Publishers Corner: What to Publish?

It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’ve just finished preparing the 2009 royalty statements and checks for Zarahemla Books authors. Sometimes I wonder about spending so much time on this endeavor, but I felt good today when I totaled up the grand total of books sold since Zarahemla started in 2006: 4,000 copies of 11 titles, with revenues totaling over $30,000. So that’s not nothing. And just yesterday I spent two hours on the phone with a non-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune reporter who is very interested in Zarahemla and is preparing a feature article. Other times, however, it seems like weeks go by without so much as a single book order coming in, and I start to wonder…

Anyway, for this entry I thought I’d discuss the biggest challenge facing Zarahemla and see if anyone can help. The biggest challenge is not financial, as some might guess, although there are times when I have to delay publishing a book or doing marketing until enough sales trickle in to finance it. The biggest challenge is that I don’t personally feel fully able to decide what to publish. What I’ve published so far has mostly been written by authors whose work or reputation I already knew, and I have a sense that I’m not effectively reviewing unsolicited submissions or putting enough feelers out to make sure Zarahemla is getting a shot at the very best stuff out there, faithfully realistic stuff that might not otherwise be published because it’s too worldly for most Mormons and too Mormon for the world.

For me personally, the problem boils down to not having enough time or willingness to read. When unsolicited submissions come in, I usually either ignore them or pass them on to somebody else who I hope might read and report back, although I’ve done that fairly informally and perhaps hamfistedly (perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of one of my e-mails inviting you to consider a manuscript on Zarahemla’s behalf). At one time, I had two fine gentlemen who were acting as acquiring editors, and they each acquired and edited a book, both of which sold between 100-200 copies. But then one of them accepted a book that I didn’t personally like enough to invest my time in, and understandably that put him off.

What would you do in my situation, if you ran a small niche publishing endeavor and wanted to make sure you were publishing the right things but didn’t have enough time to really evaluate everything, let alone reach out to find good stuff? Ideally, what I’d like is a panel of readers willing to review incoming submissions and also maybe get out and actually drum up submissions, and then report to Zarahemla with recommendations. And then I could determine what interests me enough to pursue, based on those recommendations.

There’s part of me that says, “If others in the Mormon literary community don’t care enough to volunteer some reading time and thoughtful analysis, then maybe I don’t care enough to keep doing what I do either.” After all, I have my own writings and other pursuits that I’ve set aside to do Zarahemla, and it’s not like Zarahemla pays me anything (although I have to admit, when things have gone well Zarahemla has been able to pay some peripheral expenses, such as cell phone and computer equipment).

Zarahemla already has three books in the pipeline for 2010, which I will turn to as soon as I can find time; while all three are very high quality and worthwhile, none seem like titles that would sell more than 50-100 copies. In the meantime, occasional submissions roll in, and it’s not too early to start looking ahead to 2011. If you’d like to volunteer to be on some kind of Zarahemla editorial board or panel, let me know. What that would mean is that I would forward you submissions and also use you as a sounding board on other things. Of course, you would be free to ignore anything that comes from me. When no one responds, I’ll often just turn around and tell an author, “I’m sorry, none of our readers has opted to read your manuscript.”

Any other advice or ideas about how to run Zarahemla and decide what to publish would be most welcome. I’d love to hear any kind of blue-sky ideas, even along the lines of suggesting I pass on the enterprise to another group or organization, so that one person’s taste isn’t controlling things too much (for instance, Zarahemla will never publish poetry on my watch; from my perspective as a reader, poetry is like having someone put a raw, unpeeled potato on my plate and say, “Good luck digesting that,” instead of giving me a nice heap of creamy mashed potatoes, already practically predigested for me).

Thanks in advance for any input, advice, suggestions, ideas, critiques, or anything else about the issues I’ve raised above or anything else related to Zarahemla Books or beyond. I suppose I’m assuming that most people reading the AML blog are already somewhat familiar with Zarahemla Books, which may or may not be accurate. But anyway, now I need to move on this Saturday afternoon to doing my own taxes, commenting on student drafts, editing and writing for my current freelance book project, plus trying to interact with my wife and kids to some degree and help run the household… And oh, crap, it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow.

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83 Responses to Publishers Corner: What to Publish?

  1. Wm Morris says:

    First of all: thanks for always being willing to share the details of what’s going on with Zarahemla Books. I find it interesting and useful. And even more — we’re talking about 11 titles that may not have been published otherwise and a track record of publishing the best long form radical middle fiction over the past half decade.

    But to get to your question: this is where mainstream publisher rely on agents, but since the sales aren’t such in the world of Mormon fiction to support agents, you’re left with what you currently have — some readers you trust who may or may not have time to respond to the titles you get sent.

    So in the absence of agents, I propose that you do a few things.

    1. Have a submissions window each year. Irreantum has changed to this format. I instinctively didn’t like it, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I suggest you do the same.

    2. I think all submissions should be packaged just like they would for a national publisher. That means a polished query letter, a bio, a sample chapter, and well-written summaries of the other chapters. I know that I’d be more able to respond and help out if that’s what you were forwarding to me. In addition, you could then require 3-4 positive responses to the submissions package in order for things to proceed, with at least 2 of your readers committing to reading the full manuscript. If that happens, then you request the full manuscript and those two readers follow through on their commitment (and hopefully some other readers read the manuscript and provide comments, as well, but the idea here is to create some stages to really gauge enthusiasm for particular works).

    3. I think that you should factor in the marketability of the work and the ability of the author to generate pr for it in to your decision making. It pains me to say so because some of my favorite titles of the 11 you have published so far probably rank in the lower half of sales. This is not to say that you change the overall approach in terms of what type of fiction ZB publishes but you do need a minimum of sales in order to continue to sustain the business so the marketing/pr/sales side of things should count for something as you build your list of future titles.

    4. Consider sub-contracting with an editor/publisher who would focus on 1-2 e-book only titles per year — specifically novellas and short novels. This would be a way to generate some sales to add to the bottom line, discover talent, and create a fuller catalog for ZB. I’m not entirely sold on this idea, but it just came to me so I thought I’d include it.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    [blockquote][b]If others in the Mormon literary community don’t care enough to volunteer some reading time and thoughtful analysis, then maybe I don’t care enough to keep doing what I do either.[/b][/blockquote]

    Well, bless your heart.

  3. Th. says:


    [i][u]Full disclosure:[/u] Mine is the novel Chris mentions above that one of his acquiring editors chose and then Chris "didn’t personally like [it] enough to invest [his] time in". The editor and I had spent over a year working on it when, according to the email Chris sent me, he read "the prologue and first chapter" and told me to go to Lulu (I’m not joking).[/i]

    So, in my opinion, if you want help, Chris, you should only accept it from people you are willing to trust. It’s unfair to let someone work on a project over a year with your full blessing only to reject it after a cursory ten-page read.

    I have been a vocal supporter of Zarahemla’s from the beginning. Even after getting the shaft I’ve supported you publicly. (Although, to be honest, I have privately warned some writers away from submitting to you.) Although I might sound bitter within the realm of this comment, as you have used about half a dozen of my reviews in your promotional emails, I think I’ve shown myself able to treat your books’ individual qualities separately from any residual feelings I may have.

    I’m not sure how what I’m saying can translate into advice, but, frankly, I, Theric, would not be willing to help you in a substantive manner, no matter how much I may laud Zarahemla’s raison d’être. I just couldn’t believe that my help would ultimately be accepted.

  4. Release some titles as ebooks only. BTW, if you’ve got a publish-ready MS and no publisher, I recommend CreateSpace, Smashwords, and Amazon DTP. Read this:

  5. I like William’s idea #2 of formalizing the submission process with query letter and sample chapter (or two) plus summary. That gives a more manageable bite and provides a first step in the process–with the goal of determining whether it’s worth a look at the whole manuscript.

    Ultimately, if you’re going to pull other people into the screening/acceptance process, the only way to be fair to the writer, avoiding the kind of situation that developed with Theric, is either (a) to get involved yourself early on so the writer doesn’t get strung along, or (b) divest yourself of some of the decision-making power, so that if x-many of your readers like the MS, you agree to publish it regardless of your personal opinion.

    One possibility might be to have you do a read-through of the first-chapter-plus-summary after it’s been reviewed positively by some x-number of your readers but before requesting the complete manuscript. Hopefully, that would tell you enough to know if it’s something you couldn’t stand publishing. This wouldn’t be an acceptance, but rather a screening to make sure people aren’t wasting their time by reading a complete MS that you wouldn’t be willing to publish regardless.

    I like having multiple publishers out there, with their own variable tastes. From a personal perspective, I’d prefer that you not hand over Zarahemla to someone else just for that reason.

    I think you/we need an e-version release strategy. That seems to be becoming a bigger demographic, and has the advantage of no inventory costs.

    William: I’m not sure what the value of the submission window would be. Can you clarify this?

  6. To keep the slush pile from piling up and to quickly filter out everybody who can’t be bothered to read the submission guidelines.

    Amazon is selling a lot of Kindles and those Kindle owners want to justify the sunk cost. They will give a $2.99 ebook a second look when they’d never ever consider the more expensive paper version. This Joe Konrath post sums it up:

  7. Eugene,

    You wrote (presumably in response to my query about the value of a submission window): "To keep the slush pile from piling up and to quickly filter out everybody who can’t be bothered to read the submission guidelines."

    To which I respond: What’s the point of that? Capability to read the submission guidelines has, I suspect, little to nothing to do with whether a story is worth publishing. Why add a requirement that has little or nothing to do with what a publisher’s actually interested in?

    I can see the point of having a submission window if it means that you can muster people to do all the screening all at once (e.g., from a magazine perspective). I can’t see how it helps with a print publisher, though, unless Chris was able to schedule his year more predictably–which I’m guessing is not the case.

  8. Well, lots of agents and publishers do this, so I’m trying to explain why they do it (and it makes perfect sense to me why they would do it). It’s simple gatekeeping. All gatekeeping requires coming up with arbitrary–as well as substantive–ways of shifting the wheat from the chaff. College degrees are a good example.

    The few publishers that still have a slush pile can only spare a few interns to wade through it. Most of this drudgery has been relegated to agents, but neither do agents have an infinite amount of time.

    Nathan Bransford (Curtis Brown Agency) wrote on his blog a while back: "While I was away on vacation last week, I received 327 queries." He says he reads all of them, but he’s also clear about what material he won’t rep and how the query should be written, so I suspect most get no more than a quick glance.

    Out of those 327, he notes that he requested 4 sample chapters. Was there a nascent Shakespeare lurking there in the 323? Maybe. But life is short and human effort is finite.

    He also mentioned on his blog that a writer came to his office without an appointment (appointments required!) wanting to hand-deliver a query, and he refused to see him. After all, the agent or publisher isn’t simply asking,"Does the MS has sufficient artistic merit?" but "Do I want to work with this person?"

    Great website:

  9. Melinda W. says:

    I’d be willing to be on the reader panel you mentioned, and read some of the slush pile. I’m not a published author, but I read a lot, including every issue of Irreantum. I read at least a dozen novels a month, and some of that is Mormon fiction, so I’m familiar with what’s out there. I’ve worked on my own novel and taken writing classes, which means I know the basics about character development and plot.

