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Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review: Mormon Market 2009
By William Morris | 1.27.10
Wm writes: Andrew Hall has really outdone himself this year with this look at the Mormon market which features not only works published but a run down of the players in the market as well as some original reporting on them. Sadly, Andrew is probably not going to be able to also do a look at film and theater. Happily, it’s because he and his family are moving to Japan where Andrew has secured a teaching position. Always cause for rejoicing in this tough market for academics. Congratulations and thank you, Andrew.
Click here to view data on the number of books published per publisher from 2000-2009.
Recently I have been worried that the Church-owned sector of the LDS literary market (publishers Deseret Book, Shadow Mountain, and Covenant, and the bookstores Deseret Book and Seagull) were taking too much control of the market, squeezing the independent actors out. That remains a valid concern in terms of the ability of independent publishers getting shelf space or promotion space in the Church-owned bookstores. Independent publishing has not dried up and blown away, however. Just the opposite, independent publishers published more literary works in 2009 than in 2008, and the ranks of the independent publishers grew slightly. Together with a downtick in the number of titles published by the Church-owned publishers, the percentage of titles published by the independent publishers was 50% of the total works published in 2009. This returns the market to the equilibrium that existed for most of the decade before 2008, when a drop in independent publishing resulted in the Church-owned publishers producing 64% of the titles. Of course, the Church-owned publishers achieve sales of which the independents could never dream. But I am glad to see that the independents have life in them.
With the downturn in the economy book sales in general are down, and that is true in the Mormon market as well. Several publishers reported to me, however that 2009 was a slightly better sales year than 2008. I have heard from several authors who report that Mormon publishers are providing significantly less money for advertising, and are relying on and encouraging authors to do their own promotion.
Let’s run down the list of the publishing houses. Deseret Book publishes novels with LDS characters/settings under the “Deseret Book” imprint, and books with no overt LDS content, presumably intended for the national market, under the “Shadow Mountain” imprint. In 2009 Deseret Book published 18 novels, 13 of them by Shadow Mountain. I discussed in the first part how Shadow Mountain has published a large number of young adult fantasy novels in the last few years, reaching a new high in 2009. The Deseret Book imprint, on the other hand, reached a new low, with only five new works. Just looking at the numbers, it would appear that Deseret Book is moving away from books with LDS characters. Insiders have told me, however, that just the opposite is true. Apparently Deseret Book feels that it has overextended its fantasy line, and intends to refocus on LDS-themed books it can sell in its own stores, thereby keeping a larger margin. At least one of the fantasy authors has been told the second book in his series is not being picked up by Shadow Mountain, and Shadow Mountain has cut back on its promotion of the fantasy novels. Also, the high percentage of Shadow Mountain books is somewhat misleading. Except for the more successful fantasy novels (those by Brandon Mull, Obert Skye, and James Dashner) and James Wright’s books, Shadow Mountain does not appear to do much promotion beyond the Mormon corridor.
Covenant Communications was acquired by Deseret Book in December 2006. Kirk Shaw, an editor at Covenant, reports, “It’s been almost exactly three years since Deseret Book acquired us, and it has been a very pleasant road. Editorially, we run almost entirely as we did before the acquisition. Sheri Dew is our CEO and consults with our general manager often, but other than that, we rarely interact. I know some of the Deseret Book editors and authors and am on very friendly terms with them, considering them colleagues, and there is very little competition between the two companies. Very much so Covenant is like a national house imprint. We do focus on fiction with an LDS angle (and we don’t have nor plan to distribute nationally like Shadow Mountain).” Covenant published 29 novels in 2009, down from 35 in 2008, but Shaw reported that there were no cutbacks, the dip was just a natural fluctuation, and the number of fiction titles would return to the low to mid 30s in 2010. While Deseret Book/Shadow Mountain books have the natural advantage of the Deseret Book stores and tie-ins to the powerful “Time Out For Women” book club, Covenant reportedly does well at creative marketing.
