The Difficulties Faced by an Online Mormon Lit Bookstore

9.21.10 | | 20 comments

A couple of weeks ago Jonathan Langford posted his vision of an online Mormon Lit bookstore—something I’m also quite interested in. I very much believe in that vision, and if I had the resources and connections necessary, I’d start the bookstore he describes as soon as possible. I think such a bookstore could be successful, and would likely be a great help to building and audience for Mormon literature.

There are, however, some large hurdles to overcome.

Jonathan’s vision includes 5 broad elements. He wants the bookstore to be comprehensive in its list of titles, deep in the information about each title, well organized and categorized, with a customizable and interactive interface. I agree that all of these would improve the store’s ability to succeed.

In the post, however, Jonathan recognizes only one of the major difficulties with creating the store site: the list of titles to be included. I think there are at least three other major difficulties that anyone attempting this project would have to face. Below I’ll explore each of these four difficulties briefly:

  1. The Title Database — As Jonathan mentioned, collecting the information about the titles is key. It isn’t just a list of titles, authors and perhaps ISBNs, however. The post does recognize many of the bits of basic title information (technically, database fields) that are needed — “publishing house, pages, binding, ISBN, etc.” plus some of the important additional information that help customers connect to the title:

    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.

    In addition,this database also needs information about the publisher: contact information, purchasing terms, pricing, etc. This information is sometimes difficult to get also. First, not every publisher does what it should to let potential customers know that it exists. [An example is the edition of the poetry of Eliza R. Snow released a few years ago (no, not the recent Derr and Davidson edition, but the self-published edition that was only available from Sam Wellers and nowhere else)] Second, terms and pricing are usually given to those who are purchasing books for resale, and, sometimes vary by who the reseller is. Obtaining this information from publishers sometimes almost requires that the store be ready to purchase.

    Large retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble get information about available titles from several sources—distributors, wholesalers, books-in-print, publishers presentations. But in the Mormon market these aren’t as easy to use: There isn’t a true wholesaler in the Mormon market, and the distributors, which usually serve just the smallest publishers, don’t seem to provide this information on a regular basis, and the small retailers in the market don’t seem to be looking for it.Like it or not, the Mormon portion of the market doesn’t use the sophisticated data tools that the national market does.

  2. System for Maintaining Title Information — Once the data on the titles in the Mormon market has been collected, it still needs to be updated regularly — in this case probably at least several times a month. I believe that the Mormon market produces at least a few hundred new titles each year, or dozens each month. In addition, these days new publishers arise several times a year, and publishers change their terms from time-to-time. Adding reviews and blog posts about titles, and maintaining the information becomes almost a full-time job.The problem here isn’t just the amount of work required. It is also the systems needed—what files are created and passed to whom and how are those files processed. Any bookstore trying to be comprehensive and to provide deep information about titles would need to develop its systems for maintaining that information.
  3. The Logistics of Purchasing from Publishers — Even with a fairly complete database of information and a way of keeping it up-to-date, the bookstore would still need a system for purchasing the publisher’s books. Regardless of whether the store purchases from a wholesaler or the publishers themselves, this means meeting the publisher’s requirements for setting up a resale account. This often means meeting a minimum volume of purchases and meeting credit requirements (odd as it might sound, some publishers assume that all their customers purchase on 30 days credit and might have difficulty setting up an account on any other terms). While its usually straightforward, setting up and maintaining these relationships is necessary for the kind of book seller described here.
  4. The Logistics of Packing and Shipping — One of the sometimes overlooked realities in online bookselling is the idea that the books for sale will ship in a short time after purchase. Because many of the publishers in the Mormon market aren’t represented at the national wholesalers, having the assurance that the book will ship a few days after purchase, is much harder to get. The largest retailers in the national market ask wholesalers like Ingram Books to ship the copies their customer’s purchase, so that the books never actually touch the bookseller’s hands. Since the Mormon market doesn’t have a wholesaler, such a relationship can only be set up  with the national wholesalers (which don’t have every Mormon title). Thus this bookstore would need to use national wholesalers (if possible) and also stock and ship at least some books—those not available through the national wholesalers. And stocking and shipping books means workers, a place to store the books, and shipping materials.

Setting all this up means an initial investment of tens of thousands of dollars (in the Mormon market) and a lot of work to get everything established (although it may be possible to develop all of this over the long term).

