Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Lazy Age of Christian Publishing?

A few weeks ago, Philip Yancey lamented on his blog about the death of the "golden age" of Christian publishing. Changes in the publishing world mean that authors typically receive less for their work and that anyone who wants to become an "author" can simply self-publish. This has flooded the online market with more books than ever but with fewer gatekeepers to ensure any measure of quality.

And earlier this week, Karen E. Yates, a guest writer over at Her.Meneutics, offered another perspective—one that was a little more upbeat. While Yancey bemoaned the fact that today authors are pressed to build their platforms rather than focus on their writing, Yates argues that this is not such a bad thing and highlights all the positive outcomes of having a tribe. And she says that self-publishing doesn't just flood the market; it also gives a voice to books that might not otherwise see the light of day, citing The Shack as an example.

After reading both pieces, I can't help but see things more like Yancey does than Yates. The changes in the publishing industry, while probably inevitable, are not necessarily good. When the music industry went through its digital revolution, there was a place to land when the floor fell out from beneath singers and songwriters. Artists can make money from tours and their back catalogue if the perceived value of their albums is little or nothing. In fact, as Noisetrade.com has shown time and time again, giving away a recording could be the best thing to generate new fans. But in the publishing world, the book is all there is. Authors don't go on tour to perform their books (book tours are only promotional). The book is their revenue stream.

Earlier this year, I went to a writer's conference with some colleagues from the ministry where I work and was saddened to learn that many of the authors presenting that week had to hold down other full-time day jobs. I left feeling mighty blessed to call myself a full-time writer and editor. Still, the changing shape of the publishing landscape suggests that people will not be willing to pay what they once did for a book—even a hard copy—since ebooks and online reading have given us a taste for free and cheap books. It makes my dream of someday being a full-time author harder than ever to achieve.

More disturbing is a trend that both Yancey and Yates hinted at. Christian publishers are less willing these days to take a chance on an unknown. Many would rather publish something unnecessary or sub-par that will sell than something refreshing and insightful that comes from someone without an established platform. In other words, if Rick Warren took to writing poetry for use in the bathroom, he would be more likely to find himself a lucrative publishing deal with a well-known publisher than Ann Voskamp would had she written her notes of thankfulness in her journal rather than her blog. Publishers, by and large, are looking past authors to their tribe—the book is even less important.

But there's self-publishing, right? All voices can now be heard even if publishers fail to see a diamond in the rough, can't they? While self-publshing can be a great option for established authors or for niche projects, the influx of books is crowding the market. A new author who convinces a traditional publisher that their book is worth publishing now faces a tremendous fight to be noticed among the thousands of titles newly available on Amazon every day. Many consumers are not savvy enough to recognize a self-published book, so the result is the cheapening of the word "author." (I recently filled a writer position on my team, and I cannot tell you how many people listed their first credential on their résumé as "author." But with the exception of one or two, every one was self-published. Anyone with a word-processing program and a few hundred dollars can add the same honor to their C.V.)

In this new world, it seems to me, we've lost the role of publishers. They were supposed to be the gatekeepers, ensuring that books making it through their stringent weeding-out process were worth a person's time. But now, it's more about the platform than the book. And we've lost the role of author. Anyone can become one, so no one can be one—or at least it's much harder to make a living at it. In the end, readers might get more and cheaper books, but there will undoubtedly be fewer great reads in the mix.

As a writer, I am faced with the choice every day to spend my time building my tribe or working on my writing. I choose to write—for magazines I'm a part of, for work, for special projects, and yes, sometimes for this blog. But I'm focused on the writing because that's what I love. If I ever have a "tribe," it will be fun to bounce ideas off of my peeps and get instant feedback. But the tribe itself can never replace finding something worth saying.

I have worked with a few different book publishers in a variety of capacities. My last book was published by a small and very targeted publisher, but they chose to publish my book—one of only six they published last year. Knowing that my story was something someone else was willing to take a risk on (especially given the subject) mattered so much to me. I have a new project in the works (more on that later), but it's with another traditional publisher—and again, it means the world to me to know that they think my writing is worth their time and investment. And it's so much fun working with people who want to help me produce something worthwhile, something that will bless others and maybe even challenge them.

I may have missed out on Yancey's "golden age," but I hope there's still room in this new world for those of us who mourn its passing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Essence of a Thing: A Word About Gordon College

Hebrew thought has more to do with what a thing is for—its essence—rather than with how a thing works. 

It was in Dr. Marvin Wilson's Old Testament survey course that I first heard this idea expressed. It was during a lecture on the difficulties we, as modern, enlightenment-conditioned men and women, have when we read the creation account in Genesis. We want to know how creation happened. Was there a big bang? Did it take millions or billions of years? Did God use some form of evolution to bring the natural world into being as we have it today? How is it possible that there were trees planted on day three but the sun was not in the sky until day four? 

But these are not the questions that the ancient Hebrew mind would ask—at least not primarily. For the Israelite hearing Moses' account of the six days of creation, what would have resonated would have been the power of God, the original goodness of this world, and the place God has given mankind. These elements speak to the nature of our God and this universe, and they are what make the creation story in the Bible different than the competing creation accounts in the ancient Near East. The mechanics of how things happened matter little as the listener gains insight into the story he is living and feels a connection with his world and with his Creator. 

