Why Do Editors Reject Bestsellers?

Why do some brilliant editors discover bestsellers and other incompetent editors miss them? From Emily Dickenson to Harry Potter, how could so many have turned them down? In his history of the Scribners publishing house, written 75 years ago, Roger Burlingame pulls back the veil on this mystery.* For many writers and readers, this will be a revelation. Editors will not be surprised at all. They will recognize their own experience in this account, affirming how true it is in our digital age as it was a century ago when moveable type still ruled.

When a book by a new writer becomes a best-seller, a body of legend grows about it. It appears that it was declined by a dozen stupid publishers until some genius saw its worth and brought the author from his garret into the daylight. It is not explained that the genius who discovered Author A, the week before let Author B’s manuscript slide through his fingers to another genius who may, indeed, be the very oaf who originally saw no prospects in Author A, but now is acclaimed as the discoverer of B’s masterpiece. Nor is it told how long and patiently both these publishers have labored with the beautiful lost words of Authors X and Y, upon whom, year after year, the public has inscrutably turned its back.

To those who know the facts beneath the legend, therefore, it is not surprising that good publishers waste so few tears over mistaken judgments of manuscripts. Over a long career any publisher can find in his record dozens of declinations of books which later brought fame and profit to someone else. If, in that career, he has built up a solid body of good authors who enjoy working with him and bring him a steady income, year after year, and if, besides, he has laid a backlog of departments producing steady-selling religious, educational, juvenile, subscription or technical books, he has spent his energies more wisely than in the restless search for big sellers. The proof of this is in his survival. Those publisher who have approached their job in this way have lived the longest, and the wisest young publishers in the field today are those who are steady building, regardless of brilliant, quick and sporadic successes.

The public, too, amused by the best-seller legends, is seldom aware of the peculiar reasons behind some declinations or of how beneficial to an author the rejection of a manuscript may be. A publisher whose list is full, say, for two seasons ahead, will reluctantly let go a book which seems sure-fire to himself and all his editors. He is already committed to the limit of his capacity. If, now, he takes on another large job, he knows either that he cannot do it justice or that, if he does, the books for which he has already agreed to do his best will suffer. . . . So, though it would be surprising to find an author pleased at a rejection—even when these things are explained to him—yet it is common enough, afterward, for him to look back over his manuscript’s stormy voyage and thank his luck stars that it came to haven at last in the place where the fullest measure of attention could be accorded it.

*Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books: A Hundred Years of Reading, Writing and Publishing (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1946; 1996), 61-62.

image credit: khamkhor, Pixabay

John Stott Remembered

Ten years ago today one of the great Christians of our age passed away. Here is what I posted on that day.

John Stott passed away today at the age of ninety. And it is as if a giant oak of the Christian landscape has fallen. As he has faded from public view in the last few years, some may not appreciate the massive effect this strong, humble leader has had. Not only in his native England, but in North America and across the world his beneficial influence was felt. In Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength. Linda Doll and I looked back on his life’s work in this way:

As 2004 concluded and 2005 began, national recognition came in a variety of high-profile ways to the author who had perhaps defined IVP more than any other over the decades. In the November 30 issue of the New York Times, columnist and commentator David Brooks wrote a stunning op-ed piece on how and why John Stott was the person to listen to from the evangelical fold.

He commented, “Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile people like John Stott, who are actually important, get ignored.” He went on to say what it is like to encounter Stott’s books (no doubt many from IVP).

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

Shortly afterward, the February 7, 2005, cover story of Time magazine, “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” also highlighted Stott. He was called quite justifiably “one of the most respected and beloved figures among believers in the U.S. . . . He plunges the rich royalties from his more than 40 unassumingly brilliant books into a fund to educate pastors in the developing word [sic].” (Of course, there is a significant theological difference between the developing word and the developing world. While Time isn’t always known for its theological astuteness, we add sic under the assumption that in this case the usage was inadvertent.)

