Some Thoughts on Writers and Platform
There is a lot of conversation these days (mostly on digital platforms) about writers, publishing, and platform. The conversation has been stimulating and thought-provoking in some ways and unhelpful, I think, in other ways. Mostly, it seems, that some are frustrated about the difficulty of getting published and the demands publishers make and the reality that writers who have bigger audiences are often favored over those with smaller audiences.
How should Christian writers think about these things? I have a few observations. These are not “thus saith the Lord”, but more “here is Dan’s opinion”, which, if you add $5 will allow you to purchase a small caffeinated beverage:
1) Let’s admit it is ironic to publish complaints about platforms and celebrity evangelicals. Most of the discussion about evangelicals and platform happens . . . on platforms. I’ve always wondered: someone who tweets these complaints, does he or she hope they are read, are retweeted, or are shared? And if so, would that make such a person a celebrity? What are the hopes for a podcast or blog lamenting the “evangelical celebrity complex”? Do you hope that some people read it but not too many, for that might make you a celebrity? I’m being sarcastic here, but we do have to acknowledge that the very act of pressing “send” on a tweet or Facebook post or blog post is an act of publishing. And inherent in an act of publishing is the idea that you have an idea you think is worth sharing with a wider audience than yourself. There is also an acknowledgment of privilege, however small, of the audience who will read it and the resources to do the publishing in the first place. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be critiques of the way Christian publishers make choices (see below), but let’s acknowledge our own desires to be published and be heard and . . . yes . . . have platforms.
2) Let’s acknowledge that to publish and be published is a gift and not an entitlement. I have not always lived this out perfectly, but in my own career I have tried to have an attitude of gratitude toward publications and publishers. We writers, because we believe we have a message worth sharing (good) can often come to believe that we are entitled to be published (not good) and that any rejection or editing is because of some bias or conspiracy or incompetence on the part of the publisher. Those systemic issues can exist, but it doesn’t mean we are owed a byline. For a publisher to lend their name behind my work and give me a platform is a gift. Nobody owes me that.
3) Let’s acknowledge that sometimes publishers make decisions based on less than noble reasons. I get books in my office every single day from publishers. Some of what comes across my desk is amazing and helpful and creative content that really benefits the body of Christ. I have been personally discipled by good books and I’ve used good books to personally disciple others. I thank God for the embarrassment of riches that is Christian publishing. However, some of what comes across my desk is ridiculous content packaged to make money off of someone’s fame. Books that have no business being published. Publishers have a difficult a task (see below) in deciding what to publish. There are times when it seems those decisions are made less on the quality of a writers work and more on the size of an author/celebrity platform. But to be fair, publishers have to walk a tightrope (more on that below) of profitability and mission. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong.
4) Let’s acknowledge that sometimes would-be authors don’t get published for good reasons. It’s still pretty difficult to get a publishing contract. You have to have an agent. You have to have some kind of discernable audience. You have to be a good writer. You have to have an idea that is just creative enough to fit into a publisher’s publishing schedule and yet not too outside-the-box that it violates a publisher’s mission and alienates their core audience of buyers. Unless you self-publish, there are a lot of obstacles to getting a book contract. I think this is good. The hurdles to publishing have made me a much better writer. I’ve had to go back and get better, to learn the craft, to keep writing in smaller venues, and to be willing to hear substantive critique of my work. Today, it seems, there is less patience with this and less trust of gatekeepers, partly, I think, because it has become so easy to publish on our own: blogs are easy to start up, Facebook and Twitter have us publishing regularly, and there are way more online outlets. You can even quickly self-publish via Amazon. But I am old-school enough to be grateful for the hurdles: for the years I spent writing for an organization without seeing my work good enough to be published in leading magazines, for the rejection letters (back when you had to send query letters and self-addressed stamped envelopes to periodicals), for the seasoning of life that produced a deeper well from which to write, and the maturity (still working on that) to temper my opinions.
5) Let’s acknowledge the difficult decisions publishers have to make. A publisher who commits to a book commits quite a bit of money to get a book on the shelf: lots of resources, lots of staff time, reputations, etc. They don’t always get their investment back. Every book is a risk. If and when a publisher decides to take a risk on me, I need to be grateful. And if they don’t, I need to be humble enough to understand why and not presume bad motives or malice. Also, Christian publishers are in the business for the mission of Christian publishing, but they are also in the business to make a profit. Some capitalism is greedy. Not all capitalism is greedy. Even as you hope your book does well and helps you financially, remember that publishers also want to be in the black at the end of their fiscal year. The editors and marketing people and staff like to get paid and have health insurance for their family as much as you do and as much as I do. So while profitability shouldn’t be the only criteria for publishing decisions, it is one important criteria and that’s ok.
6) Let’s attempt to discern between a platform building that is sinful and a godly ambition that is good. There is a kind of platform-building and an encouragement of platform-building that is sinful and antithetical to the gospel. A kind of soul-less self-promotion and a desire to be “something” and find validation in the affirmation of the crowds. This is a temptation that affects all of us in this digital age. In a sense, everyone with a social media profile is a celebrity of sorts, even within their own tribe. I think this temptation is more acute for those of us called to more public gifts and ministries. We need to fight this every day by dying to ourselves and living for Jesus. We also need people in our lives who remind us that we are actually not a big deal. Much of this can be done by involvement in a good local church and small group with people who don’t really care that Matt Chandler retweeted you because they don’t know who Matt Chandler even is. If you have kids, you will experience several opportunities, every day, to be thoroughly humbled and embarrassed! We should fight the desire to be something. We should remember that we will one day die, the work of the kingdom will go on, and most people will not remember our names.
However, there is an ambition that is not sinful. We should not confuse the above fame-seeking with a genuine desire to serve the body of Christ with our gifts. A willingness to serve–via our writing or speaking or preaching–is a good thing (1 Timothy 3;1). We should strive, in whatever vocation we are called, to do things with excellence to glorify God (Colossians 3:23). For some, these gifts will result in a wide audience. If God allows this to faithful servants, this should not be seen as bad, but good. We should not be jealous of someone else’s platform or ascribe motives to them we are not sure exist (1 Corinthians 13:7). We should also not fault publishers for asking the question of authors: “You have a good message, but is there an existing audience who has heard this message and received it?”
So how do we combat the corrosive, sinful platform-seeking above and earnestly steward our gifts in a way that honors God? I don’t have any concrete answers except to say this:
- always be wary of our temptation toward narcissism and be willing to repent of it as it appears
- hold our opportunities and platforms loosely and let the Lord guide our steps
- be quick to promote and commend others’ work
- say thank-you, repeatedly, to those who give us the opportunity to apply our gifts
- be always learning, growing, changing
- spend time offline, in community, and with the Lord in silence and meditation
- don’t be afraid of seasons of obscure, but faithful, gospel work