The Mormon reader in the national market

May 26, 2007 | 24 comments
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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.

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24 Responses to The Mormon reader in the national market

  1. Julie M. Smith on May 26, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Interesting post. I think your most important idea is that Mormons use DB (and other LDS outlets) as a morality screen–perhaps trading away a degree of literary quality that they might get from a national publisher for the assurance that 25$ and 200 pages in, there won’t be a graphic sex scene. I have to admit to a tinge of relief that yesterday at the (non-LDS) bookstore, my 9yo settled on Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo (has there ever been a stupider title?) rather than some mass market book I’d never heard of.

    I have long wished for a site that would give a rundown of potentially inappropriate elements in a book. I’m not uber-conservative when it comes to these things–I read Rifles for Watie out loud to a five year old last year–but still . . .

  2. Sarah on May 26, 2007 at 10:47 am

    I might be in the minority, but I look for good books first from people who actually like the same things I do, and then afterwards worry about potentially problematic content. Authors tend to be reliable, so I buy the cheapest paperback from a particular person, and if I get to the end and don’t hate them, I continue to buy their books.

    Alas, Deseret hasn’t sold books in my genres since I was 16 years old and gave up on Jack Weyland. Most of the stuff I read is published by Tor, or it’s over 100 years old and in the public domain.

  3. John Williams on May 26, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Does anyone know how many copies the Work and the Glory sold?

    Also, what about Rough Stone Rolling, how many copies has it sold?

    Also, does anyone know how much income an author generally gets as a percentage of book price?

  4. Jonathan Green on May 26, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Actually, Julie, shopping from DB is probably not a trade-off for most of its customers, but rather a transaction in which they obtain exactly what they’re looking for. Also, as DB is hardly a factor in the national book market, Mormons shopping there exert very little influence outside of their particular niche, so DB is almost entirely peripheral to my argument. That changes, though, with the Shadow Mountain imprint, which aims specifically at publishing titles that will appeal to the national market (while maintaining the moral screening that is DB’s market niche). It’s a very smart move for DB, as it capitalizes on the Mormon networking effect, and so far they seem to be succeeding in turning a strong position in a small market into significant sales outside that market. Even if Leven Thumps is, indeed, the stupidest title ever.

    Sarah, no, I think your approach is typical of what most people do, since “problematic content” is just another way to describe things you or other people dislike. If friends keep recommending books with problematic content, or clunky prose, you’ll probably eventually discount their recommendations. Some people are more tolerant of abominable English style, while others revel in the problematic.

  5. William Morris on May 26, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    It’s hard to know without data, but I’d venture to guess that the impact of Mormon readers for Mormon authors in the national market is minimal, and that the real help may come on the other end of the process. Mormon authors who make it big in the national market prove to other Mormons that it can be done, open doors with editors that Mormons can do it, and often provide a ready-made network of authors who pass along tips, leads, warnings, connections, etc.

    I think this could especially be true for speculative fiction and young adult literature.

  6. William Morris on May 26, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    To speak more directly to your point, Jonathan. The question for me is: do these Mormon social networks glom on to a title before or after it already becomes a phenomenon among other audiences? It probably varies by the book, but it would be interesting to know what the overall trend is.

  7. Jonathan Green on May 26, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    Could be, William. Since you and I are guessing opposite things, we need Frank to go all freakonomics on us and decide who’s right. Are Utah County sales figures leading or trailing indicators for sales of book from national publishers by Mormon authors?

  8. William Morris on May 26, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Another factor to consider is at what point their Mormon-ness becomes common knowledge and how it becomes so.

    Stephanie Meyer is an interesting case study. She has been very open about her membership in the Church. I don’t dispute what you describe above in terms of urban fantasy and Mormonism at all. But at the same time, Twilight was getting huge buzz in the market before (I think) things spilled over among Mormon readers (or at least those Mormon readers who don’t closely follow the young adult market).

