How Vulnerable is the LDS Market?

7.21.10 | | 12 comments

What will the LDS market look like 20 years from now? Will there even be an LDS market? Will there still be LDS books, music, film and other cultural goods? If they exist, will they simply be sold as part of the national market in the U.S.? What about outside of the U.S.?

Most of us involved with the LDS market simply assume that there is a consumer need or desire that is being filled, and that the audience will always want Mormon materials. Less frequently, many assume that separate LDS stores and perhaps publishers will eventually be absorbed into the rest of the market for books, music, film and other cultural goods, because, they believe, there isn’t any reason that consumers need separate LDS stores.

Perhaps.

The current LDS market is best defined as a niche — a small portion of the overall market that consists of customers with specific interests or needs different from the rest of the market. A niche is usually small enough that it is overlooked or ignored by the rest of the market. It often also has some kind of impediment or ‘insulation’ from the rest of the market, something that keeps those in the  rest of the market from simply adding one additional product to serve the needs of the niche.

The answer to whether or not the LDS market will continue lies in this “insulation” form the rest of the market. Without some impediment, companies currently outside the market will eventually see the niche as attractive and absorb the market.

So what are the impediments? What, if anything, keeps Random House from publishing books for Mormons? or what keeps Barnes and Noble from becoming the preferred seller of LDS titles for most buyers?

I’m not sure that I have all the answers to these questions, but several possible impediments have occurred to me:

  1. Unique Products — By and large the products in the LDS market are different from those outside of the market, and many of the products outside of the market won’t work inside the market. The language and terms and other cultural elements that we use in Mormon books, music and film make us comfortable and help us understand what the author means, and the doctrines and cultural beliefs that most Mormons share are reflected in these works. While we understand outside works just fine, in certain kinds of works (religious works, or fiction with Mormon settings) outside language or beliefs seem strange or out of place. Outside publishers and other companies would likely need to have LDS employees in order to get these things right in books for the LDS market, and it doesn’t seem likely that they will make the necessary expenditures anytime soon.
  2. LDS Consumer Interest in “Safe” Products — Many Mormons, influenced by Church counsel to seek wholesome entertainment and avoid that which might fill the mind with impure thoughts, look for materials that are “safe.” They are cautious about purchasing books, music and film from non-LDS sources, because the works they purchase may not be as “safe” as they want. They then look for indications of what to expect — publisher/imprint names, authors, etc., that they know will fit what they believe to be “appropriate.” At least in part, they believe that books in LDS stores are “safe” and prefer to shop there for some kinds of materials. This doesn’t mean that they never purchase elsewhere, just that they have a preference in some cases where the risk seems greatest. This preference will, I think, continue at least as long as Church leaders continue to emphasize avoiding unwholesome materials.
  3. LDS Publishers and Marketing Information Often Unavailable — While most LDS Publishers do make their books available to the rest of the market in the U.S., that doesn’t mean that their books find much of a market there. Other than basic availability, LDS books largely aren’t noticed and haven’t much of a presence in the market. LDS publishers in general don’t try to sell their books to stores outside of the LDS market–no sales calls are made to stores, no marketing materials sent to vendors and no advertising to the non-LDS consumer outside of areas where LDS members are a large portion of the population. The few vendors like Amazon.com that list LDS books, music and film are lucky to categorize books as LDS at all, let alone divide them into categories meaningful to consumers. Of course, this could change, but both LDS publishers and outside vendors would need to perceive this as worth their while.
  4. The Christian/LDS Split — In a sense the most likely market to absorb the LDS market is the general Christian market. I believe that, if asked, most professionals in the national market would assume that these markets are already the same. But most LDS Church members and most evangelicals know that any combination of the two is impossible. The few LDS authors, musicians, publishers, labels or producers who have attempted to get their works into Christian bookstores have been roundly rejected, even when their works are not specifically Mormon. While in contrast LDS stores have been somewhat more open to Christian materials, they are often different from LDS materials in a way that makes it difficult for LDS consumers to relate.

