When Little Writers Are Pushed toward Big Babel
Even people who have never read the Bible are familiar with the word “Babel,” and many have heard the story from Genesis 11. The CliffsNotes version goes something like this: long ago, people wanted to “make a name for themselves,” and so they decided to build a massive tower stretching into the heavens. This would do two things, they hoped: secure themselves fame and keep them unified. But God comes down to witness the building project and decides to confuse their languages—hence the word “Babel.” This results in the abandoning of the Babel project and the scattering of people all over the earth.
This story has lots of implications, but perhaps none more obvious than the danger of name-building that confronts writers today. Most writers aren’t big names. There’s only one Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, or (in my Christian circles) Tim Keller. Many of us are “little writers.” That doesn’t mean we don’t pack a punch; it just means much of our work happens outside the purview of the public eye. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. Not everyone can or should be in the spotlight.
But there is a problem regarding platform, and it’s been noticed by many Christian writers. Recently, Christianity Today published an encouraging article by Collin Huber, “Selling Books without Selling Your Soul.” Huber noted that many Christian publishers are struggling in today’s world because of a tension. On the one hand, they recognize that book publishing is a business, and so taking on authors with a larger social media platform or popular tribe seems financially necessary. On the other hand, the whole point of having a mission as a publisher is to pursue books that align with that mission, even if the celebrity personality of the author isn’t there. Huber writes,
An overreliance on platform . . . can sometimes prove unsound purely as a business matter. For many people in an around Christian publishing, though, the biggest concern isn’t that platform-driven decision making hurts the bottom line but that it undermines the mission of making good, Christ-honoring books. Investing in big-name authors with outsized social media presences might lead to financial rewards, but often at the cost of elevating authors more skilled at drawing attention to themselves than at writing with beauty, clarity, or theological astuteness. (Collin Huber, "Selling Books without Selling Your Soul")
As with most problems in life, the solution for Christian publishers is likely bound up with balance: pursue some titles from big-name authors to keep your accounts in the black (or at least not too far in the red), and then take calculated risks on lesser known authors whose work captures the mission of the publisher, and who thus might be given a platform for a message not constructed with platform as the primary business tool.
However, the real problem, put in terms of the Genesis 11 story, is that authors are always being indirectly (and many times directly) encouraged to make a name for themselves. That’s what a platform is for authors: name recognition. And let me be clear: there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a platform, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with being famous. But when platform becomes the driving force behind content production, bad things will follow, not just for publishers, which is Huber’s point, but for authors. In other words, having a platform is okay; chasing one is dangerous. Walking the middle line would require another article. What I’d like to focus on is the effect this all has on authors in the trenches.
The Effect on Authors
Huber notes the obvious for us: “authors . . . feel pressure to promote themselves and their work rather than focus on the quality of the work itself.” That’s true. But writers also face the monstrous temptation of measuring either their worth or the worth of their work based on publisher approval.
Are publishers rejecting authors purely based on a platform deficiency? Maybe, or maybe not. There are lots of factors that go into book publication. Things aren’t as black and white as we’d like them to be. But because platform is such a prominent business tool in today’s world, many authors likely assume that they get rejected because they lack a platform, even if the reasons go beyond this. And that can quickly spiral into feelings of self-loathing and poor self-worth, even though all Christian writers would be quick to claim their identity “in Christ.” You can be “in Christ” and still be made to feel like a failure.
Is this spiritual pain for authors the fault of publishers? No—it’s not that simple. It’s a blend of publisher responsibility and author character-formation. Publishers shouldn’t rely too heavily on platform, since it can be unstable or even vacuous. And authors shouldn’t rely on publisher approval to measure their self-worth or the worth of their work, since that amounts to working for the approval of men rather than God (Gal. 1:10).
The Indy Publishing World
That brings us to the “indy” publishing world, also called “independent publishing” or “self-publishing.” I’ve published over a dozen books to date. Only four of them have gone through traditional publishing channels. (I’m what they call a “hybrid author.”) The rest have been independent. And I’ve loved producing that independently published work. Why?
When I publish independently, it’s crystal clear that I’m doing this only for Christ and his church. There’s not much financial incentive, there’s little possibility for fame, and it could be years (if ever) before people in “prominent places” read the work and respond to it. Everything is done in faith and for service. There’s also a huge weight on my shoulders since my aim is to produce books that compete with traditionally published work. That means a lot of rewriting, editing, and ongoing work with production skills such as cover design and typesetting. It's not easy to publish independently—though that’s a common assumption. Instead, it’s easy to publish poor work independently. To publish high quality work independently takes a lot of effort and a skillset acquired over many years.
Why Are We Writing?
Some people, of course, will be happy to re-spout the assumption, “Self-published books aren’t really books.” That’s false—since many prominent books in the history of publishing weren’t traditionally published at the time, or in recent days were first published independently before a traditional publisher tried to pick them up.
But what does this critique matter anyway for a writer in Christ? Should I really care whether someone else thinks my book is legitimate? Is that why I’m doing this? To be recognized, and thus to build a name for myself? Spiritually, I’m much more comfortable with people not knowing who I am. I have enough battles with my ego. I don’t need broader recognition to feed the beast. For me, it’s good to go unnoticed.
Where does this leave me and many other Christian authors who aren’t on the best-seller lists? Well, I’m considered a “hybrid author,” since I’m still open to traditional publishing. I don’t hold things against publishers for rejecting my work, and I know that book publishing is a business, not a charity. So, this isn’t a call to leave traditional publishing aside. There is much good that traditional Christian publishers are doing, and I praise God for them. The world needs them, as do many Christian writers.
At the same time, now that the tools for book production have been made available to authors like never before, I question whether it’s spiritually healthy for me (I’m not speaking for everyone) to continue pursuing traditional publication with as much vigor as I used to, since that almost always entails doing things that “make a name for myself.” As a full-time employee of a non-profit, a husband, and a father of three, I have very limited time. If I have to choose between producing things that honor Christ and serve the church versus taking up activities that “build a name for myself,” I’m happy doing the former. That means that large scale publishing success may not be in the cards for me right now, or ever. I have to learn to be okay with that. But what I love about this is that it also means I have to keep learning to find my value and purpose in Christ alone, not in how I might appear to readers.
At the end of my life, I want to know that I’ve been faithful, not famous. And so my call for fellow little writers is simple: write earnestly, write beautifully, and write with enchanted passion for Christ. Keep your head down and your heart set on the goodness of God. You’re not in control of your platform, and that’s a good thing.
If you end up having a platform one day, use it to continue doing what you’ve done all along. And whenever you can, encourage the writers who don’t have one; they need it. Writing is a lonely calling sometimes. And encouragement, sadly, is in short supply when much of the attention goes to the platform holders. Be consistent to your calling and encouraging to your craftsmen. That’s the best direction I can give.
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