  9. Dave on May 26, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    William Morris, I can’t believe you didn’t include a link to the interview with Stephanie Meyer that you posted at AMV a couple of years ago.

  10. N.G. on May 26, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    #3 — re: question about author royalties:

    Authors usually get between 3 and 10% of publisher’s revenues as royalties, which first act as credits against the advance and then, when the advance is paid back, are paid to the authors quarterly. However, publishers rarely make full retail price on the books, unless someone buys directly from them. Rather, they sell to distributors at (generally) a 55% discount, and the distributors sell to bookstores slightly marked up, and the bookstores sell at whatever they can make a profit off of. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders can sell cheaper because they buy directly from publishers. So the first Fablehaven book, for example, probably has netted the author something like $50,000 in royalties, while Shadow Mountain has earned 10 times that.

    By the way, a correction to the initial post: the author of the Fablehaven series is Brandon Mull, not Brandon Hull.
    [Sorry, my bad. I've fixed it now. JG]

  11. Anita Wells on May 26, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    As a published DB author (children’s book “Nephi, Nephi, The Scriptures Are True!”), I can tell you that when you write an LDS themed book, you first look to the LDS publishers as having more potential interest. And in the children’s book world, the national market is very hard to break into. For children’s books one spllits the royalties with the illustrator as well, so halve the percent–although at Deseret Book, I’ve heard that the range is actually more 8-12%. (So if my book retails full ptice for $17.95, I make less than a dollar per copy–and since it’s now on clearance for $2.99…) I’ve been told that selling 5,000 copies in the LDS market constitues “a hit.” I’m not an expert, but there are a number of websites, conferences, etc for those interested in the LDS writing scene, such as at LDStorymakers.com, and they get into the issues of different publishers, appealing to national markets, etc.

  12. Rose Green on May 27, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Anita, you’re absolutely right that the best place to find a market for an LDS-themed picture book is Deseret Book or another LDS publisher. If your text is only 500-1000 words long, you don’t have a lot of extra room to create a context for readers who don’t come to the book already equipped. I realize that picture books are expensive to make (I believe one figure I read was that, at least for a NYC publisher, it’s a $100,000 investment) and the returns are small. Still, of all the genres within LDS-market-writing, I as a reader would be interested in seeing much more on the picture book scene.

    On the other hand, novel-length children’s/YA books published on a national market are not unprecedented. Take Charlotte’s Rose, by A.E. Cannon (Wendy Lamb Books, 2002) or The Shakeress, by Kimberly Heuston (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills 2002). Both deal with the early church/pioneer experience and were reviewed positively in School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.

    While acknowledging that you have to write the book that’s in you, I think it’s important to realize that LDS writers *can* publish not-specifically-themed LDS books on the national market. And the number of people doing just that is growing. My particular interest is in MG/YA, so I can say that Shannon Hale (Newbery Honor winner), Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Mull, Obert Skye, Rebecca Tingle, AE Cannon, Louise Plummer, Ann Dee Ellis (forthcoming from Little, Brown) are part of a growing number of midgrade/YA writers who are doing just that. And many others are on the cusp of that movement, getting serious consideration with NYC publishers and agents. Yes, it’s incredibly hard to break into publishing, much harder than it is to write a book (otherwise, every book that was written would be published). But it can be done.

    How much of an effect does an LDS readership have on sales of such books? I think it depends. I’m convinced LDS readership gave Brandon Mull a significant push early enough on that his work came to greater national attention than it would have otherwise. Meyer and Hale? I suspect it’s the other way around. Still, as a reader I am always intrigued when I learn that someone writing the type of book I like is also LDS. You bet I’m going to give that book a try, and if I like it, I’m going to recommend it extra hard to people I know. Part of the fascination is knowing where the author is coming from. To quote Stephenie Meyer in a recent interview, “Religion is very much who I am, so yes, the way religion has changed my life makes its way into my novels.” That’s one of the things I’m reading for.

    The other, of course, is a good book no matter who wrote it.

