LDS Market Mystery

Quick: What’s the largest genre in fiction? Among Science Fiction, Romance, Historical Fiction, Espionage/Thriller, Mystery/Detective Fiction, etc., what sells the most books?

And, why is there so little of the largest genre in the LDS market?

If you haven’t guessed, the largest genre is Mystery/Detective fiction, which, according to R. R. Bowker’s PubTrack service, accounted for 34% of all fiction books sold in 2008. But in the LDS market, only a handful of titles are mysteries.

For what its worth, sales of fiction in the U.S. broke down as follows:

  • Mystery/Detective Fiction – 34%
  • Romance – 24%
  • Science Fiction – 9%
  • Espionage/Thriller – 9%
  • General (i.e., no particular genre) – 7%
  • Other genres – 17%

Of course, comparable numbers are not available for LDS market titles, but it doesn’t take much effort to look at the titles available and see that not many titles are being produced in most of these genres. It sometimes feels like LDS fiction is composed entirely of Romance novels with a few westerns thrown in.

This is particularly surprising when we consider the LDS authors who write in other genres. Orson Scott Card is clearly a first rate author of science fiction, and is one who has let his LDS beliefs infuse his work, yet his science fiction isn’t found in LDS bookstores for the most part. Anne Perry is a hugely popular writer of mysteries, although her mysteries don’t involve LDS characters and situations. There are also other LDS authors who have been successful in these genres.

So clearly LDS Church members write in these popular genres, and it would stretch the imagineation to suggest that these genres aren’t also popular among LDS Church members. Why don’t LDS stores carry works written for LDS Church members in these genres? Why aren’t works for LDS Church members being published in these genres?

It sure seems like the purchasers of mysteries are attractive as buyers. Bowker’s data shows that on average they are wealthier than those who purchase Romances. They are also slightly older, and less likely to be women.

I suspect that a part of the answer is that some Church members can’t square these genres with the gospel, and complain when writers try to write LDS versions of such works. Probably the most public example of how this difficulty worked out was the controversy surrounding Richard Dutcher’s film Brigham City. While certainly not a particularly violent film, given what we regularly see coming from Hollywood, it was criticized for its violence, as well as for its portrayal of evil. How, complained some viewers, could this be an LDS film with such portrayals?

I suppose Mysteries are, if nothing else, about the problem of evil. The hero discovers an evil, searches for its source, confronts that source, and resolves the conflict, generally in favor of good. Along the way, the hero often is confronted by additional evil and temptation, and he may succumbs to some of it.

For some, I guess this might be incompatible with what Church members should be reading. Can you write a book in which the hero “wallows” in evil and have the book end up “uplifting?’ My own answer is, yes, you can. But I understand that not everyone will agree.

Even if I’m wrong, there are a lot of LDS Church members who are reading mysteries and “wallowing” in evil as a result. Wouldn’t it be better if they were “wallowing” in LDS mysteries instead?

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20 thoughts on “LDS Market Mystery”

  1. .

    If I were to write mysteries, they would be more like City of Glass or Mr White’s Confession. Traditional mysteries, to me, are fun but unfilling and thus, ultimately, unsatisfying, boring.

    What I’m saying is that I’m not about to volunteer to meet this shortfall.

  2. Kent,
    First, I think it’s important to emphasize that what we’re talking about here is the Mormon market–not Mormon literature in general (i.e., literature written by, for, or about Mormons), which as you point out has at least one genuine mystery-writing star (Anne Perry). The field of Mormon literature is quite broad. On the other hand, the “Mormon market” is pretty much by definition what’s sold in LDS bookstores and in the Mormon literature sections of other bookstores, and published by publishers that focus on the Mormon market. Yeah?

    Your observations about the Mormon market make me think that perhaps the Mormon market is an essentially supplementary one. That is to say, it fills niches only if they aren’t being already filled by mainstream publishing–in other words, if there’s a yearning for literature of a particular type that is also specifically Mormon.

    That being the case, it’s (relatively) easy to see why romances might be the primary Mormon market literary category. The Mormon notion of romance, I would argue, is rather different from the mainstream definition, encompassing as it does not merely less-popular notions such as a strict definition of chastity but also the downright unique notion of eternal marriage. In order to satisfy the desires that romance novels exist to satisfy, a romance has to include Mormon elements, for Mormon readers. Hence the existence of Mormon romance as a literary market category.