There was considerable shake-up among the independent publishers in 2009. Some closed shop or were acquired, while new publishers emerged. Of the independent publishers, many complain privately that their books are sidelined in the Church-owned Deseret Book and Seagull chains, or kept out entirely. Cedar Fort, Granite, Valor, and Walnut Creek have been able to place their books in the bookstores, but (as far as I can tell) Zarahemla, Parables, WiDo, and others have not. Cedar Fort is the largest of the independent book publishers. Except for a temporary downturn in 2008, Cedar Fort has consistently published two novels a month for the last several years, and plans to continue this pattern in the future, despite the fact that non-fiction books make up the bulk of its sales. In 2008 it launched the Sweetwater Imprint for books that it thinks would do well in the national market as well as the Mormon market. Some non-Mormon authors publish at Cedar Fort. Granite, the next most active publisher, has consistently produced novels of unremarkable literary value.
Spring Creek folded in early 2009, and Mapletree was acquired by WindRiver (both companies have published only non-fiction in the last two years). Two new publishers of mainstream Mormon fiction appeared in 2009, while another rechristened itself. Valor Publishing Group was founded by Mormon author Candace E. Salima, with Mormon authors B.J. Rowley and Tristi Pinkston on the board. The Orem based company produced only one novel in 2009, but it was by Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a fortuitous way to kick of an enterprise. The board is clearly positioning Valor as a house that can join the top ranks of Mormon publishers. They have as many as 14 books scheduled for 2010, mostly genre novels (fantasy, adventure, and mystery). Salima has been outspoken in her belief that the current makeup of the government in Washington will bring America to ruins, so it is no surprise that Valor is planning two speculative fiction series, one by Salima and one by Gordon Ryan, which postulate a future America in chaos. One board member told me, however, that books Valor publishes “must be respectful in nature, not written to slam the ideologies of other political parties but rather to uphold the beliefs espoused by the author.”
Another new press is WiDo Publishing, based in Salt Lake City, and run by Liesel Autrey, Kristine Princevalle, and Karen Gowen. Although it published a novel in 2007, only in 2009 did it become a serious house, releasing two novels and signing contracts with at least five authors to publish their novels in 2010, including Marilyn Brown. Another new name is Walnut Springs Press, although in this case it is not a truly new company, but rather a renaming of Leatherwood Press, a company that has existed since 2004. Walnut Springs published five novels in 2009, as well as some non-fiction.
Zarahemla Books and Parables Publishing are both small operations which were founded in 2006 and are dedicated to producing serious literary works. Both continued to publish in 2009, with Zarahemla, published by Chris Bigelow, looking especially strong. Zarahemla published three novels in 2009, all three of which are strong contenders for the best literary work of the year. It has a short story anthology, a theatrical anthology, and two short story collections on tap for 2010. A new literary publisher is B10 Mediaworx, a Kansas City press run by Elizabeth Beeton, which publishes work which mixes earthiness, even sensuality, with depictions of spirituality. Beeton told me, “I want to publish works by more Mormon authors, if I find stories I like that don’t fit anywhere else. I also want to publish work by nonmembers who want some mixture of worldliness and their own spirituality that is risky and/or speculative. I’m not particular about faith, just that characters HAVE one and either try to live by it or respect it, even if they don’t. I mostly focus on romance with a spiritual twist.” Among B10’s publications was the remarkable anthology The FOB Bible, a collection of short stories and poems based on the Old Testament.
Parables Publishing, BYU Press, and the Mormon journal Dialogue each produced poetry collections in 2009 (Mark D. Bennion’s Psalm & Selah: Book of Mormon Poems, Eliza R. Snow’s The Complete Poetry, and Mary Lythgoe Bradford’s Purple, respectively). Sunstone Magazine published the collection The Best of Mormonism, 2009 through its new imprint Curelom Books. Finally, Signature Books published no books in 2009, instead spending the year digitalizing its back catalogue. With Zarahemla and the other literary presses successfully publishing “edgier” works, and considering how negative Signature editors have been about the prospects for Mormon fiction, I would be surprised to see them publish any more significant fiction in the near future.
This last month I surveyed a wide range of LDS publishers, authors, and reviewers, asking them about current trends and favorite books. I promised the authors (who are careful not to anger their peers) I would not reveal their individual favorites in this review. From them, as well as from published reviews, I got a good idea of the best and bestselling Mormon market literary works published in 2009.