    I can’t be an editor, obviously, but I can send you my responses on whether or not I think the book is readable, interesting, and coherent. I’d like seeing what other peoples’ manuscripts look like. I can write you a review on each manuscript I read, and you tell me how you want my comments formatted.

    I also have the time to do the reading. I’m a SAHM right now, and when I run out of things to read, I have to clean my house.

    Melinda W

    (I assume you can get my email address from my signature if you’re interested in my help.)

  10. Th. says:


    As some one on both sides of this, Eugene’s comment is definitely true and it cuts both ways:

    [i]After all, the agent or publisher isn’t simply asking,"Does the MS has sufficient artistic merit?" but "Do I want to work with this person?"[/i]

  11. I feel inspired to actually type up some better author submission guidelines and place them on the Zarahemla website more prominently, incorporating many of the suggestions. I’m seriously considering the submission window idea.

    Theric, sorry you were part of my learning curve. I’ll tell you what, after my experience as a publisher, I no longer judge agents and publishers who are less than ideal in their communications and interactions with would-be authors!

    And for the record, I went through something similar to what Theric went through with Zarahemla, with Harper Collins. An editor there liked my book, but then her committee at the HarperSanFrancisco imprint thought I should take a different approach, so I slaved over a completely new proposal that included research, and then the head office in New York squashed it, because someone there didn’t like it. I don’t see what happened with Theric as being any different from that; it’s just how publishing all too often works… I do wish it didn’t have to be so, but I now fully understand the realities of how people have very different literary tastes and of the need to feel quite passionate about something in order to spend time and money on it.

  12. Tom says:

    "however, it seems like weeks go by without so much as a single book order coming in, and I start to wonder…"

    Chris, I perfectly understand your statement. With the present LDS book distribution environment, there is very little hope of an independent publisher getting wide attention. Our press gets an occasional news story from the associated press or from a local newspaper. People in fact hear about and want the book, but there is little chance their local bookstore caries the title. We are reduced to a few resilient and thoughtful, independent book sellers and, who sells our books at such a discount that it seriously undercuts the independents and leaves the publisher with very little margin for profit. The results has been devastating for hopeful authors.

    I/we are very proud of you for sticking with this venture as long as you have. Kudos cousin! Grandfather Solomon would be very proud.

    Tom Kimball
    Signature Books

  13. I’d like to hear more about submission windows. As I think about it, it seems like a good idea. Say I want to do/can do three books during 2011. So I will gather submissions in mid-2010, and then I have a distinct group from which to choose the three that are best, complement each other well, etc. And the rest of the year I don’t have to worry about submissions, until it comes time to establish the pool for 2012 in mid-2011.

    Seems like blacking out most of the year to submissions and then getting together a distinct pool would save time/stress and help make better decisions about what to publish. I suppose I would miss out on things from impatient authors, though. I know that as an author, when I’m done with a ms. I don’t want to wait six months to submit, just because the publisher won’t look at it before then…

  14. Thanks, cousin Tom. How about Signature bring in Zarahemla as an imprint and I come work with you full time in your cool old restored house, and you pay me the same corporate salary I’m getting now in my day job. When can I start?

  15. Th. says:


    [i]I don’t see what happened with Theric as being any different from that….[/i]

    There is one very significant difference. Writers get the shaft all the time. I get that. It’s not [i]good[/i] or even [i]okay[/i] — but it is [i]normal[/i]. People shouldn’t go into writing unless they can cope with getting screwed regularly.

    The difference between our stories comes with the editor. Your Harper editor drew a salary the whole time he was working with you. My Zarahemla editor was counting on royalties.

    This is significant because what you’re asking for in this post is editorial help. And why would editors want to join writers on the bottom of the totem pole?

    I’ve edited for royalties myself, but if I had worked on a project for over a year then had all hope of monetary compensation swept away from me, I would [i]never[/i] work for that publisher again.

    Zarahemla isn’t a nonprofit so asking for "volunteers" seems disingenuous. When people like me — frequent and vocal supporters of Zarahemla — don’t dare work with you, I think your best hope is to use devices like submission windows to manage the workload so you can do it yourself. It limits growth, but it sounds like you’re okay with that anyway. So I guess that would be my recommendation.

  16. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]Zarahemla isn’t a nonprofit so asking for "volunteers" seems disingenuous.[/b][/quote]

    Well, I would’ve used stronger language than "disingenuous," but "bless your heart" had to suffice until I cooled off, but I haven’t yet.


    [quote][b]If others in the Mormon literary community don’t care enough to volunteer some reading time and thoughtful analysis, then maybe I don’t care enough to keep doing what I do either.[/b][/quote]

    is nauseating on several levels.

  17. Christopher Bigelow says:

    Wow, I’ve got haters. I guess I’ve always just had a volunteer, non-profit mindset in my decade-plus of service to Mormon literature, but others seem to think there’s actually some money in it, or something? If I wanted to make a profit from publishing, I certainly wouldn’t be in the no man’s land where Zarahemla lies, where I consider a book successful if it sells 100 copies and breaks even on costs. Theric, it sounds like you and that editor were living on a completely different planet than I live on.

    Moriah, I don’t really see what your problem is either. Does it help if I reword it to say, "If others in the Mormon literary community don’t care enough to volunteer some reading time and thoughtful analysis, then maybe I don’t care enough to keep volunteering to do what I do either." If that doesn’t make my meaning more sympathetic, then I guess we’re living on different planets too.

  18. Christopher Bigelow says:

    Wizards of the Coast runs an interesting submission window program:

  19. While Zarahemla may not technically be a nonprofit, I don’t think that it’s made any profit to speak of, and as Chris mentioned above, he hasn’t taken any profits or salary from it either. Considering that Chris is, practically speaking, a volunteer himself, I hardly see how asking for help is "disingenuous."

    Theric, while I agree that what happened to you was truly awful, what I think Chris is asking for here–that is, reader’s reports on a novel–is very different from the in-depth editorial suggestion and revision support that you received. I agree that moving from that to a formal acceptance either (a) needs to involve Chris, if he’s going to continue to have the final say on all Zarahemla publications, or (b) needs to involve some kind of board or group who can make formal publication decisions–as I commented above.

    It might not be a bad idea for Chris to bring in more people to help with the editorial side of things–that is, editing documents after they’ve been accepted. I know that’s one of the parts Chris likes best, but if he could find someone he’s willing to trust on that score, it would cut out a major part of his time investment. Unfortunately, that person would also have to be willing to work for what Chris is getting for his editing work which is–nothing.

  20. Moriah wrote:

    "This [quote from Chris]:

    ‘If others in the Mormon literary community don’t care enough to volunteer some reading time and thoughtful analysis, then maybe I don’t care enough to keep doing what I do either.’"

    is nauseating on several levels."

    Back to Jonathan: I’m not bothered by this, although I think Chris’s way of stating it is unfortunate. When you’re putting a lot of your own time and energy into something that brings you no financial return and has no real promise of bringing financial return, where do your rewards come from? In Chris’s case, I think they come from feeling like he’s doing something that’s valued by the community.

    Perhaps my perspective on this comes from the fact that I spent a number of years putting in significant time doing volunteer work in the BYU science fiction and fantasy community. One of the criteria I used for deciding where to invest my time and hours was whether other people cared enough about it to pitch in and help. If not–well, then I had to ask if it was worth it to me to do it without help.

    Look, I’m not saying that Chris is above criticism here, especially for things like what happened to Theric. I think you also have to take into account, though, that over the last 15 years, he probably has the best track record of anyone in Mormon letters in devoting unpaid time to projects that have benefited the community (e.g., Irreantum, The Sugar Beet). I assume he does this because he feels the benefits make it worthwhile to him, but I also think that other people’s willingness to pitch in and help with a project is a pretty reasonable criterion for deciding whether it’s worth it to Chris to keep investing his own unpaid time and effort.

  21. Moriah Jovan says:

    Chris, here’s the thing. Nobody set up an organization and asked you to volunteer your time and energy to the cause, and then left you holding the bag.

    You’re asking people to volunteer time and energy to YOUR cause, a for-profit one that YOU set up with YOUR vision, and then griping because nobody wants to help you. What you said was: "What have you done for me LATELY???"

    [quote][b]If I wanted to make a profit from publishing, I certainly wouldn’t be in the no man’s land where Zarahemla lies, where I consider a book successful if it sells 100 copies and breaks even on costs.[/b][/quote]

    Whether you are, in fact, making a profit is irrelevant. If you aren’t making a profit then either work harder or shut it down or somehow file for 503(c) status. Then you can make it an organization and beg people to come work for you for free.

    This is nobody’s lookout but yours. It’s your baby. Zarahemla is a business, not a ward where you can ask for and expect some volunteer effort. That you come write a post to the lit community to chastise them for not helping you tend to your baby is mindboggling.

  22. Moriah,

    I don’t see Chris as "chastising" people for not helping, though I can see why you might interpret it that way (hence my comment about Chris’s way of putting the comment being unfortunate). What concerns me is that you seem to be doing the same thing, but in the opposite direction–chastising people for asking for help. I doubt that makes anyone feel more like volunteering.

    You don’t want to pitch in? Fine. But don’t verbally slap people around for asking.

  23. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]You don’t want to pitch in? Fine. But don’t verbally slap people around for asking.[/b]

    Au contraire. I didn’t say anything about it, nor was I going to, but now I will.

    Two years ago, I offered to digitize Zarahemla’s entire backlist in every electronic format I do FOR FREE, and Chris turned me down without so much as a "thanks, though!" Now it’s two years later, my services aren’t cheap, and I’m up to my eyeballs in work. I’ve given help in other areas of the LDS lit community because they needed it no matter how busy I was because I want to push the cause of ebooks forward and get church members to expect their literature in digital format the way they expect it from the church.

    Now, you may think I’m verbally slapping Chris around for asking, but I’m not. I’m verbally slapping him around for [b]chastising people[/b]. As if this were a community effort and nobody’s pulling their weight but Chris.

    I guarantee I’m not alone in that opinion.

  24. Whoa, Moriah. You’re killing me. I totally disagree with and reject and disrespect everything you just spouted at me. I wasn’t chastising, more just issuing a little bit of a challenge, perhaps. You obviously spent a lot more time thinking about the line when I did when I wrote it.

    I DO have a little bit of help already, which I really appreciate. And there’s part of me that really would be fine moving on to the next thing, and if not enough others in the Mormon literature community care about what Zarahemla’s doing, then that’s a good motive to move on. Simple statement of fact. The AML has often functioned like a "ward" for me, and I suppose I retain that mindset even with Zarahemla, to a degree. Zarahemla has no official ties to the AML, but the AML is what led to practically all the connections and opportunities that prompted me to start Zarahemla. I think that’s a GOOD mindset, not a bad one.

