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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.