Wm writes: Andrew Hall, who does a yearly report on Mormon publishing, approached me with the idea for a story on the struggles that some of the small, independent LDS publishers are having in the current economic environment. I told him that if he pursued the story that I’d be happy to post it here. It’s always tough doing something like this — to be honest my first reaction was to shy away from the idea. No one wants to report “bad” news. Or at least I don’t. Even when I’m critical, it’s because I want things to improve and get better. And I do think it’s also important for authors and fans in the world of Mormon letters (which is what the AMV crowd represents) to be aware of what’s going on.
For what it’s worth: in my opinion (that is as someone who works in higher education public relations and has worked with the local and national media) this is a well-sourced, multiple-sourced story that brings in the major needed points of view. It does rely at times on anonymous sources, but I’m personally confident that Andrew has used them judiciously and within standard journalistic practices. But also keep in mind that it also represents particular points of view. No one story — no matter how long and well-sourced can do full justice to an issue or event or series of events. That said: this story is worth telling, Andrew has done an excellent job, and many thanks to all those who were willing to correspond with Andrew and especially those willing to go on record.
The struggles of independent LDS publishers
By Andrew Hall
In a Mormon book market dominated by two Church owned publishers and two Church owned bookstores, all which have considerable resources at their disposal, independent publishers live a precarious existence. Independent publishers provide the diversity of outlets which any marketplace needs to thrive. With finite resources and limited opportunities to reach readers, however, the life span of such publishers tends to be short, and authors with works produced by these companies must take the lion’s share of the marketing on themselves. This article will look at the current state of three small independent publishers, Valor Publishing Group, WiDo Publishing, and Leatherwood Press. Valor Publishing in particular is going through what can charitably be called a moment of transition, with two of the four founding members of the company resigning, and several authors taking back their book rights.
Before discussing the state of each specific company, some perspective is needed. Deseret Book Publishing and Covenant Communications, both owned by the Church-owned Deseret Book Company, have resources that go far beyond that of the independent publishers. They are also able to get almost automatic access to the two largest Mormon-specific book retailers, Deseret Book Retail and Seagull, which are also both owned by Deseret Book Company. Independent publishers have to submit their completed books to an approval process to get placed on the shelves of these two bookstores, which can take months, and which can act as a brake on a book’s publicity momentum. Two of the most prominent outlets for book marketing, the Deseret Book bi-monthly catalog and the LDS Living magazine (also acquired by Deseret Book Company in recent years), charge advertising rates which challenge the resources of publishers. Finally, many books published by the Deseret Book Company are sold at the popular Time Out series–devotional-like events promoted from the pulpit which feature inspirational talks by recently published authors and tables full of books published by Deseret Book Company available for purchase during the event. Considering these benefits, it is not surprising that Mormon authors interested in writing for the Mormon market are eager to take the opportunity to sign with Deseret Book or Covenant.
Publishers who publish for the Mormon market produced 95 novels in 2009. Of those 95, Deseret Book and Covenant together produced 47, or very nearly 50 percent. Those 47, however, represent the most established and best-selling authors in the market. The sales of those 47 doubtless far outstripped the 48 published by independents.
The largest independent publisher is Springville, Utah based Cedar Fort, Inc. Cedar Fort has been in the business since 1986, and is able to consistently get its books on the shelves of the Church-owned bookstores and advertise in the Deseret Book catalog. Another long established independent publisher is Granite Publishing, located in Orem, Utah. The more literary minded Zarahemla Books and Parables Publishing have been discussed on this blog many times in the past.
This article will look at three newer independent publishers, Valor Publishing Group, WiDo Publishing, and Leatherwood Press. Each is a legitimate publisher–that is, none of them solicits money from authors to help in the publication of a book. Yet each has small staffs and small budgets, and requires its authors to do much of their marketing on their own. Each tries to get their Mormon-directed products on the shelves at the Church-owned bookstores, and although there are delays, they are usually ultimately successful at least at Deseret Book. One editor commented, “All of our LDS products are available at Deseret Book stores. We have a great relationship with the professional staff at Deseret Book. In our experience, Deseret Book is more than willing to work with the smaller LDS publishers. Seagull Book does not carry any of our fiction titles . . . Typically, Seagull is much less willing than Deseret Book to work with the smaller LDS publishers.”
