In Search of Balance:
An Editor’s Bottom Line Responsibility
by Richard J. Foster
I congratulate you on choosing your topic for this year: "In Search of Balance: An Editor's Bottom Line Responsibility". It is a terribly important subject--this delicate balancing of ministry objectives and financial profitability.
Now, in our present publishing context you simply must make money. There is no getting around it. It is, however, instructive that this has not always been the case. There are other ways of doing publishing. For example, in the 17th century when King James of England decided to have an official English translation of the Bible he didn't have to sit down and figure out a marketing strategy to make sure he would capture a sufficient share of the Bible market to cover the costs of the 67 translators working on the project and to make sure he recouped his publishing costs and, in addition, would realize a profit. No, he was the King ... he just did it! Of course, he taxed the people to cover costs!
Even today we have publishing efforts like University Presses who have immense endowments to cover publishing losses. But even here if you have too many years of deficient publishing, believe me, the university will one day simply decide that publishing just isn't part of their mission statement.
Still, the most of us work within a highly entrepreneurial culture and if we don't make a profit we'll eventually go under. It is as simple as that. When we come to the end of the fiscal year we want to be able to declare confidently, "Black is Beautiful!"
And so the bottom line is something we must always keep in mind. But, and here is my counsel, let's keep it in the back of our mind. Because if it is at the front of our mind ... if it is the driving force behind who we are and what we do then, God help us ... because nobody else will. Frankly if we let money dominate our thinking it will end up dominating us, because, as Jesus taught us, money is a spiritual power that either you conquer or it conquers you. No, there simply must be greater realities that drive us.
I'm glad, as I know you are, when a book does well and is able to help other more modest selling books. But if our exclusive drive is to have block-buster books, then the warning of the Psalmist applies to us; we have reduced the living God who speaks and listens to us into a gold or silver thing-god ... "those who make them are like them, so also are those who trust in them."
Frankly, it is no secret how to produce a best seller in the contemporary religious marketplace. Simply play to the human need market, ... mask the hard call of the Gospel, ... give people the sun, the moon and the stars in five easy steps, ... and tap into people's fears by connecting all these things to a conspiracy theory or two. This is formula I hope we will always reject outright, and, thankfully, there are books that reach best seller status without such gimmickry.
So, it is in the back of our mind where the concern over money belongs. As we learn to really trust in the Lord with our whole heart and lean not to our own understanding we will, in the power of the Holy Spirit, conquer the demonic power of mammon. And then we will be able to use money for the greater good, as Jesus says, making friends for ourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.
That by way of introduction. Now, to the substance of my talk. I want to make three simple points, points that if we will operate on the basis of them they will help us maintain that all-important balance of accomplishing ministry goals and maintaining profitability.
I. Be known as editors and publishers who maintain exacting standards of fiscal integrity.
My first point is so obvious and so basic that I am sorry that it even needs to be said. But the sad truth today is that it does need to be said. It is that you be known as editors and publishers who maintain exacting standard of fiscal integrity.
Some years ago I developed a close friendship with a man who over his lifetime had been a publisher, an editor, an author, and a literary agent. He knew every nook and cranny of the publishing world--both Christian and secular. And so, some years ago, I asked him straight out if I needed a literary agent, thinking maybe he should be that person. His response both shocked and saddened me . . . shocked me because it spoke volumes about the problem of fiscal integrity in Christian publishing . . . saddened me because of the shame this brings to the cause of Christ. He said, "Well, you publish with Harpers and as long as you are with the House of Harper I don't think you need an agent. But if you ever go to a Christian publishing House . . . get an agent!!!" And since that time I have heard enough horror stories for me to see the wisdom in his counsel.
I hate to have to say these things to you. I really do. And I pray that the day will come when Christian publishing is so known for its integrity that those in the watching world will say to authors like myself, "Go to a Christian publisher. Their fiscal responsibility is impeccable. They treat their authors fairly. They never undercut you. You can trust their word. They lead the field in fiscal responsibility. They are the ones who do it right." Oh, may that day come more and more.