    I don’t need official nonprofit status to behave like a nonprofit and ask for volunteers. I’d like to register for nonprofit status, actually, but simply haven’t ever taken the time or effort to find out how. Frankly, I consider Zarahemla a hobby-business—at least, that’s what it has turned out to be, in reality. Fortunately, it’s a hobby that pays for itself, but even the IRS has provisions for taxation if you happen to turn a profit on your hobby, which I haven’t ever yet.

    I don’t know what your background is that makes you so antagonistic and insulting to me on this, but take a chill pill. Did I reject a book from you, or something? Or not answer a query at all? Or did you think Zarahemla was all that, but now you realize there’s just this seat-of-the-pants jerk pulling levers behind the curtain, and you’re incredibly disillusioned? Sheesh.

    Hey, AML, is this the kind of stuff you were hoping for when you started your blog? Gotta love online communications…

  25. Christopher Bigelow says:

    Ohhhhhhhh, there IS a history then, Moriah. See, therapy works, and it’s all coming out now. I really don’t recall that; I’m only just now feeling interest in e-books because of the Kindle and Nook and media hype, and if that was a while ago, I probably didn’t even fully understand what you were offering.

    So, if I say sorry, will you reconsider your offer? I’d sign a contract giving you a reasonable percentage of ebook revenue (I don’t ever break contracts). I’ve actually made this offer before in the past year, but no one took me up on it. I wish I remembered your offer from earlier…

    Or if not, then I continue blowing raspberries your way.

  26. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’m not exactly stinging from your refusal to take advantage of an offer of hundreds of hours of volunteer time, so no therapy necessary, thanks.

    But please be careful when you make requests, issue challenges, or chastise people for not helping with your hobby business that you haven’t already bitten a hand that was willing to feed you.

  27. I’m not speaking for Chris here (obviously), or Zarahemla, or even Irreantum, but I’ve got to say that sometimes I get a little tired of all the talking and so little of the walking when it comes to AML members and those interested in Mormon lit purchasing or subscribing to (or, heck, even READING) the literature they purport to care about, let alone volunteering to help. It can be exhausting and discouraging at times. So I totally understand where Chris is coming from.

    There are a number of people associated with the AML and/or Motley Vision who spend a good deal of unpaid time furthering the cause of excellence in Mormon lit. But those numbers are relatively small, especially when compared to those who seem to have strong opinions on the subject. So maybe Chris’s initial plea could have been worded a little better, but the amount of work it takes to run something like Irreantum or Zarahemla (both of which wouldn’t exist without Chris) with little or no monetary reward means that you’re doing it for a reason beyond fortune, or even fame. You’re doing it because you care about a community and want to serve it; if that community doesn’t seem engaged or doesn’t seem to care, it makes it much more difficult to keep going in the face of staggering apathy.

    Yes, Zarahemla is technically a business, while Irreantum and the AML are nonprofit organizations run by volunteers. It would be a different story if Zarahemla WAS making money and Chris was asking people to help for free. But Zarahemla doesn’t make any money, at least not right now, so the differences between the two are academic, in my opinion. And who says he can’t ask people to help if he hasn’t filed for 503 (c) status? It’s Chris’s business and he can run it however he wants. If he needs volunteers and nobody will volunteer, and he can’t keep up with the work while holding down a real job to pay his bills, then he shuts it down. Simple as that. And then Zarahemla won’t exist anymore. But I guess, according to Moriah, Zarahemla shutting down is a BETTER alternative than asking people who care about MoLit to help a little? I just don’t get that.

    Not very many people buy the books Zarahemla sells–we all know this. Chris knew this going into the venture. But it’s important to me and other people in the MoLit community that the books he publishes continue to be available, and Chris has been able to create a brand that has some recognition and credibility beyond self-published titles. The main reason I committed to do Dispensation with Chris is because I wanted the stories in that anthology to exist on some library shelf somewhere 50 years in the future, not because I thought I’d make money or even get much attention for doing it. After my experience with Bound on Earth, I know how very little money such books garner through royalties. (If an author gets about $1 a book and a "successful" title in our tiny little subgenre sells 500 copies? You can do the math.) Unless there is a radical shift in the literary taste of Mormons in general, or unless the kinds of books publishers like Zarahemla and Parables sell are able to get into Deseret Book, nobody’s ever going to make any kind of money writing OR publishing these books.

    So: the amount of fortune one can earn writing or editing or selling literary Mormon fiction? Almost nothing. The amount of fame one can earn writing or editing or selling literary Mormon fiction? Just a notch above almost nothing. You do it because you care and you (hope) you have some like-minded friends around you who care about it too.

    I don’t know where all the animosity comes from, Moriah, but as you can tell from the length of this comment, I find it disheartening, to say the least.

  28. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, I had a big long post written on the legal and financial differences between a barely-hanging-on niche restaurant and a soup kitchen, but I deleted it.

    Angela, you and Jonathan have a vested interest in defending Chris, and I have no issue with that. I don’t even have an issue with Chris, other than what he said and the entitlement that was jammed into it.

    But clearly there is such a vast philosophical chasm between us that it can’t be crossed, and THAT is disheartening. To say the least.

    I can agree on "he could’ve worded it better."

  29. Th. says:


    I don’t know why we’re reading spite into each other’s comments. I just don’t see it.

    So how about this as a solution?

    Now, I’m obviously on Moriah’s side here as far as profit/nonprofit goes, but if everyone else thinks Zarahemla should be run as a nonprofit, maybe Chris could just turn the backcatalogue and brand over to the AML and the AML could start publishing novels. Starting maybe with Marilyn Brown winners. Then I for one would be more comfortable offering to volunteer and maybe we could thus bridge the philosophical divide.

    I don’t know if the AML wants to go into publishing or not, but if Zarahemla looks smells and wants to quack like a duck, then maybe it should convert to duckism?

    I guess part of my issue here is that the existence of Zarahemla should not require us to believe that the salvation of Mormon letters lies solely within its power. If someone wants to give hours and hours and hours of their time to Mormon letters, why not just start their own unprofitable for-profit publishing company?

    I’m still a supporter of Zarahemla (I own all but two of their books, and only two of those are ARCs), but I’ll be just as happy to support competitors as they arise. And if I want to give hundreds of hours to bring forth books then I’ll just do it as a publisher — not as another publisher’s "volunteer".

    That said, I do volunteer to others’ causes when my help is appreciated. I’ve spent dozens of hours on Katya’s over the last few months, for instance. Plus I write for AMV. Plus I promote what I find to be excellent (eg, Angela’s book) at every reasonable opportunity.

    In case my thesis hasn’t been clear, let me say it plainly as my conclusion:

    An unwillingness to jump to Chris’s aid [i]does not equal[/i] an unwillingness to serve Mormon letters. It might just represent a more sensible expenditure of resources.

  30. Th. wrote: "An unwillingness to jump to Chris’s aid does not equal an unwillingness to serve Mormon letters. It might just represent a more sensible expenditure of resources."

    This, I think, is perfectly reasonable. Each person has to decide what project interests them and who they want to work with.

    Looking at the discussion as a whole, I actually don’t see a philosophical divide here, but rather an interpretive and personal one. Some people aren’t comfortable working with Chris, either for reasons of past history or because they don’t feel like his project is a high priority. That’s perfectly legitimate. Some people also are reading his comments as including a claim to entitlement, which I personally don’t agree with, though obviously others have interpreted his comments differently.

    Chris’s efforts, including Zarahemla, have (I think) given a lot to the community of Mormon letters. They’ve also benefited a lot from the support of members of the community of Mormon letters. I don’t think anyone "owes" anything to Chris, and I don’t think he was saying that either.

    Except, I suppose, a respectful hearing, and I think that’s maybe where all of us need to do better. It’s my experience that hurt feelings and misunderstandings all seem to be easier in a volunteer community, which essentially is what the community of Mormon letters is. (I’ve got a guest blog on this topic, which I’m hoping to post someday, that was actually drafted before this post of Chris’s…)

  31. Th., I totally agree with you that an unwillingness to help Chris specifically does NOT equal an unwillingness to serve Mormon letters. In re-reading my comment, I can see how it might have come off that way. You and others contribute to the cause in all kinds of ways that are very valuable. Heck, I’m not reading Zarahemla’s manuscripts right now, either, because I spend so much time on Irreantum & the AML that I can’t. But if I wasn’t doing those things? Then I would definitely consider reading manuscripts for Zarahemla.

    I also agree that Chris’s original plea came off sounding a little manipulative, so I understand why people might object to its underlying tone.

    So my rather fiesty and way too lengthy comment had its origins less in any passionate zeal I have for Zarahemla books as the "one only way" forward for Mormon lit (I mean, geez, I published with Parables, and would happily support ANY publishing company that was trying to publish the same type of work) than my own gathering exhaustion. Truly. I wasn’t reading Chris’s comment as "You’d better help me or else!" (although I can see why some read it that way). I was reading it as more of a "Hello out there? Does anyone care about this?" which is a question I’ve been asking myself over and over again lately as I’ve sacrificed my family time and writing time and money and occasionally my sanity for projects that are most often met with deafening silence.

    And, yeah, now this sounds like I’m having a pity party, which is totally unbecoming. But the truth is, there are many people who have been marching along, working hard for this tiny little community of ours, who are seriously burned out. So when Moriah makes a comment like, "Either work harder or quit, but don’t you dare ask for help!"–it makes me want to rend my clothes and cry, "Work HARDER!?!? Seriously?!?!?!! For no money, barely any attention, lots of stress and people complaining, because it somehow offends you that I thought my friends might be willing to read some manuscripts?" (And, yes, I realize I was personalizing that comment of Moriah’s, skewing it to fit my own personal situation and not reading it entirely as she intended. So mea culpa.)

    Anyway, last night I was responding emotionally, and today, in trying to explain why I was responding emotionally, I’m responding emotionally again. So in case my thesis hasn’t been clear, let me say it plainly as my conclusion:

    How about let’s help each other instead of taking the opportunity to get offended and/or waggle our collective fingers in each other’s faces.

    Of course, I include myself in that injunction. As W.H. Pugmire said in your Motley Vision interview: "The spirit of contention is SO non-fabulous."

  32. Jonathan, you often say exactly what I was thinking, but usually in a much more cogent and measured way.

    What Jonathan said.

  33. Moriah Jovan says:

    Angela, I understand where you’re coming from. You’re coming from a position of having a nonprofit organization that’s trying to bolster a field. I have no issues with this. I’ve worked for nonprofits. I get it.

    I’m looking at this from a for-profit perspective, and the conflation of the two perspectives is muddying the waters. Zarahemla and Irreantum are not, by any stretch, comparable in purpose or legal/financial structure.

    [b]So when Moriah makes a comment like, "Either work harder or quit, but don’t you dare ask for help!"–it makes me want to rend my clothes and cry, "Work HARDER!?!? Seriously?!?!?!! For no money, barely any attention, lots of stress and people complaining, because it somehow offends you that I thought my friends might be willing to read some manuscripts?" [/b]

    Yeah, but you aren’t the only one laboring in obscurity and without thanks, either. When I say things like that, I’m doing it from the perspective of someone who is BEING THERE and DOING THAT even as I speak. No, I’m not asking for sympathy, but I’m not giving any out, either. I’m too busy working harder.

