Penalty Flag: Illegal Use of an Exception

Maybe using the word “illegal” is a bit over the top, but at least it grabbed your attention!

Because book publishing can be such a subjective or borderline mysterious field of endeavor, many authors respond to the uncertainty by hanging their hopes for success on something which could best be described as an exception to whatever rules seem to exist.  If indeed there are any rules in book publishing.

If this were a sporting event (and all of life relates to sports in some form), the referee would be forced to blow a whistle, stop the action and call a foul or penalty for improper use of an exception.

Agents and publishers often feel light-headed for constant whistleblowing after reading proposals all day.

If you use anything about C.S. Lewis or Charles Dickens to prove why your story is viable and valuable, you will be flagged.

Comparing your manuscript to a once-a-generation bestselling book or author is most often treated by publishing professionals somewhere between humor and delusion.

Basing your writing future on the necessity of a one-in-a-million exception makes little sense. For certain, JK Rowling’s success completely messed up a generation of fantasy writers.

“So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

There are less egregious penalties called when an author uses a once-in-a-blue-moon example of a marketing success which worked for one book, making a case for it working again. Oprah selected about a hundred titles for her book club over the years. That’s 100 among millions of books published over the same period.

Oprah’s book club did no favors to those promoting 99.99% of all books which needed to find ways to sell without the mega-endorsement.

Not only are you banking on lightning striking in a certain place or time, but you also want the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of other authors to be placed on hold to make room so your book is targeted for a bolt from the heavens.

I’ll repeat this for new readers of this blog, but there are hundreds of thousands of new books published in the US every year (close to a million if you count self-publishing). Sheer competition for attention is always present and there are few or no guarantees to anything.

You can spend $200,000 in an attempt to buy your way onto a bestseller list and fail dramatically, or be the recipient of an unexpected free endorsement from someone you don’t know, triggering big sales of your book.

Go ahead, try and make this a science.

In the Christian publishing world, we have another set of issues weighing on authors’ minds.  And these issues are embedded deep in theology and long-standing Christian belief.

It could be argued only the apostle Paul had the theological credentials to write New Testament text and he needed to be first blinded, humbled by God and sent away for nine years to re-boot his thinking before being allowed to speak and write on behalf of God.

Improper exception – you excuse your lack of theological credentials as similar to those who wrote Scripture, like Peter or Matthew.

Why is this an issue? Because their words are considered God-breathed and once the canon of Scripture was settled, any writing which would add or subtract from it is considered false teaching.

Don’t you find it interesting when you truly feel led by the spirit to write something it is always infused with existing Scripture? Or some new revelation about God is not new at all, but only new to you as your eyes were opened to the truth?

When an author says God led them to write something, it is not as dramatic a statement as you think. The Spirit lives inside a believer so one could assume their words are guided by it.

Every Christian writer submitting to the leading of God is guided by the Spirit within them.

Claiming any special extra-biblical revelation is heresy.

Penalty flag thrown, whistle blown. Illegal claim you are the exception.

While you might think your book and your voice deserves to be treated as an exception in some way, most success in publishing is unexpected and due mostly to things not under your control.

Especially for authors of Christian books.

13 Responses to Penalty Flag: Illegal Use of an Exception

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott February 20, 2018 at 3:39 am #

    Well said, Dan. I have grown, been blessed, and sent on assignment by the Spirit’s revelation. Sometimes God directs me to write–simply for my own good. Not every revelation is meant to be shared.

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    Judith Robl February 20, 2018 at 5:11 am #

    Hear, hear!! Thank you, Dan. We need to be reminded that God speaks to each of us differently, and that not all our conversations with Him are meant to be public.

    Relying on an exception is like jumping from an airplane without a parachute and expecting some unseen hand to break the fall. It might happen, but odds are it won’t.

  3. Avatar
    Vanessa Burton February 20, 2018 at 7:12 am #

    Thanks for the reminder that God is always in control! Whether we are published or not, He is the ultimate Author of our lives!

