Monday, October 17, 2011

LDS Fiction: The Minor Leagues?

A few short decades ago, I was serving as a missionary in southern Illinois with three other elders. On one particular P-day (excuse me--PREPARATION day) we were cleaning our apartment and listening to some music.

Our mission rules allowed us to listen to "church music" on Sundays and P-days, and while some guys I knew interpreted that to mean "music by anyone rumored to have talked to a missionary," we stuck to the more traditional groups like Afterglow and the Tabernacle Choir.

I don't remember which contemporary (ca 1988) musician we were listening to that day, but the new elder in our group soon got a little irritated and said, "Can we please turn that garbage off?"

"What's wrong with it?" I asked.

"Oh, please. I can't stand any of those guys. It bothers me that they're just trying to make a buck off of the church, and the only reason they're singing LDS songs is they're not good enough to make it in the real music industry."

The rest of us didn't agree, but to preserve peace we switched to some classics by the Mormon Youth Symphony, since Beethoven's "real music industry" success is pretty much indisputable.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and my foray into LDS literature. While I have never agreed with this missionary's opinions, those thoughts were always in the back of my mind as I worked on the early drafts of "Bumpy Landings." Am I just trying to make a buck off of the church? Am I not good enough for the national market?

Lately, I've seen a similar discussion questioning whether or not the LDS literary market is some kind of "Minor League", which implies that those who write LDS fiction somehow aren't good enough to make it in the real literary industry.

I've thought about this question a lot: Is LDS fiction the minor leagues of writing? I've decided that the answer is no. And maybe.

The reason there are two answers to this question is that what we call the "LDS Market" is in fact two different markets, both closely related and serviced by the same few publishers.

The "traditional" LDS market--books where being (or becoming) LDS is central to the story--are very popular within the church but have no real interest in the broader market. LDS fiction is a niche, and as such fills a need ignored by the national market.

As for whether or not they are any good, LDS books, just like their national counterparts, fall along a broad spectrum of quality, with the best of LDS fiction easily in the top tier. And the books are getting better and better every year, thanks to an excellent LDS writing community that supports, educates, and motivates its members through conferences and awards for excellence.

In addition to traditional LDS-themed fiction, LDS publishers also sell works that have little or no connection to Mormon life. These titles are considered "regional," rather than "niche." Where a niche publisher focuses on an audience that has specific religious/cultural/recreational interests, a regional publisher focuses on an audience in a specific geographical region.

These regional publishers are often willing to take a chance on unknown writers. Combining this fact with their smaller size, limited marketing budget, and more modest sales numbers, it's easy to understand why regional publishers are often referred to as the Minor League of publishing.

All around the country, there are local authors writing and publishing books with local flavor through these regional publishers. The same is true for the Intermountain West, only here the regional publishers are the same companies that publish for the LDS niche.

This is why LDS publishing is sometimes seen as a stepping stone for authors looking to break in nationally. Recent years have seen a number of high-profile writers make this transition: Ally Condie, James Dashner, Rob Wells, and Jeff Savage, just to name a few. Even the LDS publishers are looking to grow nationally, with the Shadow Mountain imprint at Deseret Book, and CFI calling for more national-market submissions.

This is an exciting transition, and it's fun to see local friends and authors make good on the national scene.

But don't assume that since some authors have honed their skills by writing LDS fiction and then moved on nationally, that this is the purpose of the LDS market, or the goal of all LDS writers.

Many authors I know write LDS fiction because that is what they love. They would enjoy a national market-sized royalties check, and have the knowledge and skills they would need to break if that's what they wanted. But they love writing LDS fiction, and they are free to write the books they want in the way they want, because their values line up so well with those of their readers. They write LDS fiction because they can.

LDS fiction is kind to beginners, and provides a great place to learn and develop excellent writing skills. But it also provides a valuable product to hundreds of thousands of readers, and those who make LDS fiction their permanent career can be every bit as satisfied with their success as those who publish nationally.

Perhaps maybe even a little bit more.


Michael Offutt said...

My first thought is that people who look at other people's publishing ventures as "minor league" are unnecessarily putting on a pedestal something that really doesn't belong there. I've read plenty of books published by the Big Six that are in my opinion, terrible. So I've no idea where this snooty behavior comes from.

Don said...

I totally agree. National market publishers have the ability to make more money for their authors, but the certainly don't have a monopoly on quality fiction.