The Concept of an Online Mormon Lit Bookstore

9.2.10 | | 43 comments

Many of us (here and elsewhere) have lamented over the problem of trying to reach and/or create an audience of Mormon readers who might have an interest in fiction reflecting a Mormon perspective but grittier or more realistic than what standard LDS bookstores can or will carry.

I don’t have any new ideas about how to find those readers. However, I do have an idea about a different piece of the puzzle. At the moment, there’s no single place to send people where they can browse for authors and titles that might interest them. My suggestion: an online store that caters specifically to Mormon literature, organized to make browsing easy — like a good brick-and-mortar bookstore — with a broad and inclusive enough selection that people could explore with a fair confidence of finding what they’re looking for.

I hasten to admit that I have no idea how this could be done (from a technical perspective) or who would do it. The idea started as an electronic parallel to an art gallery co-op, where the different artists put in shifts at the desk. Maybe this could be done as a cooperative effort among some of the independent LDS publishers, though that could have some disadvantages (see below). Perhaps it would be better to run it simply on a volunteer basis. For now, though, I’d like to talk about what I’d like to see in such an online bookstore from a user/customer perspective.

  • I’d like to see as broad a selection as possible within the realm of Mormon literature. Ideally, this would include titles from as many publishers as possible (including self-published) and information about out-of-print books, with a link to Amazon or Sam Weller or somewhere else that might be willing to sell and ship a used book. Even if part of the goal is to help people find the realistic stuff, I think the idea will work better if everything that could be described as Mormon literature is listed in the inventory. While the original idea had to do with providing a space for books not found in standard LDS bookstores, I think that in the interests of offering a complete range — and in order to increase the chances of success — it should also include titles from Deseret Book, Covenant, etc., on an equal footing.
  • Accurate, standardized information about each book, including all the regular stuff (publishing house, pages, binding, ISBN, etc.), plus some kind of rating system or description (e.g., violence, sex, language — for those to whom that’s important), genre(s), topic(s), award(s), links to published reviews in places list AML and AMV, links to author’publisher webpages/website, and whatever other information might be easy to collect and useful to help readers figure out if the book might interest them (setting? timeframe?). There should also be an indication of the Mormon connection (Mormon characters? Mormon themes?) and stance (e.g., pro, anti, neutral), though the latter would have to be done cautiously. It strikes me that authors and publishers would have a strong motivation to do much of this work themselves, if a consistent framework could be set up.
  • A top-level organization by genre (like a brick-and-mortar bookstore), but with options to list and access book titles/descriptions flexible in many other ways as well (e.g., by topic). It should be possible to see lists such as the Whitney Award winners and finalists, AML award winners, and possibly top-20 lists (in general or by genre) by noted Mormon critics (e.g., Richard Cracroft) or others. Favorite books by well-known Mormons without particular literary credentials might be worth considering too, for sheer market appeal (e.g., Gladys Knight). And it should be possible to see (a) new releases, and (b) new additions to the site since a date specified by the user.
  • Something that might be nice (if it’s not too difficult to do) would be to make the website organization and appearance customizable by the user. For instance, if you’d rather see books that only match specific criteria, that should be possible.
  • There should be a way for readers to rate and share their opinions about books. Possible this would need to be moderated to reduce the possibility of turning it into a way of promoting one’s own work or sabotaging that of others. Ideally, there would also be some kind of “if-you-liked-this-then-look-at-this” setup.
  • I don’t know but am guessing to trying to actually sell books from the site might be a pain. Links to places like the publisher’s site or Amazon.com would suffice. Maybe it could be set up like the AMV deal, where the links to Amazon bring some small amount back to the coffers? It might never pay enough to make the site a paying proposition, but at least could help pay for server space.

So there it is. Anyone want to take a crack? I’d even be willing to serve my shift adding and coding books, if someone actually gets it started…

43 comments: “The Concept of an Online Mormon Lit Bookstore

  1. Christopher Bigelow

    When I first started Zarahemla Books back in 2006, I envisioned it not only as a publisher but also as a bookstore for alt-Mo lit. I even procured books from a handful of other publishers and sold and distributed them, with some success.

    Looking back, I realize the main reason I did it was to help flesh out and subsidize my initial small offering of three titles. Once Zarahemla had a bigger body of titles, I found myself eager to jettison the stuff from other publishers, because of the work involved (in my case, this also included procuring inventory and shipping orders). I wasn’t selling enough to really pay much, and also I didn’t want to distract from Z.’s titles.

    But I still agree that someone should do an online site or store like this, and ideally it should fulfill orders. It should also have some excellent marketing, both on the site itself and to promote the site. I imagine there would be some gray area about what qualifies as alternative, though.

  2. Mary Howard

    I think it is a great idea. I would hope it would also include a clearance section, as that is where I purchase most of my books whether online or otherwise. I’m willing to help but not sure how much time I would have when it happens.

  3. Kent Larsen

    I’ve thought something like this needed to happen for at least a decade, and I’ve made some abortive attempts to make it happen.

    Perhaps I should do a post explaining what the difficulties are?

  4. Jonathan Langford Post author

    I’d love a post on difficulties, experiences, and/or lessons learned.

