Should publishers only publish genuinely original books?

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My friend and fellow writer/blogger Alistair Chalmers, shared this tweet recently.

Now, Alistair as well as being a great writer is a phenomenal reader (the two often go together).  So, he reads and reviews a lot of books, far more than I get through, so I suspect his comments reflect some observations he is seeing on the current quality and usefulness of what’s available at the moment. So, we would do well to listen to him.

My own observation is that a lot of stuff seems to end up getting published where the material simply doesn’t take the wight of a book. What I mean is that the author has a decent blog post or journal article there, If I’m being less generous, I’d suggest no more than a tweet but through slack editing or just the need to pad out have gone 200 pages over what they should have done. 

I also at times wonder if what we see is manufactured debate and disagreement in order to give pretext for a book. Regular readers will know that I’m not that convinced by a lot of the hoo ha around the so called Classical Theism debate and sub-controversies such as EFS. But when a Christian scholar claims that such and such a matter is not about minor differences of language between academics but a serious division with their opponents falling into heresy then it certainly makes book sales a lot easier. 

However, I would disagree with Alistair’s premise as it stands. Yes, there are issues in terms with Christian publishing but I’m not sure that Alistair’s answer solves the right ones.  This is because of two things.  First, I would suggest that Christians are generally not reading much at all, the ordinary Joe is unlikely to be overwhelmed, they simply are unlikely to be bothered at all by the publication of a new book.  And for the record, whilst I think there is great joy and benefit in reading and whilst I think there are probably people in the church who would benefit from a bit more and a bit wider reading, I don’t think it is a bad thing if not everyone reads, there is no Biblical requirement for every believer to be dashing out to get the latest work of systematic theology or the latest missionary biography.

Secondly, the Christian publishing industry (perhaps publishing generally) is actually, in my opinion, very conservative. Given the first point, this is understandable.  Add to that the impact of online sales by the big boys like Amazon and you have two further factors.  First, I suspect margins have been heavily squeezed -and we can’t really complain because we love cheap books and appreciate the efforts of people like Ten of Those to make that happen too.  Secondly, we order books from the comfort of our homes and so the Christian bookshops are disappearing from our high streets meaning that there isn’t the demand from them for books, even if only to give the appearance of well stocked shelves. 

So, publishers are usually asking the question “will this actually sell”? You have to make a good case to them and that’s often not just about the content, it’s also about your own marketability. Will people recognise your name or can you get people with high name recognition to endorse you (leading to one of the other big problems we’ve been discussing recently).  This means that they will be reluctant to publish something if they think that there are other books out there of a similar nature. 

The risk then is that the publisher may well end up rejecting a book proposal because it sounds similar to something else. “Does something else do the job?” Is a little bit two subjective. To give an example, another friend of mine recently had his little booklet on baptism published.  It’s a useful book for churches to give away to non-Christian visitors at baptisms but it could very easily have been missed because publishers might think that it sounds very similar to Victor Jack’s classic “Believe and be baptised.”  Yet the two books do very different jobs.

There are other risks too. For example, I can’t help thinking that this encourages the temptation to try and be as original and energy as possible and the result is the kind of disaster we’ve recently seen unfold with the TGC debacle over Josh Butler’s book attempting a theology of sex.

So, books may appear to be covering similar territory but in fact are catering for different audiences, dealing with different content or offering an alternative perspective.  The best thing that a publisher can do is look at the particular book proposal on its own merits. They shouldn’t assume immediately that there is something similar, they should see what the proposal says.  They shouldn’t be asking questions about the marketability of the author, they should be deciding if the book itself will be useful and then thinking about how they can market it.

Meanwhile, for those who feel they have useful content to share with the wider world, don’t be put off if it feels frustrating.  Keep writing, keep sharing. And remember that for many people in your potential audience, a published, printed book may not be the best way of reaching them.  Use all means necessary, blogs, podcasts, videos etc.

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