lists are for.

    As Th. pointed out, aggregating through an aStore is so time-consuming and limiting as to not be worth the effort.

    There are a lot of relatively easy ways to set up such an online catalog, but the big problem would be getting all the publishers/distributors to agree to the kind of inventory arrangement it would take AND to agree to offering e-books.

    I doubt DB or Seagull would be willing to have its books listed in such a compendium anyway, but at worst, it would become not an aggregator, but a COMPETITOR to DB/Seagull.

  36. I’d carry Godmakers, too, much as I loathe and despise that it even exists.

    I do think that there is a portion of active LDS consumers would put up with anti-Mormon books being available in an LDS store in the interest of completeness. But you would lose the rest.

    I disagree. Tags and sorts and filters are magical things.

  37. Mojo (40) wrote:

    There are a lot of relatively easy ways to set up such an online catalog, but the big problem would be getting all the publishers/distributors to agree to the kind of inventory arrangement it would take AND to agree to offering e-books.

    I agree that this is the key issue. Consumers have a funny way of expecting that if you list a book, you will be able to ship/sell that book.

    Th (39), there are a number of free ecommerce software packages that can be modified to do what we are describing here. I use one of them myself and modified it to fit my needs. Software isn’t that large of an impediment.

  38. “The only problem, there, is that I’m pretty sure that those who read the “LDS fiction” would shy away from any store that included any “strong” content and those who want the more literary and/or challenging content would ignore the “LDS fiction” titles for the most part.”

    There’s a chance to kill two birds with one stone, here, in that the LDS community is dying for some type of “book rating” system along the lines of what the MPAA / Kids in Mind / Screen-It provide for movies. If you can incorporate screening and ratings into whatever system you come up with, that would be a huge draw.

  39. There’s a chance to kill two birds with one stone, here, in that the LDS community is dying for some type of “book rating” system along the lines of what the MPAA / Kids in Mind / Screen-It provide for movies. If you can incorporate screening and ratings into whatever system you come up with, that would be a huge draw.

    Katya, do you envision this to be some sort of store-determined rating or a type of collective rating (re: cloud computing)?

    A. The store rates it using MPAA-type standards

    and/or

    B. The customers rate it on that basis?

    This is a brilliant idea. Deseret Book contents are rated by default. It’s possible that such a system would add tremendously to the bottom line.

  40. “Katya, do you envision this to be some sort of store-determined rating or a type of collective rating (re: cloud computing)?”

    A little of both, I guess. I like the idea of “staff raters” with the option to add customer comments (i.e., if they feel the ratings are not accurate).

    Also, I think it would be wise to go beyond the MPAA-ish things people look for and rate on some sort of pro-Mormon, anti-Mormon scale.

    I just went on a long walk and had a chance to think through a lot of this, so here’s the system as I currently envision it:

    Everything is rated on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the least offensive and 5 being the most (potentially) offensive.

    Language (swearing, crude epithets, etc.)
    1 = No objectionable language.
    5 = Swearing on every page, maybe something like a war novel. (I can’t think of a concrete example, sorry. I don’t think I read a lot of swear-ful books.)

    Implied or explicit sex
    1 = Nothing
    2 = Anna Karenina (She has an affair! I know this sounds like overkill, but, trust me, there are people who would not want to read this book just because a main character has an affair.)
    5 = Something like Cosmopolitan Magazine. (Not that we’d rate Cosmo, just to give you an idea of the graphic content. )

    Also, the above scale could be used to rate graphic novels or other illustrated material with potentially objectionable illustrations

    Violence
    1 = no violence
    2 = Anna Karenina (Main character commits suicide! Again, this might seem like overkill, but some people are going to want to know it’s in there.)
    5 = Lots of violence (I’d need a good suggestion for concrete examples here, too.)

    Drugs & Alcohol
    I don’t know if this category is really necessary, but you get the idea.

    Pro-Mormon, anti-Mormon
    This category took the longest to work out, but here’s what I think:

    3 – Neutral. Most books are probably going to fit here, because most of the stuff written in the world isn’t particularly pro- or anti- Mormon.

    2 – Promotes generally Mormon values, but isn’t explicitly pro-Mormon, if that makes sense. I’m thinking of generally pro-Christian works (which might have some doctrinal issues), lots of Mormon fiction which still realistically addresses struggles (The Backslider, for instance), nonfiction about Mormons which is generally pro but doesn’t pull punches (Rough Stone Rolling, maybe stuff by Jan Shipps)

    1 – Explicitly promotes LDS Doctrine. (The Book of Mormon, most stuff by GAs, really inoffensive Mormon fiction, Church manuals, etc.)