    I’m sure this isn’t a new idea. In fact, I’ve seen some things that seem to be trying to do part of this.

    The biggest problem, as I see it (aside from simply the time involved in getting something like this off the ground) is that the only way it can really have an impact is if it’s large enough, comprehensive enough, and easy to use enough that it changes people’s buying and reading habits — mostly by pulling in people who aren’t reading Mormon literature now. If all it does is serve people who are already tied into the Mormon literary community, that won’t serve any real purpose. What we need is a conversion tool — a place where we can point people who think they aren’t interested in Mormon literature, right after they’ve read The Tree House or Dispensations or Mormons and Monsters or No Going Back or something like that (and liked it), where we can tell them, “Hey! You liked that? There’s plenty more good stuff at __.” It *also* needs to be a place where people who like Jack Weyland etc. can find things they like, ideally more conveniently (and with a larger offering) than at their local LDS bookstore.

  5. Marion Jensen

    Google Editions, an online bookstore coming from Google ‘this fall’, is supposed to do much of what you outline above. I’ve heard it called the ‘savior of independent bookstores’. Google hasn’t been very clear on exactly how it will work, but there might be a way for a person to create an LDS specific bookstore that carries books like you’ve mentioned, and caters to readers and authors of a different kind of Mormon fiction than can be found in a DB or SB&T.

  6. Vicki Firth

    You’ve laid out the perfect concept and groundwork! It really sounds like a great idea! I hope someone will offer to help who really knows how to get things going!

  7. Katya

    I’d like to see as broad a selection as possible within the realm of Mormon literature.

    I agree with including a broad selection of Mormon lit, but I also agree with Kent about including non-fiction and literature that doesn’t have explicitly Mormon characters or themes. My current guidelines are that a work must be (1) written by a Mormon and (2) fiction, literary non-fiction, or non-fiction about Mormons. (The equivalent guidelines apply to other media, such as theater, film, etc.)

    Anyway, there’s no technical limitations on the range of works that can be included in a wiki, aside from the fact that including more works makes it a bigger project, and therefore harder to be comprehensive.

    Of course, the de facto limitation is the interest level of the volunteers who are adding to the wiki. E.g., this is why Wikipedia has a 13,000 word article on “Batman franchise media” and no article on “Hoploparia” (an extinct genus of crustacean related to the modern lobster).

    I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that it’s a phenomenon to be very aware of. (In the wiki world, just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come. Or they might come, but not do what you thought they would.) Because of that phenomenon, I think the explicit focus of the wiki should be something like “faithful but unorthodox Mormon literature” (but better phrased), which would hopefully keep the contributions strongest in that area.

  8. Katya

    Oh, and one thing I should add is that by saying a work must be by a Mormon, I mean both current and former members of the Church. I’m not interested in applying a litmus test of faithfulness in order to be included (although if a person’s current relationship towards or stance on the LDS Church is publicly known, it may warrant inclusion in their bio).

  9. Jonathan Langford

    I guess my question is: How would this functionality help point users to books they don’t know about already? A database is a great tool for finding out information about something you already know about (like the title of a book), but that’s not the need I’m seeing here.

    I suppose that “articles” about specific genres could include listings of books with short descriptions, while entries about specific books could be beefed up to include things like content ratings, brief plot descriptions, subject tags (each of which could also link to an article or listing), links to places where the title is sold, and “people who liked this also liked this” tags. Categories could be added such as “Themes/Topics,” “Genres,” “Content Ratings,” “Awards,” “Publishers,” etc. It still wouldn’t be the visual equivalent of being able to browse through a physical bookstore, but it would come closer.

    Katya: Assuming that you had the help to do something like this, is this an expansion of the Mormon Arts Wiki that you would approve? If there’s some way we could fill this need without starting a whole new project, that would be grand, in my opinion.

    FYI, my main reason for suggesting that we not cover nonfiction is primarily that attempting to do so comprehensively would dilute efforts and might make it harder to find the literature in the middle of everything else. If that can be addressed, then this might work nicely.

  10. Katya

    How would this functionality help point users to books they don’t know about already?

    Good question. I can think of a few ways that are currently built into the system. One is linking directly between pages (such as between author and work), but that only makes sense if the works are closely related.
    Category pages are another good tool. I’m currently using categories to gather items in a number of different ways, including format, genre, awards, publication year, and whether the work is available for free online. I don’t have categories for publishers, but that might be a good idea for “micropublishers.” (I fear it would become unwieldy for larger publishers.) The whole idea of content ratings needs to be part of a separate conversation, I think.

    I’ve also got subject categories, which are similar to themes/topics, but which I’m only adding if the subject is fairly concrete and if I think it’s likely that the same subject or a related subject will be addressed in another work. E.g., Melissa Leilani Larson wrote a play about a Filipina mail order bride with supernatural powers. While the play sounds amazing, I don’t think that “Supernatural Filipina mail-order brides” is a subject that I don’t think is likely to be addressed by another LDS writer. (Her play about a lesbian Mormon, on the other hand, absolutely needs a subject category tying it in with other works on the same topic.)

    The reason I’m going with very concrete subject categories is that it needs to be clear to a layperson working on an individual record whether or not a given subject applies to that work. Categories such as “love” or “faith” are broad enough that they could apply to almost everything, whereas “Chinese Mormons” or “Divorced Mormons” should be concrete enough that it’s easy to tell if the category applies. (Should be. Even with very concrete categories, there are still problems that crop up.)

