Publishers Corner: Approaching the National Market Through Ebooks

Guest post by Karen Gowen of WiDo Publishing

The e-book opportunity has opened up entirely new markets for LDS fiction. WiDo Publishing doesn’t limit its books to Mormon fiction or shy away from it. We have several titles that deal with Mormon themes and include Mormon characters.

The question is: Do these books need warning labels? “Warning: Mormon characters may be present in this novel. If you have anything against seeing fictional Mormons or Mormonism depicted in your reading material in a positive light, read no further.”

It appears so from several comments reviewers have made.  From a review on Arizona Guy by Raymond Spitzer:  “Its real purpose is to present Mormonism in a warm and cozy light, which is okay as far as it goes, but I would prefer to know up front that I’m being set up for some soft proselytizing.”

The book is a mystery with a few LDS characters, not the main character. There’s one scene where Arizona guy accompanies an LDS character to church. He doesn’t stay for longer than the opening hymn as his friend, a cop, is called away. Where’s the proselytizing in that?  That’s like saying a book with Catholic or Jewish characters is an effort at proselytizing if it shows these characters in a positive light and places a scene at their church or synagogue.

Our book Ghost Waves, by W. Everett Prusso, was making a run on Kindle sales lately after some free promotion, until this review hit:

“Religious Propaganda–The first chapter of this book starts off like any good pirate adventure book should…Caribbean islands, treasure kidnapping, etc, but then it goes to the main land and our first exposure to the protagonist’s family is their conversion to Mormonism. Their religion provides a legitimate historical backdrop/cause for the family to move west via a long voyage; however, it is laced with references that Brigham Young is the prophet of god, etc.

“I have nothing against religion, but when a pirate books has so many religious references in the beginning it should be advertised/marketed differently…..there is more on the agenda here than a swashbuckling pirate novel!”

Apparently this reader isn’t offended that the Mormons who traveled halfway around the world on the ship Brooklyn did so because of their belief in Brigham Young as a prophet of “god,” but that the characters actually stated such. This offended her sensibilities, making her feel like she was being preached at. Were they telling her as a reader to believe the same? No. Were they even main characters? No. It was simply a set-up to the rest of the story and a reason compelling enough for them to leave their homes and jobs and get on a ship.

This review hurt sales of Ghost Waves because of the heading: “Religious Propaganda.” Death knell to any work of fiction!  And so far, it’s not been able to recover.

So, what is the answer? Keep all Mormon characters out of fiction that isn’t properly labeled as “LDS fiction”? Possibly, if authors want to reach the wider audience that is now available through e-book readers.

We tried this with the commercial women’s fiction release, Roxanne in La La Land by L.A. DeVaul. The author wanted to explore themes of modesty in the modeling industry. Her main character becomes a top model who must deal with the immodesty and nudity in the fashion industry. Originally, Roxanne was LDS, and DeVaul’s editor suggested she make her some other religion. She changed Roxanne to Methodist with a Jewish mother and Irish-Catholic father. Why bring up Mormon issues when it’s not necessary for the purpose of the book?

Sometimes a book is about Mormon issues, such as Ann Carbine Best’s In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets. This has been a big seller as an e-book, placing on numerous Amazon best-seller lists. Judging by reviews, readers haven’t seemed offended about the Mormonism depicted; probably due to the words “married in the Salt Lake Temple” in the first line of the description. A subtle “warning”—Beware: Mormon characters ahead, read at your own peril.

One would like to think that a reading public is more accepting about all kinds of religions, personal beliefs and practices depicted in fiction. And, of course, they are, as long as it isn’t Mormons shown as real, normal, positive characters. Then, we need the warning label.

Karen Gowen
Coming Down the Mountain: A Writer’s Blog

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15 Responses to Publishers Corner: Approaching the National Market Through Ebooks

  1. This is an interesting topic. It’s almost as if Mormonism can only be dealt with tangentially by outsiders. One recent example is the title story in Nathan Englander’s new collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

    In this story, a Mormon character is referred to in passing, by two Jewish couples having a discussion (a la Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”). They touch briefly on his pouring himself a Coke, Baptisms for the Dead as it relates to holocaust victims, and even Mormon food-storage practices. In the end, though, the Mormon is held up as someone who would have the courage and goodness to hide his Jewish neighbors if it ever came to it. For that reason, i strikes me as an entirely positive reference.

    But if a Mormon tried to write that same story (Englander is Jewish), it would in all likelihood be condemned as preachy or apologetic.