While no publisher gave me numbers, it appears that the bestselling novels of 2009 were historical fiction superstar Gerald Lund’s The Undaunted (Deseret), a massive take on the 1879 Hole-in-the-rock pioneers, and Anita Stansfield’s four romance novels (Covenant). Close behind was Josi Kilpack’s Sadie Hoffmiller series of “cozy” mysteries, Lemon Tart and English Trifle (Deseret Book). The series has received very strong reviews. The mystery genre as a whole blossomed in 2009. Among the favourite “cozy” mysteries were Betsy Green’s Murder by the Book (Covenant) and Tristi Pinkston’s Agent in Old Lace (Cedar Fort). Other mysteries or thrillers that received strong reviews (all of which were published by Covenant) are Traci Hunter Abramson’s hostage drama Lockdown, Stephanie Black’s tightly-plotted suspense novel Methods of Madness, Guy and Jeffrey Galli’s Middle Eastern spy/suspense novel Shadow Hunter, Jeni Grossman’s subtle and multi-dimensional tale of Islam and women in Turkey Missing Pieces, Jennie Hansen’s thriller Shudder, and Gregg Luke’s medical drama Altered States.
Historical fiction also remains a popular genre, as Gerald Lund’s continued success proves. Another work which mined stories of the pioneers was David Farland’s highly regarded and emotionally powerful In the Company of Angels, a handcart company novel which Farland self-published. Heather Moore mixes careful research and excellent storytelling in Alma (Covenant), the sixth of her popular Book of Mormon novels. Outside of scriptural/pioneer stories, Sandra Grey’s World War II drama Tribunal (Covenant) won many fans. Jennie Hansen wrote, “Not only does this book tell a remarkable story, provide in depth historical insights, provide characters the reader can care deeply about, but it is rewarding to read a novel with such a rich vocabulary and almost no copy errors . . . I personally found this novel at the top of my list of mature and satisfying LDS novels.”
Two strongly reviewed historical fiction novels were designed to sell to the national market, and containing no LDS characters, but primarily were sold within the Mormon market. G. G. Vandagriff’s The Last Waltz (Shadow Mountain), a thick novel set in Vienna during the World Wars of the 20th century, masterfully presented the clash in cultures, views, and personalities in that city. Vandagriff’s book was on perhaps more Mormon market “best books” lists of authors I surveyed than any other. Jennie Hansen wrote, “Her characters are strong and likable, yet flawed in ways the reader can visualize and accept. The plot and theme carry brilliantly throughout the entire almost six hundred page novel without repetition or sags . . . The Last Waltz is a book to savor.” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff received generally good reviews for Am I Not a Man? (Valor), his novel about Dred Scott, the slave whose suit for freedom made it to the Supreme Court in 1857. Shurtleff won many over with his powerful and detailed retelling of a key moment in American history. Some reviewers noted, however, that the book sometimes read more like a history book than a novel.
While romance novels were not nearly as ubiquitous in the Mormon literary world as they have been in the past, they remain a key part of the market. Reviewers almost invariably mentioned three authors as going beyond the expectations and limitations of the genre: Rachel Ann Nunes, Michele Paige Holmes, and Annette Lyon. Rachel Ann Nunes’ Saving Madeline (Shadow Mountain), about a female attorney’s partnership with an unpredictable father who is battling to protect his daughter from a drug-abusing mother, is regarded Nunes’ finest yet. Hansen wrote, “The story is gripping and will leave the reader squirming over the ethics questions. The characters are expertly drawn, believable, and multi-faceted.” Michele Page Holmes’ All the Stars in Heaven (Covenant) tells the story of a male Harvard law student and a female music student who is a virtual prisoner of her family. Jennie Hansen commented that All the Stars in Heaven is one of those few romances “that approach the relationship between a man and a woman as one of friendship that grows to something more as mutual respect and knowledge of who the other is gradually develops . . . where realistic and deepening relationships grow out of common beliefs and values, respect, shared goals and experiences, and a willingness to sacrifice for each other, as well as the physical attraction component.” Annette Lyon’s historical romance Tower of Strength (Covenant) uses the building of the Manti Temple as its setting. Many reviewers commented on Lyon’s strongly rendered characters and her ability to avoid cliché. Other romance novels of note include Joyce Dipatista’s [DiPastena] medieval romance Illuminations of the Heart (Walnut Springs), and rookie author Heather Justesen’s family drama The Ball’s In Her Court (Cedar Fort). Cedar Fort published two comic “chick lit” romances that have received warm reviews—Aubrey Mace’s holiday themed Santa Maybe (Cedar Fort) and Elodia Strain’s marriage themed Previously Engaged.
