Looking at our Niche Comprehensively

Last week William, in the comments to his post on a reader-oriented ecommerce site, suggested that the site he was proposing needed to be restricted to just fiction. While such a decision should probably be left to whoever starts such a site (William made it clear he isn’t taking on the project), I disagree. It seems to me a comprehensive site is one of the things we are missing.

The LDS market is already a small niche of the larger publishing world in many ways. Like other niches and market segments (the Christian market, for example) we have various categories of products — different genres, literature, history, doctrine, etc. What unifies the LDS market is simply a shared base of customers — the same people who purchase books of  LDS history are also, largely, the same people who purchase LDS fiction.

Think of it this way: How many people do you know that really stick to just one genre and never read anything else?

Of course, in the national market does have stores that concentrate on just one genre. I’ve seen scores of listings for bookstores that concentrate on mystery and crime, for example. But I’ve never seen such a store, on or offline, that does so just for one market niche. Perhaps I just don’t get around enough, but I wonder if limiting yourself to just a few genres in a relatively small market niche can be successful?

The sense I have of the developing market for books is that, if anything, stores, especially online stores, are moving towards being more comprehensive, not less. Amazon.com is clearly very comprehensive. It carries books regardless of genre or market. The only thing that seems to be important is whether or not Amazon can get the book dependably. The same applies to a host of other online book retailers — as long as they can get the book dependably, they have no problem listing it on their website.

When the Internet came along, the move toward more comprehensive stores was already in full swing. The move to the giant Barnes and Noble super stores in the 1980s and after was in large part because people wanted more choice — and the number of titles that a Barnes and Noble carried on its shelves was triple or more what the average bookstore carried.

Is there a limit to this whole process of carrying more and more books — especially considering the fact that most of the slowest sellers aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on? Well, the theory says no. According to the theory of the Long Tail (I hope to post in the near future on how this applies to the LDS market), there is a lot of money to be made in providing the titles that only sell a few copies.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what we have in the LDS market. The largest stores, both on and off the Internet, don’t cover every LDS item available. Nor do the smaller, neighborhood LDS stores.

In fact, the store that comes closest to being comprehensive for the LDS market is Amazon.com! It doesn’t carry everything (Deseret Book seems to exclude some of their titles, and many smaller publishers don’t know how to get their titles into Amazon.com, and since they are targeting the LDS market, they don’t necessarily even try).

I’m increasingly convinced that the LDS market needs its own comprehensive site — one that fills an Amazon.com-like role. Perhaps surprisingly, this is particularly true for a reason that I’ve already covered here — we need more organizations in the market that can educate the market about what makes a book Mormon. The stores in the market now exclude many books that are Mormon simply because the store either doesn’t think the book will sell (which, according to the Long Tail leads to lower sales for Internet-based stores), or because of difficulty getting the book, or because they don’t think the book is “appropriate” somehow, whatever that means.

So, I have to argue for a site like William wants to be comprehensive — to include everything in the LDS market, as much as possible. Whoever does take on this task will need to be cognizant of the issues surrounding what makes a book Mormon. Lets hope whoever takes it on gets it mostly right. The current crop of stores in the market certainly haven’t.

Author: Kent Larsen

I grew up in the Washington DC area and served an LDS mission to Portugal. After receiving bachelor's degrees in Accounting and Portuguese from BYU, I came to New York City, where I worked in publishing companies like Henry Holt & Co., Bantam Doubleday Dell (now part of Random House), and North-South Books. I am now the owner of Luso-Brazilian Books (http://www.lusobraz.com), the largest importer and publisher of Portuguese-language materials for North America. I also run a Mormon-oriented publishing house under the imprint names Mormon Arts and Letters (http://www.mormonartsandletters.com), Mormon News Books, Latter-day Renaissance and Samuel Lamanite Books (forthcoming).

10 thoughts on “Looking at our Niche Comprehensively”

  1. The problem I have with the comprehensive approach is: what’s the point? I mean, if I can get everything I want to get from Amazon.com and/or Deseret Book, then why shop elsewhere?

    I can see using the same model that I suggest in my post and extending the categories, but even then, I think you’d have to keep the sections discrete enough that you can form communities around the various genres. I’d also argue that the Long Tail factor is more likely to kick in when you have organized the store in that manner.

    So if you want to add doctrinal, history, self-help, home schooling, children’s and other categories, I think that’d be great. Of course, once you expand like this, it really makes much more sense to be the seller (my genre-based model posits that it is probably better to make money as a referrer/affiliate rather than handle the actual transaction ad delivery) which then gets into issues of distribution.

    But I completely agree about the current lack. There’s a recent Deseret News article about a new attempt: http://www.yourldsneighborhood.com

    The UI is quite clunky and there isn’t much there yet.

