Publishers and Theology

One of the more complex aspects of publishing Christian-themed books is the publisher theological position or “grid” which covers whatever products they seek to publish.

Just like all churches are not alike, Christian publishers are definitely not alike. Some may have groups or “imprints” focusing on a specific theological perspective, but for sure, theology is an issue in their decision-making process.

Even though Christians might feel strong about unity in all essential things of the faith and desire to identify ourselves simply as followers of Jesus Christ, agents and publishers will want to know a little more information about authors. Depending on what you are writing (mainly non-fiction), one or more of these might be important for the decision maker to know:

Catholic or Protestant?

Mainline denomination or not?

Reformed or Arminian?

Charismatic or not?

Egalitarian or Complementarian?

Biblical inerrancy important to you?

Young earth or intelligent design?

What’s your view of eschatology?

Aside from the theological perspective, every publisher seeks certain types of books, authors and writing styles, but when the theological element is added back into the equation, it becomes much clearer why this can get complicated.

Every traditional publisher of Christian books has a perspective which informs everything they do. Don’t expect a publisher who disagrees with your position on something to publish your book.

And not just publishers of Christian books.

Maybe you have heard it said, “everyone is a theologian.” This means even an atheist or agnostic has a theology of life, just one which disagrees with Christian truth.

Every editor at every publisher views potential projects through the lens of a certain theological perspective. They might decline your proposal because they disagree with you. (And by the way, agents have theological opinions as well.)

More than a few times, an author contract has been cancelled before publication not because of a moral failing or some other contractual problem, but because the publisher could not resolve a theological disagreement with the author and their manuscript.

And it isn’t just non-fiction where this happens. Fiction can portray a theological perspective which might be deemed off-center as well. Books for children can be theological battlefields.

Christian publishers love creativity, but “creative theology” will raise red flags!

Often, I will smile when reading proposals from aspiring authors who feel led to write a book “correcting” an egregious theological error in the church, such as proving the falsehood of the Trinity or the virgin birth of Jesus, his deity or bodily resurrection.

Those things are deal-breakers for most every publisher of Christian books. There is no interest in publishing something they would disagree with strongly or that would harm their reputation among Christian booksellers. (And by the way, booksellers have a theological filter as well.)

Both authors and publishers are on a mission, but it might be a different mission.

Did you discover the date of Christ’s return? Don’t expect many in Christian publishing to clap their hands with joy over your new “discovery.” The rejection note might contain the words, “false prophet” which would be the tip-off you are not on the same page.

Theologically speaking, there is truly nothing new under the sun. If you find something new, it is either simply new to you or not true at all.

Your theological perspective matters. Not just for life in general, but in your writing as well. Your worldview matters since it will seep out in whatever you write.

After all, the industry in which I primarily work is not a wide “religious” perspective of multiple roads to heaven. Admittedly, the list of factors I mentioned above are mostly non-essentials, but every Christian publisher has a few filters which would preclude publishing a book based on one or more of them.

If you don’t believe this to be true, you might be in for a surprise.

Christian publishing is not a box of chocolates. For those who pay attention to it closely, you know exactly what you are going to get.

 

28 Responses to Publishers and Theology

  1. Shirlee Abbott May 15, 2018 at 3:46 am #

    I come from a Protestant tradition, but I have friends who are Catholic. I keep one of them in my imaginary audience of readers. My goal is to draw my readers closer to God. That won’t happen if I write something that makes them shut the book and walk away. I know that I can’t be all things to all people, but I don’t have to deliberately–or unintentionally–irritate them.

  2. Rebekah Love Dorris May 15, 2018 at 5:21 am #

    So helpful! So how does an author discern an agent’s theological perspective? Wouldn’t it save the world of Christian publishing a ton of time and paper if there was some place writers could go to know the answers to each of those questions for each particular agent?

    I could say, I’m a theological Baptist complementarian young earth all-Scripture-is-profitable (and inerrant) pre-millennial who loves the King’s English and cheers the Jerusalem embassy grand opening, but whew! How in the world does that not alienate SOMEBODY?

    I guess in the end what matters in my writing is not who I am, but who He is. If I make much of Jesus, all my quirks and even mistakes will turn out okay in the wash.

    God bless!

    • Dan Balow May 15, 2018 at 6:29 am #

      In general, agents in the Christian market have a more accepting approach to different theological positions, but mostly adhere to the truths in the Apostle’s Creed. Many Christian publishers use the statement of faith from the National Association of Evangelicals as a public proclamation of their theological stance.

      https://www.nae.net/statement-of-faith/

      • LK Simonds May 15, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

        Hi Dan. The statement of faith is very basic, but it seems like the preferences house to house and agency to agency may go far beyond these basic tenants. Do you think that’s true?