    It’s interesting to note that when nothing is known about a book or its author, Mormon references are often met with a jaundiced eye- as if someone (author, publisher, whoever) is trying to sneak one past the goalie. I’ve got a hunch that will only change with time.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Interesting observation. As Mormons, we’re considered too close to the subject matter to write positively about ourselves.

      The other thing of course is that we need to make sure, when we do so, that we do it *well*. If people still reject our writing, then there’s nothing more to say about it. I can’t help but think, though, that if our characterizations and our stories are strong enough, over time we’ll win over readers, even if they have to put up with reading about Mormons.

    • Here’s my suggestion: let’s all publish under intensely ethnic-sounding pseudonyms. Raymond Spitzer will be Jang Bo-go, L.A DeVaul will be Chibuzor Okonkwo, I will be Mordechai Silverstein, and W. Everett Prusso can be Nephi Joseph Smithson.

      If you can’t beat ‘em, just confuse ‘em.

    • Karen Gowen says:

      “Mormon references are often met with a jaundiced eye- as if someone (author, publisher, whoever) is trying to sneak one past the goalie.”

      LOL, exactly so, that seems to be the reaction :) I really do hope that it changes with time but I seriously have my doubts. In fact, I expect it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    It’s a shame that you’ve encountered this reaction. I agree that there are people out there who will interpret positive references to Mormonism as proselyting, even if it’s really only a part of characterization. Maybe that’s partly a reaction to the Church’s latest soft-sell missionary marketing, where the message seems sometimes to be, “See, these cool people are also Mormons!” So there is perhaps a blur.

    One of my complaints in reviewing this year’s Whitney finalists is that so few of them directly address Mormon experience, even when the characters are religious. Given what you’re describing, though, it’s understandable that authors and publishers are making that choice.

    I’ve heard it said sometimes that you shouldn’t make your character Mormon unless that’s important to the story. But why? Every character has some kind of specific background. Why shouldn’t Mormonism be a valid option for that kind of character specificity? I don’t think our place in American literature will be truly mature until we can have characters that are simply Mormon, for no other reason than that’s what they happen to be.

    • Karen Gowen says:

      Jonathan, I almost wonder if readers who object to the innocuous character who simply happens to be LDS would object as strongly if the theme and purpose of the book is about the Mormon experience or some facet of it. This is the case with Ann Best’s memoir. Her gay husband was a teacher at BYU. The two of them had a meeting with Spencer W. Kimball. She often requested priesthood blessings. She counseled with her bishop over what to do about her situation. Yet among the nearly 40 reader reviews she has received, none of them mention the fact of her Mormonism in a negative light. Perhaps the difference is that her memoir deals with the Mormon experience rather than simply with a person who just happens to be Mormon. It’s an interesting thought to consider.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Those who dislike LDS doctrine or distrust LDS leaders or people, thinking them evil, will never be the audience for LDS works, even if we share the same values. Mormons aren’t going to succeed with, say, the Christian market. We aren’t simply “other” to them. Unfortunately, we are “enemy” in their eyes and anything that threatens to soften their view of Mormon life will be labeled evangelical, even if it isn’t. IMO we should be focusing on a secular audience if we write for outside our community. To them, we can be “other” without being “enemy.” This doesn’t mean we have to eliminate our values or become secular, but it may be a challenge to present those ideas.

    • Wm says:

      Aren’t the genres of mystery, pirate and chick-lit secular?

    • C. M. Malm says:

      Lisa gets it. I don’t know if too many Mormons live safely in Mormonland, or if Mormons are just really good at always assuming the best about others, but I continue to find it unnerving when I see other Mormons looking perplexed when they run into these attitudes. Somehow most Mormons don’t SEE how much we, as a people, are disliked by other Americans. Atheists/agnostics mock us for having the stupidest of all stupid religions; fundamentalist Christians view us as Satan’s spawn; and even ordinary people consider us to be some variety of “weird,” even if they are our friends and have a few nice things to say about us. I’m not even sure why this is surprising, if we are, as we claim, the true church of Christ. The truth is HATED of the World. Whenever you see hatred all out of proportion to the actual object of that hatred, something is going on.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        I continue to find it unnerving when I see other Mormons looking perplexed when they run into these attitudes.

        What she said.

        Every time *I* say it in the bloggernacle, somebody tells me it just ain’t so.

        When the right-wing evangelical voting bloc that DESPISES Obama would rather he remain in office than a MORMON who is marginally better, that’s hatred of a visceral sort.

  4. D. Michael Martindale says:

    No warnings or disclaimers. If proselyting is a problem, the solution is simple: don’t proselyte!

