Publishers Corner: Do Mormon Novelists Have a More Difficult Time Getting Published?

Guest post by Jana Riess

Because I work in publishing, would-be authors sometimes ask me to explain how they can get an agent or editor to look at their fiction.1 It’s occurred to me over several years of having these conversations that the playing field for aspiring novelists may not be quite equal.

The worst news I have to give is always for Mormon novelists. They are in for an uphill battle for more than the usual reasons. The usual reasons are:

1) It is nearly impossible for publishers to sell “first fiction” (debut novels) because fiction readers are inherently conservative. Whereas non-fiction readers care far more about topic than they do about author, fiction readers tend to gravitate toward authors they already know (or that Oprah recommends). Most are reluctant to try new voices. Therefore, publishers have to be conservative about even acquiring untried writers.

2) For every agent working in America there are at least 99 authors who want representation. It’s just brutally competitive.

But in addition to these obstacles, I would argue that Mormon novelists—especially those who want to write for an LDS audience—face additional challenges that their peers do not. Their problem is an inadequate infrastructure. To illustrate, let’s consider the hypothetical case of Jane, who has just finished her first novel—a Mormon romance set in the 1940s—and is shopping it around.

If Jane were an evangelical Christian, she could send her query to one of two dozen Christian (“CBA”) book houses, all of which have their particular niches: Bethany House is renowned for literary and historical fiction, Revell for lighter-hearted fare. Thomas Nelson puts out strings of bestsellers and is particularly known for suspenseful thrillers. WaterBrook is terrific for fantasy and YA. Houses like Barbour and Harvest are known for romance and Amish fiction. And on and on.

But Jane is a Mormon, writing about Mormon themes, so she can send her manuscript to Deseret Book and to . . . Deseret Book. It’s now essentially the only publishing house in town. Deseret used to have bona fide competition in the form of Bookcraft (publisher of the phenomenally successful, if cheesy, Work and the Glory series) and Covenant Communications, but both of these companies have been acquired by Deseret.

Although Deseret has some reach into the national market, particularly for its highly successful middle-grade-reader works like Leven Thumps and Brandon Mull’s fiction, it is not part of a major publishing conglomerate like some of the CBA houses are. WaterBrook, for example, is part of the larger Random House family; Zondervan is aligned with Harper; Howard is owned by Simon & Schuster. Those connections can make a huge difference for authors, both in the amount of money that these houses can afford to pay their authors (it’s still usually going to be in the four figures for a first-timer, but that’s better than nothing) and in the wider distribution their books can achieve.

Which brings us to another problem for Mormon writers. Distribution in the Mormon world is now more tightly controlled than in any other publishing market in the United States. It’s not just that Deseret is the only publisher of any size, but that it operates the only sizable retail operation in the LDS market, with 37 stores. When it acquired Covenant Communications five years ago, it also swallowed Seagull Book, Covenant’s own distribution channel with 26 stores. Today the situation is that independent LDS bookstores, like independent bookstores everywhere, are closing or being franchised (by Deseret in this case), so the Mormon retail experience is controlled by a single company with virtually no competition.

What all this means for Jane is that if she isn’t lucky enough to be one of the elite handful of writers to make Deseret’s own publishing list, but she manages to sign with a much smaller Mormon house, her novel still might not actually reach its intended audience. Deseret, which naturally gives precedence to its own product line, might not choose to carry it in its stores. Moreover, even if Jane’s novel makes the distribution cut, Deseret certainly would have no reason to give it the kind of marketing push (in-store signage, readings and appearances) it might provide for its own writers.

The glimmer of light for aspiring Mormon novelists is that the rapid changes occurring throughout the publishing world are opening things up. Sure, Deseret controls Mormon retail, but as I said at the outset, traditional booksellers in general are starting to fail. It’s not just the Borders chain that’s on the brink. With the rise of Amazon and online retailing, brick-and-mortar stores (and all of the strict distribution rules they employ) are going the way of the dinosaurs. Jane might think that this is bad news for her publishing chances—without bookstores, how will people see and buy her novel?—but it’s actually a tremendous opportunity is she’s willing to be creative.

What I’d tell Jane is that if Deseret doesn’t nibble, she needs to take matters into her own hands and self-publish. Yes, I hear your cry of dismay, but bear with me. The first barrier against self-publishing has always been that bookstores won’t carry self-published books. That’s still true, but it’s irrelevant in Jane’s case. Even if Jane sells her book to a tiny Mormon house, the most important Mormon stores—Deseret Stores—won’t carry it anyway, so she has nothing to lose by self-publishing. The other major barrier to self-publishing has always been that Jane’s novel won’t be reviewed in major national review outlets, and that’s also still true. However, having worked at one of those magazines for nine years, I can tell you that a Mormon romance by a debut novelist is highly unlikely to have passed their review system anyway—so again, Jane has nothing to lose by self-publishing.

