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What I Told Christianity Today About Authors, Publishers, and Platform
Why "internet famous" is a house of sand when it comes to publishing.
A few months ago, Collin Huber (an excellent writer who serves as senior editor for Fathom magazine) asked me if I’d be willing to answer a few questions for a story he was writing. That story was recently published in Christianity Today under the title, “In Christian Publishing, ‘Platform’ is Being Weighed and Found Wanting.”
Collin did a good job capturing what I believe is an industry-wide rethinking of how Christian publishers ought to evaluate potential authors. This is a complex topic, frought with legitimate concerns about financial stewardship on one hand and the fairness (or unfairness) of handing out contracts to people based on how famous they might be on the other hand. I think you’ll find it enlightening.
A brief snippet of my comments to Collin appear in the story, but obviously most of what I said had to be omitted. I thought I would share my full answers to Collin’s questions below. The questions I received are in bold font, and my answers to each follow (with slight editing).
Profit is not a bad thing, and businesses have to generate it to continue their work, but what are some of the problems you’ve seen resulting from Christian publishers placing an undue emphasis on platform and personality?
Speaking as a writer (someone who's been on the other side of these dynamics, not just on the publishing end), I think I can speak to this a bit. First, the pitfalls of platform and celebrity aren't just publishing issues. They're temptations facing churches, ministry organizations, and a lot else. I think a lot of problems start from a publisher/church/org either not having solid theological and ministry principles, or else not sticking to the ones they have. The temptation to chase the next big thing is just endemic to human and institutional nature. But that's why guardrails are necessary: guardrails like statements of faith, strong institutional identity, ministry values, etc. And then accountability structures that continually force the leadership to answer for how faithful they are being to those principles. It's when the idea of principles starts to feel too stuffy, too archaic, that the problems really begin, because now the guardrails are gone. And then you have power and money and influence being used with worldly mentalities rather than a Christian one. Nobody is going to do this perfectly 100% of the time. And a lot of the mistakes that are made—people with sinful character being given undue influence, books that have questionable theology being published because they are hot sellers—are made with good intentions. But the best thing is to embrace the reality of these temptations and then put in natural guardrails that keep your institution tethered to truth rather than to opportunity.
How has the burden of marketing shifted in the last decade or two as a result of the surge in platform with respect to authors? Does it factor into contractual obligations related to your authors
So I actually think the premise of this question is a bit off target. It's true that some publishers have told authors that they (the author) are the most important marketers of their book, and therefore the burden really rests with them to build their platform. But this is actually untrue, and some publishers are getting a rude wake up call to this. Just last year there was a significant piece in The New York Times about how publishers are realizing that the relationship between an author's social media following and their book sales is unclear at best, and perhaps even negligible. In my humble opinion, the effort to pawn the burden of marketing off a publisher and onto an author is trade malpractice. That's one reason I'm so proud to work at Crossway, where we have a superb and highly experienced marketing department that works very hard to put each book into the right hands.
We desperately need clarity as to what "platform" means. Does it mean a person's reputation, taking into account their experience and relationships? Or are we simply talking about social media followers? When publishers say that platform is important, they should be saying that it matters how writers are viewed within their affinity networks, whether they show ability to connect with readers, to work with editors, to articulate their ideas well, etc. We should NOT be saying that it matters whether they have 500 Twitter followers vs 10,000. Because guess what? That really doesn't matter, at least not anymore. The Internet is too big and social media is too omnipresent to use the same metrics for notoriety that were used in 2010. Internet clout is a moving target, and it's so easy to manipulate. There are better ways to evaluate an author's potential.
To what degree does a prospective author’s platform factor into your acquisitions process? What other considerations do you take into account?
We tend to frame the conversation not so much about an author's platform but around how much support we could reasonably expect the book to receive, and that's based on many factors. We look at their experience writing; are they a familiar name with some of our ministry partners, and do those partners feel positively toward this person and their work? Depending on the kind of book it is, we look closely at their credentials. If someone is trying to write a major theological tome, we want to see certain markers that make us feel confident in them; if someone is writing a Christian living title, do they have any examples of connecting with readers in other places (a blog, a newsletter, etc.)? The question is not really whether this person is sufficiently famous. The question is whether we can reasonably anticipate enthusiasm and support for this person's work from our readers and partners. We have found previously unpublished authors, with very little (or zero) social media presence, who had established strong relationships and good credentials with people we trusted, and their books did spectacularly. Other authors have invested heavily in their Facebook or Twitter profiles, have tens of thousands of followers, maybe a well followed podcast, but their books just didn't gain traction. It's not a black and white thing at all.
Have you witnessed any examples of Christian publishers either moving away from or having second thoughts about a platform-based model of business?
I'm not sure. I do think that as more people want a smaller internet, mediated not through algorithms but by more personal things like email newsletters, we will see less emphasis on digital clout and more emphasis on smaller networks. So maybe you've never been invited to speak at a 10,000+ person conference, but you've led workshops for 2-300 people at a local church or organization. I think that's going to be more common in the days ahead.
Have you witnessed any institutional checks on platform as a metric within Christian publishing? What are some guides Christian publishers could put in place to curb the problems introduced by an overcommitment to platform?
Maybe the answer I gave to the first question should go here. I'll just say one other thing: This really is a top-down issue. If the leadership of the publisher is committed to biblical orthodoxy and Christian character in their sales strategy, that will filter down through the organization. Crossway has been blessed beyond description by the commitments of Lane and Ebeth Dennis. Every publishing meeting we have involves Scripture reading and prayer, which reminds us why we do what we do, and for whose glory and fame we are working. We love to quote Francis Schaeffer: we have to do the Lord's work in the Lord's way. Wise financial investment and gospel-driven decisions are not an either/or. Crossway is proof of that. But it does take commitment.