Of course, it may be possible to avoid some or all of this by using partners — such as developing a store that is simply links to the books on Amazon or another online seller. But that idea also has drawbacks — such as not being able to include titles that aren’t in the partner’s catalog.

I’m not quite sure that I’ve included everything in the difficulties above. I’ve probably left out something somewhere. But I do believe that the difficulties are significant.

But I also don’t want to give the idea that these difficulties are insurmountable. They are not. While its a lot of work, the project is worthy, and could make a big difference. It is possible, and even probable that a store like this will exist.

The title database is, I think, the most important piece. And the Mormon Literature and Creative Arts Database gives anyone who wants to do this a big chunk of the old data that they need. Unfortunately, without the access we asked about last year, I’m not sure that we can use it as a place to store even the relevant portions of the data needed — its not possible to add data there yourself! So perhaps we just need a way to create a structured database and give the Mormon Literature community access to add and modify data. Once that information is available, the other difficulties may be easier to solve.

20 comments: “The Difficulties Faced by an Online Mormon Lit Bookstore

  1. Wm Morris

    I completely agree, Kent. The only way you could even dream of competing with Deseret Book is by being comprehensive and once you attempt to do that the issues you raise come in to play.

    I also think that you’d need to add metadata related to content warnings in order to truly sell it to the LDS consumer. Just because someone is willing to step beyond what Deseret Book sells, doesn’t mean that they want to embrace everything — for example, I’m pretty sure there are some LDS Fiction readers who would read Hunting Gideon and even No Going Back, but not Brother Brigham or Angel Falling Softly. Some sort of content rating system combined with a recommendation system (if you like this, you’ll probably like this) would be a smart thing to have. Tagging all the titles with content ratings would be a huge project (even assuming you can come up with the right criteria to use).

  2. stacy

    Yeah, if the publishers themselves don’t do Title Information sheets, that’s a huge problem. Most national-market publishers know they have to do so. But if it’s listed on Amazon, for example, wouldn’t the publisher have the bulk of the marketing/title information you would need for a listing? The other things, like a rating system and metadata, would of course need to be solved by the developers.

    There are websites out there for a general audience that review and rate books for content purposes, though they don’t sell them and it’s not a specifically LDS audience. I’m trying to think of the one that a couple New York publishing insiders just started after leaving big houses, aimed at giving parents a resource for children’s/YA books. I can’t remember now.

  3. Wm Morris

    I think this may have been mentioned already, but Google Editions could change things.

  4. Jonathan Langford

    Good points. Here are some thoughts in response:

    – It may be that the best way to go would be not to make something that would literally sell books, but rather a database with links to booksellers (publishers, Amazon.com, DB, Sam Weller’s). This would eliminate problems #3 and #4, together with much of the need for a monetary investment. It would also mean that the place wouldn’t need to worry about business partnerships and whether it would be seen as a competitor by established publisher outlets. Downside: It would also eliminate the potential profit motive, though with Amazon.com at least I believe it’s possible to set up links so that one gets a kickback from people following the links. I doubt that would do more than help pay for the website, though.

    – People with a primary motive for adding books would be publishers and authors themselves. Other (older) titles could be done on a volunteer basis. This would involve making some kind of electronic form available and then having a system in place to review and implement it. Perhaps this is obvious, but ideally one would get a system in place to put in rudimentary/incomplete information and then have people add to it or correct it as they have opportunity. The system would have to be moderated, but should actively recruit input from users.

    – If the place is not actually selling books, it may be possible to get some kind of institutional sponsorship (e.g., from AML). While I know that AML doesn’t have volunteer labor out there waiting to be used, still there could be advantages to this kind of connection in terms of institutional legitimacy, longevity, and volunteer recruitment. For example, perhaps Jeff Needle could be begged to add completion of some of the “tagged” form elements as one of the tasks undertaken by AML reviewers, at least on an optional basis.

    – While I like AML’s inclusive “by, for, and about Mormons” definition for purposes of discussion, I think we would need a narrower and clearer definition for this endeavor. My proposal: It must be literature (including personal essays and possibly memoirs, but not primarily historical or doctrinal works) featuring Mormon characters or themes as a major element. E.g., O.S. Card’s Folk of the Fringe stories would be included, but not his Ender’s Game series. This would help to keep the size of the project merely impossible, as opposed to impossible squared.