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 20, 2018 at 7:16 am #

    …and he who exalts himself shall be humbled…

  5. Avatar
    Karen Sargent February 20, 2018 at 7:40 am #

    If I’ve learned anything in the past couple of years, it’s your last line: “most success in publishing is unexpected and due mostly to things not under your control.” It’s been a challenge to discern what I can control from what I can’t. It’s also been a wonderful lesson in faith and patience for a control freak like me. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Joey Rudder February 20, 2018 at 7:45 am #


    Thank you, Dan.

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    Meg MacDonald February 20, 2018 at 8:45 am #

    Yeeoch! I can’t help but wonder what in the world came across your desk recently (and glad it didn’t belong to me). Great post and strong words that need to be heard.

  8. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh February 20, 2018 at 9:53 am #

    This makes me think of the Mother Teresa quote:
    Mother Teresa — ‘I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.’

  9. Avatar
    Barbara Ellin Fox February 20, 2018 at 10:02 am #

    This is an interesting post because it reveals the inner thinking of an agent. I understand your point that it’s a huge mistake for an author to claim their work is an exception and I know you’re correct. But you’ve used a few examples to which I take exception.

    I like to follow logic to a conclusion. If we use Paul and the other apostles as our barometer for qualification and improper exception, logic might lead one to believe that the publishing industry has no room for young authors since the books of the New Testament were penned by seasoned apostles who were a little longer in the tooth.

    Sometimes it’s obvious. “Or some new revelation about God is not new at all, but only new to you as your eyes were opened to the truth?” Most revelations that opened the apostles eyes were truths from the Old Testament. Jesus spoke truth from the Old Testament. I’m not sure how this is relevant to an exception.

    “Claiming any special extra-biblical revelation is heresy.” When someone tries to corral thinking by limiting what God does I’m always reminded of John 21:25 “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Surely your not saying that God doesn’t speak to authors today.

    After being subjected to decades of arm chair quarterbacks and hearing “Football is life. Life is foot ball” I laugh because you gored my ox here. “ (and all of life relates to sports in some form)” Perhaps all sports relate to life in some form.

    But here is what caught my attention and drove me to respond: “…but you also want the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of other authors to be placed on hold to make room so your book is targeted for a bolt from the heavens.” You and I were getting along really well until this statement offended me. I don’t think any author, especially a Christian, wants the hopes and dreams of another author placed on hold.

    At this moment where I live all schools are closed due to an impending ice storm. My horses are tucked safely into the barn because it’s not unusual for horses to be struck by lightning and hey, who wants to lose one to that misery? I’m watching a thunderstorm roll in. Sometimes in the midwest we call it thunder snow. I can tell you by looking out my window that there are more than enough lightning strikes to go around.

    I may not be an exception and maybe my writing isn’t either, but my God is, and He is not limited by any of us. His lightning will strike whenever and wherever He chooses. Our job is to trust Him and write what He inspires us to write.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow February 20, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

      Ah, the nuances of blogging and replying.

      Of course, God speaks to authors today. It is called the canon of Scripture. But any author who claims to have insight into the nature and work of God not found in Scripture is a big problem.

      Know the date and time of Christ’s return? You are a false prophet.

      As far as lightning, there are relatively few major promotional things which will drive sales to the heights. In theory you are correct, assuming we live in a world of limitless possibilities, but bookselling is finite and there are a limited number of opportunities to promote “big.” Everyone else needs to jockey to position in line behind them.

      Of course God speaks through authors. The HS will remind them of Scripture while they write, will remind how God worked in their lives, will show them his handiwork in others and open their eyes to the truth found in Scripture.

  10. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D February 21, 2018 at 11:12 am #

    Thank you for your very humbling blog, Dan.

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    Frenchy Dennis February 21, 2018 at 7:31 pm #

    Dan, Thanks for the thoughtful blog. I understand and agree. I understand the HS roll in my writing and am thankful. But the underlying impetus for my writing is to make God’s Word come alive to readers through the thoughts and actions of the characters I write about. It’s God’s words, not mine that changes lives. Again thank you

  12. Avatar
    David Winters February 22, 2018 at 7:04 pm #

    I don’t feel better now.

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