Writing for a Mormon audience may be wasting the potential influence of Mormon readers.
My impression of the Mormon literature market is that its structure is fairly transparent. The mainstream is the Deseret Book catalog. If you want literature with artistic aspirations, you read Irreantum or a handful of other journals. You may not always find what you’re looking for, but you know where to find it. The market is also relatively small, less than 1% of the size of the national market. While the National Book Award nominees regularly include works that have sold no more than a few thousand copies, the equivalent in the Mormon literature market would be a few dozen copies. So writing Mormon literature is a sucker’s bet, because writers are restricted to a small market where purchasing decisions are strongly guided by catalog copy, and the author derives no competitive advantage from being LDS.
The function of Mormon readers in the national market is very different. First, I suspect the amount of mainstream literature purchased by Mormons is many times larger than the market for Mormon literature. I know a lot of Mormons who read, and most of what they read is not published by Deseret book. This creates a fairly large group of people constantly searching for good books that don’t offend their sensibilities.
Also, Mormon social networks are an effective medium for word-of-mouth, person-to-person recommendations. Group allegiance lowers obstacles to reading books one otherwise might not read, or to recommend them to other Mormons. For example, no one in our house read urban fantasy (i.e. vampire books)–until Stephenie Meyer came along. But a teen vampire book by a Mormon was intriguing. My wife bought it. She liked it. She recommended it to her friends.
I’m not saying that Stephenie Meyer or any other Mormon writer owes their success solely to Mormon readers. Writing a book is difficult. Writing a good book is hard. And finding a publisher can even more difficult than that. On the other hand, the Mormon reading audience is large enough, and the willingness to try books by fellow Mormons is strong enough, that Mormon readers can make a big difference for early sales and first-time authors, perhaps in the range of thousands of copies. For a lot of authors, that can be the difference between a second print run, or a second book contract, and the lack of one. It’s nothing to dismiss out of hand.
Consider the case of Brandon Mull, whose books are published through Deseret Book’s Shadow Mountain imprint. I haven’t read them, but the jacket copy doesn’t strike me as anything innovative in the world of mid-grade fantasy. Kids, however, are not critics. The cover promises them what they’re looking for. The aegis of Deseret Book promises their parents that the content will not be flagrantly offensive. And the hardback sales promise mainstream publishers that there’s serious money to be made in paperback and movie rights. Those 400 kids showing up for book signings in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley–hotbeds of suburban Mormonism, the last time I checked–have a lot of power to affect publishing careers.
At least, that’s my best guess about how Mormon readers affect the fates of Mormon writers in the national market. In a world that can’t contain its curiosity about anyone else’s religion, the effect is probably inevitable.