And this is where the relatively small size of the Mormon market really works in Jane’s favor. In the absence of major print reviews, she can focus her attention on the Bloggernacle and the tight-knit community of Mormons online. I’d recommend that Jane hire a professional publicist to help with this and to secure a few media interviews (which are hard to score for fiction, and virtually impossible for authors to do on their own). Yes, outside publicity is expensive, but in many cases, a good publicity campaign increases the sales of a book by at least half that initial investment. And since Jane is self-publishing, those profits are hers to keep and invest in promoting her next book.

Once Jane has built a career for herself, promoting her fiction far and wide to a growing group of fans, she may find that Deseret Book comes to her asking for a contract. Jane might decide to go that route for the increased visibility—particularly if Deseret agreed to purchase, rebrand, and stock all her backlist—but she may not. The ball is in her corner.

Jana Riess worked for nine years as the Religion Book Review Editor at Publishers Weekly and is now an acquisitions editor for Westminster John Knox Press. She is the author, co-author, or lead editor of nine books, including Mormonism for Dummies and The Writer’s Market Guide to Getting Published. Her memoir Flunking Sainthood will be published in November.

1. Please note that while I sometimes provide general publishing advice to aspiring writers, I do not evaluate book proposals or manuscripts, or act as a de facto agent to connect aspiring writers with agents and editors.

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22 Responses to Publishers Corner: Do Mormon Novelists Have a More Difficult Time Getting Published?

  1. I think telling Mormon authors it’s hard for them to get novels published nationally is a huge generalization. Everything you outline here for the Mormon market is quite realistic, but for genre writers and writers for children and young adult novels, the market is better than ever. The number of LDS authors of children’s and YA books alone has risen exponentially, and if you take a look at Howard Tayler and Eric James Stone‘s recent blog posts on the subject of LDS writers of speculative fiction (there’s some YA crossover there) prompted by the recent LDS Storymakers conference (which, if you didn’t know about it, is the conference that awards the Whitneys every year), you’ll see that those numbers have risen by quite a lot in the last 10 years as well.

    Many people wonder about the reasons for this (Howard has some excellent thoughts on the subject, as do the comments on that post), but the point is that Mormons are doing quite well on the national market.

  2. Just to be clear, I don’t want to detract from some great information here. Just wanted to clarify.

    (BTW, Jana, I met several people who know you a couple weekends ago at the ASJA conference, where I stepped into a panel at the last minute.)

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Responding to Stacy: I think the key difference lies in Jana’s phrase, “writing about Mormon themes” — and particularly for a Mormon audience. For Mormons who aren’t writing about Mormon themes, the market is wide open — or rather, at least as open as for anyone else. But for Mormon writers who want to write about Mormon topics and experience, the national market mostly isn’t an option at present. Yeah, you get things like Eric James Stone’s Mormon-themed sf story “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” (and more power to him), but based on what I’ve seen, that’s mostly an anomaly (and not directed toward Mormon readers).

    Based on my own experience with No Going Back, I have to say that Jana’s 100% correct. The only thing I would add is that in addition to no infrastructure, there’s also a relatively small developed readership for Mormon-themed fiction. It’s my impression that many LDS readers have little interest in Mormon fiction, possibly because of poor experiences in the past or low expectations without any experience to back it up at all. Obviously, complaining about this does no good; the only effective response is to slowly persuade them that it’s worth their time by getting them to try books that they wind up liking. Unfortunately, avenues for sharing those titles on a broader community scale within the Mormon world are relatively scarce — and one fewer now that BYU Magazine has made the decision not to cover Mormon literature anymore with Richard Cracroft’s retirement from writing his book review column.

    • Jonathan–I realize that. That’s why I said that the Mormon market is very different from the national market. Unless you mean writing Mormon themes for a national market? Depends on how you approach it. Treat it as if it’s part of the character’s background culture, and you’re more likely to find a home for a book–just like you’re more likely to find a mainstream novel about a person who happens to be Catholic than one that tries to make a point about the truth of Catholicism. I haven’t seen anything out there besides Orson Scott Card’s Lost Boys and Eric’s “That Leviathan,” but it’s possible to do.

      And, by the way, if the story were middle grade or young adult fantasy/science fiction/mystery and featured a person of color as the main character, I’d love to see a book in which the character just happened to be Mormon, too. *Acquiring editor here.*

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I agree that “incidental” Mormonism could work just as well as any other kind of cultural identity, if handled right and if it meshes well with the story.