    Thoughts?

  5. Darlene

    Thanks to Jonathan for the heads-up on this discussion.

    Speaking for myself only (not AML), I think that providing a database of LDS lit absolutely falls under our mission. I can totally see us doing something like what Jonathan describes (letting publishers/authors provide their own info and links to purchase). Of course, it would be better if we (well, whoever we are) could also add information that the publishers don’t provide, such as reviews and comparisons, ratings etc., probably a lot like what you see on Amazon. If we could make it really thorough so that users came to trust the site and use it, the motivation would be there for authors and publishers to make sure we got the info we needed.

    I can’t, however, possibly imagine where we would get the volunteers to do such a project. Currently, we are hoping to find volunteers just to help us keep the organization alive. As perfectly as I believe this kind of a project would fit our mission, I can’t imagine how we could possibly do it. I’ll definitely plan on discussing it at the next board meeting, though.

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jonathan, Mahonri:

    I think the question of scope is an important one, and depends on many factors. As far as marketing is concerned, I don’t think it makes sense for this store to limit its offerings to literature — the fact is that people buy non-fiction also, and limiting what you offer limits your sales. Of course, if its isn’t a store, but just a database with links, limiting makes much more sense.

    But then, as I observed at the end of the post, I’m not sure how different it is from the MLCA! Would it be possible to just add fields (and outside access) to the current MLCA and get where we want to be?

    Darlene, I agree that it should fit under the AML umbrella quite well as long as it isn’t a commercial effort. But I think that you would find more volunteers to work on it than you think. In addition to what Jonathan describes, collaborative sites like IMDB and Wikipedia (to name two efforts that are collaborative — the first is clearly more like what we are talking about here) tend to attract volunteers by themselves.

    I don’t know about others, but I remain quite frustrated with the MLCA situation simply because I DON’T have access to add information directly. I’m adding to my list of MLCA-type works weekly, if not daily, and I’m having to keep them in my own databases because I can’t add them myself, and I’m not willing to jump through hoops to get someone else to add them.

    Whatever gets done (if anything happens), it simply MUST be open so that users can by registering (or some other way of checking that they won’t add spam) add additional information.

  7. Moriah Jovan

    So…if it’s just a database and not a storefront… Where publishers can put up their own information… And add all sorts of extras…

    I guess we forgot about the Mormon Arts Wiki Katya set up and is diligently working on (as are a few of us others when we get a minute or two)?

  8. Jonathan Langford

    If the Mormon Arts Wiki can fill the various needs I’m talking about, that would be great. From what I’ve seen it’s not currently organized to fill the functions I was talking about in my original article: principally, to be a place where people can browse, easily and comprehensively, for the Mormon fiction that meets their interests, whatever those might be. But if there’s an interest in organizing it that way, I’d be more than pleased.

    I’m not the technical-solutions person here. All I’m saying is that we need a place that’s comprehensive enough, well-enough organized, and provides enough information that people can use it as the virtual equivalent of a bookstore: a place where people can find titles they don’t already know about that might interest them.

    I’d welcome feedback from either you or Katya on on how the Mormon Arts Wiki either can or can’t do what I called for in my original post.

  9. Wm Morris

    I think the wiki is a wonderful resource. But I do wish it wasn’t hosted by wikia and that there was a way to easily export the data there (and a way to shut down the wikia if you chose to move it so that it’s not competing for SEO).

    This has been flagged as biased so, ymmv, but the Controversy section here raises some of the issues with the platform: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikia

    Again, I’m happy that it exists (and that I’m included in it), but it’s not something that I personally would devote significant time to.

  10. Moriah Jovan

    I’d welcome feedback from either you or Katya on on how the Mormon Arts Wiki either can or can’t do what I called for in my original post.

    I’d have to leave the can/can’t part to Katya, but from my point of view, there IS a resource and since Somebody Ought To Do This is nowhere near as poised to launch such a venture (who is actually willing to), perhaps using what actually EXISTS should be good enough until somebody can come up with a better idea.

    Is there a better solution? Sure there is, and I’ve expounded on it here. Am I capable of doing it? Oh, yeah. I am extremely well positioned to pull this off, but there is one thing I DON’T have, and that’s time–especially to work on something that won’t give me a decent ROI anytime soon, or probably ever. Quite frankly, I think the interest from LDS non-arts-community types in even Googling for such a resource would be negligible.

