Putting the “Christian” in Christian Publishing

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Yesterday, Scot McKnight offered another angle to the conversation growing around Christian publishing when he wrote about the tension between craft and sales. Apparently more and more Christian publishers are screening prospective authors based, not on the quality of their content, but on their ministry size and number of Twitter followers. McKnight’s concern is simply that many publishers are being driven by what will sell instead of what should sell.

Let me say up front that I’m new to publishing, and I come with all the innocence of freshly born babe. I’ve been given a remarkable opportunity (a gift really) to write a book with Moody Publishers which will release in April; and I have to consistently thank my editors and marketing gurus for holding my hand through whole the process. So, please understand that I write out of innocence, as the girl in the crowd who might just be able to see that the emperor’s clothes are not as magnificent as everyone claims.

In fact, they may not even be there at all.

Of course, this innocence could be nothing more than naïveté. Perhaps with time, I will understand what others already know. I’ll understand the pressures of balance sheets and payrolls. I’ll understand that while idealism may write books, pragmatism sells them. I’ll understand that this is simply “the way the world works.” Still I can’t help but wonder whether our concerns about publishing—the questions of plagiarism and ghost writing and the cult of celebrity—stem from precisely this. This is the way the world works.

In his first epistle, John warns us against being conformed to the ethos of the world. When I was growing up, I understood this “worldliness” to be certain style of dress or music; and while these things can certainly reflect the world system, worldliness is much more insidious. Worldliness is a short-sighted vision that is concerned only with this present age. Given this, we shouldn’t be surprised that pragmatism is the world’s modus operandi. If this life is the only thing that matters, then we ‘d better get while the getting is good.

In contrast, a truly Christian perspective understands that reality is not defined only by the “here and now” but also by the “there and then.” On this time table, the goal isn’t only success in this life but success that will last into the next. When we apply that to publishing, being a truly Christian publisher means more than simply producing content that is “Christian” but publishing in such a way where both means and end are guided by the timeless gospel we proclaim. To co-opt James K. A. Smith, we must never forget that the liturgy of our publishing actually shapes the things published.

With this in mind, here are a few thoughts about what should characterize our publishing efforts. Truly Christian publishing…

1. Does not disdain small platforms because it understands that God uses weak things to confound the mighty.  Don’t misunderstand; having a small platform doesn’t mean you deserve to be published any more than having a large one does. (A small platform may indicate an inability to write.) But having a small platform doesn’t mean that you DON’T deserve to be published either. In God’s kingdom, size is of little importance because in comparison to Him, we’re all miniscule.
 
2. Will make space for unique gifting even if it is not trendy. One of the dangers of the celebrity culture is that it inevitably elevates a certain style or approach to the standard, tempting everyone else to copy it. Soon titles sound the same; graphic design becomes interchangeable; buzz words emerge; and everybody ends up quoting everybody else. It reminds me of Marcus Mumford’s frustration that every other band now sounds like Mumford and Sons: “That’s kind of what we’re reacting against. When we started, it was quite fun doing what we’re doing, ’cause no one else was doing it. It was like our little secret.” Truly Christian publishing understands that God places the members in the Body as He wills and aims to develop the unique voice of each—even if it is one crying in the wilderness.

 3. Must be based in community. There’s a bit of a myth that “creatives” work best in isolation where they are free from the obligations of relationship. Within Christianity, this myth sometimes presents itself as freedom from the obligations of a local church. Now, as a mother of three, I’ll be the first to lobby for enough quiet space to put two thoughts together, but as a Christian, I also believe that my craft cannot be separated from those who live closest to me. Made in God’s image, we are designed to both create AND live in intimacy with other image bearers; these relationships lend accountability and inspiration for the work we do. So that in God’s wisdom, we actually end up doing our best work when we are doing it in context of relationships, when we are doing it in service to God and others.

 4. Works collaboratively. Bringing a book to the public involves a whole host of gifted individuals using their talents to achieve a final goal—editors, marketers, publishers, and yes, even bookstores like LifeWay. Quite frankly, an author does not a book make. And as authors, we don’t have the right to say whatever the $#!@% we like because we are not the only ones involved in the process. (If you need more control, there are plenty of self-publishing options available these days.) At the same time, publishers must be willing to catch the author’s vision and let this guide the marketing, design, and distribution. Instead of forcing a book into prefabricated models of marketability, we must allow the content to shape even the delivery.

5. Moves with the Spirit. Here’s something that neither publishers nor authors will like: some of us have only one book in us. I’ve thought about this as I wrapped up final edits on my manuscript—I know God gave me this particular message but I have no guarantee that He will give me another one. Of course, I like to think He will, that this book will be the first of many, but I must be willing to submit to His plan if it is not. I cannot expect to hold Him to a timetable of a book a year or even every two years. When His spirit moves, I move—beyond that I can’t promise anybody anything and I’d be foolish to try.

6. Writes, publishes, and markets with humility.  One of the biggest marks of wordliness is trusting the systems and structures of the age instead of trusting the Lord of the universe. Instead of saying “if the Lord wills, tomorrow we will do such and such,” the world whips out charts and stats and logarithms. Certainly, we must work, we must plan, we must analyze data, we must be effective; but even as we do, we must also understand that if God doesn’t build the house… well, all our effort is useless. Truly Christian publishing knows that the One who first gave the message is the same One who will carry it forward.

Publishing is risky business. It takes guts to invest this much time and money into projects that have no guarantee of reimbursement. I’m thankful for publishers like Moody who take those risks in order to honor God and further His gospel. But I’d also like to suggest that because publishing is such a risky business, it will require more faith of us, not less. Faith to follow where God leads; faith to pursue kingdom rewards instead of monetary ones; faith to believe that even the power of celebrity isn’t more powerful than God Himself.

But if we do, if we have this kind of faith, even the world can’t stop us. Because as John reminds us, this is the victory that overcomes the world—even our faith.


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