Best seller dropped by publishing house for factual errors.” This story grabbed my attention as I was scrolling through the news one day during my first year of seminary in the fall of 2012. The book in question was written by a name I knew well: David Barton.

Growing up homeschooled and raised in a Southern Baptist congregation, I was familiar with Barton’s writings, which purport to show that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. Knowing his influence among churches, I didn’t doubt his credentials, either as a historian or a political activist. I found it surprising, then, when his publisher, Thomas Nelson, discontinued The Jefferson Lies only months following its release, after it was proven to contain basic factual inaccuracies. In the years leading up to this, Barton had built an influential brand through self-published books and educational videos, one that helped pave the way for a book deal that his work didn’t justify.

That was my first encounter with something people in and around the world of Christian book publishing know well: the problem of platform. Broadly speaking, platform is an indicator of an author’s sales potential, based on certain measures of preexisting popularity. Ask ten publishers for a definition, however, and you’ll get ten different answers: things like reputation within a community, institutional backing, number of social media followers or newsletter subscribers, or ticket sales at speaking engagements. The industry has no consensus on the matter, but platform remains a core consideration throughout the publishing world today.

Of course, Christian publishers are not the only ones weighing the extent to which platform should influence the choice of what authors to publish. Evaluating a writer’s platform is standard practice for book acquisitions across the publishing industry. But Christian publishers do bear a unique responsibility of stewarding their work well by virtue of their commitments to Christ and his kingdom. As I interviewed dozens of authors, publishers, and agents across the spectrum of Christian publishing for this article, it became clear to me that faithful stewardship in this industry is often easier said than done.

On one level, the goal of publishing a book is simple: selling the book. To varying degrees, vetting the sales potential of an author has always been part of the book acquisitions process. “It doesn’t do authors or publishing teams any good if they invest months (even years) of their lives into a book that will likely only sell a few dozen copies,” said Kyle Rohane, an acquisitions editor at Zondervan (and formerly a CT editor).

Article continues below

Some authors accrue a platform naturally, perhaps by virtue of their affiliation with a church or university, their life experience, or their educational credentials. But social media offers otherwise unknown voices the chance at heightened visibility, and a writer’s online following has become a standard metric publishers consider for book deals. This dynamic has led to a tendency among publishers to evaluate prospective authors on the basis of their influence and not necessarily on the quality of their work.

For those on the outside looking in, it can be easy to write off an emphasis on platform as nearsighted, perhaps even as adrift from faithfulness, especially after witnessing the fall of so many high-profile Christian leaders in recent years. But the matter is not so simple. Every publishing contract entails uncertainty and risk. Manuscripts require editing, formatting, graphic design, printing, marketing, and distribution, all of which involve significant time and expense. Without knowing whether these investments will be successful, weighing an author’s platform helps publishers assess the risk associated with a book project.

There are valid reasons, then, why Christian publishers sometimes lean on big-name authors as a strategy for turning a profit. At the end of the day, publishers have legitimate bottom lines to meet. Their revenue serves missional goals as well as business interests. Higher earnings translate into better compensation for authors. Financially successful books also give publishers some cushion for covering the costs incurred by titles that sell poorly, which grants them greater leeway to take chances on authors who lack obvious sales potential. In this sense, profit can liberate publishers to consider factors other than profit.

Larger, more structural reasons also drive Christian publishers toward an emphasis on profit-seeking and featuring authors who check “platform” boxes. Christian publishing is a diverse field, including nonprofit and independently owned presses and corporate-owned entities. HarperCollins, one of the “big five” English-language publishers, includes two major Christian outfits (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) under its corporate umbrella. Other historically independent publishing houses have been folded into larger ownership, such as WaterBrook and Multnomah at Penguin Random House, and Regal at Baker. (NavPress, the book-publishing arm of the Navigators, entered into a partnership with Tyndale, which sells and markets its books, but NavPress retains editorial control over the titles it publishes.)

Article continues below

Last year, Jeff Crosby, president and CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and former publisher at InterVarsity Press, described consolidation as the “most significant change” of the last quarter century in publishing. “It’s moved from a ‘terms of sale’ paradigm, set by publishers, to a ‘terms of purchase’ paradigm, set by customers,” he told Publishers Weekly.

