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.