    What I am ALSO doing is trying to find money to PAY PEOPLE to do what I need done or trying to learn how to do it myself. So what you see me reacting to is me looking at my checkbook, going, "Well, crap. Why am I paying to get this stuff done when I could just ‘issue a challenge’ to people to volunteer their time for me? Dang. Could I be a bigger chump?"

    Of course, my feelings of my chumpitude are only surpassed by my guilt that I haven’t paid my editor enough for his fine services. And that is what has me working harder.

  34. JulieW8 says:

    I’ve read the original post and the discussion and found it interesting.

    It seems to me there’s a business disconnect here. Either the community supports a highly specialized publisher such as Zarahemla – or it doesn’t. Either it’s a nonprofit business – or it’s for-profit. I would think that if a business is created for the benefit of a community, then the collective community would agree to commit a certain amount of effort towards it – and it would be a nonprofit venture.

    If the community doesn’t support it to the extent that it’s a viable concern, then I think it’s time to really evaluate whether or not there’s a sufficient demand for "Mormon literature" – among authors or readers.

    If you’re running a for-profit concern, then the questions is – do you have a market, do you know what your market is and are you reaching that market? It sounds to me like the answer to at least one of those questions is "no," since the business is struggling for profitability.

    Chris, if you’re going to run a business – run a business. A for-profit business asking for volunteers? Maybe you’ve miscalculated the market or maybe you need to review whatever you learned in B-school. If you need help and can’t afford to pay for it, create internships. Maybe there are a couple people "out there" who are dying to break into editing but can’t without some experience on their resume. Where do you think for-profit companies get their free help? And if you can’t get anyone interested in doing an internship, then I’d say it’s time to re-evaluate the market and your business plan cuz maybe there just isn’t sufficient support in the Mormon community for a publishing house dedicated to "Mormon literature."

  35. I don’t really get why some people think Zarahemla needs to behave like a for-profit business just because I haven’t filed non-profit paperwork. Hey, at least I went to the trouble to get a Provo business license, and that was A LOT for me, in terms in administrative effort. (How hard is it to get non-profit status, anyway? Anyone want to volunteer to guide Zarahemla through the process?) I honestly do not believe that "Mormon literature" (as opposed to LDS fiction) will ever really be a profitable venture, because the nationals are too distrustful of anything not clearly post-Mormon and the LDS presses/stores are too distrustful of anything very humanly realistic and rated PG or higher.

    By the way, nonprofits can still pay their staffs money for their services, right? If there IS money, I mean? I actually take a great deal of pleasure in writing out royalty checks. Zarahemla has paid authors (and a few editors) about $4,000 in total royalties so far, without taking any for myself. If there’s "extra" money, I’m happy to share it with those who helped earn it, whether I’m technically nonprofit or not.

    There’s a consciousness on my part that maybe a miracle could happen and a book could break out and sell enough copies or rights for me to take my own personal profit, but from the beginning I have run like a non-profit, even asking for some grants (from my own grandpappy) that I made very clear I didn’t expect to be able to pay back and haven’t done so (although I did pay back my own home equity line, which was surprising to me to be able to do).

    If I got the vibe that the AML could and would take on Zarahemla, I’d likely be on board with that. In fact, the germ for Zarahemla was partially nourished by discussions, when I was active in AML, about the org doing books. At one time, when I was running Irreantum with AML, I seriously considered doing an Irreantum book imprint. But I hear that the AML is currently at one of its lower ebbs on volunteers, money, and people’s interest and participation.

    Some of the people who think I should pull my head out and go to B-school and do an IPO for Zarahemla seem to think I’m asking for volunteers to do all my work. I’m not. I asked for volunteers to help read and report on what to publish, the part of the enterprise that I personally feel most inept to handle. And also, Moriah, how could I be chastising people if I was only just asking for help? If I was chastising, it would come AFTER people failed to respond to my request. It may have been a poorly worded challenge or statement of fact, I admit.

    The issue of professionals getting paid for what they do is a big one, in this age when the Internet has ruined so many livelihoods. When I did a recent photo book on Mormon temples, we got most of the photos from volunteers who were happy to receive only a copy of the book, and I remember the photo editor at the Deseret News sent me a scathing e-mail about that, and then a few months later the newspaper’s own parent company turned around and did exactly the same thing, asked for volunteer photos to be published in a book about Utah, and I don’t think it said anything about proceeds going to charity.

  36. I wanted to see how rude and awful of a person I really am, so I used Gmail’s fantastic search features to find the actual history of my (mis)dealings with Moriah and Theric.

    Here’s what you wrote, Moriah, in June 2008: "Chris, I saw your post on A Motley Vision and I was wondering if you’d considered releasing your books in digital format? It’s a lower-overhead, higher-margin product that would appeal to people like me who loves her ebook reader with a passion. Anyway, I could help you with that if you wanted, BUT, here’s the kicker… Ebook formats get their own ISBNs. I use one ISBN for print and one for digital, so 2 ISBNs per book."

    Here’s how I replied: "Hmm, I don’t really feel I would sell many. I thought about formatting for the Kindle and even experimented with uploading a PDF, but it came through poorly and I decided it wasn’t worth the effort."

    So you’re right, I didn’t say "thanks," but neither did you clearly say "free." Just the costs of the ISBNs probably turned me off… I don’t remember my exact thought process, but my conscience is clear, although I wish I’d had more vision then.

    Theric, my conscience isn’t as clear when it comes to my editor friend, whose situation you outlined in ways I hadn’t fully considered before. I went back and really HOPED to find an e-mail where I made it clear to him that I had veto power, but nope, I pretty much gave him blue sky. So that was a mistake on my part, being too desperate to turn over acquisitions to other people and not careful enough to anticipate possible scenarios of being expected to publish something that I didn’t personally love. One thing that blinded me was that I loved the first book he acquired, HUNTING GIDEON, and we had many very good discussions about what we like and didn’t like, so I thought our tastes would always match. Anyway, I learned something from it and will look for further opportunities to make it up to him somehow (he hasn’t cut me off, but somehow he’s been less enthusiastic since that SNAFU…). I still think his hopes of making money were way gonzo, though, and I certainly DID warn him that I didn’t think that was ever likely to happen.

    Sorry, I enjoy being transparent…

  37. Th. says:


    I hope you didn’t feel I had attacked you, Chris, because I certainly did not intend to come off that way. I was merely trying to explain my trepidation regarding "volunteering" for Zarahemla.

    In regards to this:

    [i]I honestly do not believe that "Mormon literature" (as opposed to LDS fiction) will ever really be a profitable venture, because the nationals are too distrustful of anything not clearly post-Mormon and the LDS presses/stores are too distrustful of anything very humanly realistic and rated PG or higher.[/i]

    I honestly [i]do[/i] believe that. I don’t know that I have the wherewithall to make it happen, but I [i]do[/i] believe Mormon lit can be profitable. But it will have to be reinvented — attacked in an entirely new way. I do admire how much you’ve sunk into Zarahemla and no matter what happens next you’ve provided us with some lessons to consider.

  38. JulieW8 says:

    Is Zarahemla a hobby or a business? At this point, I’m confused.

  39. Julie asked: "Is Zarahemla a hobby or a business? At this point, I’m confused."

    To which I reply: I don’t see why it can’t simultaneously be both. A lot of people have hobbies that are also businesses. A lot of people run businesses (like Chris’s) that can’t be justified on purely financial grounds, and therefore are clearly also hobbies. Considering that non-profit corporations are still technically businesses, the line between the two seems even blurrier…

    I don’t see what’s so sacred about the dividing line between a hobby and a business that we have to be careful not to mix the two.

  40. Th. says:


    The small art gallery down my street is a business. I support them by buying what they sell and telling my friends to check them out. I do not volunteer behind the counter.

  41. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    The IRS has a pretty clear distinction between a hobby and a business.

  42. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]I don’t see what’s so sacred about the dividing line between a hobby and a business that we have to be careful not to mix the two.[/b]

    That’s a question for the IRS.,,id=169490,00.html

    [b]I don’t really get why some people think Zarahemla needs to behave like a for-profit business just because I haven’t filed non-profit paperwork.[/b]

    Chris, I just don’t know what to say to this. You’re either for-profit or not. If you’re not intending to make a profit (whether you actually do or not), then your business is for-profit.

    There are a whole lot of legal and financial implications to this. Set up an intern program like Julie said (with, say, UVSC or SLCC), and not only do you get your volunteer workforce, you’re giving some people an in in the business that they need and others in the Mormon lit community wouldn’t feel more stretched than they already are.

    In regard to my offer and the ISBNs: I told you what *I* do. I didn’t tell you *what* to do. Many, many people don’t put ISBNs on their e-books. I chose to do so for metadata purposes. Amazon doesn’t care (to the eternal consternation of Bowker).

    [b]…although I wish I’d had more vision then.[/b]

    And that has what has had me scratching my head for the last two years. It was a good faith offer with no risk to you, even if you never used the files.

    Offended/hurt? No. Flummoxed? Yes.

  43. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]If you’re not intending to make a profit (whether you actually do or not), then your business is for-profit.[/b]

    I meant to say if you [b]ARE[/b] intending to make a profit, then the business is for-profit.

  44. JulieW8 says:

    I have to say this has been enlightening in many ways.

    How does anyone expect Mormons and non-Mormons to take "Mormon literature" seriously when the most visible publisher of "Mormon literature" (or does Deseret count?) doesn’t take itself seriously? I mean – some of the comments made here by Chris are jaw-dropping.

    Do you really want someone who wants to be the premiere publishing source for Mormon literature to be a hobbyist whose major business accomplishment is, apparently, obtaining a business license from the city of Provo? Frankly, I’d think everyone would aim much higher than that, including Chris.

  45. This is a fascinating conversation because, although on the surface level we are talking about my foibles and idiosyncracies as a publisher, what we’re really talking about are the prospects for Mormon literature.

    I see two camps. One camp seems to have underlying hopes and optimism about Mormon literature that it could become a fully legitimate for-profit business (by "Mormon literature," I’m talking about the realistic stuff, not the "LDS fiction" published by the Deseret/Covenant consortium). The other camp understands Mormon literature as culturally worthwhile but as nothing more than a ghetto in terms of commercial/business potential.

    I wonder if it’s partly a generational thing. The people who are upset that I’m not putting across a charade of being a for-profit business may, in general, be on the younger, less experienced side, with perhaps some online experience but not much real experience yet in publishing and nonprofit organizational work. On the other hand, some of us older folks who have actually published books and worked for 10-20 years in this field from various angles have a much more pragmatic, realistic view. We simply don’t see evidence that Mormon literature will ever get out of the cultural ghetto and move into the realm of a truly commercial enterprise. Our culture won’t allow it, and trends are moving AWAY from this happening rather than toward it, with the continual consolidation and censorship of the LDS book business and our general society’s continual movement away from book-length literature of any kind.