There could be other impediments that keep the LDS market separate from the rest of the market (please let me know if you think of something). But even if these are the principal impediments, I think they are quite substantial. And I don’t see them changing much in the next few decades.

I won’t be surprised if someone believes that the Internet, or print-on-demand, or ebooks will somehow overcome all this. Personally, I don’t see that happening. While the Internet continues to have a substantial effect on the market, it most likely means that the division we see in the physical portion of the market will continue, as it has, transferred to the virtual portion of the market. LDS products will still be different from other products, LDS consumers will still want different products and want assurance that what they purchase is “safe.” Print-on-demand and ebooks are simply changes in form and production process. While important advances, they won’t overcome these impediments.

That isn’t to say that these impediments are permanent. It is possible to overcome them, or for preferences among consumers to change. But those changes are most likely to take decades, if they happen at all, because they involve long-standing cultural assumptions and needs, not technology. In the meantime, I think we can safely assume that there will be some kind of LDS market.

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12 comments: “How Vulnerable is the LDS Market?

  1. Jonathan Langford

    Kent,

    An insightful analysis. I’d like to expand a bit on your #2, “LDS consumer interest in ‘safe’ products.”

    It’s my perception that a sizable segment of the shoppers at LDS bookstores (particularly those who buy fiction, as opposed to art and doctrinal/historical works) are looking there specifically for alternatives to what they might find in mainstream bookstores. Part of their interest may be in distinctively Mormon views and experiences, but a big part (for many) is, as you put it, safety: a catering to Mormon sensibilities (interpreted narrowly). The LDS Church’s implied stamp of approval via Church-owned bookstores and publishers and others that align themselves explicitly to that same standard and same set of venues is important to these people. This is one reason why LDS bookstores *can’t* expand to carrying LDS fiction that is more similar to national fiction (in terms of realism, etc.): doing so would actively alienate a significant part of their base by undercutting their very reason for going to an LDS bookstore to begin with.

    Conversely, it’s my theory that Mormon readers who are comfortable with national bookstores and with the products of national publishers don’t generally look to LDS bookstores to meet their own fiction reading interests, though they may shop there when it’s time to buy a “safe” gift for an (extended) family member. Unfortunately, such readers often don’t look for explicitly Mormon fiction anywhere else either. Often that’s because they have a perception of Mormon fiction as sappy, sentimental, poorly written, and not dealing with tough issues: an unfair characterization, even if you’re just talking about DB and Covenant, but one which is easy to understand if exposure has been limited to some of the top sellers within the Mormon market (especially from earlier times). If what you’re looking for is good literature dealing with tough topics and challenging experiences from a Mormon perspective (even a faithful Mormon perspective), LDS bookstores are not set up to attract you or steer you toward what might interest you (even when they’re carrying it). For the most part, such readers have not been “turned on” to the potential for Mormon fiction, because no one has sat them down and made them read Mormon fiction that appeals to them as much as the stuff they choose to read from national publishers.

    My chief point here is that (a) “Mormon readers” and (b) “buyers/readers in the LDS market” are two very distinct categories. The existing network of LDS bookstores and the publishers that sell in them serve (b), not (a) — and can’t actually reach out to (a) very much without cutting into their (b) market niche. In theory, (a) represents a potential audience for Mormon fiction that is not an alternative to the type of fiction found in national mainstream bookstores but rather an extension of that kind of fiction into Mormon experiences and worldview. Unfortunately, the tools to turn that pool of readers into a market for LDS fiction seem quite limited at present.

    A natural answer would be to sell such books in national bookstores and build up a Mormon reading audience that way. Unfortunately, I doubt that would work, for several reasons. For the most part, I doubt that books about the Mormon experience will appeal to non-Mormon readers. There may be (hopefully will be) the odd breakout book here and there that appeals to non-Mormon readers, but how often will they be in the mood for that particular flavor of experience? Not very often. At the same time, Mormons are only a small percentage of the national reading market. Even in places like Utah where Mormons are an important part of the buying audience for mainstream bookstores, Mormon readers still (I theorize) mostly aren’t trained to look for Mormon fiction that doesn’t fit the mold of what’s sold in LDS bookstores.

