Recently I wrote a series of tweets about Christian publishing that got a lot of feedback and attention. In light of that I felt it would be good to expand a bit about what I know.
A bit about me: I’ve been published traditionally through various Christian publishing houses since 2005. Most of my publishing experience has been in that space, although I have self published a couple of books as well. I am grateful for the many amazing editors, publicists, marketers, publishers, and various players I’ve met throughout my journey. So as I list some of these more problematic issues, please know my intention is not to tear down, only to educate. There are some areas we can do better. I believe if we love something, we’re also willing to correct it if it strays. In that spirit, here are 6 controversial Christian publishing practices you may not be aware of.
One. A Percentage of Christian writers don’t actually write their books.
Sometimes the “author” doesn’t attribute the writing to the person who wrote it (ghost writer). Thankfully, more are acknowledging the collaborative writer on the cover.
Several people asked for clarification between a co-writer, a collaborative writer, and a ghost writer.
- A co-writer writes his/her portion of the book as does the other author. They write their own content, and that content gets added to the book. Both people wrote their part.
- A collaborative writer takes sermons, notes, journals, etc. and creates a book based on the content of the person who wants the book written. Typically a collaborative writer gets a WITH on the cover.
- A ghost writer can do the same thing as the collaborative writer or completely write the book from scratch. They are usually not acknowledged on the cover, and sometimes are noted in the acknowledgements, if at all.
As you can surmise, there’s an element of deceptiveness in ghost writing because the average person who picks up So-and-So’s book believe that So-and-So actually wrote it. Those authors with larger platforms often don’t have time or bandwidth to compile their sermons or talks into a book, so they hire it out. However, not attributing who wrote the book to the actual writer of the book is dishonest. Some would say this only perpetuates celebrity culture because then celebrities can continue to “write” books, even though they actually didn’t write them. Their name sells the book, not necessarily the content therein.
Two. Anecdotal, but Christian Publishing seems to be more enamored with platform than general market publishers.
I’ve heard this from editors on both sides of the aisle, but there is no empirical evidence to substantiate it fully. What I can say is that publishers in general are risk averse, so they look for authors who have the potential to move copies. Whether platform (particularly social media numbers) are a direct correlation to sales numbers is fairly unproven, though you can typically predict that a low platformed author will sell less than a larger platformed one. So it’s easier to say yes to someone with followers than an author who has a struggling platform.
I had a side conversation with a friend in publishing who believes this idea of platform = book sales started with Michael Hyatt’s book of the same name. Prior to that, publishers tended to look at books in terms of merit and ideas. Of course they also looked at the readership or potential readership of the author, but they seemed to weigh the book’s content heavier (in terms of importance) than its potential reach.
I’ve been criticized for putting platform numbers on this website. The reason I do that is this: I have to make a living, and I am constrained by what publishers are seeking. If they are seeking larger platforms, it’s better for me to have larger platformed authors. However, I have a good percentage of authors who are not strongly platformed. I am looking for amazing projects, yes. But it helps you as an author if you understand the business and have put effort in building your readership.
I wish I could take on every author wanting to traditionally publish, but I am one person, and my time is limited, so I am very, very, very selective when it comes to clients. My assistant and I reject most of the projects that come across the email transom. The reason for the no is not always platform. Sometimes I already rep someone in that space. Or the writing is just not there. Or it’s not something I am personally interested in. Or there’s a flood of those books on the market.
Three. Plagiarism happens.
This happens particularly when a well known writer hires assistants who cobble together a book, taking from other sources. I wrote about this problem extensively here.
Publishers do take this seriously (they have software to detect it). But I have seen situations where plagiarism (blatant) has been pushed under the table, so to speak, because the author doing it is a big name. This should not be. No matter how big or small an author is, they should attribute what they quote. They should not lift other people’s hard won words and declare (by omitting citation) they have written them. It’s both lying and stealing.
Side note: I am weary of people saying this is no big deal. It is a big deal. If you designed a widget that helped people, and someone took your unique invention design, then made money from it (while saying they invented it), that’s called stealing. Plain and simple.
Four. It’s common practice NOT to read a book you endorse.
This came to light during a recent excerpt from a book that stirred controversy and caused some endorsers to retract their endorsement. You might ask, why would someone retract an endorsement? Well, because they didn’t actually read the book. They may have read an excerpt, or banked on knowing the person’s reputation, or endorsed as a favor. I’ve seen these scenarios happen:
- Someone approaches an author and asks them to endorse. The author says “I don’t have time.” They respond that it’s okay, here are four possible endorsements to choose from. In this case the author of the book wrote their own endorsement. Or the marketing team wrote it.
- A potential endorser doesn’t have time to read the book to endorse, but writes one anyway, as a favor.
- Sometimes I’ve seen this, which is acceptable. An endorser will say, “I wish I had time to do this, but I don’t. However, I can write an endorsement of you, your character, your message.”
I’m not convinced endorsements actually sell books. They may legitimize a new author, but they don’t necessarily move the needle. Author Katelyn Beaty wrote extensively about this topic here, and she does a thorough job. Essentially, we’re enmeshing ourselves in celebrity culture, which is its own problem. (It’s here where I feel I must interject about Jesus’s kingdom being counterintuitive, the first being last, and the kingdom not operating in the same vein as the world).
Five. Predatory Publishers use the name of Christ to portray legitimacy.
I wrote extensively about practices of predatory vanity publishers here. But there are “ministries,” publishers, and businesses who use Christian language to portray their business model as sound, safe, and legitimate. It’s wholly unfortunate that unsuspecting Christian authors get contacted by these entities, then sold very heavily to purchase packages that they will never recoup in sales. Thousands of dollars go out for very little return other than the knowledge that your book is now out in the world.
Do your research. You can upload your book onto Amazon for free. Pay an editor. Find a graphic artist to do the cover. Then upload it all yourself. You’ll save thousands (and I mean thousands) of dollars that way. Don’t be hoodwinked to think that just because a “publisher” is interested, that they have your best interest in mind. Many of them simply want your money. And they’ll couch the request in Christian language. Run!
Six. Believing platform predicts theological soundness.
I believe we’ve sometimes traded the need for sales and the lure of platform to publish books that harm the cause of Christ. We’ve seen bestselling books taken out of circulation because of plagiarism, poor research, heretical teaching, a moral failure by the author (that’s why we have something called a moral turpitude clause in contracts) or unorthodox content. The siren call of platform can blur our vision, luring us to say yes to the Almighty Dollar while marginalizing the message. The Christian part of Christian publishing means we must be careful as we evaluate content. No amount of money can make up for leading others astray. Millstones come to mind.
I am grateful for Christian publishers taking a risk on my books. I am hopeful that some of these practices, once exposed in the light of day, will become a thing of the past. The authors I know, as well as the publishers and editors, really want to create life changing content. But we have to remember that publishing is a business, not a ministry. Therefore, there is a bottom line. Publishers are there to sell books, pay their bills, and stay afloat. The question becomes, how can we operate within the system with integrity? How can we honor Christ as we conduct business?
We also have to be cautious about the notion of fame and celebrity. Fame impoverishes the soul, and we must be careful not to court it. And if it comes, we must advocate for strong accountability so authors don’t become self-absorbed and uncorrectable. We’ve seen the rise and fall of several platformed authors, and we should heed that cautionary tale.
As an author, I have to think about what happens beyond my work. When “the end” comes to me, and I see Jesus face to face, I pray I have been faithful to him in the way I’ve navigated my publishing journey. Sales numbers, bestseller lists, & speaking circuits will matter little in the New Heavens and the New Earth. The question will be, “Have you been faithful to what God has called you to do?”