This was a tough post to write. I felt at times that I was arguing with myself on these issues, but maybe in today’s “journey” through the topic of author credibility you will sense the struggle that Christian authors confront and maybe some truth with be revealed in the process.
If you were a mathematics professor at a junior college and had a revolutionary insight related to something about mathematics, few people would take notice.
If you had the same thought and taught at MIT, it would be published worldwide and considered groundbreaking and important.
It wasn’t the thought, it was the perceived credibility of the person expressing it.
Using the same analogy, if the junior college mathematics professor reminded her students “One plus one equals two,” it would barely register on the thought Richter-scale because it is true and simple.
But along comes an MIT professor who has a complicated theorem proving that “One plus one is three,” and the statement will be discussed in all sorts of venues and media. One plus one equaled three because a very smart person with impeccable credentials said so. (They are wrong, but we were in awe of the thinking)
Truth with low-perceived credentials is ignored while error with high-perceived credentials is actually considered and discussed.
Now let’s move over to the theological world.
When dealing with Bible truth, often the unaccredited online Bible School with retired ministers serving as teachers are teaching closer to what God had in mind rather than PhD’s at Ivy League divinity schools. In the world of Biblical theology, degrees are not always an indication of orthodoxy. In some cases, it is the opposite.
God’s truth does not require man’s approval and endorsement to make it true and therein lies my struggle. But I can’t ignore publishers and readers who primarily buy credentials, so I require it of authors.
One of the most common reasons I will decline to represent an author of non-fiction is that they are not qualified to write on the subject they want to publish. An insurance underwriter is not qualified to write on the history of nuclear power. Or their qualifications are not considered of the highest order.
So, when we know God’s truth doesn’t need man’s credentials or endorsement to make it true, why is it important to require them for authors and their books?
Non-fiction requires credentials because publishers will promote a book and put the author in various media and frankly, if you don’t have some credentials to go along with your thinking, it would make for an embarrassing situation for everyone. “So, Peter, you are a fisherman?”
You can write a book about marriage principles and never been married.
You can write about raising teenagers today when you never parented any.
You can write about overcoming the challenges of addiction but had never gone through it yourself or with someone close to you.
You can write a book explaining the meaning of a difficult Bible passage without ever taking a class in theology.
But agents are tasked with finding authors that publishers want to publish and readers want to read.
And for them, credentials matter.
Publishers and readers want marriage books from people who have been, well, married and are actively involved in a growing ministry to help marriages improve.
They want a book on raising teenagers from someone who successfully raised a few of them and is actively helping other parents in large numbers.
They want a book about addictions from someone who has gone through it themselves, who have a long track-record of work in the field and certified by some credible professional group.
And they want theology explained by someone who is actively involved in teaching it at a high level and a widely recognized authority in the field.
Try explaining any of these to someone in a rejection letter and some pretty raw emotional reactions will come back in response.
It’s a temptation to lie and just say the book is, “Not my cup of tea,” or something innocuous as that.
I circle back to the fact that God’s truth doesn’t need our credibility to make it true, but agents, publishers and readers do.
Because that same old thing we’ve mentioned before…competition. There are so many books and authors, we all use the credential issue as a filter to reduce the number of books to consider from thousands down to hundreds, so we can focus more.
I’ve had any number of difficult exchanges with unpublished authors who submit a well-crafted proposal to me. I read the premise of the work and then I look at who the author is and their credentials for writing. If the book concept is interesting I keep going, but if the author doesn’t have the credentials, I stop because there is no reason to continue.
Of course, when I decline to represent the work and the prospective author asks, “Did you even read any of the actual writing sample?” and I reply that I did not, hurt feelings and even anger are evident.
Writing quality rarely survives a lack of perceived credibility and qualifications.
The competitive publishing market (remember those three words) requires that you have all the tools and a track record showing you know how to use them.
Even when we all know that God’s truth doesn’t require an advanced degree to understand it.
This is an excellent explanation and I thank you for sharing it with us.
Splendid insight, Dan. Thanks for taking the time and effort to write and post this piece.