Independent publishers also place books in Borders, Barnes and Nobles, or Costco, and sometimes help set up book signing events for the authors at these stores. For the most part they encourage authors to promote their books themselves by setting up and constantly updating their own author blogs, conducting “blog tours” (a logrolling activity where authors solicit reviews from each other), and participating in social media sites.
Some authors question the effectiveness of these activities, and are less willing to participate in them. William Prusso, for example, had a novel published by WiDo in 2009. He commented, “WiDo has no marketing budget at all. I did not know that going in. I can’t understand why they would put up the money to publish a book, and then do nothing to promote it. It makes no business sense.” When presented with this sentiment, founding WiDo editor Karen Gowen said that Prusso was mistaken; WiDo does have a marketing budget and a marketing director, and the company presents each author with a marketing plan, “We encourage our authors to be fully involved with marketing and promotion. We have asked each of them to set up a blog and keep it active and functioning, as well as any other social media like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Shelfari. [Our] marketing director has created a 30-page marketing workbook for each author to assist them in promoting and reaching their demographic . . . I get a bit prickly when I hear something like “˜there does seem to be very little spent on promoting the books’ or “˜WiDo doesn’t market.’ . . . We don’t have the means to purchase billboard ads along I-15, or radio spots, or prime tables at Barnes & Noble. But ask any of the 280 followers on my blog if they’ve heard of [my novels] Farm Girl or Uncut Diamonds . . . In today’s publishing industry, an author must work as hard to promote his book as he did to write it, if not more so . . . Sometimes they have had to get past the fantasy that every publisher has bags of money to spend on ads and such, like Deseret Book does.” Linda Prince Mulleneaux, the Managing Editor at Leatherwood Press, commented, “If an author does not [market their own book], a book will not succeed, no matter how large the marketing budget. That said, a small marketing budget does limit what a publisher can do to promote a book. We explain these limits to our authors up front. We create a marketing plan for each book, and that plan details what we require of the author . . . Many authors think that if the publisher simply throws enough money behind a book, it will sell. But our best-selling books have been those where the author has aggressively promoted the book, whether or not we conducted an expensive advertising campaign.”
The financial health of these companies is a concern for authors, considering the extremely poor record of survival among independent publishers in the Mormon market. Several authors from one of the more established independent publishers have reported that the company is far behind in its royalty payments.
Next are profiles of the three companies being spotlighted.
Valor Publishing Group was founded in 2009, in Orem, Utah, with an Executive Board which included three published LDS authors, well known within the Mormon writing community; Candace Salima as founder, Owner, and Marketing Director, Brent J. Rowley as Business Manager, and Tristi Pinkston as Senior Editor. Cash Case, Salima’s brother, was also a founding member of the Board. The participants set lofty goals for the company, aiming to crack both the Mormon and national markets. The company started with the coup of acquiring a novel written by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who then appeared to be embarking on a race for the United States Senate, and announced a slate of twelve books to be published in 2010. It was an ambitious beginning which had the potential to launch Valor into a position rivaling Cedar Fort as the leading independent publisher. Salima dismissed a description of Valor as a “Mormon publisher,” claiming that the company would “aggressively publish and market in both the regional and national markets.” Its website made claims that went far beyond the usual expectations of a small independent publisher, saying “Advanced reader copies and order forms will be sent to more than a thousand book dealers who stock our books. Additional promotional elements, including publicity, in-store promotion, electronic and print media, targeted email marketing, as well as whole promotions, may be developed as part of your book’s individualized marketing strategy.”
Early in 2010 Valor scored a second coup, when it acquired the rights to “The Cleansing of America,” a previously unpublished manuscript by W. Cleon Skousen, the late Mormon author whose writings have recently gained national recognition in conservative political circles. The book has sold very well for Valor, with over 10,000 sales in its first two months, and a second printing on the way. Valor also published five novels early in 2010. The company has also faced many setbacks, however. In November 2009 it cancelled its contracts for three previously announced books. In May 2010 it put all novels scheduled for release in the spring and summer on an indefinite hold, and several authors report that the company did not keep its commitments in terms of marketing. Around this time Mark Shurtleff, unhappy with the company’s marketing and financial dealings, took back the rights to his book. Then, on June 28th and 29th, Rowley and Pinkston, two of the four founding members of the company, resigned their positions. Both declined to comment on their resignations, and Pinkston remains connected to the company as an author and a freelance editor. Around this time four authors, whose as yet unpublished books were placed on hold, asked for and received back their publication rights. Two authors with upcoming books have decided to stay with Valor. Salima commented, “The authors who had their rights returned were those whose expectations were far beyond what we could deliver, or any publisher for that matter. When we restructured and streamlined Valor Publishing Group, those authors with whom I had to delay their printing were given the option of staying with Valor or having their rights returned.”
