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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.