In the National Market section I discussed the flood of young adult fiction published by Shadow Mountain. Cedar Fort also published three fantasy novels in 2009, although none of them made much of a splash. The non-Shadow Mountain speculative novel that has received the most attention is a self-published one, Riley Noehren’s Gravity vs. the Girl. Described as “paranormal chic lit”, it tells of a woman who is followed by the ghosts of her former self. Eric W. Jepson called it “the best comic novel I read this year,” Heather Moore wrote, “astonishing, thought-provoking novel. Funny, definitely quirky, but to fall-in-love with.” Joan Sowards’ Haunts Haven (Walnut Springs), an “LDS Ghost Story” also received some positive attention.
Zarahemla Books continues to publish some of the finest Mormon literary of recent years. Zarahemla’s output in 2009 is remarkable in that the authors and protagonists are all men, a rarity in a market dominated by female readers and authors. BYU professor Douglas Thayer, the dean of the Mormon literary world and sometimes called “The Mormon Hemingway,” has been enjoying a renaissance this last decade. The latest in his series of well-received novels, The Tree House, tells the story of a Provo boy who experiences the death of his father, missionary work in post-war Germany, and war in Korea. BYU professor and author Elouise Bell wrote, “The Tree House ranks with The Red Badge of Courage in its creation of the ghastly bubble inhabited by a soldier in battle. Claustrophobic, electrified by panic, astonishingly intimate, Thayer’s chapters on war have a power we have not seen from him before. There is not a shred of moralizing here, yet the book nourishes the soul from start to finish.” Another BYU professor, Richard Cracroft, wrote, “I’ve never read a better or more gripping treatment of men at war. Thayer’s characters and places are real; they are alive.”
Southern Utah University professor Todd Robert Petersen has written what I consider the best Mormon short stories of the last decade. His first novel, Rift, centers on a retired Sanpete County Mormon man who devotes his time to serving others, but also nurses a long standing feud with his bishop. Brady Udall wrote, “What a pleasure to read the work of a writer who understands and can accurately portray the small, out-of-the-way parts of this world where honor, generosity, and sheer cussedness are still operative principles. Todd Petersen has written a funny and tough- minded account of a place where family, faith, and community still come first.” Shelah, in Segullah, wrote, “Jens Thorsen is likely my very favorite character in Mormon fiction, including The Backslider’s Frank Windham, who reminds me in some ways of a very young Thorsen . . . I’ve read a lot of books about women in small towns banding together to fight ignorance (like this year’s "The Help") and women in religious communities fighting gossip and small-mindedness (like "The Ladies’ Auxiliary"), but one of the things I love best about Rift is that it’s a book about close male friendships, and men engaged in good works. Petersen’s debut novel is a beauty, and Jens Thorsen is a character who will stay in my mind, and make me think twice about the people who live in the small towns of rural Utah as I speed past them on my way to Bryce or Zion.”
Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back breaks important new ground in Mormon fiction: a honest but recognizably “Mormon” dipiction of male homosexuality. Author and WiDo editor Karen Jones Gowen wrote, “I found ""No Going Back to be a deeply spiritual, faith-affirming story that is neither contentious nor agenda-driven. In fact, it’s a refreshingly honest look at all sides of this issue. Paul’s dilemma and his subsequent pondering of what this means for his life now and in the future touched my heart and soul . . . The character development is incredible. Read it if only to see the artistry with which Langford creates his cast of players. Even minor characters come to life on the page . . . "No Going Back" is a fast read, even quite funny in places. I could hardly put it down. It is richly layered and complex, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, a finely written tale of depth and meaning.” Reviewer William Morris wrote, “By telling the story simply, tying it to a particular time and place, and focusing on the teenage protagonists, Langford is able to confine the discussion of this issue to a manageable narrative—and a compelling one. The approach Langford takes is genius. I love the way he threads the middle of American Mormon mores, doctrine, and practice in a way that is in some senses mundane—this is basically a domestic drama—but also incredibly radical . . . Any discussion of same-sex attraction makes a lot of Mormons uncomfortable. But the novel is thoroughly orthodox. Its characters are orthodox Mormons. Its tensions and ultimate solutions and resolutions are firmly rooted in active LDS life—prayer, scripture study, repentance, the priesthood, love, charity, hope, the family.”
I have enjoyed the few of these books that I myself have read, and look forward to reading several more. I hope you will do the same.
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