    A third way to browse would be to feature different works and topics on the main page, the way Wikipedia has different things on its main page. In the past, I’ve tried to include news about new works (especially limited-time events, such as exhibits and plays). I’ve also included a section with a sort of mini-essay on a single theme that highlights examples of that theme. (Right now that section just lists some recent awards, but I may be able to find you some cached examples of old essays.) Lately, though, I haven’t been able to keep up with the news page and the essays while I’m trying to move all of the files to a new page.

    A fourth browsing option I’d also like to try would be an integrated blog that highlighted specific authors and works, possibly with more of an eye towards generating some revenue with Amazon links. I’d also like to use the blog to get feedback on certain aspects of the wiki, as well as using it to explain how the wiki works and why it’s set up the way it is.

    A fifth browsing option is simply to point people towards communities such as AMV, the Association for Mormon Letters, Mormon Artist, etc., that do discuss what’s going on in Mormon arts. I anticipate that such outbound links can be naturally integrated into the page by pointing to pertinent reviews, interviews, and discussions of works and authors. I’m also in favor of linking to individual work pages at communities such as LibraryThing or Goodreads, because I like a lot of the social information that’s available at those sites. (There’s a “Books and Mormons” forum on LT, but it’s pretty quiet. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Goodreads to know if there’s anything equivalent over there.)

    I suppose that “articles” about specific genres could include listings of books with short descriptions . . .

    I have no problem with articles about specific genres, so long as they’re Wikipedia-like in tone. (This is not because I’m so enamored of Wikipedia, but because a very factual tone works best in a wiki environment, while a format that is literary or opinion-based quickly falls apart under group editing. I highly recommend the Wikipedia chapter in Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody for some great examples of what does and doesn’t work in a wiki, and why.) Also, these types of articles, if short enough, could work well as a main page “mini-essay.” (And if they were fixed on the main page and then locked and archived, you could get away with a tone that was more literary or opinionated (but in a good way)). Ditto for the blog, I suppose, although I imagine the blog entries as being very brief, for some reason.

    . . . links to places where the title is sold . . .

    At this point I’m linking out to Amazon and to the the work on the publisher’s website (when possible). Even though I support independent bookstores such as Sam Weller’s, I feel that more links would be more work to maintain (and also more subject to link rot).

    . . . and “people who liked this also liked this” tags.

    I think that a suggestion feature is a fabulous idea and I’m equally convinced that it will not work in a wiki environment if it has to be done by hand. (This is another topic that I’m all for debating / hashing out, if you’re interested.)

    A database is a great tool for finding out information about something you already know about (like the title of a book), but that’s not the need I’m seeing here.

    I see your point and I agree. My hope is that the database can be used to collect and organize resources that are more geared towards discover and browsing, as well as perhaps creating some resources (such as the main page and a blog) that also work towards that end.

    I have more to say about fiction vs. non-fiction, but I have to go to a meeting. (Also, I have more to say about how well a wiki would address the other criteria you brought up in the original post, but I wanted to leave room for discussion in between comments.)

  11. Jonathan Langford Post author

    Katya,

    I like what you have to say about themes/topics and subject categories. I agree that for purposes of general usefulness, categories should be neither too broad nor too narrow. For my own novel No Going Back, for example, I would say that Homosexuality, Oregon, and Coming-of-Age Story might be meaningful categories.

    I agree that articles about genres etc. would be useful mostly if they were not opinion-based. The main usefulness I see for these is to help people see what else they might like as part of the category. A simple list of books would be a start. Lists with groupings could be a next step.

    My main reason for wanting to expand beyond Amazon.com and publishers would be for out-of-print works that aren’t available from these sources. I’ve never actually shopped at Sam Weller’s, but if (for example) they have titles that you can’t get at Amazon.com, it would be worthwhile (in my view) to provide a link. Obviously, this would work only in the case of a bookstore that actually had a good grasp of its own inventory. For example, Pioneer Books in Provo might have just as many out-of-print LDS books, but I don’t have a sense that they have any kind of electronic inventory.

    Thinking about the “people who liked this” tags… I can see that it certainly wouldn’t work without having people log in. Perhaps there could be an “I recommend this” button, and then an option to click “People who recommended this book also recommended…”? As I say, I don’t have any understanding of the technical part of this; I just think that (a) it would help with providing another navigation option, and (b) some kind of community involvement (posting mini-reviews?) would help increase the likelihood that people would come to the site. It would have to be done carefully, though, in order to avoid turning it into a vehicle for meaningless promotion/trashing other people’s works.

    On ratings: I think something like this is necessary if it’s going to be used beyond a fairly narrow pool of readers (which is part of the problem I’m hoping this would address). I’ve seen this done in a variety of ways on different sites. The best sites, it seem to me, rather than imposing some kind of overall rating, divide things up into categories and are descriptive: e.g., for language, “some coarse language, no F-bombs, no references to deity.”