  2. Wm Morris

    Some good points, Kent.

    I do think that e-books — the Kindle, in particular — could impact the growth of physical Deseret Book stores as well as their year-over-year sales. But they stock a diversified enough product and have such a high percentage of gift sales, that if they play things right (and time the e-book market right), they should be fine.

    I do have to say that I do think that the LDS scripture and other curriculum apps are driving smartphone and tablet use among middle to upper middle class American Mormons. They provide that extra layer of justification.

  3. Moriah Jovan

    I only have one point to make about Amazon’s search: If they’re not categorized correctly, that’s the publisher’s fault, not Amazon’s.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    I dunno, Moriah. The standard categories Amazon has are pretty limiting, last I looked.

    The CBA (Christian Bookseller’s Association) has created a strong list of categories (more than 100, IIRC) specific to their market, one that goes well beyond the national BISAC categories that Amazon based its list on. I’ve only seen one category list passed around LDS stores (its pretty poor in comparison).

    I’m fairly sure that Amazon’s list simply doesn’t have more than a handful of LDS or Mormon categories.

    And then there is the problem of LDS publishers looking for the national market, and avoiding any categorization as Mormon as a result. But that’s more than I should go into here.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    Th., you are right. But allowing multiple categories doesn’t quite make up for not having the right categories.

    I regularly run into problems with both BISAC and with Amazon’s categories because the books I publish are in Portuguese, and the proper categories just don’t exist.

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jonathan (1), sorry to take so long to respond to your comment.

    I do agree with your analysis. It puts those of us who want to publish books that aren’t assumed to be part of the “safe” category at a disadvantage, you might say. We have a harder time finding our market. As you say, the tools for reaching that market aren’t available at the moment.

    I also believe that those seeking “safe” books aren’t necessarily the majority of the market. They are the tail wagging the dog, so to speak.

    You may well be right that this bifurcated market means that your “Mormon readers” segment is best reached through the national market. It does seem like the “intellectual” Mormon reader is already there–but even they have difficulty finding out about many of the books available.

    Clearly we need more work figuring out what might work in reaching the “Mormon reader” segment.

  7. Kent Larsen Post author

    Wm (2) wrote:

    I do have to say that I do think that the LDS scripture and other curriculum apps are driving smartphone and tablet use among middle to upper middle class American Mormons. They provide that extra layer of justification.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “extra layer of justification,” but I do agree that the smartphone and tablet use is growing. Theoretically, that could provide an opportunity, if marketers can figure out how to reach them.

  8. Wm Morris

    By that I mean, the “I can use it at Church and to read scriptures” element of the smartphone or tablet provides that added justification for why it’s worth buying the device. It’s not just a phone and for updating Facebook, etc.

  9. Moriah Jovan

    Well, so I got myself a Kindle yesterday. Don’t everybody pass out at once.

    I didn’t do much about running a search on keywords or topics, and checking out LDS/Mormon categories or whatever, because I knew who I was looking for.

    Three LDS publishers (at least) don’t have a portion (or all) of their books in Kindle format. So while the LDS market might be vulnerable, it’s certainly going to be MORE vulnerable if the books simply aren’t there to be bought by interested parties like me who have poor impulse control with that one-click buying thingie…

    Just sayin’.

  10. Pioneer Book

    I think that as long as members of the church continue to buy, there will be a market for LDS authors. It is when people begin to expand their reading selection that the market will struggle.

  11. Kent Larsen Post author

    You’re right, Paul (11), but I think you have missed the point. Yes, LDS Church members will purchase books by LDS authors as long as they can find them. But we’re not talking about the demand for LDS books, but the market itself — the distribution network for LDS books and the players in distributing those books.

    The question isn’t whether or not church members will still want to buy or not. Its where and how they will buy and what opportunities they will have to buy.

    Simply put, the questions I’m trying to explore here are: Will the LDS-only distribution network continue? and If LDS-only bookstores cease to exist, will church members still have the same access to LDS books?

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