In other words, where independent presses enjoyed significant freedom to develop and adhere to their own purpose and mission, consolidation can weaken that freedom in deference to corporate goals, which are often sales driven and consumer focused. Consolidation means more market share and earning potential, which generates an increased pressure to maximize profits. When that is combined with marketing savvy and an eager customer base, religious publishing transforms into a major industry valued at upward of a billion dollars annually, with profit and mission potentially set on a collision course.

Though an emphasis on profit is by no means unique to Christian publishing, multiple authors I interviewed noted that fellow authors who have published with nonreligious presses felt less pressure to build a following, due in part to marketing efforts that are less dependent on the author’s social media presence. The Christian publishers I spoke with said they did not contractually obligate their writers to build their online platforms or goose their social media metrics. Even so, authors I interviewed made it clear that they feel implicitly tasked with doing so if they wish to maintain successful publishing partnerships.

Just as publishers vary in how they define platform, they vary in how they translate platform into quantifiable goals for author visibility. Each individual press takes an author’s platform into consideration, but the extent to which it does depends mostly on internal sales expectations, which drive the level of risk the press is willing to tolerate when working on a particular book.

For aspiring and established authors alike, this can mean never being sure they’ve done enough to attract an audience. Mary DeMuth is the author of more than 40 books, including The Most Misunderstood Women of the Bible and The Wall Around Your Heart, and she hosts a podcast (Pray Every Day). She explained that one of her recent books was contracted by a publisher in large part due to her platform, even though another publisher had rejected the identical manuscript for the same reason. “It’s an upwardly moving target,” DeMuth said. “Just when you think you arrived, you haven’t.”

Article continues below

To muddy the waters further, the Christian publishing industry has grown increasingly aware in recent years that an author’s social media following is no guarantee of commercial success. Not only is platform fickle, but it often generates unreliable projections. Although boasting tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter might seem like a sure-fire sales formula, this is not always the case—especially considering the recent controversial phenomenon of purchasing social media followers.

Samuel James, associate acquisitions editor at Crossway, emphasized this point. “Internet clout is a moving target,” he said, “and it’s so easy to manipulate.” A massive following does not always garner book sales because it fails to measure audience engagement. An engaged audience, one that “likes” and interacts with an author online, is far likelier to buy an author’s book than an audience that’s been purchased for show.

An overreliance on platform, then, can sometimes prove unsound purely as a business matter. For many people in and around Christian publishing, though, the biggest concern isn’t that platform-driven decision making hurts the bottom line but that it undermines the mission of making good, Christ-honoring books. Investing in big-name authors with outsized social media presences might lead to financial rewards, but often at the cost of elevating authors more skilled at drawing attention to themselves than at writing with beauty, clarity, or theological astuteness.

When platform is king, book deals can lend credibility to authors whose platform defines their authority. “A big platform doesn’t tell us much of anything, positive or negative, about the soundness of someone’s message, let alone their maturity or character,” said Katelyn Beaty, author of Celebrities for Jesus and an acquisitions editor at Brazos Press (and a former CT editor).

Article continues below

Authors, for their part, feel pressure to promote themselves and their work rather than focus on the quality of the work itself. When Jasmine Holmes committed to becoming an author, she was advised that building a platform is part of the process. Now, with multiple books under her belt (including Mother to Son and Carved in Ebony) and others under contract, she describes feeling like “as much a marketer or internet personality as a ‘writer.’”

During my interviews, authors consistently spoke of their desire to create timeless books that make a positive difference in the spiritual lives of their readers. Nonetheless, they all say they contend with the temptation to obsess over sales potential rather than labor over something beautiful, lasting, and true. Ashley Hales, author of A Spacious Life and Finding Holy in the Suburbs, described how numbers are often equated with success, effectively focusing writers’ time not on craft or theological education but on delivering a one-note message to improve their brand.