    I definitely think that things like lists of Whitney Award nominees and winners, AML winners, and even “top 10″ lists from selected individuals might be worthwhile. Don’t know what criteria the latter would follow, but I suspect (for example) that if one could coerce Richard Cracroft into providing a set of “favorites” lists, that would be really worthwhile. Other people too — particularly names that casual LDS readers would recognize. Maybe author pages could include that kind of information?

    I look forward to your further thoughts.

  12. Moriah Jovan

    The best sites, it seem to me, rather than imposing some kind of overall rating, divide things up into categories and are descriptive: e.g., for language, “some coarse language, no F-bombs, no references to deity.”

    The (erotic) romance digital publishing does this and it’s very effective because people know exactly what they’re looking for and don’t want to be ambushed. Only, they don’t do “no [fill in the blank].” They do “this title contains [fill in the blank].” Depending on which press it is and how often you frequent the different websites, you get a feel (heh) for what “objectionable material” might entail.

    (On the other hand, at one digital press, the increasingly clever and over-the-top descriptions have become part of the schtick and have lost the necessary information that made them valuable.)

  13. Katya

    I like what you have to say about themes/topics and subject categories. I agree that for purposes of general usefulness, categories should be neither too broad nor too narrow. For my own novel No Going Back, for example, I would say that Homosexuality, Oregon, and Coming-of-Age Story might be meaningful categories.

    Agreed. I hadn’t thought of “Coming-of-Age” and I might phrase the other two a little differently to make them play more nicely with other categories, but we’re largely on the same page. (And sometimes very narrow categories can still work if they can be linked to related categories so that users can navigate between them. Category naming and structure is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

    I agree that articles about genres etc. would be useful mostly if they were not opinion-based. The main usefulness I see for these is to help people see what else they might like as part of the category. A simple list of books would be a start. Lists with groupings could be a next step.

    I see what you mean about lists as a finding tool for similar books. My one (tiny) concern about lists is that they don’t work really well in a wiki structure because they’re hard to find. Of course, that may not be a big deal, depending on how we’re each planning to use the wiki, and we can talk more about wiki structure, generally, and why some things work really well and some things are more problematic.

  14. Katya

    My main reason for wanting to expand beyond Amazon.com and publishers would be for out-of-print works that aren’t available from these sources. I’ve never actually shopped at Sam Weller’s, but if (for example) they have titles that you can’t get at Amazon.com, it would be worthwhile (in my view) to provide a link. Obviously, this would work only in the case of a bookstore that actually had a good grasp of its own inventory. For example, Pioneer Books in Provo might have just as many out-of-print LDS books, but I don’t have a sense that they have any kind of electronic inventory.

    I assume you know that Amazon does sell out-of-print books (through third parties), and that you mean that Amazon may not have as many OOP books (or OOP Mormon books) as some other sources and/or there may be specific OOP books that another party happens to have in stock and Amazon doesn’t.

    The benefit of providing an Amazon link is that (1) we can link directly to the work, via ISBN or ASIN, (2) we get a small kickback if someone ends up buying the product (although now I can’t remember if that applies to books from 3rd party sellers), plus, (3) it’s the largest bookstore in the world, so the most likely to carry any given book on any given day (although perhaps not any given LDS OOP book).

    Conversely, I (1) don’t want to provide a link to Sam Weller, Abe Books, Powell’s or whoever on every book page if I can’t link directly to the book. Period. (2) If someone buys a book from Sam Weller, we don’t get a kickback, but I’m interested in promoting independent LDS bookstores, so I don’t really care about that, but we’d need a policy in place to decide which bookstores merited a direct link, so we don’t get spammed by tiny bookstores. (3) If there’s a good chance that Sam Weller’s will carry a book, particularly if Amazon doesn’t, I’m happy to link to them, but I have no idea of how to gauge how likely it is that they will have a book, both now and in the future. What I want to avoid is having 5 links to different booksellers, but finding that most of the time, Amazon is the only one who has it in stock, anyway, so the rest aren’t very useful.

    However, I also tend to assume that the general populace knows more about finding OOP books, using inter-library loan, etc., than they really do. Could we perhaps compromise by having one central page that explains all of the things you should do to try to track down a book, and perhaps link that page from the main page of the wiki?

  15. Katya

    As I say, I don’t have any understanding of the technical part of this; I just think that (a) it would help with providing another navigation option, and (b) some kind of community involvement (posting mini-reviews?) would help increase the likelihood that people would come to the site.

    On its own, the software basically lets you (1) create pages of text (including hyperlinks), (2) create links between those pages of text, (3) put those pages into categories. It also tracks all of the changes that anyone makes to those pages of text and it lets you register and log in to keep track of all of the changes you make to any of the pages on the site. Anything other functionality has to be done by hand or programmed separately (and I am no programmer).

    However, every article has an accompanying “discussion” page. On Wikipedia, that page is set aside for discussing the article (formatting, tone, categorization), but not the subject of the article, itself. One possible “hack” for allowing book recommendations in ths wiki would be to allow discussion of the work, itself, on the discussion page. However, if the discussions get out of hand, that could be a big headache, and I don’t want to be in charge of policing a hundred screaming matches about controversial Mormon lit. (This possibility is probably why Wikipedia has the policies it does.)
    Another workaround would be to use individual user pages as personal “favorites” or “recommendations” pages. User pages are largely freeform in content, aside from the minimal stipulation that you can’t use them for personal attacks on other users, etc.