        I don’t think it’s quite what you’re talking about, but if you haven’t read it, you really ought to take a look at Lee Allred’s excellent story, “For the Strength of the Hills.” It’s an alternate history Utah War, told from the POV of a non-LDS soldier. Mormon themes are an integral part of it. So it *can* be done. And good luck with tracking down multicultural Mormon characters! If I happen to think of any ideas along those lines, I’ll keep you in mind…

  4. Pingback: So You Want to Be a Mormon Novelist? - Flunking Sainthood

  5. Annette says:

    Most of this is really great, but one thing to clarify–although DB owns Covenant, they function as two totally separate entities. They’re in different cities, with their own editorial staffs, etc. Submitting to one does not mean submitting to both.

  6. Janet Jensen says:

    Very informative, and a compelling argument. Where do you put Cedar Fort in describing the business? They seem to be growing.

  7. Angela H. says:

    Hey! Sounds like this Jane lady and I would have a lot to talk about. Although I didn’t self-publish Bound on Earth–and I think Parables, Zarahemla & Signature are good options to explore before going the self-publishing route, for a number of reasons–pretty much everything else you wrote about here matches my personal experience. Oh, except for the part where Deseret Book comes asking me to write them a book. Still waiting on that one. :-)

    I didn’t hire a publicist, but I did work my tail off trying to secure whatever publicity I could find. I was able to get an article in the SL Trib (albeit in the local section), a review in the Deseret News, and a bunch of interviews/reviews in the bloggernacle, all of which were helpful in spreading the word. The best review as far as buzz-generation was concerned was Courtney Kendrick’s review on C Jane Enjoy It, and I think it’s because my novel’s themes and storyline spoke specifically to her readership’s demographic. While it’s nice to have an article in the Tribune’s local section, chances are such an article won’t translate into many sales. With blogs, you can do a better job finding your target audience. I’m also a big fan of Goodreads. A network of like-minded readers recommending titles to their friends can be really helpful.

    That said, Bound on Earth hasn’t sold anywhere near the numbers one would expect if the novel had been published by Deseret Book. DB has a lot of power and it hurts not to be able to to tap into their distribution network. But if you know DB isn’t a good fit and your expectations re: fortune and fame are reasonable (e.g. you’re not going to make any real money and your, ahem, “fame” will be extremely limited in scope)? The route you outlined, Jana, is a great option. The internet, social networking, the bloggernacle, awards like the Whitneys and the AML awards–they all make it much easier for Mormon novelists to find their readership.

    I still maintain that the readership does exist. Mormons who enjoy good literature and are interested in exploring complexity as it relates to the Mormon experience are out there in numbers that still remain largely untapped. I expect that as more and more Mormons turn to internet-based word-of-mouth rather than traditional advertising and away from brick and mortar bookstores, writers of contemporary literary fiction with Mormon themes will have increased opportunity to reach these readers. Whether there’s a non-Mormon national readership interested in such themes is another question entirely.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Angela,

      I hope you’re right about that readership being out there. And I think you are right. The point is that so far, I don’t think it even occurs to most of them to go looking for Mormon literature. I agree that it will be a wonderful thing if less-formal channels can start taking the place of bookstores et al. in order to connect people with stories they would really enjoy reading about the Mormon experience. (Of course, that’s part of what we’re all trying to do here, right?)

      • Scott Hales says:

        ““I don’t think it even occurs to most of them to go looking for Mormon literature.”

        I also think this is certainly the case based on most conversations I have about Mormon literature. There is an audience out there, but they don’t have knowledge of and access to the books. Ever frugal, Mormons seem to be the kind to hit up the libraries before the bookstores, so they tend to read what’s on the shelves in their local library. That means, usually, that it’s not going to be a work of Mormon fiction (unless it’s a nationally marketed book by Shannon Hale, Brady Udall, or Orson Scott Card).

        Of course, I wonder if e-books and e-readers are going to change things. E-books tend to be cheaper, and they can be read on most PCs, so they have the potential to be really accessible even to those readers (like me) who hate to pay a lot (i.e. more than two bucks) for a book. Then, if there are enough blogs out there reviewing these books and interviewing the authors–that is, generating publicity–Mormon literature might get an opportunity to start crawling out from beneath the floorboards.