    JulieW8, I very much take issue with your statement that I don’t take Zarahemla seriously. No, I do not take it seriously as a for-profit enterprise, it’s true. Based on the evidence I’ve seen, to do so would be pretending or downright self-deception. Maybe the upcoming generation will find a way to crack open the culture, but I doubt it; I think that as the last days progress, you’ll see more stark distinctions between Babylon and Zion, not more blurring. (Personally, I do think realistic Mormon literature has one foot in Babylon and one foot in Zion.) But I do very much take Zarahemla seriously as a cultural effort, as a way to get worthwhile manuscripts into print, and as a rewarding enterprise for the few who are involved in any way. I do it because it pleases and satisfies me, not because I’ve ever thought for a moment it could be a real business that earned money on any sort of regular, consistent basis.

    Theric, this is the source of the big disconnect between me and our editor friend. He took your project seriously as a way to make money. I never for one moment did. I publish things because I really like them. When I found that I did not really like your project, I did not see myself as robbing someone of significant income by not publishing it. Like I said then, you guys could have done just as well self-pubbing it as Zarahemla could have done. There’s not THAT much of a difference between what I do and what a self-pubber does (in fact, I’ve even self-pubbed myself through Zarahemla and may do so again). When I rejected the project, I did not see that as throwing that editor’s effort out the window, because I didn’t feel that Zarahemla was the only way to publish it. He (and you) obviously had hopes and expectations much different from mine.

    Those of you who are antagonistic toward me for asking for volunteers as a "for-profit" business, what, do you think I’m trying to trick people into giving me free labor and then I’m going to turn around and make money on that? Or are you proposing that I need to tap my credit cards or home equity to PAY readers when I know full well I won’t get that money back? And by the way, the kinds of readers I need are people with experience and wisdom about what to publish, not intern-level volunteers who lack that level of expertise. At best, I see a fair bit of niavete in your attitude toward me, but God bless you for your optimism, and I hope it takes you somewhere new and proves me wrong.

  46. About the use of the terms "hobby" and "nonprofit" and "business." According to my dictionary, a hobby is "a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation."

    Zarahemla is outside of my regular occupation as a salaried marketing/corporate communications writer/editor, a nighttime adjunct instructor, and a freelance writer/editor. I would not say I engage in Zarahemla for "relaxation"; rather, I engage in it for "cultural satisfaction." Either way, I do not engage in it as an occupation or source of livelihood. It is something I do with my spare time. While I’m always open to the possibility of succeeding to the point of profit, I do not behave or think as if that will ever be the likely outcome.

    Many hobbies produce items that other people might want to purchase, if the hobbyist is good enough at whatever the craft is. I admit, I always meant to make what I created through Zarahemla available for sale to the public, which is perhaps a little more aggressive than many hobbyists, who often fall into selling their wares almost by accident. If you type "hobby business" into Google, you will see all sorts of links on the wisdom of turning your hobby into a business for tax purposes. If you sell anything in the course of your hobby-biz, you can start deducting expenses if you set it up as a biz. Of course, you need to show a profit a certain amount of the time, or the IRS will call foul.

    Here’s something to muddy the waters: I use my Zarahemla Books sole proprietorship for ALL my self-employed writing, editing, and publishing fees, commissions, royalties, honorariums, etc. I usually bring in about $5,000-15,000 a year in such freelance work. By lumping everything together, I can take full advantage of business writeoffs but still show a profit every year. So if someone from the IRS asked me if my intention with Zarahemla Books is to earn a profit, I can definitely say yes, even though I know the Mormon literature publishing part of the proprietorship is not likely to contribute to the bottom line, although it COULD if the free market suddenly started snapping up Zarahemla-published titles at a sufficient rate.

    When I first took $4,000 out of our home equity to start Zarahemla in 2006, my words to my wife were, "Honey, think of this as financing my hobby. It will probably not be repaid." When I asked my grandpappy for $8,000, I made it very clear that the money was a "nonprofit grant," not a loan to be repaid. I told him I was doing Zarahemla because I thought it was something that should be done, not because I expected to make money or even break even. He accepted my altruistic motives and was happy to help out on that basis.

    For some fortunate people, their hobby does grow into a legitimate business that can become their actual occupation, their primary source of income, their full-time employment, etc. I envy such people. Unless and until Zarahemla does that for me, which I don’t think it ever will, I continue to think of it as a hobby-business hybrid with a nonprofit spirit. The word "hobby" connotes that the main motivation is other than financial and occupational, which is the case with me. I think if I were very, very fortunate, Zarahemla could perhaps profit me a few hundred a month or few thousand a year, certainly no where near what I’m worth professionally, but I don’t expect that to ever happen.

    If that makes your jaw drop, then I guess you just can’t handle reality.

  47. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]… the kinds of readers I need are people with experience and wisdom about what to publish, not intern-level volunteers who lack that level of expertise. [...] are you proposing that I need to … PAY readers …?[/b]

    What a concept.

    However, I have come around to your way of thinking. If people are willing to work for your for-profit without payment, hey, fabulous! Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, right?

  48. Moriah, I think I’m done with you now. You are being willfully abtuse. Buh-bye.

  49. JulieW8 says:

    IF there are Mormon authors writing works about Mormon life, and IF they are doing as good a job as (for example) a Jewish author like Faye Kellerman, whose characters live and work within the Orthodox framework – then why can’t we expect the same result? To say you don’t expect commercial (and therefore monetary) success is the same (to me) as admitting you don’t believe there are any Faye Kellermans within the Mormon writing community. And if that’s what you believe, then you probably won’t ever see a manuscript from Faye Kellerman’s Mormon counterpart because they sense you don’t believe – and go elsewhere.

    And honestly? If I had a novel about Mormon life that I thought was [i]that good[/i], I wouldn’t bring it to an underfunded publishing house and a publisher who is overworked, understaffed and might not (a) recognize it for what it was and/or (b) give it the attention it deserves.

    Chris, when you say you never expected Zarahemla to turn a profit or even make back your own initial investment in it, that says to me you gave up on "Mormon literature" before you began. I’m not questioning your commitment; I guess I’m questioning your faith in the entire concept. I’m not sure whether you failed to plan but it sounds to me like you sure planned to fail.

    If the goal of promoting “Mormon literature” is to not just get published but also to experience commercial success, then why set such low expectations for authors and the potential market? What I’m seeing in this discussion is the admission that Mormon literature can’t be commercially successfully – and in fact, you never believed it would be! So what are we all doing here, then? An author doesn’t need a publisher to write in relative obscurity! I thought the whole idea was to prove that Mormon literature can stand on equal ground with the likes of Kellerman, Frank McCourt – and countless others who frame their stories within the lives of the devout. Why should Mormonism be viewed as any different?

  50. I think what you are describing, JulieW8, is a Mormon writing well enough about Mormon content to be published nationally. I think that’s still a worthy goal; in fact, my own next literary move will be back in that direction.

    However, it’s going to be a tough sell, for anyone who isn’t clearly post-Mormon. National publishers don’t want to get caught up in even remotely seeming to help the Mormon faith proselytize in any form; for this reason, they are much more prejudiced against us than against most any other faith you can name. If you are writing about Mormon content and admit you’re a practicing Mormon, that’s enough reason right there for most national editors and agents to give you the cold shoulder, even if they like your work. Believe me, I know from experience.

    With Zarahemla, I’m serving an extremely small niche: too Mormon for the world, too worldly for the Mormons. Anything good enough to be published nationally should definitely not go to me, and anything that would be accepted into mainstream LDS bookstores should not go to me either. There are numerous other "real" publishers in both those areas. In fact, MANY of the books I’ve published did previously go the rounds with both national and LDS publishers but fell into the crack between the two markets, where I lurk.

    I exist solely to publish stuff that falls into the no man’s land between national market and mainstream Mormon, which is a very small market that will never be profitable.

  51. Th. says:


    I’ve been back to reread all the comments on this post and I feel certaint that every single person who has commented here is in alignment with Zarahemla’s mission and has only spoken to help.

    With that in the front of our minds, I would like to make one more comment.

    (And this has nothing to do with my book, although, in passing, I will take issue with the idea that doing a book through Lulu is the same thing as starting a legitimate publishing company that also happens to publish one’s own books. Do we consider Bennett Cerf self-published now? Or Sheri Dew?)

    Chris says that those who disagree with him [i]hope[/i] while he [i]understands[/i]. Now, Chris (and others on his behalf) has entered a number of apologies in this thread for not being precise in what he’s saying, but there really isn’t any way to read this but as Chris patronizing those who disagree with him, and, as he is a professional wordsmith, I’m not being fair if I don’t take his words at face value.

    But why is he patronizing us? And why should anyone take his self-fulfilling prophecy as evidence of anything?

    Also, I don’t understand why he hasn’t latched on to some of the excellent ideas presented here, like Julie’s suggestion of interns. Contact the UVU English department. You’ll find kids salivating to read for you. Problem solved. I hope you’re pursuing that because it sounds like just the solution you were looking for.

    Publishing is changing and changing fast. I don’t know where it’ll be in a decade or so, but I’m not satisfied just hanging around waiting.

    I’m moving slowly into publishing now myself, but if I don’t get that far it’ll be either because of my innate lack of entrepreneurial spirit or my lack of accurate future-vision. But it won’t do me any good to blame the market or a lack of volunteerism.

    Chris, I am envious of the success you have had. You’re in stores I’m not in. You have writers like Todd Robert Petersen keeping you in manuscripts. I would pay you for Zarahemla today if I could afford what I imagine free-market value to be (which is probably much higher than what you imagine it to be). Screw home equity — you have serious [i]company[/i] equity and everyone seems to see it but you! So go get your interns! Keep growing! Stop fearing success!

    Also, regarding Julie’s last comment, I’m on record ( ) as being in favor of taking Mormon lit to the unwashed masses. Doesn’t mean I’m against projects aimed at the LDS audience (I’ve written a number of things for that market myself), but we won’t go wrong by going big.

    Let’s not limit the future. Let’s make it ours.

  52. Theric, the only reason Todd Petersen publishes with me is because he was unable to break in elsewhere, and he tried his damnedest to get in both in Mormon and national publishers. A little of the story is told is this great new Salt Lake Tribune article in tomorrow’s Sunday paper, the link to which just popped up:

    Pay close attention to the comparisons with Evenson and Kirn, who are both post-Mormons. I think Todd’s a better writer than both, in some ways, but Todd’s stuff doesn’t have enough post-Mormon irony. There’s too much faith in it for the world, too much earthiness in it for the Mormon world.

    Wake up and smell the coffee, or prove me wrong.

  53. Oh, and if Todd gets more than 3-4 Amazon sales and maybe one from the Zarahemla website from that article, I’ll be VERY surprised. Even if the article is on the front page of the Trib’s culture section, which it may well be. Oh, and if I’m lucky, Sam Weller’s may order four copies because of this article.

    I’ve gotten enough Utah newspaper press for Zarahemla to have learned that it doesn’t do much… There’s just no real market for this stuff, dude. Fatihful people want to read stuff that clearly affirms their faith and is very, very G-rated pure. Worldly people want to read stuff that affirms their secular/humanist path, not that creates doubts that maybe a faith like Mormonism actually has something to it.