May the day come when the word of Christian Publishers is as good as their bond.
May the day come when employees can honestly and proudly say, "I've never worked for a fairer, more humane company in my life."
May the day come when the old joke in publishing circles that "the only good author is a dead author" simply isn't funny anymore.
May the day come when the authors who are with Christian publishers will be constantly bragging to the rest of us about the absolute integrity, the complete fairness, and the utter lack of guile of their publishing house.
What does the fiscal integrity I am referring to mean in actual practice?
It means that the financial books of publishers are always open to all.
It means that employees--all employees--are paid fairly and with generous benefit packages.
It means caring about financial fairness to both author and company--including a fair division on all subsidiary rights.
It means refusing to quickly or automatically sell your books through middle-man organizations, an arrangement which, as you know, drains two and sometimes three percent off an author's royalties.
It means jealously protecting the intellectual rights of the author.
It means paying employees and authors on time and the full amount due them.
It means no religious mumbo jumbo about sacrifice for the cause of Christ when you are about to trim salaries or delay royalty payments.
And much more.
And there is a payoff for such fiscal integrity. First, people will come to trust you, want to work for you, and recommend you to others. And then, second, you will draw the very best authors to your publishing efforts, those authors who themselves maintain the highest of standards of integrity. Believe me, they will seek you out like bees to honey. And that will help you find the balance you seek of ministry and profitability.
II. Be known as editors and publishers who are committed to the great ideas.
Now to my second point: Be known as editors and publishers who are committed to the great ideas. Far too much of the writing today is utter pabulum. It is trite, cliche-ish, and blatant propaganda. Look at any bestseller list--it doesn't matter whether you are looking at Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, or The Bookstore Journal--ninety percent of what you see there is so faddish that in two years we won't even be able to remember the titles. A very large percentage of the books today appeal to our vanity (all the diet books) or to our fears and prejudices (all the conspiracy theory books) or to our lack of organization (all the how-to books).
We really do have a general cultural problem today. We live in a day when the FACT that a person has absolutely nothing of value to say does not in the least stop that person from writing a book.
This is a plague. We have cab drivers with manuscripts in their glove compartments and twelve year olds writing their memoirs. I have a friend who once wrote a biting satire on the publishing industry. In the article he said that he was starting up a publishing House called, "Publishers of Fluff and other Stuff." He described his publishing policy this way; "We will not accept any manuscript of substance nor will we publish anything that has a coherent line of thought or argument". But, he added, "we will eagerly consider manuscripts that are trite, silly, utterly incoherent, and totally worthless." Can you believe it; he got people who completely missed the article's satire and asked if they could submit a manuscript to "Publishers of Fluff and other Stuff." I'll say it again: We live in a day when the FACT that a person has absolutely nothing of value to say does not in the least stop that person from writing a book.
But now let me state this cultural dilemma from the publisher's end of the equation: we live in a day when the FACT that a manuscript says absolutely nothing of value does not in the least stop some publishers from turning it into a book, especially if they can see major economic gain in it.
I am very sorry that I have to say this. But I really must if we are going to tackle this subject of searching for a balance with any degree of seriousness. The attitude among some publishers appears to be that if they can just get the right name behind the book it doesn't much matter its content. Friends, substance is important. Amy Carmichael wrote, "It matters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meant. We are what we think about. Think about trivial things or weak things and somehow one loses fiber and becomes flabby in spirit."
And it is sobering to remember that A.W. Tozer over a half century ago said that Christian Publishers–-Publishers with mission statements about gospel fidelity and commitments to speak the truth in love--will be judged by what they publish.
So few writers and editors and publishers today really wrestle with the great themes. William Faulkner, when he received the Nobel prize for literature, said that we have forgotten to take up the great, universal themes. He writes, "We no longer deal with the problems of the spirit. The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."
And certainly when authors and editors and publishers give sustained attention to the great ideas--the great universal themes in life--we will develop greater, more significant content in the books that are published.