    So when you talk about having automatically generated recommendations, I agree that those are a great feature of social networking sites, but implementing them here would require creating a database and program from scratch (plus making them work in the wiki interface), neither of which is a trivial matter.

  16. Katya

    On ratings: I think something like this is necessary if it’s going to be used beyond a fairly narrow pool of readers (which is part of the problem I’m hoping this would address). I’ve seen this done in a variety of ways on different sites. The best sites, it seem to me, rather than imposing some kind of overall rating, divide things up into categories and are descriptive: e.g., for language, “some coarse language, no F-bombs, no references to deity.”

    I agree with you about multiple categories and descriptive language. (One of the huge problems with the MPAA, of course, is that they try to boil everything down to one rating or one rating plus a minimal description.) However, one of the problems with rating books vs. rating movies is that it takes around 2 hours to watch a movie, while it takes much longer to read most book-length works, so it’s going to take a huge amount of time and effort to create such detailed ratings for a significant number of books.

    From a global perspective, it’s highly unlikely that a significant percentage of Mormon works will ever be rated in such a detailed fashion, and I am generally looking at this from a global perspective, because I’m constantly trying to figure out if a given tweak in policy or procedure is going to make the whole system collapse, further down the line. However, from your perspective, you might argue that even if only 10 Mormon novels are rated this way at a given point in time, that’s 10 Mormon novels that a conservative reader might be willing to read (or at least make a more informed decision about), which is a dent, at least, in the overall problem of finding an audience for unorthodox Mormon lit.

    It’s a different viewpoint than my default—I’m often too frustrated to try to accomodate the “average Mormon” who is scared of anything that doesn’t have the Church stamp of approval—but it’s good for me to remember that this database really could be used to help give such a demographic the information that they need. Also, I can see how you would feel strongly about giving people this kind of information, as an author of a book that’s been criticized and blacklisted by people who have made uninformed assumptions about it.

    I definitely think that things like lists of Whitney Award nominees and winners, AML winners, and even “top 10” lists from selected individuals might be worthwhile. Don’t know what criteria the latter would follow, but I suspect (for example) that if one could coerce Richard Cracroft into providing a set of “favorites” lists, that would be really worthwhile. Other people too — particularly names that casual LDS readers would recognize. Maybe author pages could include that kind of information?

    Maybe. This kind of list actually works better if it’s created or originally located somewhere off-wiki, and then referenced (or even entirely reproduced) on the wiki. I can explain why that is, because it also has a lot to do with why opinion pieces don’t work well within the wiki framework and why it’s better to have some seemingly pointless workarounds.

  17. Katya

    (It’s a good thing there’s no fee imposed on using the word “however,” or I would be broke.)

  18. Wm Morris

    “although now I can’t remember if that applies to books from 3rd party sellers”

    The answer is: it depends on the seller.

  19. Jonathan Langford Post author

    Katya,

    With respect to ratings (#20): My main reason for wanting to include this is that I think doing so could help bring in the demographic I’m hoping to attract by addressing their concerns. What I’m hoping to do here is to transform the market by providing another place to shop (even if the actual sale doesn’t take place here) — one that doesn’t suffer from the limitations of current LDS bookstores, while still providing the kind of information that will make mainstream LDS readers comfortable looking there.

    Just providing the fields for readers or authors to fill in would help. For that matter, I know that some of the blogs out there do this kind of rating for the books they review. Could those ratings be used, citing those blogs as a source?

    Here’s a thought: Once you get the new interface the way you want it, why not send out a global invitation to a bunch of the Utah/LDS book bloggers inviting them to come, post links to their reviews, and add other information? I’m developing what is turning into a fairly comprehensive list of some of these sources. Such recruiting would help (a) increase the number of hands doing the work, and (b) make more people aware of it (and with a vested interest in promoting it). This would probably work better if “skeleton” entries already existed for a bunch of the works that would be included, but assuming that forms are provided for adding new works, that would be good too.

    Katya: Am I correct in assuming that you don’t have anything against authors creating/updating/etc. their own pages? It seems to me that this is probably the most likely source of the volunteer work needed to get information available on a wide range of books in a timely fashion, once you have the forms/interface the way you want them. If the various categories are defined properly, it seems to me that this is something that could be done without a lot of risk.

    More thoughts to come. In the meantime, it sounds like on a global level the Mormon Arts Wiki could do a lot of what I’m hoping for here, if you get sufficient volunteer help to make it work. Yes?

  20. Katya

    Am I correct in assuming that you don’t have anything against authors creating/updating/etc. their own pages?

    Yes, with an asterisk. As far as factual information goes, absolutely. (For a lot of these authors, especially ones who are publishing short stories or poetry, we’re never going to be able to track down all of their publications without their help.) However, allowing authors to edit their own pages could break the system if they write bios that are overly PR-ish or if they object to critical information that’s presented in a bio or a description of a work.

    I guess I’d say that I want to take a very light hand when it comes to moderating author contributions to their pages, but at the same time be aware that there may come a time when a particular page needs to be temporarily locked or a particular contributor needs to be moderated.

