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Breaking the Airport Bookstore Barrier

By: Ben P - January 23, 2014
A sign that your book has truly "made it": people purchase the text as an impulse buy between ordering their Starbucks and boarding their plane.

A sign that your book has truly “made it”: people purchase the text as an impulse buy between ordering their Starbucks and boarding their plane.

There are many different types of books on Mormon history: faith-promoting, exposé, amateur, academic, and popular, not to mention the many books that blur those boundaries. Here at JI, we usually focus on the academic variety, which usually implies those published by university presses, though we also often engage the many top-rate amateur books that make our field so lively and exhaustive. These are the type of books that are directed at the audience with which we are most familiar: either the small group of people especially interested in Mormon history in particular, or the broader academic community interested in religious history more generally.

But I’d like to spend a post, and hopefully a discussion, on the popular. With this category, I mean those books that are especially directed at a popular audience that is usually outside the boundaries of who typically buys a book on Mormon history. This could include the general LDS readership—those members of the faith who may not be committed to the academic world of books, but who are interested when there is a work that catches their eye and seems interesting. This is the audience that have made a handful of academic presses crave more books on Mormonism. This is the historian’s dream: writing a book that not only Mormon history buffs collect, but that finds a way to reach a print run that cracks the four digits—or, in the very rare cases, perhaps even sells more than 10,000 copies. We’ve seen a handful of works do this in the last few years, with John Turner’s biography of Brigham Young perhaps being the most notable. And then there are the few books that drastically outpace nearly every other book in Mormon history, like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Walker/Turley/Leonard’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows, both of which reached numbers few could even dream of. But again, except for the latter two volumes, even most of the best-selling books in Mormon history don’t fall into the “popular” category. Most are still published by small independent or university presses, and written in a way that is directed to a certain type of audience.

So my question is, why don’t we have more “popular” Mormon history books? I’m not talking about those sold in Deseret Book, but those sold in Costco. Why don’t we, for instance, see more Mormon history books of such a popular genre that they’d be sold in, say, an airport bookstore?

Allow me to explain a bit more about what I mean by this “popular” category, which I think includes three major elements: content, style, and venue. By “content,” I mean a topic that would be interesting to people who typically don’t geek out over the type of stuff we geeks do. This usually means less a theoretical, historiographical, or discipline-focused topic, but more often a narrative that deals with a big issue that still holds special relevance to us today. By style, I mean works that are mostly free of jargon and historiographical debates, but rather express clearly and directly the story or argument—and it almost is a story rather than an argument—at hand. And by venue, I mean a popular and trade press that is experienced in and prepared for distributing books to a wide range of audiences. I’m talking the Knopf, Hill & Wang, Simon & Schuester, Random House, Basic Books, and Houghton Mifflin types of the world.

These books are usually written by three different types of people: seasoned academics, journalists, and professional writers. In the first category, it is usually the most esteemed historians who have established themselves in the academy, have achieved job security, conquered their field, and blissfully dream of reaching a wider audience. In my field of early American history, Alan Taylor is probably most notable. The second category includes those who write for newspapers or magazines but shed their writing talents—and let’s face it, they usually have immense writing talent, even if they still have to prove their historical chops—into large biographies and other historical works; Jon Meacham is one of the better examples. As for the third group, which is considerably smaller because very few can make it as a professional writer; just think of David McCullough.

So, back to my question: why aren’t there more popular history books on Mormonism? Three quality attempts that come to mind from the last decade are Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, Joanna Brooks’s Book of Mormon Girl (which really isn’t history, of course, but close enough for merit), and our own Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People. The other popular books that deal with Mormonism and break what I’d call the “Airport Bookstore Barrier” fall with in a certain type of genre: Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, and the rotating list of polygamy exposés of Mormon fundamentalism written by a former plural wife. Is this all that Mormonism has to offer the general public? Do average readers want to know nothing more about Mormonism than sex, lies, and extremism? (On second thought, don’t answer that question.)

Just like in 1844, will the use of Joseph Smith's murder spawn a new tradition?

Just like in 1844, will the use of Joseph Smith’s murder spawn a new tradition?

Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t have the seasoned, established scholars who have focused on Mormonism throughout their careers. In our small sample size, Richard Bushman succeeded with a popular biography published by Knopf, and two more hopefully-successful books should be on the way from Laurel Ulrich (also Knopf) and Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Basic Book). Will we see more of this as the younger generation of Mormon studies scholars mature in their professions?

But further, why haven’t journalists or professional writers turned to (non-Fundamentalist) Mormon topics, especially during a period when Mormonism seems so “hot”? The few exceptions are works like Stephen Mansfield’s Mormonizing of America and other similar books that were driven by the Mitt Romney presidential run. However, this year might see a start of a new trend: Alex Beam, a journalist with the Boston Globe, is publishing American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church (PublicAffairs). I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to when it comes out in a couple months. Perhaps if it sells well, it will be the first of many.

I’m curious if I’m alone in these thoughts. Do others wonder the paucity of popular history books on Mormonism that reach a non-Mormon, non-academic audiece? Is that a good thing? (As an early Americanist, I can tell you there is often consternation about the many popular books on the topic whose quality come nowhere close to their distribution.) Will this be another component of the emergent Mormon studies that will develop as the field matures? Will the general public ever become interested in Mormon topics outside of polygamy, violence, and our involvement with the Illuminati?

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15 Comments

  1. Great post. Glad to know about Beam’s forthcoming book – wow, that should be an interesting take.

    Publishing industry is a curious thing, speaking as someone who knows little about it (hopefully Jana Riess will weigh in here) – demand driven, but also supply-driven based on what publishers think will sell; there’s trade press and vanity press and university press. Regarding Mormonism specifically, books written by insiders and outsiders tend to be perceived differently and end up in different distribution chutes. How things end up in Hudson News and Costco is something maybe we should have a professional book buyer write a guest post about, if we indeed want more Mormon-related books to break that barrier. Lots to think about here!

    Comment by Tona H — January 23, 2014 @ 8:26 am

  2. Wait. The Mormons were involved with the illuminate? I want to know more!

    Comment by Catherine — January 23, 2014 @ 9:52 am

  3. Ben, This is a great question. I’ve often wondered if the following may play some role in the answer:

    1. Fair or not, Mormonism is perceived generally in much the same light as Scientology, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. We all get it, right? A little too strange for serious consideration.

    2. We need good writers who are trained/skilled in both scholarship and good, popular writing; who speak well in interviews and on camera; and aren’t afraid to promote their books.

    3. There have to be leaders in popular publishing who will take a chance on a book that is good and potentially popular (i.e., stands a reasonably good chance of making money).

    4. The LDS community needs to support its writers. Publishers don’t care where the money comes from as long as books are selling.

    It’ll be interesting to read what others think.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 23, 2014 @ 10:21 am

  4. Ben,

    You are right about one thing: it takes talent and some maturity to write those kinds of books, particularly about groups like the Mormons who are more prone to be see a good topics for sensationalism than for humor, perspective and popular history. While I was a journalist and short story writer before I became an academician I did wait until my 7th book to get much more “popular” in my approach to writing “When Mexicans Could Play Ball” and while the initial reception has been really good it is still considered an academic book and having it published by a university press will limit its reach. I don’t do Mormon writing but I think your thoughts apply to fields like Chicano/Latino studies which also lack those major cross-over (airport bookstore) appeal. I think it is also the training people get and both the academic and journalistic training people are getting today does not help.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — January 23, 2014 @ 10:33 am

  5. So I visited a Barnes and Noble store in Seattle the day before Christmas to buy a copy of Bowman’s The Mormon People for a gift. Couldn’t find it — the clerk looked it up and said they don’t stock it due to low sales. But they’ve got a couple exposes and no doubt the Krakauer book. It will be interesting to see whether Stephen Webb’s new book Mormon Christianity (an outsider to Bowman’s insider) fares any better.

    I’m not sure what standard you are setting. How many books need to go mainstream to meet your metric? I read the Lawrence Wright book on Scientology, but I’m pretty sure that I won’t read another. One book on Scientology does me for life. I suspect most non-LDS readers have the same quota for Mormon books.