    4 – May contain some ideas which go against Mormon doctrine / values. (This is basically the category for stuff Mormons might be uncomfortable with, but that isn’t explicitly anti-Mormon, or anti-Christian, etc.)

    5 – Anti-Mormon, anti-religion stuff (Fawn Brodie, Christopher Hitchens, etc. It should be noted that these may still be of scholarly interest or importance.)

    ———————

    Anything that can be bought directly from the site should probably be reviewed ahead of time, if possible. However, I think that a lot of popular classics and other types of works should also be reviewed, maybe with one of those links to Amazon that helps support the site. There’s a huge desire among Mormons to know what out there is “safe,” and going through the classics and other popular works would be a big service, I think. (As a default I’d suggest trying to review everything that’s made LibraryThing’s top 1000 books list, for example.)

    I also think that staff reviews should somehow get more weight than customer reviews, simply because we don’t want someone rating The Backslider as “5 – anti-Mormon” just because they get offended at the sexual content and the chain-smoking Jesus. 🙂

    OK, that’s all I’ve got for now.

    Whew!

  41. That’s a complicated rubric, but it could be used to create an X/Y graph that the customer could glance at and make an immediate determination. The closer to the middle of the intersection of the X and Y axes, the more neutral it would be (neutral defined as something DB/Seagull would stock).

  42. #49 – Good thinking. A sort of summary score like that could appear on a brief preview page, with a more detailed review available on a clickthrough. I’m also a fan of using intuitive color and graphics choices to help draw people’s attention to potential “problem areas.” (I.e., on the clickthrough, all of the content areas rated 1 would be colored green, something in the 3 range would be colored orange, and something at 4 or 5 would be colored red and maybe bolded. The numbers would be there too, of course, along with explanatory comments.)

    A nice thing about this system is that it would hopefully allow for *more* leeway in terms of stocking a wide variety of titles related to Mormon faith and culture. And I think you’d be surprised at how many people would be willing to submit these types of ratings for the books they’ve read.

    Also, feel free to question or knock down any part of this system that doesn’t seem to make sense. I’m happy to explain my reasoning behind aspects of this model and I’m equally happy to help work out a revised system that could work even better.

    #50 – Aww, thanks!

  43. Katya, you explained it perfectly enough for me to visualize an at-a-glance graphic, so we’re thinking in the same direction.

    Also love the color-coding, which in my mind was a star, green toward the center, then morphing through yellow to red (stoplights) as the “rating” gets farther toward the edge of the graph.

  44. .

    My only concern is the last of the scales, the neutrality one. People who might not mind a ‘neutral’ book might shy away from anything orange. Perhaps that one should have a different color-coding?

  45. Maybe, but as Katya said, if clarification is needed, you could click the graph and get a detailed explanation of the content.

    Warning labels, as I’ve said since Angel Falling Softly came out, since apparently the words “bishop’s wife” and “vampire” and “As the two women push against every moral boundary” wasn’t clear enough.

    Anyway, I whipped this up. Katya, is this kind of what you mean?

  46. #53. – I actually think that’s a good point. I’d be in favor of a clear / gray / black star for neutral books, with the regular yellow and green on the left and orange / red on the right. (Yes, more information will always be available on the clickthrough, but the colors will do a lot in terms of giving people an initial impression.)

  47. #54/55 – This is a little different from how I envisioned it, but very interesting and it brings up a whole host of new thoughts and questions. Unfortunately, I’ve got to run play the organ for a baptism, but I’ll try and respond later this evening.

  48. The reviews Web site sponsored by LDS Publisher has a rating system similar to what you’ve been discussing. There is an over-all rating (out of five pink stars) and separate ratings (in green to red with explanation) for language, violence, drugs/alcohol, immorality, values/themes, age appropriateness, and writing mechanics.

    The only problem with a complex rating system like this is someone has to read the book before it can be rated. With the inclusivity you want, this would be a large task.

  49. WOW, what a conversation. While I always hope that my posts spark some debate, I didn’t expect this much. This is great!

    I do think that there have been some productive ideas here, but I don’t think this is the best place to continue to develop them (assuming there is interest).

    If those discussing are interested, I’d be willing to start an email discussion list for figuring out how to further develop these ideas.