Thank you for being honest with us. This actually saves us a lot of wasted time if we will listen and target our writing to areas where we can have a voice.
You explained this so well. I’m not giving up, but now I can see that hurdle that was cloaked in the fog (that I keep banging my shins on!). Thank you.
While I do see your point about what publishers want, I know what I–an AVID reader of Christian non-fiction–wants.
I want more Donald Millers. More Ann Voskamps. More Shane Clairbornes.
I want people who are honest about their faith. Living their faith. Struggling and fighting and wading through the muck and mess of real faith.
Do pastors and theologians do that? Yes. Sometimes.
Are they as honest as they could be?
……….sometimes. But I feel like, less often.
Although Brennan Manning was a priest, I truly don’t think that was what influenced his writing as much as being a broken alcoholic. Coming to the end of himself and finding God there is what makes his words powerful. Not a seminary degree.
So, to be quite frank, keep your credentials.
I prefer ordinary everyday radicals. People who have died to themselves and the titles the world offers, and who live to let their only credential be that they are in love with God.
You and I cross posted. I don’t think Dan is saying you need a degree. He’s saying you need to be perceived to be an expert. All those people you mentioned have many people believing they are experts. Life experience makes experts of us all, but do we have a following of people who believe we’ve gained wisdom from our experience and who want to learn from our wisdom? That’s what publishers have to look at.
Great post. And . . . there is a way, today, for these authors to become credible that was never available in the past. Now, people can make themselves “perceived” experts by building an online following. If they really want to get the message out, and if the message is needed, they can blog, give the message away free, and, if it’s good stuff and if it’s God’s will, they will collect a bunch of people who want to hear them.
I was at a writers’ conference a couple of years ago with Bill Jensen who said he read Ann Voskamp’s blog and he wrote to her and signed her up. She was apparently not really searching for an agent. She was blogging and gathering 20,000 rabid fans.
Rebecca LuElla Miller
As I was reading Dan’s post, I thought, This is why I blog. I won’t ever have the credentials that would make a publisher want to sign me for a nonfiction project, but I do have things I want to say.
I don’t expect to have 20,000 followers or an agent signing me, either. I just want a venue where I can bring God’s word to bear on the things taking place in our culture.
Writers without platforms are not deprived of their voice today.
Dan, certainly not the happiest news that an unpublished author wants to hear, but very eloquently said. Thank you for the insight.
So, for the vast majority who want a traditional publisher for a work of Christian nonfiction, it’s “abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
That junior college math prof would have as good a chance of getting his mathematical advance published as the MIT prof. Why? In math, science, and research engineering, the written report of the advance is sent to a journal editor, who selects between one and three experts in the field to review the paper. If the proposed advance is determined to be correct, it gets published. If it is not correct, it gets rejected. As a reviewer, I’ve accepted papers from obscure universities and rejected ones from top institutions when they didn’t present convincing evidence and arguments for their theory. A single major discovery can propel an obscure researcher to the top of her field.
It is content, not fame, that drives perceived value. As John Lennox has said, “Nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists.”
(Lennox is a mathematician with an M.A. and PhD. Degree from the University of Cambridge, a D.Sc. degree in mathematics from the University of Cardiff, a D.Phil. degree from the University of Oxford and an M.A. degree in bioethics at the University of Surrey for a total of 3 Ph.D.’s and 3 masters. He has tremendous street cred among the science community. Even the physicists think the mathematicians are smart, and he’s in the upper echelon of mathematicians. His is a brilliant, warm, funny proponent for faith in God who frequently speaks on stage with well-known atheists and agnostics. There are great YouTube videos of these encounters.)
So in math and science, it is vetting by recognized experts on content quality that determines publication. By analogy, could an unknown author who writes a brilliant book get considered if they have glowing reviews by “recognized experts” in their topic?
A lot of layers to your response. Thank you. I was trying to make an analogy for consumer-level publishing and swerved into an area I didn’t fully understand.
Unknown authors writing brilliant books are published all the time. But brilliance is subjective. Some best-selling books are not written brilliantly and some brilliant books don’t sell.