    Comment by Dave — January 23, 2014 @ 11:40 am

  6. The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne ranks #54,005 in books with 131 reviews and 4.6 stars on Amazon compared with Brooks’s #200,675, 104 reviews with 3.8 stars and Bushman’s #41,462, 178 reviews with 4.5 stars. It deserves a mention.

    Eve Gaus writing for Booklist said, “Josh Hanagarne is a remarkable man. He is a librarian, a follower of the Mormon faith, has Tourette’s syndrome, and can deadlift 600 pounds. In this moving memoir, Hanagarne shows his readers what it is like to live with a severe form of Tourette’s and how, with patience, love, and support from his family, he was able to build a rich, full life. With the onset of Tourette’s, Hanagarne found a source of joy and delight and a welcome escape in books. He chronicles the increasing severity of his Tourette’s, which forces him to leave his Mormon mission early and affects his pursuit of higher education. Hanagarne is open about his struggles, from his questioning of his faith, through the difficulties in his marriage, to his dogged determination to challenge himself to persevere and become a librarian. Throughout, his optimism and amusing, self-deprecating sense of humor shine through. An excellent and uplifting story on accepting and coping with lifelong disabilities, of particular interest to librarians.”

    Comment by wreddyornot — January 23, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

  7. Thanks, Gary, Tona, and Ignacio; great thoughts.

    Catherine: if you don’t know about, I’m afraid you’re not initiated.

    Dave: interesting about your B&N experience, as I’ve found Matt’s book in most B&N bookstores on the east coast. At least within a year after it was published. (It was even out here in Cambridge’s bookstore.) I doubt Webb’s book would come close to Matt’s success, as it is a much more academic book, published by an academic press, and mostly written for an academic audience. As for criteria, I would imagine books selling at a much, much higher rate than a majority of Mormon history books, probably tens of thousands, which is typical for successful trade books. As far as I know, only Massacre at Mountaint Meadows, Rough Stone Rolling, and J1 of the JSP have met that criteria so far, besides the exposés already mentioned. And you are probably right that a lot of people might be satisfied with just one book on Mormonism, though I think Mormonism provides a much more central story to America’s history than Scientology.

    Wreddyornot: while that sounds like a great book, I don’t think it would fit into the category of Mormon history.

    Comment by Ben P — January 23, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

  8. I think a candidate for such a topic would be a trade press treatment of Mormon polygamy, from its origins all the way through the fundamentalist varieties. What’s out there is mostly either expose (as you mention) or academic in focus. People are inherently interested in the subject, and while they may not want to read a 700-page heavily footnoted tome about it, an engaging writer could make this a compelling read, I imagine.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 23, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

  9. Kevin: agreed, and perhaps Ulrich’s book will help fill that need.

    Comment by Ben P — January 23, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

  10. A few tweets from publishing expert Jana Riess on the topic:

    Comment by Ben P — January 23, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

  11. When Dan Brown finally publishes his fictionalized history/expose on Mormonism, Masonry, and Joseph Smith’s political assassination, then the doors will be blown wide open for the rest of us.

    Comment by Brian Whitney — January 24, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

  12. All that Covey stuff was lightly repackaged Mormonism and was almost certainly in airport bookstores. And I suspect a couple of exposes were in airport bookstores at some point. The vampires and werewolves taking chastity pledges trilogy was in airport bookstores, and I understand that the weird chastity elements were widely considered Mormon. In airports, if I can judge aright, people buy celebrity, business, self-help, and the occasional expose. Plus quick-fiction.

    What I would worry more about is whether material is still recognizably Mormon and/or interesting by the time it makes it to an airport bookstore, as indicated by the glaring lack of the books I mentioned above in your list.

    Comment by smb — January 26, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

  13. Sam: fully agreed that those books have made it in airport bookstores, which I tried to mention in the post. But I’m trying to talk about books about Mormon *history*, not just Mormonism.

    Comment by Ben P — January 26, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

  14. Ben, my comment sounded more critical than I intended it to. If a history book can be made to fit into any of the standard categories, it has a chance at an airport bookstore. But I suspect it would no longer be recognizably Mormon history to people interested in Mormon history per se.

    Comment by smb — January 26, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

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