    Drop me a note, kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org, if you are interested.

  50. OK, I have some responses to both MoJo and Marny — would you prefer to continue the discussion on by email, as Kent suggested?

  51. OK.

    #57. I like the way the information is visually presented, in terms of the graphic position and the color of the star both giving information about where the book is located in the general rubric. (I can see “clusters” being very useful in terms of generating book recommendations.)

    My biggest critique is that, while I see why you might want something to be on the opposite side of the “language/drug/etc.” references, I don’t think that scholarship/(non-fiction?) is a good anti-pole for that category. Indeed, I can think of books which are counterexamples to it: “The Act of Marriage” (a Christian sex guide) is both +explicit sex (by its purpose) and +scholarly, at least in the sense of being non-fiction. And any good slang dictionary will be a work of scholarship but also contain potentially offensive language (although such a work would probably not be on the radar for this project).

    Better to cut out the +scholarship side of the graph, in my opinion, and deal with fiction/nonfiction classification in other ways. (That is, unless you think that +scholarship is something that some Mormons would want to be “warned” against, but that’s a whole new can of worms . . .)

    My other big question is how this graph would be displayed inline with search or browse results for books, since it’s 2D and therefore takes up a lot of visual real estate. Do you have an idea for how to collapse it down to a 1D summary that would fit inline with a book title?

  52. #58 – Thank you so much for posting this link! It’s great to see that someone else is thinking along the same lines, both in terms of seeing how such a system works, in practice, and in terms of not reinventing the wheel. Am I right in thinking that we’re envisioning providing access to an even wider range of books than are currently rated by this site?

    “The only problem with a complex rating system like this is someone has to read the book before it can be rated. With the inclusivity you want, this would be a large task.”

    Very true. I’m working on a couple of assumptions, here, so you’ll have to tell me if I’m right. First, if the point is to create a site that offers access to a larger range of LDS literature, than DB does, wouldn’t the people running the site want to read a lot of the material ahead of time, anyway? (Just in terms of the materials that have been profiled recently on this site, would it be so hard for the reviewers of those books to go back and rate them on this scale?)

    As for reading and rating material beyond the LDS sphere, I don’t think that ratings have to start out being comprehensive to be useful. If we’re aiming for the market that is really scared of trying anything unknown without an assurance that it’s “OK,” then any information is better than nothing. And many of us are prolific enough readers that I think we could cover a lot of ground pretty easily if we just rated everything we read.

  53. *sigh*

    I should have proofread that last post better. It’s awfully comma-heavy, even for me. Apologies.

  54. My biggest critique is that, while I see why you might want something to be on the opposite side of the “language/drug/etc.” references, I don’t think that scholarship/(non-fiction?) is a good anti-pole for that category.

    I TOTALLY agree. It was just something I whipped up fast and just slapped a couple of things that seemed okay at the moment. The longer I looked at it, the more I felt it was lopsided.

    Better to cut out the +scholarship side of the graph, in my opinion, and deal with fiction/nonfiction classification in other ways.

    After thinking on it more, fiction and nonfiction should have separate graphs.

    But for instance, “safe” v “graphic” nonfiction:

    The book you referenced:

    The Act of Marriage (a Christian sex guide) is both +explicit sex (by its purpose) and +scholarly

    is, I presume, something that members would be comfortable with buying if that is something they need, whereas this book: Multiply & Replenish would really disturb some members because it presents an opposing, albeit thoughtful and referenced, viewpoint on such things that members have been taught are wrong.

    My other big question is how this graph would be displayed inline with search or browse results for books, since it’s 2D and therefore takes up a lot of visual real estate. Do you have an idea for how to collapse it down to a 1D summary that would fit inline with a book title?

    No, I still think each title should have a graph, very small, only an X/Y axis and a dot where the title lies on the graph. You could have a cluster graph at the beginning of say, a category or section, of all the works in that category/section.

    And I’ll admit I’m entirely self-serving in that. I’m visual & ADD, so if I saw a simple visual like that, it would be of great help to me.

    First, if the point is to create a site that offers access to a larger range of LDS literature, than DB does, wouldn’t the people running the site want to read a lot of the material ahead of time, anyway?

    I would think so. It would take the staff to create the graphs and clusters before a consumer base could start to contribute.