    (In fact, I just let the domain names I bought for this purpose lapse because if I haven’t done it in the last two years, it’s clearly not that high on my priority list.)

    Which is why I don’t think about how it can be done better, because it is being done, and by someone who understands categorization very, very well.

    This topic’s come up several times and it’s always the same with the same wishlist, but no one’s done anything…except Katya. Her money, her time.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that until Somebody Ought To Do This ponies up the money for domains, hosting, and software, and the time to help build the database, likely nothing else is going to happen.

  11. Kent Larsen Post author

    Moriah, there are two (important, IMO) reasons that I’m not behind Katya’s effort:

    * Because it doesn’t have institutional support I have doubts about its ability to continue long term. Katya could solve this with enough partners with full access

    * More importantly for this discussion, a Wiki isn’t a structured database — you can’t do a search on the cover price, for example, and get the output sorted from highest to lowest.

    IMO, a wiki is simply not the tool for this situation.

  12. Moriah Jovan

    IMO, a wiki is simply not the tool for this situation.

    I understand that. I understood it before. But if it’s not the tool, what IS?

  13. Kent Larsen Post author

    Off hand, I’d say a database-driven website, using mysql or a similar database.

    Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with any tool that makes setting up these websites easy (like Mediawiki is easy to set up) — you often need a programmer.

    I’ll keep my eye out either for a good, easy-to-use package, or a programmer willing to help (my son could do it, but he is into another project at the moment.

  14. Katya

    I’d welcome feedback from either you or Katya on on how the Mormon Arts Wiki either can or can’t do what I called for in my original post.

    Sure. I have one comment to make here and then I’ll move over to that thread, so as not to monopolize Kent’s post.

    I think the wiki is a wonderful resource. But I do wish it wasn’t hosted by wikia and that there was a way to easily export the data there (and a way to shut down the wikia if you chose to move it so that it’s not competing for SEO).

    I actually agree with you about Wikia. I got very frustrated with some of their changes in advertising just a couple of months after I set up the original wiki, so I’ve been working on acquiring my own domain name and moving the entries over to a MediaWiki installation there, but it’s been slow going because the pages have to be moved individually and because of some health problems and some technical complications that are making the move not as smooth as it could be.

  15. Wm Morris

    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had some difficulties, Katya. Is the moving of content something that the rest of us could help with? I’m tied up with Monsters & Mormons for the near future, but I’d be happy to do what little I can.

  16. Katya

    Thanks for the kind words, William. Let me see if I can get the new site a little tidied up and then yes, it’s really just copying and pasting from the old site to the new one (and then deleting the old page, but I’ll have to check on who currently has permissions to do that).

  17. Jonathan Langford

    Rather than repeating the comments I just made on my original post, I’ll simply mention that I did make them and encourage people to look at Katya’s comments and then mine.

    FYI, Jeff Needle has expressed to me that he’s open in concept to adding more fields to the standard AML book review format.

    I really do appreciate everyone’s feedback on this. I agree that something that we could actually make work (even if it isn’t everything that we’d like) is preferable to an ideal site that never actually gets going. Mostly, I’m trying to express what I see as the need: something that could be a one-source reference point where I could refer people who want to explore what exists and what they might like in the world of Mormon letters, that would be inclusive (e.g., including books like mine and Moriah’s and William’s) rather than exclusive (like the existing LDS bookstores).

  18. Noelle Campbell

    I know this is an old post, but I think you are not considering ebooks and mobile books. Deseret Book is extremely expensive and has very very few ebooks and mobile books (kindle books/mobipocket, etc.). They are completely non competitive in this part of the market (and behind the times). Many authors are turning to ebooks (and self publishing) to break into the business. A savvy businessman might take advantage of this. If you do, let me know! I’ll be the first to give you access to my YA novel!

  19. Kent Larsen

    Noelle, I don’t think we’re ignoring ebooks at all. Most of what was said above is as true of ebooks as it is of physical books.

    [FWIW, I don't see any real distinction between ebooks and "mobile" books. Format wise there isn't any difference, and even the marketing audience is essentially the same -- so I'm not at all sure why you are making a distinction.]

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