  54. Th. says:


    It was a good article and I thought about citing it myself. And no, I wouldn’t expect a lot of sales from a newspaper article. Sales come from saturating people attention or being in the right place at the right time. How we do that in a modern market remains to be discovered. Most likely, there is no longer One Right Answer. Being published in New York doesn’t guarantee selling more copies than Zarahemla sells, after all.

    The fact is that the modern market is heavily fractured. So how do we capitalize on that? How will anyone?

  55. Th. says:


    One clarification: It’s clearly foolish to assume the world owes one great financial success. But it’s at the least odd to have "will never be profitable" as an article of faith.

  56. Melinda W. says:

    Several years ago, when I first started learning what it would take to publish a novel, I heard about publishing houses that used reader panels to get a first impression of a manuscript and wondered how I could get that job. So I’m glad Chris asked for volunteers, and I hope he sends a few manuscripts my way when he needs the help.

    [quote](How hard is it to get non-profit status, anyway? Anyone want to volunteer to guide Zarahemla through the process?)[/quote]

    In a past life, I was a tax attorney. I don’t think you qualify as a non-profit. Just the fact Zarahemla doesn’t make money doesn’t make it a non-profit (it makes it unprofitable, which is different). Non-profit purposes have to fit into very specific provisions of the tax code. A book publisher is typically a for-profit endeavor. The only way a non-profit can publish books is if it’s part of their charitable mission (like the Church can publish lesson manuals, but not novels). If the AML wanted to tuck book publishing under its non-profit umbrella, they’d need some specific tax advice on how to do that without jeopardizing their own tax status. The baseline rule is that if your business activity competes with other business, you pay taxes. You publish books; other taxable companies publish books; you’re one of them, even if you never turn a profit.

    And the fact that you’ve folded your personal writing business into Zarahemla would also complicate a non-profit application process. Plus, the application process is pricey. I charged $5,000. I’m out of business now, but my colleague charged $7,000. I can’t volunteer to help you because my license has lapsed and I don’t want to get fined for practicing law without a license. Besides, I don’t think you qualify, and I don’t think non-profit status would help you.

    The third thing is that it won’t save you any tax money. If Zarahemla doesn’t make a profit anyway, you don’t need non-profit status to reduce your taxes (and you can’t make your personal business non-profit, so you’d have to pull that out and still pay taxes on that profit). Are you thinking you’d get lots of grants and donations? As mentioned, AML is struggling with that, so I don’t imagine that’s your motivation.

    If you want to take the financial/tax status discussion off the blog, you can email me. But I don’t think non-profit status will help you.

  57. Th. wrote: "it’s at the least odd to have "will never be profitable" as an article of faith."

    To which I reply: Not necessarily. It can actually be quite liberating, if you use it to free you up to do what you want to do, without worrying about whether it will make a profit or not.

    If I had demanded of myself an expectation that my Mormon novel would make a profit, let alone pay me commensurate to my hourly rate for other work, I would never have started it. But the fact that I didn’t expect to make a profit from it didn’t make me work any less hard at it. If anything, it freed me up to say that since I wasn’t planning to make any money off it (though I’d love to do so), I should make it good enough to satisfy myself, without worrying about cutting off my hours once I’d reached some kind of point of diminishing monetary returns. I imagine that’s true of pretty much all of us who write for a niche market such as the Mormon literary market.

    I’m very interested in just how we can capitalize on fractured modern markets. I’m not sure we don’t need some kind of prior community-building in order to get that off the ground, though. I personally think there’s a large potential readership for realistic Mormon fiction, but that no network exists for letting them know about works that might interest them. Although Chris’s negative experience with Utah newspapers not leading to many sales might argue against this…

    I’d love to see new models for selling realistic-but-faithful Mormon fiction more successfully than we’ve seen so far. This is one of the great holy grails for Mormon letters.

    I’d ask for more thoughts on this, but I think we’ve genuinely reached what should ideally be the topic for a new blog post…

  58. Melissa, thanks for that advice on nonprofit. It does indeed sound like there’s no need to pursue that route any further, even if just to get Moriah off my back. (A song from "Sound of Music" is going through my head right now: "How do you solve a problem like Moriah?")

    Jonathan, I agree that there’s something liberating about embracing one’s unprofitability. And I agree it would be good for a new blog post on how to expand the readership for Mo-lit. I’m too pessimistic and jaded to write it, and Theric may be a little too pie-in-the-sky (from what I’ve read so far on here, anyway), but if someone with some solid ideas and justified optimism could lead the way, I’d be all ears.

    Really, Zarahemla is a digital last-resort stopgap that’s designed to become obsolete if Mormon literature were to catch on in any significant way. If someone can break open a conduit either into the national market or into the mainstream Mormon market for faithful realism, Zarahemla would gladly complete its life cycle and return to the dust from whence it came. Personally, I think there’s more chance of a national conduit opening than a mainstream Mormon one, but still little chance of either. But the national logjam-breaker would have to be of Pulitzer-level quality in order to overcome secular skepticism and mistrust of the "faithful" part of the faithful-realism equation, and it would probably take several of them to really get things moving.

    Zarahemla will never print books with ink. I don’t want to duplicate efforts that other publishers are already doing well and on a proper professional scale. Personally, I’d rather work on my own novels and maybe rediscover TV than keep running Zarahemla in perpetuity. I don’t relish publishing enough to do that, especially not the figuring-out–WHAT-to-publish-next part, now that I’ve used up nearly all the stuff I’m already familiar enough with to know I want to publish it (after 2010′s three titles, I got nuthin’ on the horizon, thus the reason for this blog post in the first place). The only reasons I do this are because there are manuscripts I have wanted to see published and because digital technology makes it so cheap and easy to do it on demand with toner. I don’t have the mojo to become a real publishing entrepreneur who is making big investments and taking big risks, and if I did I wouldn’t be addressing this niche, because there’s no real evidence of a real market. But I’m glad I’ve been able to serve this teensy little niche, and I feel it’s been worthwhile. I’ve learned tons, and we’ve gotten quite a lot of good feedback and media and awards, and I feel a lot of satisfaction.

  59. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]It does indeed sound like there’s no need to pursue that route any further, even if just to get Moriah off my back. (A song from "Sound of Music" is going through my head right now: "How do you solve a problem like Moriah?") [/b]

    Aw, Ellsworth, don’t hate the playa. Hate the game.

  60. JulieW8 says:

    Thanks Chris for clarifying things for me. I was apparently confused about the mission of Zarahemla and its place in AML.

    Sounds like a hobby to me. If you’re not having any fun, fold it.

  61. Christopher Bigelow says:

    Nice dismissive comment, Julie. In turn, I flip my fingers out from under my chin toward you in the traditional Sicilian manner.

  62. Th. says:


    I’ve found this whole conversation quite galvanizing. Now, granted, LDSpub#1 Deseret Book doesn’t turn a profit either (but is it really trying to? is that really its goal?) but if the real reason no one is running in the black is because no one is [i]trying[/i] to, then that suggests to me there may well be plenty of untapped opportunities for growth out there. And that’s actually pretty exciting.

    By the way, I don’t know how it translates into actual books sold, but Rift’s Amazon rating has jumped up over the last couple days. I’m curious if you know how close your estimate was.

  63. Christopher Bigelow says:

    I’ve been told that Deseret Book is under a mandate to earn a profit, and there have been lots of signs of belt tightening there in recent years. Are you sure they don’t turn a profit or at least break even? I suppose even if they did run at a loss, the Church’s other for-profit enterprises would carry them along for several years before the Church would ever take major steps to cut off that blood loss.

    I will try to remember to report how many copies RIFT sold on Amazon this month, when the numbers get updated in a week or two. The highest rank I saw was 5,000-something, which I think is higher than I’ve ever seen for a Zarahemla title. I’m guessing maybe 10-12 copies…

  64. Th. says:


    I have a well placed mole I trust re: Deseret Book. My understanding is that when they were publishing lots and lots of Shadow Mountain books (the Fabelhaven era, if you will) they were in the black. But then they started stopping those successful lines and so, on either end of that brief heyday, no. (Although my information’s only good to about a year ago. Maybe things are changing now.)

    I do agree with you that we have a definite perception problem in the market. Although plenty of Saints would be offended by, say, "Family History," I’m convinced that most reading Saints can be sucked in by an artist like Petersen. (Or, say, [i]Bound on Earth[/i] which is my current proselytory tool of choice.)

  65. JulieW8 says:

    Th. – why just Saints? Is Mormon literature defined by content, author – or reader?

    Chris – just callin’ it like I see it. Sorry if you find it offensive enough to go Italian on me, but I think if you copy and paste your responses here, then read them back in a couple weeks, maybe you’ll understand why I think you’re the hen in Mormon literature, not the pig.

  66. Th. says:


    I think reaching an LDS audience is a worthwhile goal, but I don’t see the urge to be limited by that as sensible. Give other audiences a shot, right? Don’t say no before they do.

  67. Hmm, hen and pig. At first I thought you meant I was the little red hen of Mormon literature, which is surely how Moriah views me as well. But then I googled and found the story:

    Okay, taking deep breaths. I suppose based solely on what I’ve written here, you might see me as not committed to Mormon literature, just a dabbler. It’s true that I am now on the resigned, fading side of what has been a long trajectory. But how the hell do you know what I have and haven’t tried, and how can you judge that I’m "involved" but not "committed," that I’m just pooping out some eggs but not really giving any flesh? I could tell you many stories of all the time and many thousands of exploratory dollars I’ve spent sending out 1,000+ total free review copies to both national and Mormon professionals and bookstores, countless hours calling stores, doing direct mailings, doing everything I could possibly think of within reason to break into both the national and the mainstream Mormon pipelines, and/or open my own new pipeline direct to some hoped-for new group of readers. Zarahemla has done practically all it could possibly do to open the way. Its books have won the top awards in Mormonism. We’ve gotten better print media coverage throughout Utah than advertising dollars could buy. We’ve had one title reviewed nationally in Publishers Weekly, which is no easy feat. Barnes & Noble carries us. The nation’s largest book wholesaler carries us. You can buy Z books on all Amazon sites throughout the world, as well as many other online retailers. Guess what, I know from real, flesh-sacrificing experience that THERE IS NO SIZABLE READERSHIP FOR THE ZARAHEMLA TYPE OF BOOK, which is equivalent to what I would call "Mormon literature."

    What, exactly, would a pig in Mormon literature DO more than I have done, for hell’s sake? (Maybe there really is an answer to that; do tell.) Do you think a true pig would need to mortgage his house, print 10,000 copies of the very best novel he can find, and then personally hand-sell it door to door until the copies are all gone? You want someone who will chain his wrists to the gates of the Deseret Book corporate office until Deseret agrees to carry a book with the word "shit" in it? The Mormon book trade is SO ridiculous now, so censored, so sanitized, that the other day, when a Seagull Book buyer contacted me to inquire about ordering details for Angela Hallstrom’s terrific new Mormon short-story anthology DISPENSATION, I said, in essence, Dude, you don’t want this in your store. Wait, actually, here’s exactly what I said: "Please note that DISPENSATION would probably be rated PG-13 due to some language and adult themes, and it contains some literary stories that may be puzzling or troubling to the average Seagull customer."