    As for reading and rating material beyond the LDS sphere

    My vision doesn’t include anything outside the LDS sphere. Not the classics, not Shakespeare, not anything that isn’t 1) written by a Mormon, 2) has Mormon characters, or 3) explicit doctrine. Thus, things like Anna Karenina (pardon me for using your example, Katya), wouldn’t be part of its purview.

    If we’re aiming for the market that is really scared of trying anything unknown without an assurance that it’s “OK,” then any information is better than nothing.

    Agreed. And then, if they disagree (or agree), they can check a box (do you agree with this rating?) or post a comment and/or leave their own rating.

  55. Fixed. I really need to updgrade the comments form so that you all don’t need to hand code. And a preview option would be nice too.

    It’s on the list for this summer.

  56. And I don’t have time to say all that I want to say about ratings system, but I think the discussion above points out that, no matter what type of system you have, the context in which content is presented is incredibly important. Criticism/reviews can help with that. But that’s a daunting task.

  57. No, of course not.

    That’s why the SF Chronicle’s critics both love and hate the little man. On the one hand, he’s a unique, pretty good visual. On the other hand, they’re afraid that too many readers rely solely on the little man and don’t dive in to the review.

    Of course, we’re talking about content ratings rather than overall evaluations of the merits of the work. But even something like Screenit (which I find to be a pretty useful tool) can be problematic because a) it reveals a lot of what happens in the movie b) it doesn’t necessarily provide all the context that’s involved [although it does a decent job of going beyond just listing all the potentially naughty bits].

  58. I love this discussion and I hope you all get it figured out and keep me on the mailing list when you find the answer. I’ll try to contribute something from my experience as I wander through social networking maze and all that.

  59. .

    One thing I don’t understand:

    Why do we need permission from the publishers?

    The way I see it, this website could just be a repository for data. It could be supported by advertizing for products, but the editorial content could not be bought. We can link from product the publisher site (if they sell their work) or Amazon (if they don’t).

    Why do we need to ask permission?

  60. #74 – I agree. It would be nice to partner with publishers to sell their books directly from the site (and perhaps feature those books more prominently), but there’s no reason the site can’t link to other publishers’ websites, etc. I think it would be better to have the site be as comprehensive as possible in terms of covering the subject matter rather than list only what you can sell directly.

  61. #71. – I like it, but I’d switch the direction of the sliders. (We’re used to processing information from left to right in the Western world, so it seems logical to move from “none” to “more,” going left to right.)

  62. .

    #78 – I like this a lot. I like how it also rates the qualities of the book that might bring someone in rather than the potential negatives only.

  63. #82 – I agree that it’s good to focus on the positive aspects of the books, but I’m not really clear on what the other ratings mean. “Good” plot? “Any” plot?

    Remember that the original reason the idea of a rating system came up was that it was meant to supplement other information on the site, overall, not be a substitute for it.

  64. .

    I just figured out something that’s been bothering me. What about works that have Mormon characters but exhibit utter ignorance? They may not be pro or anti but they’re still Mormon lit in a sense and their idiocy towards Mormons should be noted. But a knowledgeable/ignorance scale will be misleading and way too subjective.

  65. Yeah, that’s a good one. There’s a couple of novels that may or may not be on that scale that I’ve been meaning to read.

  66. Hm. What about sympathetically-portrayed Mormons who have questions, but don’t make a decision about it before the end of the book?

    Would love to see how some of you assess Latter-day CIpher. I tried to write it from what is being called in the Christian and secular markets an “upmarket” or literary approach. http://novelmatters.blogspot.com/2009/03/upmarket-books-what-are-they-and-why.html

    No matter how you might feel about what I wrote (and I suspect many on this site won’t care for that) I would like to know if Mormons see the same literary qualities in it that others do (as evidenced by the reviews on Amazon.com.)

    And, as a former Mormon and one of the early participants in the Mormon Arts Ball at BYU — I do see what you’re trying to get at here with the ratings. Let me know what you settle on, too — Christians would like to have a reliable system.

    Grace and Peace,
    Latayne C Scott
    http://www.latayne.com
    novelmatters.blogspot.com

  67. I’m sure Christians would like to have a reliable system.

    [Sorry, couldn’t resist it. Carry on, people.]

  68. .

    Latter Day Main Street has a post today by chanson (incidentally, is that French or is she C. Hanson?) that’s a take off from our comments here.

    (You never know what a “mormon novel” Google Blog Search will turn up.

  69. Good news: I was up late last night slaving away on two posts for today — the links one and Short Story Friday. So stay tuned.

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