    As always, I’m looking at an idea and then taking it out to its theoretical logical extension to look for problems. Of the half dozen or so people who’ve made contributions to the current wiki, all of them have made alterations to their own page, at some point, and I haven’t had any problems, thus far, aside from minor formatting issues.

    Just providing the fields for readers or authors to fill in would help. For that matter, I know that some of the blogs out there do this kind of rating for the books they review. Could those ratings be used, citing those blogs as a source?

    I don’t see why not. If other blogs are already doing this sort of rating (and I’ve heard of a few that have developed their own systems), it makes sense to cite them and link out to what they’re doing.

    Generally, the potential issues with linking to or quoting reviews are as follows: (1) Cherrypicking either good or bad reviews, (2) too many reviews (i.e., we don’t need every Mormon blogger’s review of Twilight), (3) too few reviews (in particular, it seems unfair to write a critical summary of a work based on just one review, but it might still be worth it to link to that review).

    In the meantime, it sounds like on a global level the Mormon Arts Wiki could do a lot of what I’m hoping for here, if you get sufficient volunteer help to make it work. Yes?

    Wikis work best for projects that are generally encyclopedic in tone, because such a tone allow for collaboration between people with very different perspectives and backgrounds. Social networking tools and more opinionated formats such as reviews and critical essays are very useful sources of information, but it may require some work to get them work well in a wiki format. (But I’m hopeful that we can negotiate between the needs of both formats to make something that serves both sides better than anything else that currently exists.)

  21. Katya

    I’m not sure if that last comment is as clear as I’d like it to be. I’m having some trouble focusing because of a toothache. (Here’s to hoping to avoid a root canal . . .)

  22. Jonathan Langford

    Getting back to this finally… I wanted to do justice to the various points Katya has raised, particularly since she (you) have been so diligent in responding to my earlier points.

    You wrote: “I (1) don’t want to provide a link to Sam Weller, Abe Books, Powell’s or whoever on every book page if I can’t link directly to the book. Period.” To which I reply: Absolutely, although I can see a possible exception. It’s more a matter of whether the option is there.

    Case in point: I’m currently reading (and planning to review) a copy of Adventures of the Soul, a collection of personal essays published last year by BYU Studies. I can’t even find it at Amazon.com. Basically, the only chance someone has to buy this book is by linking either to (a) the BYU Studies website, or (b) BYU Bookstore. If I were to create an entry for this book in Mormon Arts Wiki, I’d want to include those links.

    Far be it from me, though, to suggest that you (or anyone else creating these pages) should have an obligation to do this. Mostly, I’d want the option to be available for cases like this.

  23. Jonathan Langford

    Another specific point:

    You stated: “2) too many reviews (i.e., we don’t need every Mormon blogger’s review of Twilight).” I agree with this — but…

    The thing I’m thinking is that for this to fill the function I’m hoping for, it needs to become a tool that’s widely used outside the relatively narrow AML/AMV/etc. community (i.e., “us”). One way to help do that is by giving a sense of ownership and investment to the existing body of LDS book bloggers. If they can link to their own reviews, they’ll have a motive both to help pitch in and do the work (e.g., filling out a form on a book they’ve reviewed that no one else has reviewed) and to link to/publicize the resource.

    I think a key is the same issue I mentioned above: that is, expectation versus possibility. If it’s an entry that you or other volunteers are creating, you shouldn’t be expected to have to find all those reviews. On the other hand, if someone comes to the site and wants to add a link to his/her review, the only issue is how cluttered things might get.

    By the way, it seems to me in this regard that adding a link is quite different from deleting a link. I’m fine with pretty much anyone being able to add a link to a review. Deleting links from reviews, on the other hand, is something I’d be more comfortable not letting just anyone do. Is there a way do differentiate levels of access in that way, and make people who want certain kinds of changes go to an administrator-type person?

  24. Jonathan Langford

    Katya,

    On a top level, based on what’s been said here, it sounds like you’d be open (and indeed are already trying in some ways) to make the Mormon Arts Wiki more the kind of tool I’m talking about here: something someone could browse, as opposed to something that’s useful primarily if you already know what you’re looking for. It can’t be a place where people can actually buy books, and it can’t be a forum for discussion, but both of those are kind of problematic anyway for other reasons.

    It sounds like although clunky, the Mormon Arts Wiki could be the best bet we have at present for this, assuming a couple of things:
    a. The interface can be tweaked in some of the ways we’ve been discussing.
    b. Many hands can be recruited to help enter the data.
    c. We can find ways to publicize it widely enough so that people actually start thinking of it as a place to go in order to get into.

    The best places to start with (b) and (c), it seems to me, is by recruiting LDS authors, book bloggers, and publishers to update their own info and then provide links publicizing the resource. However, before making a big push on this, the interface and/or guidelines would need to be set up to accommodate that. It also occurs to me that if you’re trying to move to a new platform, it might make more sense to wait until that move is done, so that we’re not adding ever-more data that then has to be transferred.

    Thoughts?

  25. Kent Larsen

    Jonathan, I think it will be much better for everyone if we get a structured database set up.

    I don’t think a wiki can do what we will need it to do.

  26. Jonathan Langford

    Kent,

    I’m fine with the notion of a structured database, but is anyone going to actually set it up?