What are these universal themes I am referring to? There is the great theme of the reality of evil--moral, cosmic, personal will against the purposes of God. Evil can be seen as the tempter as Milton did in Paradise Lost, or evil can be seen as the destroyer as Tolkein developed so well in The Lord of the Rings with the black riders and orks and Saron and Saruman and, above all,
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
Or there is the theme of the existence of ultimate good. God and the angels ... light ... life ... hope. It has always amazed me how C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia was able to personify ultimate good in the character of Aslan, the great lion, something few writers have ever dared to do.
And then there is the theme of the human condition. You see, a great deal of writing by Christians has a terrible characteristic in common with writing by Communists-that is, it is propaganda. The good are too good and the bad are too bad. There is no subtlety, no understanding of the complexity of the human personality. There is no perception of the human predicament in which sin has been incarnated into the very structures of society. So many novels written by Christians today are only a poor guise for preaching a poor sermon. But contrast that with The Brothers Karamozov where Dostoevsky perceives the entanglements of human life because sin has found its way into the very warp and woof of the social fabric.
And when we are able to connect the human condition with the contemporary social milieu, we have something of genuine power. Think of A Tale of Two Cities where Charles Dickens brought the contradictory themes of hope and terror and connected them with the trauma of the French Revolution: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epic of belief; it was the epic of incredulity. It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us; we had nothing before us."
Writing that wrestles with the great ideas takes our best thinking and our greatest devotion. "To act is easy," said Goethe, (goe-ta) "to think is so hard." Thinking is the hardest thing we will ever do ... and the most important. We must reflect ... process ... and discern what is happening in our world, and see where this will lead us, and then give a value judgment upon it. The day is now gone when we will depend upon books to provide us with information--computers are able to do that faster and better. We no longer need books for information ... but we desperately need books that will provide us with insight. This is where the future is in books--not facts and figures but perception, sagacity, (sa-gas-i-te) wisdom.
To do this demands our most dogged thought;
To do this demands a fiery baptism into hurting, bleeding humanity;
To do this demands a personal vulnerability that is willing to expose the inner sanctuary of our own souls.
There is a payoff for a commitment to the great ideas. First of all, your publishing efforts will grow great souls. Books given over to tabloid thinking and the peddlers of gossip produce small, petty souls. But books that give sustained attention to the great themes of the human spirit will open the windows of the soul to the invigorating breezes of splendor and valor and courtesy and magnanimity. And then, second, books committed to the great ideas will endure, establishing for you a stable backlist that will continue selling for years, decades, perhaps centuries to come. And that will help you find the balance you seek of ministry and profitability.
III. Be know as editors and publishers who are passionate about "the good, the true, the beautiful."
Now to my third point: Be known as editors and publishers who are passionate about "the good, the true, the beautiful." May you encourage ... no, may you demand ... that the writing of your authors be crisp and clear and imaginative. In 1800 William Wordsworth claimed that the imagination had been strangled by the more sensational, popular arts. And if that was a concern in 1800 think of what we face today in our Harlequin novels with their xerox plots ... our action movies with their grunts that pass for dialogue ... and our reality-TV shows with their bland diet of money, sex and power.
The reality is that we are witnessing a deadening of the imagination in our day.
Oh, May we have editors and publishers that are willing to go against this tide of monosyllable mediocrity.
May we have editors and publishers who will demand that their authors give the universal themes memorable expression.
May we have editors and publishers who themselves love words ... who love their sound ... who love their meaning ... who love their history ... who love their rhythm.
May we have editors and publishers who abhor the cheap sentence that prostitutes words for the purpose of propaganda.
May we have editors and publishers who will demand that their authors rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until just the right image comes forth, shining like a gem.
May we have editors and publishers willing to ache and sweat and cry in order to capture just the right word. (Mark Twain once rhyle noted that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightening and the lightening bug!)
I'll always remember how as very young children my boys were gripped by the problem of evil through the single phrase in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that it was "always winter but never Christmas." My boys knew that that was bad ... really bad; "always winter but never Christmas."
