Tired-blogging from Sunstone, Day 3

August 15, 2009 | 5 comments
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It’s early, and I’m still recovering from karaoke, but I’m at the Sonia Johnson panel. I’m sad to miss Kristine singing this morning, but this panel has a distinct advantage — I can sit with a laptop and write my talk for next time. I’ll try to type up some notes on this session (and not get them mixed up with my talk).

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Sonia Johnson panel

[It's early, and people are trickling in throughout. About 40ish show up by the end of Kay's talk]

Kay:

30th Anniversary of Sonia’s excommunication.

History: ERA failure – only 35 states ratified, eventually. The church made 1974, 1976 statements about the ERA. “ERA is not the answer.” Then got involved. Wards used to fundraise, distribute pamphlets, etc. Women told not to say that they are Mormons.

Some women – wanted to publicize the extent of male leadership involvement in fighting ERA. The group became highly visible in the press. Sonia was the one without a full time job, so always available. The first time she heard the ERA, she felt inspired. She prayed about her ERA testimony to the Senate.

The group wrote to SWK. They didn’t realize the extent to which the church would oppose the ERA. Sonia and MERA asked Mormons to make their actions public – forced the church to register as a lobbyist.

She organized a parade in 1978, airplane banners, and a public fast. Sonia called in for a church court in 1979. The charges: Not her support of the ERA, but what she tells people about the prophet. Vigils were held, protests. Friends and witnesses fasted the day of the trial.

At the church court, witnesses were unable to discuss the ERA. One witness asked what the alleged false doctrine was, and got no reply. Excommunicated for saying not to let missionaries into homes – but, she never said that.

Laurel: Sonia is very Mormon in how she arrived at her conclusion. Sillitoe: Sonia did not do what she was exed for; but she exposed the church involvement in ERA.

Sonia became increasingly radicalized after her ERA experience, denouncing patriarchy, hierarchy, control. Still speaks occasionally.

Nadine:

The church is highly effective in organizing lots of people. We saw this with Prop 8, too.

Sonia going through personal changes. She went through relationships, and started to see lesbianism as also about power and control. She had fallings out with her children, over the years. Unfortunate. But, Sonia is happier now.

I remember reading about Sonia and Orrin Hatch. I had thought I was the only one who supported the ERA. Women today don’t appreciate the isolation of Mormon feminists, in the days before blogging.

Sonia criticized church rhetoric on how the ERA would hurt women’s “exalted role.” She cited the original Womens Exponent for support. Criticizes “exalted” language – “so exalted we cannot bless baby” etc. “Where equality does not obtain, the word exalted is a mockery.” Hatch said, that’s an insult to my wife.

Women praying in church – there was a letter against it. Sonia’s remarks let women know about it. After that, they rescinded the rule.

[had to step out for a minute]

Cheryl – Friend of Nadine’s – bore testimony about ERA and equality. Took pies to general authorities.

What I learned – how much influence the church could have, and do it quietly. Last year, I set up the Mormonsfor8 website.

[had to duck out again -- trying to put my talk together, and I can't find my jump drive. Those things are way too easy to lose.]

Sonia contributed to my law school journey.

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[I didn't live-blog the teaching session, but it's been great. Kristine and Emily and Tresa's comments were all very interesting]

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Publishing panel.

[packed house. 60+ people in medium sized room, it's crowded

Jana Riess:

My history. I came to publishing after grad school. Work as PW book review editor – got to see every book on religion that was published. Now working as an acquisitions editor for press.

What’s going on in publishing right now. If you’re an author, it’s a very challenging time. Especially for first-time authors. You have to have not just great content, but also a platform – a promotion vehicle, a way to sell the book. For successful authors, promoting the book is a full-time job. The economy puts the squeeze on the author for promotion.

Also, lists are getting smaller. Across the board contraction, at publishing houses.

Also, major problems with retailing. How many books aren’t on the shelves at B&N? A huge increase in the number of books published – self-publishing increasing. But, they don’t get into stores. And, the chains are having problems, because of Amazon.

Where is this going to shake out?

In terms of content, we’re going to see more and more small niches.

In Mormon market, Deseret Book has a near monopoly. Unparalleled in religious publishing. But, the uniformity of DB means that other voices can’t get published or into stores.

A second trend, the democratization of publishing. Many ways. Some authors publish online and charge for it. That can work for some authors, especially for people who already have a following. A rise in small presses, very small print runs.

Chris Bigelow:

Small press: Low overhead, low expectations. Digital printing, it’s possible to print one book at a time. I got in through the Association for Mormon Letters.