    Why did I say this? OK, say Seagull happened to decide to stock the book, buying, say, a total of 200 copies for their 20-30 outlets, and then I spent about $2,000 to print and ship them the books (DISPENSATION has a lot of pages, so the print-on-demand cost per copy is very high). Then someone buys the book and actually reads it, and boom, they are back in Seagull complaining about any number of outrageous, horrific stories and swear words and irreverence and sexuality and any number of other things in the stories, and Seagull immediately pulls the books off the shelf and returns them to me, and I’m in debt $2,000 on my credit card and I have stacks of books in my garage. No way, man. The only way I would EVER sell books to Deseret or Seagull is nonreturnable, and no bookstore will do that.

    Seriously, what do you think the pig of Mormon literature should do? Maybe you think there are already such pigs operating; if so, who are they, and what are they doing? If any of these pigs are associated with Deseret, Covenant, or Cedar Fort, then that ain’t Mormon literature, sister: that’s a completely different animal called "LDS fiction."
    I don’t know where people get these gonzo expectations like you seem to have. You seem to think that if we write it and publish it, readers will come. This is simply not necessarily true. The vast majority of Mormons don’t want and will never want to read realistic stuff about Mormonism, and they don’t trust fellow Mormons who would stoop to write it. Except for a handful of cultural liberals, the Mormon culture will never abide earthy, realistic, full-bodied, nonpropagandistic literature in a mode anything like the kind Frank McCourt wrote, to mention a name you’ve mentioned before. I’ve read McCourt’s books, and I did not come away thinking that he was still a devout or faithful Catholic; his books are rather profane and earthy and gritty and realistic, full of booze and masturbation and fornication and taking God’s name in vain, and if anything he worshipped his mother, not God. It’s been a while, and maybe I’m misremembering, but while I loved the first book, it was in no way an example of faithful realism; it was post-faithful realism, if anything. And even if you could make a case that it’s Catholic faithful realism, that’s a whole different ball game from Mormon faithful realism. Catholics aren’t trying to convert the world, after all, and they have a much bigger population and deeper history than Mormons, all of which factors make New York much more open to publishing them.

    Seriously, I can’t believe what people think and expect Zarahemla is. Even the Salt Lake Tribune reporter the other day originally wanted to drive down to "the Zarahemla office." I said, "Oh, come drop by my day job; it’s right by the freeway." He said, "No, I want to see where you guys, you know, do all the publishing. And I’d like to bring a photographer." Um, Zarahemla’s physical plant consists of four feet of bookshelf space in my basement, where I keep 5-10 copies of each title to fulfill the trickle of online orders I get. Plus, there are 5-6 manila folders that measure about two inches high when all stacked together. Oh, and on my laptop there’s a "Zarahemla Books" folder that’s 966 MB, representing the entirety of the electronic archive. "Don’t you have boxes of books somewhere, some kind of warehouse?" No, that’s all automated by the print-on-demand company out in Tennessee, which fulfills any Amazon or bookstore orders. "Er, um, OK, maybe we can just chat on the phone, then."

    Where do people get the idea that books always mean big business, that if you publish quality literature of a certain flavor, there’s automatically a sizable audience for it? Why do people frequently send Zarahemla inquiries and resumes for imagined full-time salaried editor jobs? Why do people call my cell phone and ask if they can please stop by and buy some books or drop off a manuscript? "Sorry, the address is just my house, and we don’t serve the public there." "Huh, your house? I don’t get it. How could that be?" What did I ever do to give the impression or the charade that Zarahemla was some kind of big business? OK, so I can edit a book, and I have a good designer coworker who can poop out reasonably good covers in a few hours in exchange for a few meals out (he’s definitely a hen, not a pig; he doesn’t even read the books). How does that translate into these gonzo expectations? And why is it so disappointing to find out how small-scale the operation really is, as if I’m at fault because . . . Zarahemla isn’t BIGGER.

    THERE IS NO PROFITABLE AUDIENCE FOR MORMON LITERATURE, even if you have ten pigs roasting on the spit for it. Not even some altruistic professor at BYU can give himself up as a pig for the cause of Mormon literature BECAUSE BYU DENIES TENURE TO ENGLISH PROFESSORS WHO WASTE TOO MUCH OF THEIR PROFESSIONAL TIME ON MORMON LITERATURE, gosh dammit. OK, if I understand right, "The Backslider" sold 10,000-20,000 copies over the past 25 years or so, but that has been a total anomaly that even Levi Peterson couldn’t ever duplicate, and not for lack of trying. Conditions have now grown WORSE for such a phenomenon ever being likely again, not better.

    Seriously, JulieW8, what’s your vision of Mormon literature and the great and wonderful pig who will spill all his blood and give his entire life for "it" to happen? What exactly is "it," anyway? You want a literary savior, is what you want. A supernatural godlike being who can transcend all the cultural rifts and blinders and prejudices and censorship and work magic to make a sizable readership appear where none exists now and where none will ever exist.

    Er, or if not, THEN WHAT DO YOU WANT???? Do tell. I’m all ears.

    Here’s the real question, for me: Does God WANT there to be any form of realistic Mormon literature beyond scripture? Personally, I tend to believe not. But maybe that’s a topic for next month’s blog post.

  68. Moriah Jovan says:

    Chris, you’ve raspberried me, you’ve serenaded me from that idiot film, you’ve come to a (false) conclusion about how I see you. You’ve said you were done with me and in two subsequent posts you’ve taken my name in vain. Now are you or aren’t you done with me?

    I’ll assume not.

    This post is all over the place and I could spend hours trying to explain to you what I’m saying, but you either aren’t getting the core principle(s) I’m trying to get across, or you don’t want to.

    I will suffice myself with this:

    [b]Does God WANT there to be any form of realistic Mormon literature beyond scripture?[/b]

    The real questions are:

    1. Why are you trying to sell this to Mormons?

    2. What does God have to do with it?

  69. I was teasing you, Moriah, with the little red hen comment. I realize that’s that OPPOSITE of what you were saying. It’s called sarcasm. Duh. And tell me, what DOESN’T God have to do with ANYTHING? Like I said, I’ll maybe address that next month.

    OK, I just tried to go to bed but have a couple more thoughts.

    I was thinking about what Zarahemla’s peak was for me. And by the way, for the first two years when I was aggressively, piggishly trying everything I could think of to push this enterprise, I was ready and willing to run with anything that showed reasonable preliminary results. If the ad I paid for in Sunstone had produced any results, I would have expanded that as far and wide as possible. If sending out review copies to many Mormon-affiliated bloggers would have noticeably raised sales, I would have done tons more of that. I put out enough feelers in enough of a variety of ways that if any of them had borne enough fruit, I would have poured more money and time and effort into it. But I’m not one to water a plant if it doesn’t grow.

    The peak of Zarahemla was Coke Newell’s ON THE ROAD TO HEAVEN. If Zarahemla was going to break through in any significant way and really connect with a substantial readership, that would have been the book. It won both the Whitney and the AML awards. Deseret and/or Seagull could have taken that the slightest bit seriously, could have pulled their heads out of their butts and read the book and realized that it was very praiseworthy and of good report and broke exciting new ground, and they could have stocked it in their stores and promoted it and supported it and made it work. Also, Coke’s book is the one that got reviewed in Publishers Weekly, with some positive remarks but also some snideness about the religious content. The purpose of that trade magazine is to publicize new books to the industry and reviewers etc. and I promoted the hell out of that and sent out lots of follow-up review copies and press releases and stuff to all kinds of national outlets. It hit a brick wall there too.

    That’s when reality really began to set in for me, the realization that faithful-realistic Mormon literature will always be a little ghetto, an island of misfit toys. Deep down, I suspected this was the case from the beginning, but I sure gave it a good go, and we got even higher than I expected with Coke’s book, but it simply didn’t take, beyond a few hundred copies, even though just a few clicks of people’s mouses, whether they be individual readers or bookstore buyers, could have instantly unleashed thousands of copies into the world.

    The other thought: I don’t think the ultimate pig of Mormon literature will be an editor or a publisher or anyone else but an actual author, someone who is SO good at what they do that they can write an incredible book that fully realizes both the faithful and the realistic sides of the equation with openly/authentic Mormon content and it just blows everyone away, both in the national and Mormon readerships/markets. If such a thing were to happen, I think it would make impact first in the national market, and then the Mormons would have to embrace it too or look like total and complete cultural idiots.

    However, I honestly don’t think Mormon culture is capable of producing and nurturing and launching such a writer, and so I don’t think he or she will ever arise. Mainstream Mormon culture is just a big vat of processed cheese.

  70. Go Chris.

    Julie, the problem with comments like yours is that I get the feeling you don’t know enough of the back story of Chris’s involvement and dedication to Mormon literature over the course of the last decade to make any informed commentary on whether or not he has or hasn’t done "enough." And I’m NOT just saying this because I have a "vested interest" in Chris liking me, as a previous comment seemed to suggest. I think he already likes me, but that’s just because I’m so dang likable. I’m just saying this because it’s true:

    Chris Bigelow has volunteered more time, more money, more energy to the cause of publishing high quality literature by, for, or about Mormons than almost anyone else I know. To deride him for his LEGITIMATE EXPECTATIONS, expectations that have been formed over years and years of dealing with the Mormon literary marketplace, is frankly embarrassing. As I’ve worked with him over the past year on Dispensation, I’ve found him to be professional, engaged, excited about our project, and on top of things to a refreshing degree, a degree I rarely encounter in our little community. If Chris Bigelow doesn’t care enough about Mormon literature–especially the niche market that Zarahemla is currently serving? Then heaven help us, because nobody does.

    Zarahemla’s relatively modest sales and seemingly unorthodox business practices are not a matter of his not working hard enough or not caring enough or not wanting "it" (whatever one’s definition of "it" may be) badly enough. As I see it, Zarahemla is what it is because Chris started this company with relatively modest expectations, expectations that allow him, in my opinion, to carry on even when sales are slow or interest seems weak. But the relative weakness of the market he serves notwithstanding, he’s been able to score some major successes and publish some of the best Mormon fiction of the last few years, books that wouldn’t have otherwise seen the light of day.

    But back to his original statement, the one that started this whole thread: if or when it seems that the MoLit community is becoming less rather than more engaged; if or when the incredible amount of time and money he puts into this venture reaches the point of diminishing returns; if or when he’s no longer finding joy in running this small business, he’ll close up shop. That’s his right, of course. But it’s also his right to try and gauge how much the MoLit community does care by asking people to *read a few manuscripts.* That’s all this was about, remember? Reading a few manuscripts. He wasn’t asking people to to typeset his next novel or pay for an ad in the SL Trib or for authors to agree to publish with him without receiving royalties. He was asking people he knows and trusts–people who like to read–if they’d be interested in reading a few things and reporting back to him. That’s all. He could have said it in a slightly less annoying way, but still.

