Publishers_Weekly_logoI have a feature article in the current issue of Publishers Weekly, exploring the rise of Mormon Studies from the publishing angle.

  • How many books are we talking about, and is that number rising each year?
  • How many publishers are getting into the act?
  • And how many copies of these scholarly books are sold?

In answer to that last question, the general theme seems to be: more copies than is typical for other academic books.

Most academic and university presses are built upon a wafer-thin wager that a particular book will sell a certain number of copies in order to break even — and then, God willing, start enjoying steady backlist sales. It doesn’t always happen, especially now that the crucial library market has been drying up a bit more each year.

And it’s harder than ever to earn money on backlist titles because used copies of academic books are so easily and cheaply obtained online. This new reality puts more pressure on academic books to be strong sellers right out of the gate, and has led many university presses to emphasize the “scholarly trade book” — a book that is equally embraced by fellow members of the guild as well as interested general readers.

That kind of balance is very difficult to pull off, but many religion and history books have managed it. The rise in Mormon Studies titles we’re seeing now is happening in part because of the flowering of Mormon Studies as a discipline, but it’s also occurring because Mormon titles can hit that sweet spot of “scholarly trade” far more easily than, say, a treatise on the influence of Schleiermacher on Barth.

The Golden Number that moves a book from break-even territory toward profitability varies from press to press and project to project. But in general, many academic publishers used to be happy with 1,000 copies. Now the threshold is higher, perhaps 1,500 to justify a house’s investment and 2,000 or 2,500 to consider a book a modest success.

Brigham Young biographyWhen you understand that humble context, you’ll see that sales numbers like “10,000 copies in the first year” — which is what John Turner’s outstanding 2012 biography of Brigham Young sold for Harvard University Press — are actually quite impressive. 10,000 copies might be four or five times as many as another academic book on the press’s list. And that’s only in the first year, not counting the backlist sales generated by the achingly slow academic world of journal reviews and course adoption.

Over at Oxford, senior editor Theo Calderara told me that its Mormon Studies books are “perennial sellers and foundational books in the field.” While Oxford publishes in all areas of religious studies, its Mormon Studies list is:

“certainly one of the top three in terms of average sales. Not only have we had quite a few breakout hits—Massacre at Mountain Meadows [2008] is one of the ten best-selling religion books we’ve published in the last twenty years—I would be hard pressed to think of a book in this area that has sold disappointingly, and that kind of a track record is very rare indeed.”

So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more publishers moving into the area of Mormon Studies; several I talked to said they are especially interested in acquiring books about international Mormonism, women and Mormonism, and Mormon theology.

That’s good news for the many young scholars who are coming up in the field — and for all of us readers.

11 Comments

  1. I’ve enjoyed books in this area, from Douglas Davies’ fine volumes, to the new book “Mormon Christianity” by Catholic scholar Stephen Webb. It’s good to see, and my hope is that their insights will become more generally known.

      • Webb’s book is awesome, being far more readable than his Christology book.

        For example, in that book he says Platonists believe “matter is unknowable.” I had no idea what the hades he meant.

        In his “Mormon Christianity” he explains that we cannot know what form matter takes.

  2. Your description of the primary and secondary scholarly trade book market explains both why more quality histories are being written but also why the field of Mormon studies is blooming. I wonder if the causal influence is greater access to early Mormon records.

  3. Still, most Mormons don’t know these books exist, and if they do, they can’t seem to find time or interest to become informed. When BYU Studies Quarterly, a Church-funded Mormon studies journal, can’t even reach .1 percent of the U.S. LDS population, that says something about the level of interest in the Church.

  4. johnsonfamily7@msn.com

    I agree that there are not that many LDS Church members who have the desire to read the more detailed expositions of our doctrine and history; that makes them vulnerable to ex-Mormon attacks by raising little-known historical items and causes them to think that the Church withheld important information, when, in fact, it is their own laziness that puts them in that situation. Still, this is truly odd because the in the 2010 Pew Forum Survey of Religious Knowledge, including knowledge of the Bible, “Mormons” had the highest number of correct answers, ahead of Jews, Evangelical Protestants, and Catholics, which shows that they are even more religiously literate that the general society (http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx) Many readers just want to read LDS fiction because it is easy, breezy, but this same criticism applies to readers generally, not just Mormons.

  5. Scholars of Mormonism should be especially grateful that there are presses, like Oxford, that have picked up where University of Illinois left off, and that there is a high level of academic interest in Mormonism in the religious studies community. If anyone is interested, my book, Remembering Iosepa, came out with Oxford University Press in March of this year (sorry for the shameless self-promotion). My hope is that more academic presses will recognize the market for books on Mormon subjects, and the many great scholars who write on these topics.

    • Jana Riess

      Matt, congratulations! I just read the book description on Amazon and was fascinated. I’ve never heard of the Iosepa Mormon community. Let me know if you’d ever like to write a short guest post about it here on the blog. — JKR

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Clearly, there is sufficient interest in Mormon topics from the potential readership to sustain sales. My guess is that the majority of these books are being purchased by Mormons like myself who are interested in Mormon history and theology, versus the academic community or people in other faith groups who want to know more about Mormons. As small as the number of academically inclined Mormons may be, it seems to be competitive with their counterparts in other faith groups. As much as I would love to see more people in my own ward (congregation) who have read these books and are ready to discuss them, the main person I do this with is my daughter, who at any given time has ten or so of my books at her house.

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