Only two months later in a special issue featuring “The Time 100,” Time numbered Stott among the one hundred most influential people in the world. The piece on Stott, written by Billy Graham, noted their friendship that began in 1954, Stott’s influence in the Anglican Communion worldwide and his personal humility—his resisting appointment to the position of bishop, the use of his royalties to provide theological books to pastors and scholars in the Two-Thirds World and the simplicity of his living quarters in London’s West End. Graham concluded, “I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical worldview. He represents a touchstone of authentic biblical scholarship that, in my opinion, has scarcely been paralleled since the days of the 16th century European Reformers.”

John Stott was a world Christian before it was fashionable to be a world Christian. On five continents he was known personally and affectionately as Uncle John. Just as he was key to bringing an evangelical renewal to the Church of England, he brought clear, strong teaching and pastoral sensibilities to Latin America, Africa and Asia. Christian leaders all over the world looked to him as their mentor.

The world will miss him.

Reading the Times

For the last dozen years I have consistently avoided the news, and I feel I am a better person for it. In the spirit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jeffrey Bilbro goes even deeper in his literary, social, and theological analysis found in Reading the Times.

Bilbro hits his stride in Part Two with his penetrating comments on time. That may seem especially theoretical, but it makes all the difference whether we are beholden to chronos time (chronology; quantitative clock time) or kairos time (often defined as qualitative moments of significance). The news is imprisoned by chronos. It isolates and disconnects events from their meaning and leaves us barren.

The author goes even further, saying that with kairos time “history’s true meaning emerges in the light of Christ’s life.” Our lives are not empty, trivial moments that are doomed to be forgotten centuries and millennia hence. Rather, quoting Paul Griffiths, “the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. . . . Time is contracted by these events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility.” Every laugh, every tear, every act of love is caught up in the kairos of Christ for eternity. Death is defeated. In Christ, nothing is lost.

How do we apply all this to the dilemma of our current hyper-contentious news environment? Bilbro, perhaps surprisingly, critiques the conventional wisdom that we need more fact checking and that we need to diversify our news feeds. I’ll let you read the book to find out why, but here’s a hint: it has to do with forming community.

In this way Bilbro offers more ways forward than Postman. “Instead of allowing the news to create our communities, Christians should seek to help their communities create the news.” This can begin with the simple act of walking our neighborhoods rather than isolating ourselves in cars or behind screens. On another level we can, for example, pursue redemptive publishing by reading, he suggests, things like Civil Eats, American Conservative, The Atlantic, Commonweal, Hedgehog Review and more.

This book is so much more than about the news. It is a rich and profound book about life. And you can easily find the time to read it with all the free time you will have from not following the news.

Image by Q K from Pixabay

The Myth of the Creative Personality

Is there such a thing as a creative personality?

Yes and no. But mostly no.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the most respected and influential academic researchers in the field of creativity, pioneering the concept of Flow, the hyperfocused state of elite artists, scientists, athletes and others in which they lose themselves in optimal efforts.

Another of his books (Creativity) is based on interviews with a hundred of the most exceptionally creative people across a variety of fields. I suppose the point is to find out what the rest of us ordinary human beings can learn from these superheroes. But the impression I walk away with is that there is no point in mere mortals like you and me even trying. We either have it or we don’t.

That is an unfortunate message, because basically I think it is balderdash.

Yes, there probably are some inherently hypercreative people. And good for them. But the rest of us can still grow and expand our creative gifts, even if we aren’t blessed with a so-called creative personality.

For example, the work ethic (and its cousin, perseverance) are totally underrated when it comes to creativity. We can all grow in discipline, in stick-to-it-tiveness. We can all grow in Grit. Creativity does not just happen in moments of flow but over a period of weeks and even years as scientists pursue a problem and artists hone their craft.

As I’ve said in Write Better, one key to creativity is to expose ourselves to as many different experiences and ideas as possible because the essence of creativity is combining two or more previously existing things or concepts. The more we have in our mental grab bag, the more likely we are to come up with a unique combination. Again, it’s something ordinary people can do and grow in—not just the elite.

DNA, birth order, culture and much else have a major impact on how creative we might be. But don’t you believe that they tell the whole story.

photo credit: mohamed Hassan from Pixabay (hero); Günther Aichhofer, Pixabay (ants)

John Through Old Testament Eyes

The Old Testament presents true Judaism as tenaciously monotheistic. No god compares to the One God who is in a category by himself. In fact, the gods of other nations are actually no gods at all. Worship of them is absolutely forbidden.