  3. Richard Mabry May 15, 2018 at 5:28 am #

    Dan, this is something most authors don’t think about or realize. I’ve had an article (previously accepted) eventually rejected by a well-known Christian periodical publication because in it I espoused a theologic position with which they didn’t agree. Their magazine, their decision, but I learned from it. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Carol Ashby May 15, 2018 at 7:20 am #

    Another good post, Dan, and just as important for fiction as nonfiction. Since I’m writing Roman-era historical where the main plot arc is the transformation of at least one character from pagan to follower of Christ in response to the love and forgiveness they see in believers’ lives, theology is interwoven through all.

    But I’m not likely to get caught up in sectarian differences because writing in the early 2nd century lets me cut to the essence and ask the question, “What makes following Jesus worth dying for?” That’s as trimmed down to the essentials of the faith as a person can get. But one thing I ask my betas, critique partners, and editor, who come from different Christian traditions, to watch is that every spiritual scene reflects the way real people ask and answer that question.

    • Rebekah Love Dorris May 15, 2018 at 7:25 am #

      I love that, Carol! Put that way, you make writing ancient history sound tantalizing, even with all the research! Distilled theology. Love it!

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 15, 2018 at 7:35 am #

    It’s interesting how our personal theologies are shaped; I became a (formerly) hard-drinking and cigar-smoking Catholic because it was cooler to get drunk with the Catholic chaplains (and, to be fair, rabbis) rather than sip grape juice with some others. In vino veritas, they say, and smoke-dimmed boozing fueled my willingness to listen to them about that Dude they liked so much.

    Plus, as celibates, these guys lived the dream. They ere willing to pay to play.

    So imagine the culture shock when I came to the CBA world. I tried to change. Really, I did.

    But I can’t turn my back on the theology that saved my soul. “Hey, bro’, let’s go get wasted with the priests tonight!” may not be much, but it’s mine, and I’ll write it unto the Life To Come.

    And then, y’all are all invited, because we’re gonna rock Heaven, and the last man standing pays the bar bill.

    (Oh, and I’m no longer hard-drinking because of pancreatic cancer…no other reason.)

    • Jaime May 15, 2018 at 9:25 am #

      Haha!

      I am a former hardcore Catholic (Like – descendant of the Knights Templar committed, lol), turned evangelical, except my beliefs are still very much down the middle of many of the topics Dan mentioned above.

      I have seen true believers in both circles, and people who truly don’t have a clue in both as well! So I have been a loud advocate for the heart of one’s faith above which side of town your pew sits.

      In fact, as a leader in my current church, we now ensure many joint ministries and activities between the evangelical churches and the Catholic church in our community. It’s been great!

      I believe having a history in both communities gives me a bigger picture of God, and strips away some of the tiny little things that divide. Have you found this?

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 15, 2018 at 9:33 am #

        Jaime, absolutely…seeing things from both sides makes me see how low the fences between denominations really are, and that they’re a porous picket fence rather than a Berlin Wall.

        I suspect that God, on seeing the schisms, just shakes His head and sighs.

        “Kids will be kids.”

  6. Sonja Anderson May 15, 2018 at 8:00 am #

    Great post, as usual! I’d venture to add that the theological waters in publishing have become even murkier by the current political climate.

    A history professor in college always used to say, “Political dissent is religious dissent,” and when has that ever been truer than today?! Political dissent is religious dissent is publishing dissent. . . .Yet one more thing to consider when submitting a manuscript these days?

  7. Elmo Pinard May 15, 2018 at 9:12 am #

    Dan,

    I appreciate this message, as it is not always apparent which way the publisher leans unless advertised clearly. There are major differences that result from the different beliefs in your list. Again, thank you for this important lesson.

  8. Jaime May 15, 2018 at 9:14 am #

    Great post!

    The first time one of my stories was ever nominated for an award (in high school), it was very quickly eliminated on the basis of belief. It was a story about the struggles of a young girl after she had an abortion, and the panel of judges included mostly women’s rights advocates.

    So I learned quickly it matters what we say we believe, so we’d better know for sure what exactly it is we believe – before we are judged for it.

    I was also wondering how relaxed agents are with different theologies – basically how far they’re willing to stretch.

    Some time ago, I was referred to an agent through a christian magazine that regularly published my articles. The agent is well-known and at first I was thrilled. But upon further research, I discovered they represented authors whose beliefs (according to my own judgements) border on heretical. Even though I had no way of knowing this agent’s specific theology, I struggled with the idea of going ahead with a business relationship.

    Either she agreed with the authors she was representing, in which case would eventually disagree with much of mine; or she didn’t agree yet was okay with playing a part in sending that message out to the world, in which case she still wasn’t in line with my theology enough for my comfort.

    I realize that every agent is different. But was I being too picky in this case?

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 15, 2018 at 9:24 am #

      Jaime, for what it’s worth, my novel ‘Emerald Isle’ deals with abortion, and writing it changed my theological view of the subject. The research took me from ignorantly neutral to pro-life through my horror at that which I had to learn.