  2. In fact, the store that comes closest to being comprehensive for the LDS market is Amazon.com! It doesn’t carry everything (Deseret Book seems to exclude some of their titles, and many smaller publishers don’t know how to get their titles into Amazon.com, and since they are targeting the LDS market, they don’t necessarily even try).
    I’m increasingly convinced that the LDS market needs its own comprehensive site — one that fills an Amazon.com-like role.

    I think Amazon actually is ideal. It’s easily available – even to people in far flung areas of the church.

    I’m surprised some smaller publishers don’t try to get on it. It’s really not hard. (We have our chocolate on Amazon)

    The one negative one might have towards Amazon is all the anti-Mormons “reviewing” books and then the lack of a nice LDS oriented front page. Honestly though the latter could be done by enterprising bloggers. (Amazon’s affiliate program is quite good and easy to set up pages for)

  3. The other problem with competing with Amazon is shipping. You’ll never be able to match the deals Amazon gives with shipping. And shipping charges is the big reason why folks hate shopping online. Plus Amazon has tons of coupons and special offers. Also, as you mentioned, who shops just a single genre. Every time I’ve bought an LDS book I’ve also bought non-LDS books. Why limit me to LDS?

  4. The affiliate program is basically what I premise my model on.

    I think another issue with Amazon (in addition to the ones you already bring up) is that their recommendations work better for non-fiction and music than fiction — esp. Mormon fiction titles that may not have gotten a lot of traffic on the site (and thus have not had a lot of data collected on them to power Amazon’s recommendation system).

  5. The biggest challenge with this market is not necessarily what’s on the shelves or in print, though that is a difficulty for LDS readers.

    The bigger challenge still lies with what gets published and what does not within the niche. This is not necessarily defined by what will sell and what will not. While there are many mitigating factors, it continues to be difficult to publish what we might loosely call “problem” fiction or poetry. It is even more difficult to find books written forty to sixty years ago, that are still of interest, in print or on shelves.

    We don’t have anyone willing to admit that we have a historical literary culture with lasting value. We only believe in living writers.

  6. William:

    Part of the issue is that youcan’t get everything from either Amazon.com or from Deseret Book.

    As S. P. Bailey notes in his post A Long Story, Zarahemla Books’ titles aren’t on either Seagull Books or Deseret Book’s websites. But all of Zarahemla Books’ 6 titles do appear on Amazon.com

    My own titles are in a similar situation, despite actual sales to both Seagull and Deseret Book!!

    So Clark may be right that Amazon.com is the best bet, but even there, with some LDS publishers not selling to Amazon.com, they don’t have everything.

  7. Neal, I have to disagree.

    With the advent of widespread use of print-on-demand married to Ingram’s ability to get titles into a wide variety of bookstore databases, getting published is as easy as picking a service provider, formatting your files and uploading them. (I tackled the downside of this in my post 2 years ago: The Difficult Path of Self Publishing). In that post, I pointed out that the true difficulty isn’t getting published, its getting distribution.

    I guess part of my point here is that the difficulty IS getting on to store shelves and into book databases. And the “problem” fiction or poetry that you identify does suffer from this difficulty.

    As for older fiction that is no longer in print, I have a number of the kind of titles you are talking about in process, and should have at least 4 or 5 in print within the year. I’ll make an announcement next week of the first of these.

    I’d love to hear from you — or anyone, for that matter — what works should be back in print. Rights problems impede some titles from returning to print. But really not that many of them.

  8. I was planning on commenting almost the exact same thing that Kent did — but I wasn’t able to get up quite that early in the morning to do so .

    Since Kent didn’t link to his bookstore I will: http://www.mormonpavillion.com/store/index.php

    And he and I actually had the same idea — I think creating and prioritizing a list of out-of-print titles is a great idea. Last night, I was trying to come up with some ways to do so that goes beyond just having people post comments and/or e-mail Kent (both of which would be fine, but some sort of running polling system would be cool).

  9. It’s true about the whole self-publishing thing: the hard part is distribution and getting attention for a work.

    For my own book, once I had the cover design done and the pdf of the text, it was a question of less than an hour to upload it and order a hard copy. (Of course something odd has happened to my account and it has not been possible to order my novel for many moons — I’m planning to email support on this as soon as I get around to producing a typo-corrected version of the text.)

    Anyway, though, just posting it online also works, and provides distribution at lightning speed. It’s my impression that most first novels don’t make any money anyway, so posting online seems like a good alternative to the “small publishing house – low distribution – out-of-print” track. I’ve got hundreds of readers following my novel in real time and some are even discussing it, which is not too shabby for a 100% solo production.

    If I ever write another novel I’ll probably try to find a real publisher, though…

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