Then how could the Jews who first followed Jesus believe he was the divine Son of the Father, and still defend the monotheism that is so strongly proclaimed in the Old Testament? That was the challenge John took up in his gospel.

Karen Jobes keys in on this central question in John Through Old Testament Eyes, the second in a set I am the series editor for—the Through Old Testament Eyes New Testament Commentaries. One way John presents Jesus as divine is by using Old Testament metaphors, images, and symbols that are said to be characteristic of God (such as judge, king, and shepherd). But John does not collapse the divine Father and Son, suggesting these are simply two names for the same person. After all, he (and Jesus) say clearly that the Son was sent by the Father.

How then does John maintain his monotheism? One way, as Jobes writes, is by redefining what monotheism means—as the unity of the divine Father and the Son. They are, for example, one in will and one in glory.

This is not the only question Jobes addresses. She ably covers the entire gospel, its structure, and various themes. All the while she emphasizes the richness of Old Testament background, motifs, and literary patterns that illuminate the fourth gospel.

Personally, I have found this approach most rewarding. When puzzling through difficult passages in the New Testament, I often find that the Old Testament roots of those sections provide the “aha” moments that resolve the mystery.

The gospel of John is often the first encounter that people have with the Bible. As a college student, like so many others, Karen Jobes was transformed by it. That love for the book is wonderfully married with the skills of a seasoned scholar, resulting in this readable and enlightening book.

Footnote Your Talks

Once I received a letter from a reader who said that a book published by the firm I worked for had plagiarized his own writing. This was a serious charge and a rather shocking accusation because our book was written by a senior scholar with a stellar reputation. Could this be possible?

What made the case more interesting was that the writer of the letter said he had been a student of this scholar some fifteen years before. The scholar, claimed the student, had incorporated some of the student’s paper into the book we published. And he provided evidence. Several paragraphs from his paper matched exactly or very closely portions of the book.

We sent the material on to the author for his comment. After reviewing it, he admitted it was true. How had it happened?

The author thought the student’s paper was excellent and began referring to it, even reading from it, in his lectures over the next several years. Slowly, in his class notes, the student’s name became detached from the quotations. Then the quotation marks disappeared. When it came time to write a book based on these lectures, the author had forgotten where this material in his notes had come from and assumed it was all his own.

How did we resolve this? We and the author agreed to revise the book in the next printing. We put the student’s material in quotation marks and gave due credit in the footnotes.

The Lesson to Be Learned: Whenever you prepare a talk, a sermon, or a lecture—always footnote your speaking notes as if it were to be published. You never know when you might take some old material (even decades later) and work it into a published piece. Include not only the name of the person responsible for the quote (or for the point of fact) but also, the name of the book, the publisher, date of publication, and page number. Then you won’t have to spend hours trying to track it down—which can sometimes be impossible, even in the internet era. I know—I’ve tried.

Corollary: When speaking, give credit to your sources, whether quoted or summarized. You can’t give full bibliographic information since that would make your talk impossible to listen to. But you can say, “As David Brooks says in his new book . . .” That is intellectually honest (you didn’t come up with the idea), and it doesn’t unduly interrupt the flow of your talk.

photo credit: Adrian Schweiz (Pixabay)

Advice to Publishers–From a Previous Century

In 1996 Charles Scribner III wrote the introduction to a history of the publishing house whose name he shares.* Here are some quotations that show that the more things change in publishing, the more they stay the same.

On the Importance of Finding New Writers
In 1913 Charles Scribner’s only son, another Charles (III), graduated from Princeton and began his career in publishing. He was a contemporary of Perkins and Wheelock, and his age gave him a ready grasp of the importance of the new writers who were beginning to appear on the scene. (p. xviii)

On the Importance of a Balanced List
I think it’s fair to say that by the 1950s the star-studded Perkins years had left an unfortunate legacy. The editors were on the perpetual lookout for the new Hemingway or Wolfe to arrive—like Godot. Their attention was fixed on the fiction front, to the exclusion of other areas of publishing. To restore some balance to the list–and a balanced list is essential to a publisher’s survival—Scribner set out to develop fields of nonfiction history, biography, how to books…. But Charles Scribner, Jr.’s own true love was for reference works, and these years saw the birth of works that have become the staple of every major school, college, and public library. (pp. xxiii-xxiv)

