Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

How Successful Are Mormon Studies Books?

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.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.