I saw manuscripts, memoirs. There were opportunities, DB, Signature, but they were limited. I started Zarahemla to get some of these out there.

Low expectations – we can get reviewed in regional newspapers and Mormon alternative periodicals. If we sell 100 copies, we can break even. We’ve had a few that have taken off – 2000 copies – it’s thrilling.

Greg Kofford:

I grew up in Mormon publishing. Father started Seagull, I got involved, took over management of Seagull. Seagull sold to Deseret – thank you for your tithing dollars. DB has a near monopoly. Wholesale, and retail, they dominate 80, 85% of the market.

DB is a bureaucracy owned by a bureaucracy. They don’t know how to make money. When they bought Seagull, it was precipitated by cutting off Seagull, the claim was that Seagull wasn’t showing the promotional materials enough. They seemed to believe that they would be able to bankrupt Seagull. Seagull operated under a different approach – stock what the consumer wants.

Tom:

Dawn Thurston, Breathe life into your life story. It’s a good guide for writing a book.

Ask yourself, why do I want to write a book? What’s the goal?

I published a small book, figuring out my trade, my craft. I wanted feedback. It worked, started conversations that I wanted.

Editors – an editor can tell you what you’re doing wrong. Without an editor, the book will suffer. I recommend, take a chapter of historical book, turn it into an article. The editorial notes are good news. Don’t be married to your text. Authors need to be used to going through the editing process. Someone can tell you how you’re struggling.

Jana: Next Q: What’s going on in publishing? Speak briefly on experiences.

Tom: The best way to hide something from Mormons is to publish it. The big problem is distribution. Bookstores want just a handful of receipts, to pay everyone. They want to be able to order through a distributor. Otherwise, they don’t have the time and energy to deal with the invoice.

It’s hard to get your stuff into a distributor. DB has taken that role, too.

Greg: The 85-15 – DB got a rule that they were to have 85% Deseret / Covenant, and 15% other. It led to a decrease in our sales through them.

Expectations extremely low. In the Mormon world, 50,000 is a best seller. That’s usually fiction, a Mormon romance novel. Typical plot line: Woman is married to a good man, she’s frustrated he’s not bishop material. He fortuitously is killed in an accident. At the funeral, she meets a new mission president, newly widowered.

The predominant sales are fiction. There’s a market for other material, too.

A number of LDS titles published by national imprints. GBH titles, even EOM. They were essentially vanity publications – they were accepted on condition that DB place a very large, non returnable order. The national imprint was bought and paid for.

The book that went most recently to a national press – RSR. That did very well.

Chris:

To become a publisher, doesn’t take a lot. You need your own ISBN numbers, and that’s about it. But trying to get in to the Mormon market.

Need to make sure your books are on Amazon and B&N. You also want to get into stores. I’ve printed up and mailed out sample copies. You do a lot of grunt work, calling to follow up. It takes a ton of time and work, but it is doable. The returns on it – some bookstores will order. But at some point, you want a distributor.

Beyond DB, the distributors are Granite, Sounds of Zion, Brigham. Invest a little money to get a decent cover. Have your book well edited. They still may only sell a few dozen or hundred.

Keep expectations low. It can be discouraging, looking at the numbers. If there’s something going on, progress is progress.

Jana: Question – what’s the worst challenge facing you in this economy? How has this affected authors?

Chris: I got 200 books back from a distributor. You have to pay back, if they’ve paid. One bad move, overprinting, can sink a small company.

Jana: Publishing is a huge risk. Bookstores order books, usually on consignment. They return a lot, and don’t pay.

Tom: You publish a book, it’s not large margins. If distributors return books that are damaged, it can put you under. Also, the independent bookstores, the ones that are in it for fun, are closing shop.

Just one kid at a bookstore who likes your book, promoting it, really makes a difference. Bookstore employees who read, make all the difference. Many of the employees at DB when I was there, none of them read.

Greg: I do Kofford books out of passion. With the downturn, an initial wave of returns from national distributors. Typically, they’ll buy the book at a huge discount, and then look at paying in 90 days. Then they delay more. They’ll take returns, against six month old invoice. It became a problem, because you’ve got to have inventory to sell.

I noticed, buyers become much more attuned to inventory terms. We circumvented that, by adding financing on the invoices. We had to understand what they were trying to accomplish.

Jana: Q: When you’re receiving manuscripts, what mistakes are authors making? (My answer – please don’t say you think you’ll be on Oprah.)