  13. David Keller on May 27, 2007 at 11:26 am

    I investigated Amazon sales rankings a month ago. However Amazon only reflects their online sales and their rankings fluctuate wildly, especially for less popular titles.

    Mountain Meadows Massacre
    *Krakauer 2,251
    Bagley 61,295
    Brooks 64,150
    Denton 439,435

    JS biographies
    Bushman 8,480
    Brodie 22,380
    Madsen 59,137
    Remini 521,657
    Vogel 545,374
    Hill 2,363,501

    Polygamy

    Compton 92,876
    Hardy 139,072
    Van Wagoner 362,972
    Daynes 786,772

    Kofford
    Brian C. Hales 53,737
    Talmage’s Jesus 97,873
    Evolution 358,640
    Ostler 702,679
    Nibley Bio 708,944
    Palmer’s Jesus 822,840

    Prophet Bios
    Joseph Smith/Bushman 8,480
    Young/Arrington 157,971
    McKay/Prince 81,337
    Kimball/Kimball 242,314
    Benson/Dew 132,442
    Hinckley/Dew 141,303

    Deseret
    I am a Mother 6,839

  14. Seth R. on May 27, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    From what I understand, the single biggest factor in a book’s success or failure on the market is actually how large of an advance the author manages to secure from the publisher.

    The advance is money that the publisher will never see back unless they promote the book properly. Therefore, book promoters will tend to fast-track books with large advances when making pitches to book sellers. By contrast, a book with little or no advance is guaranteed to be utterly ignored by the sellers. The promoters won’t even mention it in their sales pitches.

    Quality matters, so do media interviews and informal word-of-mouth networks. But the size of the advance is probably the single biggest factor in whether a book sells well or not.

  15. Russell Arben Fox on May 27, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    A great discussion here; thanks for getting it started, Jonathan. To those who are interested, be sure to check back with T&S tomorrow, when our interview with Shannon Hale (mentioned a couple of times by Rose above) will be posted.

  16. Rose Green on May 27, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    I agree that the size of the advance affects the marketing efforts to a huge degree. Although, for the author to continue to publish books, there needs to be a reality balance. Say a publisher offers a staggering advance and does a lot of publicity, but the book still doesn’t earn out its advance. This is not a good thing, and can affect the existence of subsequent books. On the other hand, some books are given smaller advances, but sell out their first print runs and advances quickly, and end up in print longer. So obviously you want the biggest advance you can actually earn out. (And an escalation clause isn’t a bad thing, either–you get a higher royalty once you sell more than a certain number of books.) But the advance is not the only success factor out there. I don’t think Brandon Mull’s on the NYT bestseller list *just* because of his advance (although I bet Shadow Mountain occupies a higher rung on the publicity ladder than other DB imprints).

    The segment of publishing that I find the least-studied and the most interesting is not how Mormon-themed books do on the national market, but rather, how books do that are NOT about the church, yet are by LDS authors. I feel frustrated sometimes when I see DB ads for books that seem like LDS clones of popular national titles/series. I don’t want something “just like Harry Potter, only with Mormons!” I want something excellent and original with the unique POV that comes from an LDS worldview–even when the words “LDS” or “Mormon” are never mentioned.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re LDS but writing general, national-market books, I’m going to be curious enough to contribute to your royalty statement. And I don’t think I’m the only one who will.

  17. Adam Greenwood on May 28, 2007 at 8:46 am

    Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo (has there ever been a stupider title?)

    No.

  18. jjohnsen on May 28, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    investigated Amazon sales rankings a month ago. However Amazon only reflects their online sales and their rankings fluctuate wildly, especially for less popular titles.
    I think And They Were Not Ashamed, ranked at #13,580, proves that like everything else, sex sells. Maybe LDS books need a little more “strengthening marriage through sexual fulfillment” to sell more copies? ;)

  19. William Morris on May 28, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    I beg to differ, Adam.

    I can’t imagine that the folks at Shadow Mountain weren’t aware of the urban dictionary definitions of “foo.”