That Old Testament course was taken during my sophomore year at Gordon College. Though I know some people have mixed feelings about their college experience, I loved every minute of mine. Four years was far too short a time to spend in such a wonderful place. That is not to say that Gordon College was perfect or that I was so naïve that I didn't see the moments of brokenness. I just latched on to the essence of the thing: Gordon College was—and is—a good place. 

Since graduating, it's been fun to see my alma mater pop up in the news or in pop culture now and again. A number of years ago, a Gordon College talent show performance became a YouTube sensation. A fellow alumnus, Pete Holmes, found success on late night TV. And even the handicapped parking signs in NYC now have a Gordon connection. 

But in the last few weeks, Gordon College has been in the news for another reason. College President D. Michael Lindsay attached his signature to a letter asking President Obama for a religious freedom exemption to an executive order the president has promised will be coming soon. The order would ban organizations from receiving federal contracts if they hold discriminatory hiring practices affecting gays and lesbians.

Discrimination is an ugly word, almost so weighty that its very use implies wrongdoing on the part of the person its levied against. But discrimination is not always bad. The kind of discrimination Lindsay asked President Obama to allow is the kind that makes Gordon College special. Of course, Gordon is not special because there is no LGBT presence on campus (that's not even true, anyway). Gordon is special because, since its founding in the basement of Clarendon Street Church in Boston, it's been a community set apart to nurture Christian faith. Gordon's motto has long been "Academic Freedom Within a Framework of Faith." And one of the ways this freedom-framework balance is maintained is through its Life and Conduct Statement, which all students and faculty agree to live by. As a Christian college in the evangelical tradition, it should be shocking to no one that, regardless of sexual identity, sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage are prohibited. 

Think what you will about Gordon's policies or about the issues surrounding the morality of homosexual practice. No one is forced to study or work at Gordon College; each of us is free to choose whether or not we even want to be a part of such a community. For those who say Gordon should forego access to federal funding, like grants and the student loan program, I wonder if you would feel the same way if the president of the United States were a conservative and the situation were reversed. In other words, if an executive order requiring colleges that receive federal contracts to hire creation scientists. Folks at liberal universities across the land would be up in arms (that is, if they believed in the second amendment right to bear them). It sounds ridiculous, right? Obama's proposed executive order is ridiculous, too. 

At stake here is nothing short of American religious freedom. If we no longer have the recognized right to set ourselves apart in distinctive communities for the pursuit of academic freedom and the practice of faith, we will have lost one of the greatest blessings God has bestowed upon America. When it comes to Gordon College, the essence of the thing is good, and it's worth preserving just as it is. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

The red lights in front of me would not budge, so I stepped on the brakes firmly. All I could do was pray and trust. My Hyundai screeched and skidded and finally came to a stop, inches from the car in front of me. My brakes had done their job. But the moment of relief was short-lived, and I felt the impact of the car behind me, and then seconds later another jolt, as a third car ran into us both. With the last crash, my car spun, and I found myself sideways on the highway, staring up at an approaching semi.

Thankfully, it was only the machines who lost on this day. Every person involved in the accident walked away. For the rest of last Thursday and in the days since, I've been thinking a lot about timing. What if that 18-wheeler had been just a fraction of a second ahead of schedule? What if I had left the house just five minutes later or five minutes earlier? What if I had stopped for gas before driving to work, or what if had decided to work from home that morning? And then I began to wonder about all the ways God adjusts my life's timing—ways that save me from harm that I'm not even aware of.

And it's not just the accident that's got me thinking about God's timing. Every since last October when we found out we would be having our first child, Laurin and I have been fiercely awaiting July 1. That was the day, according to our doctors, that Jonah was due to be born. And while we've known all along that not every baby is born on his due date, July 1 has been our focus. As I write this post, Jonah is 5 days late. (I hate being late to things, so he must get his tardiness from his mother.)

God is good, so even though I don't know why my Thursday morning ended in a crunched car or why Jonah is "late," I'm trusting in His good purposes. As God is teaching me patience (admittedly my least favorite flavor among the fruit of the Spirit), I am seeing just how rushed and hurried I normally am. 

These past few days, Laurin and I have been able to slow down a bit. Since we were expecting to be adjusting to life with a new baby this weekend, we've got little on our to-do lists. There's not much to do but enjoy this calm before the storm. We spent time with family, celebrated the Fourth, even took time for a picnic at the place where we got married last year. It's been a nice change of pace, but I think this is how God expects us to live all the time. Since He is sovereign and has timed everything for our good, we are supposed to rest in His shalom, His perfect, immeasurable peace. As James says, "You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes . . . You ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4:14-15 NIV).

This talk of mist is a bit deceiving. On the surface, mist is unimportant and inconsequential. It would be an insult to tell another person that his life was nothing more than a vapor. But when compared to God's plans, our lives are nothing more than a mist. God is the One writing the story we're all living in—and James reminds us of that. But there's another side to this mist talk. Like mists that breathe up off of a lake in summertime, we ought to spend our time living within the pace of life that God has set before us. He has not asked us to live in such a hurried manner. We can only move as quickly as the breeze will take us. 

So I don't think Jonah is "late" after all. He's just living in sync with his Creator's timing. And it is me who needs to adjust.