        That said, I can’t imagine that e-publishing would be any more lucrative for a Mormon writer than traditional publishing. So, that might deter some from taking the totally digital route. Of course, writing a Mormon-themed novel doesn’t seem like the thing someone does to make a buck.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      The only thing about this conversation, and others like it, that I really don’t get is why there seems to be this over-arching assumption that non-Mormons, particularly secularists, won’t be intrigued by a novel with “Mormon themes.” Of course, I’m not translating “Mormon theme” into Mormon evangelism, but themes that have to do with the LDS worldview: What makes a person “good”? When is it okay to do the wrong thing for the right reason (ala Nephi/Laban)? I could go on with questions like these that a Mormon context could handle quite nicely. Our writers have been doing this under the veil of SFF for decades. People like to read about the “other.” Hence the success of “ethnic” fiction.

      • C. M. Malm says:

        The problem is, for ethic fiction to be appealing (IMO, as someone who has always enjoyed reading about the “other”), it has to really be “other.” Unfortunately, most Mormons are too vanilla, too much like other Americans, for their “otherness” to be an easy sell. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But as Mahonri pointed out a few weeks ago, the default attitude toward Mormons seems to be “we’re not interested.” Not just in the gospel we preach, but in anything about our lives that isn’t weird enough to make fun of.

        • C. M. Malm says:

          ethNic *sighs*

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          I don’t really believe that. If people aren’t interested in anything other than what they can make fun of, it’s because they don’t know about anything beyond that.

          I have anecdotal evidence of about fifteen people (nonmembers) who were fascinated by what they saw in our culture as I wrote it. The sense of community was foreign, and especially the very concept of men who WILLINGLY devote their time, talent, and money to the running of the church.

          Bad netiquette alert. Unasked-permission-for quote from an email I got from a reader:

          I reread Mitch’s POV parts over and over trying to wrap my mind around why he GAVE and sacrificed so much…his time, money, heart and soul. [...] My only parallel is my Southern baptist maternal grandfather whom we lived with for four years (my high school years and I was a snot) before he died. He was a Mitch. [...] But my granddad remained steadfast, served as a deacon and LIVED his faith. I’ve never in the over 40 years since then met another person like him…until Mitch.

          To which I replied: The entire church is made up of men like that. How do you think such a large organization runs on volunteer effort?

          It blew her mind.

          Yes, we’re The Other, but if people know they aren’t going to get preached at (my reader base), they’ll go into it with an open mind.

          The fact is, though, that we don’t have enough of those works out there to know what people would and wouldn’t be interested in beyond what they can make fun of.

          (And after reading about Hamlet’s Father, I’ll tell you–Card’s not doing us any favors.)

          • Jonathan Langford says:

            Don’t know about Hamlet’s Father, but Card’s novella (novelette?) “West” did, I thought, a really exceptional job of showing Mormon faith and redemption in a way that could speak powerfully to non-Mormon readers.

  8. Some specifics: A good publicist will cost about $6,000. And a self-published book can still be DISTRIBUTED by Deseret Book. I know several authors who’ve done that.

  9. HB says:

    I enjoyed reading this, and am enjoying reading the commentary. It seems, as a children’s author, such a difficult thing to balance being a LDS author with being a READ author. And to deplete or dilute or fiction by eliminating the facets of our faith seems a preemptive strike.

    Around here in SC, unless we go online for used books, barring the extreme prices at our local bookseller who has a complete monopoly (and is not a Deseret, actually), means that finding any LDS novels or LDS themed novels is practically impossible. Add in having high standards for literary writing, and it is a difficult thing to find, let alone READ, books that have both our standards and our themes. Some, of course, can be passed about or bought, but unlike the gigantic “generalized Christian” section at our local library there is no LDS section or selections available. Buying books at random gets expensive. Is there a good, intelligent reviewer our there who specializes in LDS books, fiction and otherwise? Here in the field, we don’t get to know a lot of the connections and options that are around. I didn’t even know what mormonletters WAS five years ago. Thank goodness for the internet.

  10. Jonathan Langford says:

    HB,

    There are many sources for reviews on LDS books. The most comprehensive is AML’s own Review Archive, which you can access by clicking in the banner on this page.

    Probably the best place to start for a consistent, broad-lens set of recommendations over time is with Richard Cracroft’s ongoing Book Nook column in BYU Magazine (now being discontinued, alas — the Book Nook column, I mean). Just go to magazine.byu.edu, browse through the issues, and access the Book Nook column from each issue. It’s not too hard, although I can’t help but think it might be nice to collect them all in one easy-to-access location — or at least put together a set of consolidated links in one place. Hm…

    Past AML awards also provide a good list of Mormon literature in the past, though some of it may be more literary than is to some people’s tastes. For the last few years, the Whitney Award nominees are also a good source.

    Other suggestions, anyone?

  11. Gamila says:

    Jennie Hansen does consistent reviews of current LDS fiction on Meridian Magazine. http://www.ldsmag.com/author/260

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