    Thus, there clearly must be some deeper meaning going on.

    Let’s start with Leven. Clearly meant to remind us of Levin in “Anna Karenina” who is a stand-in for Tolstoy.

    Thumps is quite the multivalent word. It is a subwoofer (per Snoop Dogg). There is also a model of Oakley sunglasses that function as an MP3 player by this name (probably in response to Snoop). It can also refer to beating another team (and other forms of meting out physical punishment), hiccups in farm animals (spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm), and as a short version of “Bible thumpers.” What Obert Skye really means is unclear, but I think it’s quite likely, considering the Tolstoy connection above, that the farm animal reference is what was intended.

    Gateway — ah, yes the deep symbolism of portals, of liminal spaces. Or maybe gateway is just a fancy way to say gate. Like a gate on a farm (see above).

    Foo is, of course, short for fool. As in Mr. T. As in “pity the.” I would also note that a fool could also be an idiot — which brings us back to Tolstoy.

    I’m afraid that since I only have a master’s degree my literary training didn’t fully prepare me to interpret all this. But I’m quite sure that it has something to do with decoding the hiccups of horses or pigs — those uncanny moments where they make a sound that is recognizable as human and thus push us into the liminal space where we understand ourselves as true fools, as idiots whose culture doesn’t remove us from nature.

    ——
    But in all seriousness. Leven Thumps ~~ Lemony Snicket. “and the Gateway to Foo” is the same construction as the Harry Potter books — “and the [something that causes crisis and thus drives plot].”

  20. DKL on May 28, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    John Williams: Also, what about Rough Stone Rolling, how many copies has it sold?

    According to On the Road with Joseph Smith, as of May 3, 2006, it had sold 73,000 copies. That’s pretty good, if you ask me. Bushman said that he’d have been thrilled if it sold 20,000 copies. My guess is that it has sold quite a bit more since then.

    The book indicates that Knopf still sells about 1,000 copies of No Man Knows My History every year. Bushman’s bio is in the same league as Brodie’s, so I don’t see why it also couldn’t do that over time. I know that there seems to be many who think Bushman’s bio only speaks to Mormons. But frankly, I’d be very surprised if, over time, it didn’t gain wider acceptance. I liked it quite a bit when I first wrote it, but as I’ve gotten some distance from reading Bushman’s bio, my opinion of it has improved even more.

    I’m considering re-reading No Man Knows My History, since its been about 13 years since I last read it, and then re-reading Rough Stone Rolling. The idea would be to compare Brodie and Bushman on equal footing, and not to compare my opinion of Bushman’s bio as it exists in my immediate jumble of recent impressions with my opinion of Brodie’s bio that has become fixed, simplified, and focussed with passage of time.

  21. Susan S. on May 29, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    Curious whether Anne Perry has any “buzz” on the Mormon network. I’m always interested by her story because I first encountered one of her novels as a judge for Association of Mormon Letters novel contest. Hers was definitely a standout. “Twisted family plots” are her cache. I once went to a book reading and she talked about teaching Sunday School (though I don’t think she mentioned the church). This was in Palo Alto. Interested because of her background. Do folks think of her as a Mormon author?

  22. John Williams on May 30, 2007 at 1:52 am

    DKL,

    Thanks for the sales figure on Rough Stone Rolling. So I guess Richard L. Bushman has gotten a nice pile of money from the book. I think he deserves every penny of it.

  23. Nate Oman on May 30, 2007 at 9:51 am

    DKL: ” I liked it quite a bit when I first WROTE it, but as I’ve gotten some distance from reading Bushman’s bio, my opinion of it has improved even more.” (emphasis added)

    A facinating little Freudian slip here. (Although, of course, I don’t believe in Freud.)

  24. Adam Greenwood on May 30, 2007 at 11:32 am

    I beg to differ, Adam.

    To the stocks with you, o sturdy beggar.

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