    If the problem is people who think showing Mormons in anything by a negative light is proselyting, the solution is still simple: screw ‘em! They’re biased, and you have no obligation to cater to their bias.

    Oh, and writing a story so compelling that most people will overlook the inclusion of Mormon characters would also definitely help. Making “clean” or “appropriate” your top priority in your storytelling does not contribute to this.

    It’s what I’ve been saying all along: be honest in your storytelling. Make sure your Mormon characters are as real as any other character you’d write, complete with virtues and flaws. Just be honest. Just tell the truth.

    People that complain about the mere existence of Mormon characters are like people that claim a Mormon should never be president. They’re bigoted jerks that should be ignored.

    But at the same time, Mormon writers who do write proselyting books or show Mormons as ideals rather than real people only give ammunition to those who wish to dismiss Mormon literature. Cut that out! There’s a reason the stereotypical impression of Mormon literature developed.

    • Karen Gowen says:

      In the cases of these two books, Arizona Guy and Ghost Waves, there is no proselytizing, yet the particular reviewers who claimed there was believed it to be the case. It would be like if Jewish character who emigrated from the U.S. or Europe to Israel and explained to another character why they made that decision, then this dialogue is considered proselytizing for Judaism. Of course, any intelligent reader would say that’s a silly claim. But substitute Mormon for Jew and that’s what you get. Claims of being a “soft-sell” when that’s not at all the purpose.

      I suppose you could read the two books in question and see if you agree that they fit in the category of “stereotypical Mormon literature.” I don’t think they do at all. But after you read them, email me and tell me your thoughts.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    My audience doesn’t have a problem with it. My characters are who they are and the Mormonism *explains* their behavior and motives.

  6. Lee Allred says:

    Funny you should mention warning labels. Recently did a rather in-depth author interview and the issue of a upcoming Mormon fiction project of mine came up. Actual quote from me from the interview:

    “There’s been discussion of slapping on a warning label to protect poor unsuspecting Gentile readers from buying a book chock full of Mormon cooties. Warning! Graphic wholesomeness and rampant goody-two-shoeiness inside! Parental discretion advised!”

  7. LOVE this discussion, since it’s a repeat of everything we’ve discussed for the past 100 years! And the discussion gets better all the time. Was GIANT JOSHUA the first “Mormon” novel to win a national audience? It was heavily edited by the savvy editor who designed it to “reveal” the Mormon chaos, and it was a best seller (for a while). In the meantime, Maureen Whipple’s life fell apart. (If you want to read something interesting, try Veda Hale’s SWELL SUFFERING, Whipple’s biography). Okay, so I vowed not to be a Maureen Whipple! (Or Martha Nibley, or a number of other “anti’s” who can easily publish their work in New York dubbing Mormons as a weird cult.)

    But wow, have I felt the “discrimination.” ALMOST, I won over Carol Houck Smith at New York’s Norton, but it was a fight, and I didn’t win. Now I am seeing national bestselling authors (David Ebershoff, THE NINETEENTH WIFE, and now Sandra Dallas, TRUE SISTERS) take our Mormon stories and make tons of money with them. And, surprisingly, both of these (can’t say the same for MORMON MASSACRE) were more favorable toward Mormons than I expected. But I still yearn to see a “true”Mormon, (not disaffected) telling these tales.

    “Outsiders” won’t always be the only ones successfully writing our stories. Our UVU novel award winner (the thousand dollar best novel, went this year to an absolutely amazing manuscript by Scott Hatch, who teaches at UVU. But to publish it on the national market he will have to strip the priesthood blessings from it. Actually, to me, that will not be a bad move. The writing is so spectacular (competes with Marilynne Robinson), the story so culturally “us,” and the essence of the characters so powerful, it is the kind of literature that should answer the questions we’re asking here and have asked for years. Hope so.

    I’m looking forward to the young writers struggling to produce that literature. It’s coming. Michael Martindale’s voice represents the best “warning.” We can look at ourselves as “people.” Like other people. But we don’t need to blast it with our language. It can be our secret that we prize “creating a life” as much as we prize “creating literature.”

    Karen Gowen’s books are an example of good clean family literature that comes out of the lives of Mormons. And I think she’s had success with them. I’m never sure about Mormons and pirates, etc. I read the “pirate” book and just wasn’t that impressed with the “expertise” of the other many facets of novel-writing: character development, language, structure, etc. Study study study and write write write. We can do it! We just have to become BETTER. Even BEST! So keep it up, novelists! Just don’t worry about SALES. It’s going to happen one of these days!

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