And our words need to have that quality. They need to move from being flat, lifeless characters in black and white to becoming animated with love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other glorious emotions that make our lives dangerous and great and bearable. It was the great Welsh poet, Dylan (dil-en) Thomas, who said, "Out of words come the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth."
The Old Testament prophets cared enough about the debar Yahweh, the word of the Lord, to deliver it frequently in the form of poetry. Ha! We relegate poetry to filler pieces. Oh, may we enter new heights of the crisp, the clear, the imaginative.
Take a word ... BITTER ... how do you write the word bitter? Do you spell it out in drab, bare letters ... B-I-T-T-E-R ... or do you put face and eyes and mouth on that word so that deep inside we can taste the acid.
The pastoral interviewing committee said to the young minister, "Well, it was a good sermon. We have to admit it was a very good sermon. It was well prepared and well delivered. And we don't find anything wrong with your theology and you have answered all of our questions and we believe you are really committed and all. It's just that we don't feel you are the one for us. "Why?" she asked.
Now, write the word BITTER.
How do you write the word LONELY? Do you amass charts and statistics on the number of divorce and single-parent families? Do you quote psychological studies on the epidemic increase of loneliness in urban society? Do you analyze the isolation of the nuclear (noo-kle-r) family and the loss of relationships and the loss of community. Or do you help us ache with loneliness.
Tiny Heather Marie died this evening, as the sun lay like a brooding sorrow on the hill. Why, God?
Only three months old, a temple scarcely built.
I don't feel anger; I just don't understand.
The doctors talk about "crib death".
The theologians talk about "the problem of evil."
I don't talk; I just cry.
Treasured memories are locked into those brief months ... the waiting ... the naming ... the praying ... the first whimpering sounds of life ... the fear of fatherhood mingled with the awe of creation.
They were happy days. Feeding time was sacred. I would lie on the bed and watch as mother and baby joined in the transference of life.
She was so tiny, so delicate. It was awesome to watch the miracle of bright blue eyes seeing forms and discovering objects ... tiny hands that vainly grasped for toys ... miniature feet that found no reason for existence. They were happy days.
But tonight Heather Marie lay dead. Why, God? No pious platitudes of religion seem to speak to my condition.
In so many ways I see clearly the marking of your design;
in the universe of the telescope,
in the universe of the microscope.
But God, where is you design in taking Heather Marie from us? Am I blind? Or is it that I can see only the back side of life's tapestry-just the tangled threads? Must I wait to be on the other side before I can see life's design?
O', Christ, if faith's only certainty is the cross, help me through my forsaken Garden of Gethsemane.
Now, write the word LONELY.
There is a payoff for being editors and publishers who are passionate about "the good, the true, the beautiful." The first payoff is found in the cultural lift your books will produce. The bastardizing of language carries with it the degeneration of culture. Writing that is crisp and clear and imaginative enriches us and beckons us to new vistas. For several centuries the King James Bible, bursting as it was with the linguistic brilliance of the Elizabethan Age exerted a centripetal (sen-trip-i-tl), unifying, and lifting force on religious and social discourse. William Shakespeare did the same thing as a dramatist, as did John Milton as a poet, and Samuel Johnson as an essayist. And then, second, people simply love to read writing that is crisp and clear and imaginative. Friends, the dumbing down of the mind is not the wave of the future. The human spirit can endure today's gossip-laden trivial pursuit for only so long. We are created for more. We are created for the good, the true, the beautiful, and we will ultimately be drawn to the more real, the more substantive, the more beautiful. And that will help you find the balance you seek of ministry and profitability.
Well, that is my counsel.
Be known as editors and publishers who maintain exacting standard of fiscal integrity.
Be known as editors and publishers who are committed to the great ideas.
Be known as editors and publishers who are passionate about "the good, the true, the beautiful."
And may God reward your efforts with the balance you seek.
Richard Foster is the author of Celebration of Discipline, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, and Streams of Living Water. In addition he continues to develop Renovare, an infrachurch effort working for the renewal of the Church of Jesus Christ in all her multi-faceted expressions. Richard and his wife Carolynn live near Denver, Colorado.