In high school, after coming to Christ at a youth rally in the late 1990s, my mom started handing me Christian books. Of course, there was I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris’s generation defining hit, and the slightly more restrained Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship. (When Harris said that he had to repent for noticing his then-fiancee’s legs, I threw the book across the room.) The Columbine High School massacre created two modern martyrs, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Joy Scott, whose stories were turned into popular books. When my mom handed me a copy of Girl Meets God, I recoiled at the cover design, then was delighted to find Lauren Winner’s writing wholly original and earthy. More so than any denominational or creedal identity, these and other books helped define the spiritual identity of evangelical consumers in the 1990s and 2000s.
Evangelicals are book people. Of course, they are people of the Book, placing a high value on reading the Bible. Gutenberg’s printing press fueled the Protestant Reformation, allowing Scripture translations from Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther to make their way into people’s homes and lives. Evangelicals are also people who like books. Historian Daniel Vaca notes in Evangelicals Incorporated that they “understand and approach the reading of books and Bibles as a primary practice of cultivating personal faith and individual intimacy with God.” This means that evangelicals have been a solid bet for both faith-based and corporately owned book publishers, to the tune of $1.22 billion in sales in 2018 alone. Publishing may be a calling, but it’s also a business.
It has only been in the past five years—since working within the industry—that I’ve understood how books actually come to exist. Authors may insist that their books arise purely from a spiritual calling, but it’s important for book buyers to know that financial and celebrity motives are often at play as well. To that end, here are 5 truths Christian readers should keep in mind before their next book purchase:
1. Authors get paid an advance based on how many books a publisher thinks they can sell. The vast majority of authors don’t write their manuscripts before shopping it to publishers, or having an agent do as much. Rather, they create a proposal that outlines a book’s general concept and themes. A publisher will assess the merits of the proposal, then offer an advance based in part on how many books they think they can sell. If the book sells enough units for the publisher to recoup the advance, the author will get royalties on top of the advance.
2. Between platform and content, platform always wins. Different publishers will assess proposals differently based on their mission, company profile, and financial imperative. But no publisher will completely table the question of platform. Publishers reasonably want to know that an audience exists for someone’s work. They want to be able to answer, “If this author writes a book on this topic, will enough people care?” Because of this, in the content vs. platform balance, platform will always win. Authors who are excellent writers and thinkers with a little platform will struggle to contract a book; while authors who are not good writers or thinkers with strong platforms—that is, they are essentially great marketers—will likely have multiple publishers interested. This incentivizes author hopefuls to focus lots of energy on building a platform, or faking one (more on that in point #4).
3. Not all authors are “authors.” Ghostwriting is a common practice in mainstream publishing, and it crops up in Christian imprints as well. In a work-for-hire agreement, ghostwriters write material that appears in a book whose cover bears someone else’s name—usually a celebrity who can’t write or who believes they don’t have the time. It’s not always clear how many big-name Christian “authors” are authors—and that’s part of the problem. Both “authors” and some publishers are loathe to include a “with” or “and” byline on the cover. “Authors” want the credit, and publishers don’t want to dilute the power of the celebrity name. But Christian authors and publishers should be the first to give credit where credit is due. Otherwise they are deceiving book buyers.
4. Platforms can be faked. Author hopefuls who have been repeatedly told by publishers and agents that they need to have a platform, or a bigger one, can purchase fake social media followers. For around $15 for 1,000 followers, anyone with an Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook account can purchase online bots that deceptively amplify the appearance of their reach. You can even pay a company to gradually add followers so that there’s no suspicious overnight spike. You can also purchase fake comments and likes. Influencers gunning for a book deal can bank on some publishers not even bothering to check if someone’s numbers seem legit. (There are certain tell-tale signs to look for, as well as simple auditing websites.)
5. Endorsements are a marketing tool, not an editorial review. After the dustup this year over pastor Joshua Ryan Butler’s book on sex, two endorsers retracted their endorsements. Both said they hadn’t read the book in its entirety before endorsing it. That may be alarming, but it drives home that book endorsements are typically about mutual back-scratching and maintaining loose social, professional and ministry networks, rather than truthfully assessing the contents of a book. As I wrote for Christianity Today after the dustup, sometimes a publisher’s marketing team will write an endorsement for a celebrity blurber in hopes that they or their team will sign off on it—in essence, ghostwriting a book blurb. For CT, I argued that it might be time to drop book endorsements altogether.
When you work inside any industry, it’s easy to become jaded when you realize how things actually work, that there’s often a gap between ideals and reality. But it’s precisely because I believe in the power of good books to shape hearts and minds that I want faith-based publishers to live into their high calling. That’s also why I want Christian book readers to apply a more discerning eye to their spiritual reading habits. With every book purchase, they tell book publishers what they want. There’s no better way to improve the quality of Christian books than you support authors and projects that are excellent, truthful, and created with care and integrity. Book publishers will take notice.
Katelyn Beaty is author of the book "Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church" (Brazos Press, 2022). A Midwest native living in New York City, she has written for several mainstream and Christian outlets and previously served as the youngest and first female managing editor of Christianity Today. She currently serves as editorial director of Brazos Press, co-hosts the Saved by the City podcasts and writes regularly at a weekly Substack, The Beaty Beat. Learn more at https://katelynbeaty.substack.com/.