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Culture Q&A

Marvin Padgett

Book buyer beware

Former Christian publishing insider shares the realities of fluff, platforms, ghostwriting, and back-cover blurbs

Book buyer beware

Marvin Padgett (Robin Rayne Nelson/Genesis)

Marvin Padgett ran Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri bookstore in Switzerland in 1982 and 1983, then owned and managed the Logos Bookstore in Nashville from 1983 to 1996. From 1997 to 2005 he was editorial vice president at Crossway Books and then filled a similar position at P&R until his retirement in 2012.

How long have you been married to your wife, Jean, and how long to the Christian publishing industry? Almost 47 years to Jean, and almost all of my life since the first grade has been in education or publishing in one way or another.

By running bookstores, what did you learn about what people read and what they don’t? It’s sometimes depressing. We sold some books that were fluffy so we could carry the books we really wanted to. 

Over the past 25 years some of the major Christian publishers—Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, for example—became part of big, non-Christian operations. A lot of these grand, old publishing houses published really good, solid Christian books—no fluff—but the business drove the companies to produce more and more lightweight things, and gifts became big. Then they became part of for-profit companies: Management is responsible to the stockholders, so the bottom line has got to drive them. 

What are some of the other dangers facing the Christian publishing industry now? The great masses and many megachurch pastors are not as discerning as they need to be, so I’m worried that people will drift because they’re reading the pabulum that’s served up. If something sells a lot, the Christian public tends to go and read it. 

‘What bothers me is that people in the Christian bookstore are being, in a sense, deceived by thinking “so and so” wrote all these books.’

Do publishers have less interest than they used to in publishing a good manuscript if the author doesn’t have a “platform” to promote it? Absolutely. Every publisher looks for platforms, a means for authors to sell the books themselves. One of the first things I would ask of a big-time author or pastor: “How many books will your ministry purchase?”

Has book publishing (and Christian publishing specifically) become celebrity-driven? Celebrity publishing is not a “Christian publishing” problem. It’s a publishing problem in general and beyond that, a cultural problem. We worship celebrities. That boils over into the general book publishing market.

Let’s talk about ghostwriting. One ghost told me, “I received $25,000 to ghostwrite this manuscript. That was the deal: I didn’t ask for any credit and wasn’t given any, but that’s fine with me, because I have the $25,000.” Any problem with that? It depends. You can contract for anything that’s not illegal, immoral, or fattening. What bothers me is that people in the Christian bookstore are being, in a sense, deceived by thinking “so and so” wrote all these books. I like it much better when the cover says, “with John Jones.” 

Editorial help is fine when disclosed? A lot of books wouldn’t be written if there weren’t ghostwriters. Some people are just awfully busy: Do they need to sit down in front of a word processor and write every word, or is it sufficient for them to sit down with a tape recorder and let someone else take it? I’d say as long as they retain control over it, it’s OK. I don’t really like it, but it’s OK.

We don’t expect politicians, CEOs, and athletes to write their own books ... But they have something to say, and it’s important to hear what they have to say. What they’ve experienced may be important and helpful. I don’t like the deception when someone actually claims to have sat down and written the book but hadn’t done that. 

So even if the person whose name is on the book and the writer have an agreement and they’re satisfied with that, that is not satisfactory for the third person in this whole equation: the reader. That’s what I think.

What about pastors? Most are articulate, so when they use ghostwriters do we feel deceived in a way we don’t feel with politicians, CEOs, or athletes? Peter Drucker said the three hardest jobs in the United States were being the president of the United States, the CEO of a large corporation, and the senior pastor of a megachurch. I don’t have any problem with some of the big-name Christian megachurch pastors having someone help them write their books, as long as they control what’s being said.

John MacArthur is an example of a pastor who keeps control. He is a delightful man and a very careful preacher. All the books he writes are taken from his sermons. A sermon is one form of art (if you will) and a book is another form of art. They’re different media, and very few people like to read books that appear to be collections of sermons. So, a staff transcribes MacArthur’s sermons, edits them, makes them into a smooth-running book, and presents them back to him. He never loses control.

Francis Schaeffer also spoke and had transcribers, right? Almost every word he uttered was taped and transcribed. Then Schaeffer would go over it and turn it into what he wanted: He retained minute control over his manuscripts to where it was sometimes a little frustrating to work with him, because he insisted on saying things in his own quirky way. What makes Schaeffer powerful is the passion and the content.

So, it’s legitimate to take a pastor’s ideas and move them into a different medium, without really adding new thoughts ... That was true of Martyn Lloyd-Jones: I think his daughters did that for him, converting what he said. He preached on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, and I think also on Saturday evening. 

I understand that John Piper writes his own books. What you see in John Piper is what you get: He is one of the most straightforward, completely honest people I’ve ever been around. He writes his books himself. He was an English major at Wheaton and it shows: His books come in and rarely need any corrections. John would take a “writing leave” in the summer. His church would let him go off and spend some time alone, and he would just sit there and write like a machine. His books are his books. 

Should readers take back-cover endorsements seriously? I’m not going to tell you who this is, but one author we published wanted his book endorsed by a famous member of his congregation. The famous member of his congregation contacted me and said, “This is how much I will charge for endorsing the book.” Because we really, really wanted to publish the book, and we respected the author and the person, we said, “OK.” The pastor himself wrote the endorsement for his own book and sent it to the endorser, leaving a blank in the middle with a note, “You can add your personal comments here.” The endorser sent it to me and said, “I don’t think I need to add anything. This is good enough as it is.”

A ghostwritten endorsement for a ghostwritten book? That was a pretty disappointing episode.

Comments

  • Rich277
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:19 pm

    For an example of how bad it is in the Christian publishing world check out this website: http://amomonamission.blogspot.com/  It is the work of Beth Malarkey, the mother of Alex Malarkey whose name was sited as a coauthor of the book, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven.  Alex has denounced the book as a lie.  No one will listen to him.  Not the publisher, not the fan page editor, not his pastor.  Only his Mom stands by him and she is heartbroken that so many are willing to be deceived.  

  • Laneygirl
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:19 pm

    Humility is in short shrift among "famous Christians" today. I wish there was more disclosure on who actually writes the books we Christ followers read. My entertainment budget consists solely of buying [mostly e-] books, and the more information I have about how it was authored, the better informed are my choices.

  • Dean from Ohio
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:19 pm

    When every word that men and women have spoken and written--not just the ones on flashy covers and in high-priced books--is made utterly public, front and center, at the Bema seat of Christ, will any of these authors or ghostwriters feel ashamed of what's revealed about the making of these books? If not, why not tell the whole truth now? If so, why not repent now? Hiding these facts now can't be for a good reason.In the end, no one ever gets away with anything.

  • 4SkiBums
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:19 pm

    Great article!!! "Pabulum" is a perfect word to describe the level of reading the majority of Christians are digesting.