On Finding the New in the Old
In the context of my thumbnail history of Scribners very little of recent times is truly new; we were doing much the same a century ago. In effect, the postwar decades may be viewed as a recapitulation of earlier themes; that is to say, striking a balanced list, recognizing the importance of non-fiction, maintaining a backlist, bringing out series of books such as reference sets, and co-publishing with British firms. (p. xxiv-xxv)

For those in publishing looking for good ideas for the future, sometimes the best ones can be found in the past.

*The book is Of Making Many Books by Roger Burlingame, which (originally published in 1946) covers the first hundred years of Scribner’s. The book was reprinted fifty years later by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

What’s So Funny About God?

With images of sober-faced priests, sour-faced Puritans, and stern-faced evangelists firmly embedded in our corporate psyche, it can be rather jarring to ask the question in the title of Steve Wilkens book, What’s So Funny About God?

Wilkens faces another challenge. The few books about humor and theology are decidedly unfunny. He combats this trend with a light, breezy style that enhances rather than hides his content.

Standard categories of humor are embedded in our theology. We have irony (the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign right after he feeds five thousand), political satire (the gross excesses of the Persian Empire in Esther), reversal (the happy surprise of Easter), paradox (life comes from death; we are both saved and sinners).

Then there is the incongruity of the “high and low, animal and exalted” wrapped up in God’s most amazing creation—human beings made in his image. We are astounding spiritual beings who also poop. No wonder Gnostics didn’t believe Jesus became human. They had no sense of humor!

In addition, amidst his insightful comments, Wilkens liberally sprinkles in jokes (relevant to the points he is making). A few favorites:

Two cows are standing in the field. One asks the other, “Are you worried about this mad cow disease going around?” The other relies, “Why should I be? I’m a helicopter.”

Medium-sized church building for sale. Sleeps four hundred.

Saying “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” usually mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.

The book finds the funny in Christmas, Easter, everyday life, and the end times (“Does This Eschatology Make My End Look Big?”). The thing about comedy, which is also true of this book, is that it sneaks in deep truth when we aren’t looking. Among these is the discovery that not only can we love God, we can also enjoy him.

photo credit: Robert Owen-Wahl (Pixabay)

Where Good Ideas Come From

Parents, sales reps, truck drivers, pastors, teachers, and nurses are always looking for good ideas. So are writers—ideas for blogs, for plot lines, for characters, for humor, for titles, for openings, for closings. Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, happily enough, offers (wait for it) good ideas on how to find good ideas.

One common notion he hopes to correct is that ideas mostly come when sitting alone under a tree waiting for an apple to fall on our head. He shows by anecdote and with historical data that more ideas come in collaboration than in isolation.

Generating ideas is a social activity. By this he doesn’t mean the traditional brainstorming session. Rather creativity comes by being connected to multiple people with varied interests in diverse settings. If our interest is biology, we should not just go deeper into botany but dabble in architecture, web design, the arts, and economics which will give us new perspectives for our biological studies.

In chapter 11 of Write Better I likewise emphasize the importance of expanding our range of interests, experiences, and social connections to enhance creativity. Johnson doubles down on this last dimension. More ideas come in the coffee shop with friends or in the hallway with colleagues than when we are alone, staring at a screen. Thus studies have shown that, on average, large cities are three times more creative than small towns (pp. 10-11).

Johnson also considers two ways ideas arise. One is in the “Eureka moment” that I focus on in Write Better. The second is “the slow hunch” pattern of idea generation. That is, we muse over a puzzling observation for a period of months or even years before a solution emerges in bits and pieces, rather than all at once. In either case, interacting with many different perspectives, subjects, and people is central to the solution.

Looking for good ideas? Read widely, not just in one area. Explore a variety of experiences. And mix it up with friends, colleagues, and other writers. Find people with different interests to see what is exciting them.

Where do your good ideas come from?

Photo credits: Qimono, Pixabay (light bulbs); Pexels, Pixabay (turtle)