    The impulses that lead readers to science fiction, fantasy–or mysteries–on the other hand are, I suspect, far less Mormon-specific. Most LDS sf&f readers I know are perfectly content with reading sf that isn’t specifically Mormon in any way. It quite adequately scratches that itch. Indeed, the impulse to write LDS-themed sf&f of the Orson Scott Card variety tends to come more from the writers than from the readers, as an attempt to explore themes and ideas that are important to them. But the source has little to no importance for the vast bulk of their readers–and the writers are quite successful getting their LDS-themed stories published within the larger literary market.

    My point is: there’s no need for an independent market category of LDS mysteries to arise, because the needs of LDS mystery readers are already being adequately served by the mainstream mystery market. That’s not to say there can’t be excellent mysteries written by Mormons, with Mormon characters. But they’ll have to succeed–if they want to succeed–in the national market, because that’s where the LDS mystery readers (and all the other mystery readers) are doing their shopping.

    And why not? Romances featuring distinctive LDS themes are different enough from the mainstream that I suspect they wouldn’t appeal to most non-LDS readers. Is the same true for mysteries with LDS characters and themes? I suspect not. That being the case, there’s not a need for a separate Mormon mystery market from either a publishing or a purchasing point of view.

  3. I kind of agree with Jonathan’s analysis, but I still think that strongly Mormon-themed mysteries could find a decent audience, but I admit that that’s more of a gut feeling than anything based on data. It’d take the right series, I think (but then one could make that claim about anything).

  4. William,
    I agree that Mormon-themed mysteries could find a decent audience–but would it be a specifically Mormon audience, or part of the national audience?

    A big part of the appeal of mysteries as a genre (it seems to me) is that they provide a slice-of-life view into a different cultural setting, whether it’s 11th century England or a Navajo reservation. That being the case, I could easily imagine a successful mystery series that might feature a Mormon detective, or a Mormon setting, or whatever, that would do quite well in the national market. And those of us who enjoy Mormon literature for its own sake would be celebrating that, but we wouldn’t be any closer to Kent’s goal of having a mystery segment in the LDS market.

  5. .

    I would like to see numbers. My impression is that LDS-market-specific mysteries are doing just fine.

  6. Jonathan,

    Have you read the Lee Martin/Deb Ralston series of mysteries? Anne Wingate (writing as Lee Martin) had a protagonist who eventually converted to the LDS religion over the course of the novels. (A shrewd tactic, given that it gave Martin a natural way to explain the Mormon religion and culture, since her protagonist was learning about it, too.)

    I don’t know how well the novels sold, but they were originally published by St. Martin’s Press and I think pretty widely distributed. (My town library doesn’t have them, but the city library 10 miles away has some of her books. And I’m in Maine, which doesn’t have a very large LDS population.)

    Of course, no new novels in the series have been published since 1997, so there may have been market pressures as the books became more Mormon.

    If anyone knows more about the series or the writer, I’d love to hear it.

  7. Th (5), please name more than 5 LDS-market-specific mysteries.

    I can only name one.

    And even if you can name more than 5, there are currently hundreds of romance titles in the LDS market. Do you really think that the mysteries as a whole are outselling the romance novels by 50%, like in the national market?

    I don’t think sales of mysteries are even 5% of the sales of romance novels in the LDS market.

  8. Just to be clear, the series Katya mentions is published for the national market, and is therefore not LDS-market-specific.

  9. .

    Five. Done.

    There are enough of them to justify an entire category in the Whitneys.

    I didn’t suggest the %s add up the same, only that they exist and are not so rare or unpurchased.

  10. The last time I was in Utah Betsy Brannon Green was the name on everyone’s lips. In college I actually read a couple Mormon themed mysteries and they were, um, blech. I mean, really, so bad. I’m not a connoisseur of the genre but I think a lot of Mormons do read Mormon mystery because they are tamer/less violent than national market stuff. Which I think is why so many Mormons read Mormon romances–they are less dirty than the national market. Maybe the content isn’t as big a deal in mysteries? Although, I’ve always heard that Mormons are more forgiving of violence than they are of sex in their art.

  11. Th, I see your point, but I do have to observe that the Whitney’s conflate two of the national genres — Mystery/Detective Fiction, and Espionage/Thriller Fiction.

    Together, they would be 43% of the national fiction market.

  12. 1) Kent, an observation, not an arguement: those PubTrack numbers are a bit off from the genre market breakdowns I usually heard. Usually Romance is around 50% of the pie with Mystery about 25%. A breakdown like you’ve quoted would be a rather dramatic shift in the market. Intriguing.