    As someone who can’t do that myself, but who could help recruit volunteer help to input data (per my suggestions in #28 above), the question isn’t what kind of setup is ideal but rather whether there’s something out there (or likely to be out there in the near future) that comes close enough to be worth the effort of trying to make it fit.

  27. Jonathan Langford

    On reading the response I just posted to Kent, I realized it could sound like I’m being snooty, which really isn’t what I intended. I realize that all of us are spread thin in the (usually volunteer) work we’re doing in the Mormon literary community. I also recognize that what I’m talking about isn’t really what the Mormon Arts wiki was originally intended to do (which is part of why I hadn’t thought of it as a way of meeting that need initially).

    It does seem to me that something clunky that nonetheless can be made to fill the basic function might well be worth trying to do, if the alternative is nothing at all. On the other hand, if it’s too much of a stretch, then trying to turn it into what I’m describing could easily wind up frustrating everyone. That’s one of the things I’m hoping to collectively work toward figuring out here.

  28. Katya

    Sorry for the delay in my response—I’ve been out of town.

    Case in point: I’m currently reading (and planning to review) a copy of Adventures of the Soul, a collection of personal essays published last year by BYU Studies. I can’t even find it at Amazon.com. Basically, the only chance someone has to buy this book is by linking either to (a) the BYU Studies website, or (b) BYU Bookstore. If I were to create an entry for this book in Mormon Arts Wiki, I’d want to include those links.

    I can find direct links to the book at both BYU Studies and at the BYU Bookstore (although the BYU Bookstore one is ugly), so I don’t have a problem with either link in that regard.

    http://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=8291

    http://www.byubookstore.com/ePOS?store=439&item_number=9760842527394&form=shared3%2fgm%2fdetail.html&design=439

    Also, I should add that I’m very happy to provide links to a book on a publisher’s website, so I would have wanted to link out to BYU Studies, regardless.

    However, if there really was no way of getting a book except through a couple of sources and if there really wasn’t a URL that would go directly to the book, I can see making an exception. (In fact, I think that may be the case with a play by Carol Lynn Pearson that’s only available on her website.)

    In this situation, I think I would want to link to BYU Studies but not to the BYU Bookstore, because that link seems more likely to become a dead link.

  29. Kent Larsen

    The case that Jonathan mentions is the kind of situation that really annoys me. Its just bad marketing.

    Actually, its no marketing at all. I learned several years ago that BYU Studies has no marketing people at all — they can’t get the budget for it or something.

    This is why authors need to question publishers carefully. Only the publisher can fix this problem–making a book available at major venues like Amazon.com, B&N, etc.–There is simply nothing an author can do about it, and it has more effect on how well your book does than almost anything else.

  30. Katya

    The thing I’m thinking is that for this to fill the function I’m hoping for, it needs to become a tool that’s widely used outside the relatively narrow AML/AMV/etc. community (i.e., “us”). One way to help do that is by giving a sense of ownership and investment to the existing body of LDS book bloggers. If they can link to their own reviews, they’ll have a motive both to help pitch in and do the work (e.g., filling out a form on a book they’ve reviewed that no one else has reviewed) and to link to/publicize the resource.

    I get what you’re saying about a sense of ownership, but it’s a problem if one person gets too attached to a certain piece of information. Wikis work when an entire community collaborates on a page to improve it; they don’t work when people get territorial.

    I think it would help if people were recruited to work on the project as a whole, not promised carte blanche to add links to their reviews, because that promise may not be tenable. (It will also help to build the site, as a whole, if people are at least aware of the bigger picture, even if individuals tend to specialize in certain types of tasks.)

    I think a key is the same issue I mentioned above: that is, expectation versus possibility. If it’s an entry that you or other volunteers are creating, you shouldn’t be expected to have to find all those reviews. On the other hand, if someone comes to the site and wants to add a link to his/her review, the only issue is how cluttered things might get.

    I do see what you’re saying. Starting with a single page and working outward makes some tasks easy and some tasks harder. Starting with a single outside resource (like a blog with a lot of reviews) reverses the difficulty of those tasks. (Of course, it is possible for someone to work both sides.)

    By the way, it seems to me in this regard that adding a link is quite different from deleting a link. I’m fine with pretty much anyone being able to add a link to a review. Deleting links from reviews, on the other hand, is something I’d be more comfortable not letting just anyone do. Is there a way do differentiate levels of access in that way, and make people who want certain kinds of changes go to an administrator-type person?

    There are limits on who can delete an entire page (I believe it’s restricted to admins, by default) and there are ways of locking down a page so that no one can edit it (generally as a temporary measure). I don’t know of any way of preventing people from deleting reviews that wouldn’t also lock down the entire page.

    Actually, it’s probably a little easier to delete reviews than it is to add them, just by reverting the last edit. (It’s function that helps combat vandalism.)

  31. Kent Larsen

    There are limits on who can delete an entire page (I believe it’s restricted to admins, by default) and there are ways of locking down a page so that no one can edit it (generally as a temporary measure). I don’t know of any way of preventing people from deleting reviews that wouldn’t also lock down the entire page.

    This, of course, ignores the fact that mediawiki isn’t as secure as many people would like. It can be hacked, of course, and sometimes even the average user can stumble into a hole in the security and do something that they weren’t supposed to be able to do.