When both authors and publishers slip into the habit of selling personalities, books can function as mere vessels for the personality in question rather than texts to be read, analyzed, and appreciated on their own merits. The platform itself can become the product. And this dynamic, beyond reshaping the incentives of author and publisher alike, can pave the way for deceptive and ethically dubious practices.

Among these is ghostwriting, a term dating to at least the 1920s and a practice going back much further. Ghostwriters are hired to produce a manuscript in the name of someone else, and they are often paid to remain unassociated with the final product and stay quiet about their role in creating it.

Having spent the better part of the past decade in publishing-adjacent roles, I am surprised any time I discover that a personality-driven release was actually written by its author rather than a ghostwriter.

When the scales tip in favor of metrics like platform, what incentive is there for celebrities to craft their own books if they can simply outsource the writing of their next guaranteed bestseller? While ghostwriting is neither illegal nor explicitly immoral, it is a sleight of hand that fundamentally misleads readers about who deserves credit for writing the book. In recent years, some Christian publishers have begun crediting ghostwriters, but this is not common practice across the board.

Article continues below

Christian publishers, by virtue of their faith commitments, have a responsibility to care for the souls of their authors and their readers alike. What does it look like to publish books in a distinctly Christian manner, with an eye for more than the bottom line or a spot on the bestseller list?

Every publisher I interviewed had the same answer: It begins with a clear mission and vision that pervades the organization from top to bottom. When a press defines success primarily by sales figures, it will naturally defer to an undue emphasis on metrics like platform. But when a publishing house commits to a robust vision of beauty, goodness, and truth, these values function as natural guardrails to guide business decisions.

Ethan McCarthy, an associate editor at InterVarsity Press, said a clear institutional identity allows platform to “diminish to its proper place and be simply a question of, is this person up where people can see and hear them? And if the answer is no but they have something of value to say, then the question becomes, how can we get them up a little higher?” When governed by a shared vision that transcends questions of profit, platform can become more of a partnership than a burden. If an author has something valuable to say and that something fits with the identity of a press, then a lack of online influence shouldn’t have to be a deal breaker.

Putting such a vision into practice will require publishers to shoulder more responsibility for marketing their books so that authors aren’t overwhelmed by pressure to drum up interest on social media. On more than one occasion, authors I interviewed voiced their desire for stronger collaboration with their publisher, ranging from enhanced marketing assistance to an explicit assurance that writers aren’t obligated to build an online presence. Imagine, for instance, a book-launch plan that emphasizes an author’s engagement with his or her local church and community, supplementing online campaigns with in-person distribution channels.

Author K. B. Hoyle recently cofounded Owl’s Nest Publishers, a press aimed at publishing books that capture the imagination of adolescents. (It is not formally Christian, although Hoyle is a believer.) She told me the business started with a commitment to reaching an audience through reliable measures outside of social media. “In marketing, you build a lot of fans,” she said, “but it doesn’t always translate into sales.” So rather than pushing authors to build their brands online, she and her team are taking the more traditional approach of calling classical schools and librarians, networking at book fairs, and canvassing local communities.

Article continues below

Alexis De Weese, senior marketing manager at Zondervan Reflective, said she regularly cautions against any metrics that fail to respect the humanity of both the authors and their readers. “A tension must be held between hospitality and pastoral care,” she said. “You have to host people around ideas the same way you host people for a dinner.”

Ultimately, escaping the platform trap depends on a willingness to look beyond numbers and see the hidden potential, however obscure an author might be by social media standards. Todd Hains, an academic editor at Lexham Press, said it best when he told me: “Part of publishing a great book is showing people what is possible.” That can require embracing the risk of producing work that doesn’t lend itself naturally to relentless online promotion, work that is quieter by nature but weightier because of it.

Flannery O’Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners, “There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Something similar could be said about the factors Christian publishers are weighing today. Printing books readers want to buy may lead to a profitable business, but it may do little to care for their souls. With an elevated vision and sacrificial commitment, Christian publishers have an enviable opportunity to serve readers with books that truly nourish their hearts and minds. May it be so.

Collin Huber is a professional writer and senior editor at Fathom magazine.

(Editor’s note: This article has been amended from the print version to clarify the relationship between Tyndale and NavPress.)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.