      • Jaime May 15, 2018 at 9:32 am #

        They are definitely hard stories to hear. And it’s never as clean and emotionless as they claim.
        The story I wrote was one that dealt with the mother’s emotional aftermath. It didn’t even make a judgement on the act itself, just walked through a teenage girl processing what had happened. My heart behind it was really to encourage those who were struggling with what had already been done. My teachers loved it, and put it forward for the award right away. But of course, it shed some negative light on the whole thing, so had to be disqualified.
        Ah well.

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 15, 2018 at 9:39 am #

          I hope you’ve kept the story, Jaime, and ill polish it up. There are people out there ho really, really need to read it.

          ‘Emerald Isle’ basically deals with a modern-day marriage of convenience (to get a very sick immigrant woman on insurance), but when pregnancy ensues, and it’s clear that it’s potentially lethal to the mother…well, comes the conflict…

          …because the mother, you see, is Irish, and the one thing you never, EVER say to an Irishwoman is, “You can’t.”

          • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 15, 2018 at 9:45 am #

            “…and WILL polish it up.”

            Darn ‘w’ key doesn’t want to play this morning.

          • Jaime May 15, 2018 at 9:49 am #

            Do you know I’m not even sure if I did? After that happened, I wasn’t really interested in writing for quite a while. Although, being a teenager, I wonder if my mom kept it somewhere. It might still be around. I’m sure if I went back and read it today, I’d be mortified at the writing skills! Haha!

            ‘Emerald Isle’ sounds like a great story! And being part Irish, is very true. 😉

            • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 15, 2018 at 9:59 am #

              Jaime, you might be surprised…the freshness of a young writer can be a towering advantage, far outstripping awkward words. I hope your Mom might have saved the story…but if not, perhaps you might reconstruct it?

              That message is SO important.

              I found a lot of satisfaction in telling the ‘Emerald Isle’ story, and still like it a lot. (And again, so many thanks to Carol Ashby for doing what I could no longer do, and bringing it to Kindle!)

              And yes, Irishwomen are not to be crossed. My Barbara has a bit of the Shamrock in her, and to say she is determined is rather an understatement.

            • Jaime May 16, 2018 at 10:30 am #

              Sorry, Andrew, it wouldn’t let me reply.
              I will see if I can track it down, and if I find it I’ll send it to you!

            • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 16, 2018 at 10:33 am #

              Jaime, I’d be honoured to read it.

  9. Loretta Eidson May 15, 2018 at 9:19 am #

    It’s hard to determine just how much biblical or Christian material to put in my manuscripts. I’ve discovered some editors want a strong biblical string, where other editors don’t. Then, you’re still faced with denominational theology and beliefs. Although it can be challenging, I keep writing and pressing forward. Thank you, Dan.

  10. Carol Ashby May 15, 2018 at 10:21 am #

    Loretta, I agree that getting it right can be so challenging! Even or maybe especially if you include a lot, it’s vital for it to feel real, not formulaic. I want readers who know the joy of the faith to finish key sections with a fist-pumping “Yes!” and a feeling that giving the book to a seeking friend might help open the door. I want the open-minded skeptic to leave asking whether there’s a truth here that shouldn’t be ignored. It takes lots of prayer by more than me to hit that sweet spot.

    • Loretta Eidson May 15, 2018 at 11:21 am #

      True, Carol! Finding that sweet spot is the key, and a boatload of prayer!

  11. PJ May 15, 2018 at 12:02 pm #

    This makes sense. You can not violate your moral compass. Why would you?

  12. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 15, 2018 at 12:47 pm #

    Dan, you have offered great insight here.

  13. Claire O'Sullivan May 15, 2018 at 1:53 pm #

    Dan,

    Great post. This is very tricky, indeed. There are things I take in mind… I want it to cross genres and include non-believers as well, without crossing my own moral compass.

    I bring a lot of my failings into my MC. What she can or can’t tolerate, and that does include alcohol. Because I can’t tolerate high caffeine or any alcohol, neither can my MC when she foolishly tries. The outcomes are never good. I don’t have any issue with moderate use of alcohol, but others do, and that loses an audience. Find a good Lutheran who doesn’t drink beer, and they may not be a Lutheran. Same with a really good Baptist… Find a Catholic who won’t drink wine, then. Well. But there are those alcoholics out there that I don’t want to offend, so my MC can’t tolerate alcohol, pain medicine–and I added coffee for good measure.

    She is tested with temptation on all sides, she backslides, forgets to pray, read the Bible. I want desperately to add some Scripture. There is the problem: losing my non-believing audience. When I add in alcohol and temptation, I lose my believing audience and alcoholics trying to stay the course.

    How do I balance this? I am torn. Reality exists. And we skate around it to be everything to all men (women, too). In my Christian brain I can’t leave out either. But I have to, and am left with a mystery, a message, and yet barely a word about Jesus. Oh, woe am I!

  14. Obilor Nnanna Hyacinth August 4, 2018 at 8:31 pm #

    I wrote a book. A number of christian literary agencies are not willing to represent me, saying, well-written but theologically intense. I understand that your agency publishes such kind of books. Looking foward to submitting the book proposal or possibly the entire manuscript.

    In Christ,
    Rev. O.N. Hyacinth

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