    Sure, use mediawiki’s security, but don’t count on it too extensively.

  32. Jonathan Langford Post author

    Katya,

    A question I thought I had asked, but can’t find now: Somewhere I thought you said that you were working on transporting files over to a new platform (or something like that). That being the case, is it better to hold up on trying to recruit a lot of volunteers to update the Mormon Arts Wiki until things are settled in their new place/interface/whatever? Or would it be good to make the existing one as complete as we can?

    I want to be helpful (to the degree that time and multiple commitments can allow), but don’t want to do things that would add an unnecessary burden to what you’re already trying to do.

    And Kent: I agree that publishers aren’t always smart about marketing and often have less of an investment in making things work. That’s one reason why I think any kind of collectively kept database/wiki/whatever will have a better chance of working if writers themselves are recruited to help enter their own data.

  33. Katya

    Slowly making my way through everything I want to respond to . . .

    On a top level, based on what’s been said here, it sounds like you’d be open (and indeed are already trying in some ways) to make the Mormon Arts Wiki more the kind of tool I’m talking about here: something someone could browse, as opposed to something that’s useful primarily if you already know what you’re looking for.

    I think so. Of course, I already think of wikis as being very browsable, but maybe that’s just my own comfort level with they way they present information.

    c. We can find ways to publicize it widely enough so that people actually start thinking of it as a place to go in order to get into.

    I’m actually not terribly concerned about this. My philosophy is more that if we build it and make it good, people will come. (I mean, nobody uses Wikipedia because it was advertised, they use it because they stumbled across it once and found that it was useful, and enough people did the same thing enough times that Wikipedia got pushed up in search engine rankings.)

    Actually, when I’m doing research on obscure people and works, I regularly get pages from the Mormon Arts wiki (at Wikia) as one of the top hits, so it’s already being indexed. (Of course, it may be that Google is giving it an extra bump because it’s hosted at Wikia, in which case it will take longer for the new site to start being crawled to any significant degree.)

    It also occurs to me that if you’re trying to move to a new platform, it might make more sense to wait until that move is done, so that we’re not adding ever-more data that then has to be transferred.

    Yes, it would be good if the old location were “frozen” until things were moved over to the new site. The new site is actually functional, it’s just ugly because of some style sheet issues. (You’ll notice I haven’t given out the URL. I feel a little like the home teachers have dropped by unexpectedly and the house is a mess. I can’t bear to let you see the broken templates and drab front page!)

  34. Katya

    Jonathan, I think it will be much better for everyone if we get a structured database set up.

    I don’t think a wiki can do what we will need it to do.

    I agree that a wiki isn’t a perfect solution for what Jonathan (and you) have envisioned. I think it will be easier to compare the strengths and weaknesses of each approach once you have something set up (so that we’re no longer comparing apples to theoretical apples).

  35. Katya

    Getting back to fiction vs. non-fiction, one of the big reasons I want to include non-fiction is that I have a strong desire to collect material about what I’d call Mormon minorities, for lack of a better term. I specifically want to collect works about Mormons whose nationalities and ethnicities aren’t well-represented in the greater Mormon population, as well as Mormons who may feel marginalized because they don’t fit in with the cultural ideal (e.g., single Mormons, infertile Mormons, Mormons married to non-Mormons, etc.). In order to do justice to the stories of these people, I’m going to have include non-fiction materials, such as interviews, articles, and essays (although the latter might be covered under “literary non-fiction”).

    However, I agree with you that the database should have a strong focus on fiction and other creative works and I envision that such works will constitute the majority of the entries.

  36. Jonathan Langford

    Katya,

    My guiding rule for volunteer efforts has always been that those who do the work get to set the rules, so nonfiction or not — whatever works for you…

    Please let us know here at AMV when the new site is up. I’ll hold off on adding things or recruiting people until then. In the meantime, I’d be happy to provide input/feedback if desired related to the new interface, from a non-expert-end-user perspective. Feel free to email me or to post more here if I/we can help in any way.

    Kent, I’d be glad to see the kind of database you’re talking about. Do you have any leads on people someone who might be willing to create such a thing? I could help by donating (a limited amount of) grunt work, but not any kind of expertise or financial backing.

  37. Katya

    My guiding rule for volunteer efforts has always been that those who do the work get to set the rules

    Heh. Yeah, on the ground, I think it has to work this way. I saw your recent comments over at the AML-listserv, though, and it got me thinking about what I want the focus of the project to be.

    Please let us know here at AMV when the new site is up.

    Of course. To try to encourage myself to make some kind of progress on this front, here’s a list of what I need to do:

    1. Upload the logo.
    2. Make the bare URL redirect to the main page of the wiki.
    3. Fix the template style sheets.

    #1 I can probably figure out how to do myself. #s 2 and 3 I’ll need help on. I have a programmer friend who’s been helping me through the trickier parts of this whole process, so I’ll try and catch him when he’s online, some time.

  38. Ilyan Kei Lavanway

    [Wm: warning not taken, content deleted, which is pity because I think some good intentions are there]

  39. Th.

    .

    Ilyan, you show up everytime you have a new book. Where are you the rest of the time? How engaged can you really be?

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