    2) In the mid/late 1990s Bookcraft published a mystery series* by Susan Evans McCloud (of LIKEN TO US FAME for all you old Seminary students 🙂 ).

    They were very nicely done, but apparently didn’t do well. I’m not sure precisely why, but there were a few strikes against the books.

    a) They read like national market mystery books (quality and substance). They had all the expected conventinos of a national market mystery genre book. There were very few if any LDS elements in the story. If I recall the main character, a young woman, was a Mormon, but that fact was never really played up in the rest of the books. Other than having Bookcraft on the spine, they could have been national market books. Perhaps they weren’t Mormon enough.

    b) Somewhat cross-genre. There was a romance subplot invovling the recurring characters and the book set on the Cornish coast had gothic/ghost story elements. Maybe a bit too much romance for the straight mystery readers and too much mystery for the romance readers.

    c) Odd time period/locale. The book was set in Britian just after the Great War. A possbile plus for national market, but possibly a minus for the Mormon market.

    It is possible that the limited success of this series may have poisoned the well for future Mormon market mysteries. “We tried mysteries with one of our top authors and it didn’t work.” Possibly.

    I’m going to think on this a bit more. Mysteries should be going gangbusters in the Mormon market.

    — Lee Allred

  13. I don’t know how I missed this.

    The following numbers are from 2007, granted, but I very much doubt that the stats have reversed themselves so drastically from 2007 to 2008.

    Romance Sales
    (source: Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2008)

    * Romance fiction generated $1.375 billion in sales in 2007.

    * Approximately 8,090 romance titles were released in 2007.

    Market Share of Romance Fiction
    (source: Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2008)

    * Romance fiction is the biggest fiction category in 2007.

    Romance Market Share Compared to Other Genres
    (source: Simba Information estimates)

    * Romance fiction: $1.375 billion in estimated revenue for 2007

    Religion/inspirational: $819 million

    Science fiction/fantasy: $700 million

    Mystery: $650 million

    Classic literary fiction: $466 million

    Of those who read books in 2007, one in five read romance novels.
    (AP-Ipsos Poll)

    I agree with Jonathan that the national market takes care of this well enough. My mother only reads mysteries and I doubt she’d think to look to Deseret for her titles.

  14. “complain when writers try to write LDS versions of such works”

    Yes, especially if the “LDS” version means the mystery has to be low on suspense, low on danger, (basically low on tension and therefore, low on plot.)

    I think that LDS publishers have a hard task, trying to please everyone and minimize complaints. Everyone has their own version of what is “unrighteous” in fiction. By elimiating everything that could be construed by an LDS audience as unrighteous or “not Mormon enough” we end up bereft of really exciting or well-written books. It’s sad, and I think its a reflection of a larger problem within Mormon culture.

    That having been said: There are some excellent, gripping LDS books out there. There are even some that verge on literary fiction. One of my favorites: The Kaliedescope Season, by Sharon Downing Jarvis.

  15. That looks like Romance Writer of America’s summary, Mojo. 🙂 That’s more in line with the stats I’ve heard. except Mystery is usually quite a bit larger than SF&F. Maybe the LOTR movie fantasy boomlet is getting a second wind.

    Oh. I forgot to list the Susan Evans McCloud nvoel titles. A bit hazy after ten years, but I think they were THE LAST SUSPECT, WHO GOES THERE?, and MYSTERY BY THE SEA, not neccessarily in order.

    — Lee Allred

  16. Lee, it is RWA’s summary, but it’s taken from an industry stats book, for which I’d have to pay $1500 a year to have access. It is attributed.

    On the other hand, $725 million difference between romance and mystery’s a wee bit of a gap. I doubt it’s exaggerated too much, if at all.

  17. Thought the format looked familiar, Mojo. 🙂

    Still surprised about Science Fiction/Fantasy edging past mystery. That’s good news for me, potentially. I rahter suspect thought that it’s fantasy that’s growing; science fiction in its classic genre sense seems to be rapidly dying…a subject too long to go into here.

    — Lee

  18. Addendum:

    I’ve tracked down the deal on the Bowker number. Bowker tracks bookstore sales _only_. Sales from supermarkets, Wal-Marts, newstands, drugstores, aren’t included.

    That makes total sense. Romance sells very very well in those uncounted venues which would boost their overall numbers.

    And it also makes Bowker the correct set of numbers to talk about the Mormon mystery genre as nearly all Mormon market book sales are made in the bookstore — DB.

    — Lee Allred

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