Selling art is tricky.
I’ve stated this before…writing the book is never the first thing you do if you want to eventually be published. You build a strong foundation of credibility and yes, notoriety. Then, maybe write a book. The book is never first.
It’s why I declined a marriage book by a pastor who has been married for four years or a parenting book by parents of toddlers or a overview of Romans by a new Christian. They all had none of the foundation publishers (and readers) respect.
Tough issue, I know.
It was a stuffy old shop – used everything.
Books, books and more books everywhere. It looked like publishers getting rid of overstocked non-bestsellers. Some books were thrown on the floor haphazardly. I touched them, confused and frustrated, as a writer, to see the end of an author’s sweat, blood and tears.
Is this what will happen if I ever get traditionally published?
I push back my fears and pray, “Lord. You are in the book business. I trust You. Is there something here you want me to learn?”
I move slowly among the rejects to touch each one until A book catches my eye. Ever so gently I remove the book from It’s grave, take it to the counter and pay pennies for it.
At home I spend days in the treasured words. It’s a life changing experience.
We write because we’re called to write. People may see our credentials and scoff, some may even place our book on a shelf to gather dust, but because we obey someone at just the right time will be reached. Treasured words Touching the prepared heart.
The writer and the reader one. Mission accomplished.
This is why I write. This is why I continue to write.
Wow. I appreciate your honesty and clarity. I’m rather new in the game and this is giving me pause. I assume there are exceptions to the rule, but this is helpful and saves from misguided efforts.
We wouldn’t ask a speaker to address a subject without the credentials to back up their delivery. It sounds similar. Thanks.
I love this post so much. When God puts a passion in our hearts, we want to jump right in over our heads. But being published puts us out there, under a spotlight. And a spotlight shows all, and it attracts the eyes of our enemy. We need to grow into our calling first. Develop some maturity in our area of expertise. Having a solid foundation under us when we present an idea will keep us stable when our ideas are under attack. It will ensure that our book won’t be a flop that our agent and publisher lose money investing in when nobody buys it because nobody knows where we stand or who we are.
It is true, having more degrees doesn’t prove a stronger faith or more accurate theology – becoming more Christ-like does. But God knows all the pieces that need to fall into place to be able to stand firmly on the platform He’s given us. If He calls us, He’ll help us with all of those steps. I used to think I needed to have a book published before I could expect to build a following, but after listening to the advise in this blog I recently got brave and began to post some of my thoughts on social media. My first ‘safely personal’ post on living out faith reached 900 people right away. I can see that I just need to say what God calls me to say, and if He wants me on that platform one day, He’ll lead me there. Thank you for this very honest post. You are providing such valuable guidance.
In a way it’s sad that a writer has to have credentials to publish a non-fiction book in this area. I know so many people who love the Lord with all of their heart. But, if they were to try to traditionally publish a book on the subject, they couldn’t because of this very reason. They know the Word but don’t have the credentials to back it up.
On the other hand, I would hate to know more books hit the shelves from people who didn’t know what they were talking about and therefore mislead others, or worse, caused someone to sin.
It’s a hard thing.
Interesting, and definitely something to keep in mind! I guess that means that when an author submits a non fiction piece they should be sure to say why they are qualified. If I wrote a book about raising teens, someone might ask me how I could write that book without having been a parent myself. My answer would be that I have been a teen, and have dealt with some issues teens have dealt with even in the past couple years. Someone with that perspective could help parents understand their children better. But then such a book may need to be marketed as a ‘This is a teen’s perspective and something to help you understand some of them’ vs ‘this is how teens need to be raised’.
Marketing/description/presentation is everything from that standpoint I guess.
Great distinction that credentials don’t necessarily mean college degrees but actually having lived through or worked with/in an area where you are writing as an expert. In an age where people can portray themselves as anything they want to be online, actual credibility matters.
I suppose there are hard truths in every profession. I do commend your honesty.
This blog is profound. It adds a layer of considerations and understandings to the issue of platform. I’ve already read it twice with the comments and will reread it again. This needs pondering to add to its usefulness for me. Thank you.