Tom: I’m marketing, not acquisitions. People call all the time with history of their grandmother. They need to understand, publisher will put a lot of capital in. Authors need to put in work.

Chris: Submissions are my least favorite part of the enterprise. There’s so many of them, very time consuming. You position your company – “we do X.” But then people send in a cookbook. That’s one of the biggest mistakes.

I have volunteer readers who screen manuscripts. Now, you kind of have to have outside experts vouch for it. BYU prof or critic or blogger.

Greg: Biggest mistake, cover letter saying it’s been revealed, I’m to be your publisher.

Tom: If you have a family history, can’t find a publisher, there are alternatives. Lightning Source – submit your book, pdf files, $300, they’ll print one copy at a time. It goes through amazon and others. The average print run is 1.8. Benefit – zero books in your garage. That’s one strategy, it can work pretty well.

Another strategy: DMT Press – very small print runs. Better than copying them at Kinkos.

Q&A:

Q: What’s up with PW?

Jana: Big changes. It’s very hard now. There’s no patience for authors. There are no more Moby Dicks.

Q- Me: What about e-books and Kindle?
Greg: It’s a tough market. The margins are razor thin, $3. We’re branching out into them a little, and audio books.
Electronic media is here, but there will always be a place for paper books too.
Jana: I’m very excited about the kindle, it’s the wave of the future. Don’t give up on it, the tech isn’t there quite yet.

Q (Jeff): How many gift books, end up at DI? Do people go to bookstores to buy a title? Do displays work?

Greg: 70% of Seagull customers were female, mostly looking for gifts. Men usually looked for title or genre.
Tom: At DB, people look for safe and appropriate gifts. These end up discarded.
You want readers, you have to find them, do your own distribution and promotion. You need to go to the buyers.
Jana: Some buyers are open to persuasion. Display titles are bought and paid for.

Q (Doug Hunter): I was a commenter online about my book’s topic. There was a built in audience, 2000 sales. What’s the next level?

Tom: Irrenatum, other groups come in.
Chris: Mormon fiction, can’t be too worldly.
Jana: Book: Get Known Before the Book Deal. Need to build your platform before. Your proposal will stand out more.

Q (Tresa): Which niches have space? Also, do you solicit from the nacle?

Jana: Do you solicit writers based on blogs? It happens all the time. I don’t in Mormonism, because my press doesn’t do that.
Get on a blog, it’s a great platform.
Chris: Don’t forget the print journals. Irreantum, Dialogue.
Tom: Sunstone does Cornucopia. They’re looking for pieces. Gets you a 400-500 word piece published, some editing experience.

Q (Curt): Mormon publishing is in a crisis. What to do since printed word is not healthy. How can booksellers survive and thrive?

Tom: Support your independent bookstores.
Greg: I don’t know that crisis is the right word. There is interest in the printed word. The biggest dilemma in Mormon studies is that most Mormons don’t know it exists.
Rays of hope. DB is recognizing that there is a market for some of my books. The internet makes information available for people who are willing to look.

Jana: Wal mart - putting independent booksellers out of business. Time of change. But also a time of tremendous opportunity.

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[Okay, I'm blogged out. Too tired to blog. I'm in the Twilight panel, and Holly Welker's talk is awesome, but I don't have the brain power to blog it. Suffice to say, it's fireworks. I think I'm done live-ish blogging Sunstone. It's been a lot of fun.]

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5 Responses to Tired-blogging from Sunstone, Day 3

  1. Dave on August 15, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    “… in the days before blogging.” Was there ever such a time? What did people do in this mythical era before blogging?

  2. Ardis Parshall on August 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    We carved our complants onto stone slabs, chucked them into the mouths of home-caves of the barbarians we disagreed with, then rode away as fast as possible on the backs of our well-trained dinosaurs.

  3. Aaron on August 15, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Was the vote to ex Sonia Johnson unanimous? I’ve heard that at least one member of the HC voted not to ex her.

    Also, any comments on her mental state back in 1978 and ’79? Friends in Utah who knew her said they felt she was emotionally disturbed at the time.

  4. reader Rachel on August 16, 2009 at 12:36 am

    When I heard Kurt say Mormon romance, I automatically thought: polygamous bodice-ripper.
    But his description was even better: The romantic interest, “called to be a mission president, but unable to go because his wife had just died of cancer…”
    Brilliant.

  5. Alison Moore Smith on August 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Women praying in church – there was a letter against it. Sonia’s remarks let women know about it. After that, they rescinded the rule.

    Except in my wards, apparently.

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