Valor author Jenni James stated that the main reason for the delays was the withdrawal of a key investor, who, she claimed, withdrew because of his own financial state, not because of concerns about the company. Author Gordon Ryan, one of the authors who took back their publishing rights, blamed Salima for focusing more on other endeavors than on her business, and said her actions were “not limited to incompetence, but were intentionally deceptive.” Others with business dealings with Valor also responded to my inquiries with claims that Salima failed to follow through on promises, misrepresented the financial state of the company, and acted in an unprofessional manner. James defended the company by insisting that Salima had always been honest with her, and that the company was in sound financial health. Valor announced this week that it was going through “restructuring and streamlining”, and Salima commented, “We are indeed moving forward and not closing our doors.” James admitted the company was “humbled” by the recent troubles, and planned a more modest slate of releases for 2011.
WiDo Publishing, in Salt Lake City, is the creation of the Gowen family. The President/CEO is William Gown, family member Don Gee co-created the business and acts as typesetter and designer, Bruce Gowen (William’s father) helps run the business, and Karen Gowen (Bruce’s wife) acts as an assistant editor, as well as the author of two of the company’s first four books. Kristine Princevalle is the Managing Editor, and Liesel Autrey DeVaul and Allie Maldonado also serve as editors. The company was created in 2007 to publish Karen Gowen’s first book. It published two more novels in 2009, and one so far in 2010. Although the one book published this year is David J. West’s Book of Mormon-themed novel “Heroes of the Fallen”, WiDo staunchly avoids the term “Mormon publisher”. Karen Gowen stated the company is “veering away from Mormon themes and characters to make our titles appeal to a wider demographic.” It has as many as ten more books under contract, mostly novels, some of which were promised for 2010. Karen Gowen, however, says WiDo is “Cutting back production. We may not have as many new releases in 2010 as planned. WiDo is very conservative in its approach.” As stated above, WiDo puts comparatively little money into promotion, but instead claims that they actively train their authors to promote their books themselves. Some authors attached to WiDo, however, have said that they are disappointed by the lack of communication between them and the company.
Leatherwood Press, located in Salt Lake City, Utah, was founded in 2004 by the current President and co-owner, Garry P. Mitchell. It publishes in the Mormon market under two imprints, Leatherwood Press, and since 2008, Walnut Springs Press. Linda Prince Mulleneaux is the Managing Editor, and Amy Orton the Art and Marketing Director. The company has produced 159 books since 2004, mostly children’s and non-fiction books. Since 2008 it has also published thirteen fiction books. In 2009 it published two children’s books, eleven nonfiction books, and five novels. In 2010 it is scheduled to publish eight nonfiction books and eight novels. In terms of number of titles, Leatherwood appears to have moved into the second position, behind Cedar Fort, as most active independent publisher. Mulleneaux commented, “In the last few years we have struggled financially, but things appear to be looking up now.”
Authors who published with Leatherwood were effusive in their praise of Mulleneaux as an editor and an advocate for the authors, although some noted that the editing and rewriting period was rushed, resulting in embarrassing mistakes. There was a split of opinions about the company’s marketing efforts. Some authors were disappointed, while others accepted the fact that the company’s budget necessitated self-marketing.
One Walnut Springs author noted that one attraction she had towards the company was that the contract did not require “right of first refusal”, a provision found in many contracts in the Mormon market. Mulleneaux commented “right-of-first refusal clauses are uncommon in the publishing world in general . . . ROFR clauses are often illegal (they restrict trade) and unenforceable.” The WiDo contract also apparently does not contain the “right of first refusal” clause, but Brent Rowley said at Valor “most of the contracts [had] a ROFR clause. It was somewhat negotiable.”
Independent publishers face many hurdles these days — from the bad economy to stiff competition to revolutionary changes in the way books are published, marketed and distributed. It is rather remarkable that they put out as much product as they do in spite of all the challenges. The message for established and aspiring authors, though, is that they need make sure that their work is as polished as possible before submitting and be prepared to take an active role in marketing any titles that make it to publication.
Editor’s note: a quote that was previously in this piece has been redacted because it had not actually been provided on the record. Andrew and I apologize for the error.