    Again, it seems to me that denouncing one another’s efforts–no matter how relatively small or, in Chris’s case, relatively large–is the classic example of kicking against the pricks. And perhaps that’s why some people responded angrily to Chris’s original post: they felt he was saying they weren’t doing enough. So . . if you can’t read manuscripts for Zarahemla but contribute to the "cause" by recommending Mormon lit for your ward book group? That’s wonderful. That’s awesome. If you can’t sell tens of thousands of copies and publish the breakout Great Mormon Novel of the 21st Century but you CAN mortgage your house, and work scads of unpaid hours, and get some really cool books in print that wouldn’t have otherwise seen the light of day, and allow some excellent authors a little exposure, and give folks who are interested in Mormon literature 100 years from now a bunch of great stuff to read (from Irreantum to the Sugar Beet to Zarahemla’s offerings)? Then that’s awesome too.

    Now I have to go to bed.

  71. Ack. I guess I’m not going to bed yet, since a few more comments popped up while I was writing my tome.

    Moriah, I think I get what you’ve been trying to say this whole time. I just wish we didn’t have to be so critical of each other’s efforts, that’s all. But conflict kinda gives me a stomach ache, whereas I think Chris kind of likes it, so I’m not surprised that he stokes the fire a bit.

    And Chris, I agree w/ you that it’s going to be a book, not a publisher, that will be responsible for the Great Mormon Novel. And that book will be published by a big time publishing house that caters to the national market.

  72. And even then, I doubt most Mormons are interested in the Great Mormon Novel anyway.

    And NOW I’m going to bed.

  73. I’m going to bed now too. Thanks so much for that great assist, Angela. My tail is wagging.

    G’night, Moriah. I’ve been pronouncing it Mor-eye-uh in my head, but maybe it’s MOR-ee-ah, as in the Mines of?

  74. I woke up with a little bit of a hangover from last night’s outpouring. Don’t need to retract anything, but wanted to add that I don’t believe Zarahemla is the only or even necessarily the best attempt to commercialize/popularize Mo lit to the maximum degree. Here are two others I’d like to comment on:

    1. Parables. From what I know, Parables probably has a better mechanism for reviewing submissions than I do, although they’ve published fewer titles. Also, I know that they have put more effort into the LDS Booksellers’ convention than I have. I’ve showed up there a time or two, but only with a bare-bones table, whereas I think Parables actually hired someone to walk around in a Japanese costume and may have paid extra to dress their booth. There may be other areas where they’ve equaled or exceeded Zarahemla in effort, and the reason they got what has become many people’s favorite Mo-lit book, Angela Hallstrom’s BOUND ON EARTH, is because I relied on my two (male) acquisition helpers instead of considering it myself, and they both recommended against doing it. (My three biggest regrets with Zarahemla are, in no particular order: not getting BOUND ON EARTH, which would have become Z.’s second or third best seller and done good things for our rep and our breadth of readership; putting a bad cover on BROTHER BRIGHAM (I paid a pro designer to do it, but he didn’t know how to do book covers); and the already-discussed affair with miscommunicating with Theric’s editor.)

    2. Signature. Funded by a millionaire financier out of San Francisco, Signature has definitely put more time and money and effort into promoting Mo lit than Z. has, although whether their taste in literature has been "middle" enough or with enough "faithful" in the equation is up to debate. I mean, I like THE BACKSLIDER in lots of ways, but it’s pretty far out in some ways, especially the grotesque subplot with Jeremy’s self-mutilation. Anyway, Signature certainly has put more resources into publishing actual hard-cover books, and I know with Levi Peterson at one point they did some kind of big radio and publicity campaign for his book after THE BACKSLIDER, risking far more money than I’ve ever done. However, I understand it pretty much flopped and they were left with lots of unsold books. (Where did I read this, in Levi’s autobiography?) Someone at Signature once commented to me that the only reason they still do an occasional Mo-lit title is because of cultural duty, and at this point they’re lucky to do one title a year.

    Who else? Apsen comes to mind, but I don’t really know enough about them. I know that bookstore returns of the paperback edition of EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT really hurt them, but I don’t know how many Mo-lit books they did and if they were really any different from sanitized/propagandized Deseret/Covenant types of fiction books. I know Benson Parkinson’s missionary novels were more serious and literary than genre fluff, but I don’t know what those exact publishing arrangements were; I suspect more of Benson’s resources went into doing those than Aspen’s.

    Another comment: It was very fun to make the crack about Deseret and Seagull pulling their heads out of their butts and stocking some worthwhile Mo-lit books, but I think the real problem lies more with their clientele. I know we’ve already discussed this a lot, but I think the fault is more with the readers than the stores. After all, Deseret used to carry more variety, and as people complained they pulled more and more from their shelves. (I don’t think Seagull has ever been anything but a source of pure processed cheese.)

  75. Oh, another one is Marilyn Brown with Salt Press. She actually did a potentially very smart thing and partnered with Cedar Fort, now the largest independent LDS-market publisher, and they helped her books get into LDS bookstores and stuff. I don’t know all the ins and outs of this, though, and although I think I own a title or two from Salt Press, I don’t think I’ve read any of them yet. Did Salt Press ever have a notable success?

    Cedar Fort has actually pushed the envelope a little in Mormon fiction, haven’t they? Not a lot, but a little? Not sure; I just don’t read any of the stuff that comes out of mainstream LDS places.

  76. LOL, I was the guy wearing a happi coat at LDSBA a couple years ago! We (Parables) have since mutually agreed to remainder THE PATH OF DREAMS. It has done infinitely better as a free download at Smashwords and on my own website.

    Of course, there’s no way to tell how many have actually read it, but over 4000 people have given it a look. This surprises me in a way, because the second half of PATH turns entirely on Mormon theology. But I think the HEA ending and the romance/family drama theme carries readers through all that. And the opportunity cost is low, low, low.

    I’ll cynically note one other problem with marketing Mormon lit. to Mormons: the official PR and the reality when it come to membership numbers. Not only are there are a lot more "hen" Mormons than "pig" Mormons out there, but the majority wandered away from the barnyard a long time ago.

    I think Chris is exactly right about marketing Mormon lit. to Mormons. However, I don’t agree that "national logjam-breaker would have to be of Pulitzer-level quality," unless we’re stipulating success as a literary novel. Meyer didn’t write a literary novel. She wrote a book that lots of people wanted to read.

    As Sam Payne says in the above post, audiences don’t owe us popularity. Rather, we owe them stuff they’ll like. If they like it, they won’t give a crap what the critics think.

    Alas, if it were that easy, everybody would do it. But I think the important question to ask is not what kind of stories we want to tell each other, but what kind of stories the greater public wants to read. Or more specifically, what they get out of the stories they like, and how best to deliver it.

    What do the millions of readers get out of TWILIGHT? That’s the million-dollar question. I got to thinking about this while prepping the ePub version of ANGEL FALLING SOFTLY. On the one hand, it’s reassuring to reread something you wrote and realize, "Hey, it doesn’t suck!"

    But, man, the ending does harsh your mellow. I still think it’s a great story, but I don’t think there’s that big of an audience for bittersweet stories from unknown authors, where by the end the protagonist has won but totally screwed herself over in the process.

    It comes down to satisfying both the necessary and sufficient conditions. Even with Disney’s marketing arm behind it, Ghibli films such as PRINCESS MONONOKE and SPIRITED AWAY–an Oscar notwithstanding–did negligible box office in the U.S., despite earning record amounts in Japan. Obscure is a hard sell, no matter what the culture, region, or religion.

    So here’s my new motto: Be Stephenie Meyer. Catch the Mormon audience on the ricochet (if at all). The story will still have Mormon characters and a Mormon setting. But I’m writing with the audience "out there" in mind. That means romance, HEA, and keeping the "inside baseball" stuff to a minimum (or unobtrusively slipping it in).

    It’s an experiment–no guarantee that it will work–but it is a fun one.

  77. Interesting thoughts, Eugene. The thing is, the more Mormon you get in your stories, the less like Stephenie Meyer you can be, because there’s prejudice in national publishing against openly showing believing, practicing, faithful, functional Mormons. You can pretty much only use Mormons for shock or humor, in both Hollywood and New York publishing. And the only Mormons who get to tell openly Mormon stories are people who have "grown out of" or "escaped" Mormonism.

  78. I hear you, Chris, but I’ve yet to see compelling evidence that the attempt has been made. Generalizing for the sake of argument, I break down "popular" Mormon genre fiction as follows: romance written specifically for Mormons, with no interest in appealing to secular readers; imported thrillers that have been denatured and a Mormon character substituted for the protagonist; and "accessible" literary fiction.

    With the first two, it’s hard to see why a secular audience would care, when they can read the real thing. Why read a "Mormon Steeple Hill" if you can read Steeple Hill? What’s the added value? If you redo BONES by making Booth Mormon instead of Catholic, what exactly is the point? And no matter how "accessible," literary fiction almost never breaks out, regardless of what regional small press it comes from.

    Someone wrote in a review somewhere that ANGEL FALLING SOFTLY was an attempt to create secular-type popular genre fiction for the Mormon market. I wish. But as I admit above, not even close. And there’s no series potential.

    I think the best example is the detective genre. There must be a detective series for every possible religion, race and region. Catholic detectives, Jewish detectives, Victorian detectives, American Indian detectives, Japanese detectives, Swedish detectives, arborist detectives, dog owner detectives, fifteen zillion British detectives, neurotic detectives, sociopathic detectives. But a Mormon detective in a unique setting?

    Forget about the secular market. Has anybody done it for the Mormon market? I mean a series that a fair reviewer could favorable compare to Morse or Chee/Leaphorn or Wallander. This isn’t just a rhetorical question. I’m curious.

  79. Wm Morris says:

    I’ve said this before, but the most obvious approach for a Mormon detective series would be an older, female genealogical researcher.

  80. Moriah Jovan says:

    ! A Mormom Miss Marple in the family history library!!!

  81. Th. says:


    This conversation has gotten me thinking about which of my unwritten books I should be writing if I want to to be nationally commercial. Naturally, the one I’m focusing on has a Catholic protagonist. Wouldn’t you know it.

  82. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    [quote]I’ve said this before, but the most obvious approach for a Mormon detective series would be an older, female genealogical researcher.[/quote]

    Hey! That’s me!

    Actually, there are some Mormon genealogist mysteries out there, by G. G. Vandegriff, but they’re published locally.

  83. Moriah Jovan says:

    Chris, in the spirit of volunteerism, I would like to put forth a suggestion.

    1) Digitize your backlist. (How you do that is up to you.)

    2) Go here: and get a publisher’s account.

    3) List the books in their appropriate categories (general fiction, drama, and whatever else is appropriate).

    I say this because ten days ago, another digipub friend of mine offered to put my books up under her account (seeing as how I don’t have 10 titles to B10′s name).

    In that 10 days, they have both done land-office business. I couldn’t predict how ZB will fare, but it might serve you well to at least experiment.

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