When you tell someone you're a writer, what do they say?
"Oh. What do you write?"
Regardless of your answer, you know what they really want: What do you write about? Who are you? What floats your boat?
Driving to the watering hole yesterday to celebrate my fellow editors' bestsellers, I had an inspiration. It was the first time we'd gotten together as a group in several months, but that wasn't the reason my mind was chugging again. I used to have too many ideas about the journey of book publishing. It was a conversation I turned into a well-trafficked blog, figuring at least it’d keep me from blurting things out at editorial meetings, keep me out of trouble with the brass, you know.
But my whole engine seemed to run out of gas at the beginning of summer. And it wasn't the weather. The idea that came was that I'd been a victim of the old publishing crunch.Under the pile of work, my standards and ideals had been choked out, replacing any creativity and purpose I’d tried to hang onto with a banal day-to-day slog.
For the first time as an editor, I was beyond my capacity to maintain. Suddenly, I couldn’t write or even read for pleasure anymore. And the familiar strain of resisting the temptation to pander to readers in hopes of great sales started to look like an inevitability. I’d heard this can happen as you get too busy—the pressure to water down the message to reach a wider audience can become impossible to fight off when you're spending all your energy just to hold your head above the tidal wave of demands. When I found myself drowning, I had no choice. There it was. Giving in was what must be done. And it was killing me.
But let me back up.
Anyone in publishing will tell you this strain is part of the job. I’m not one who thinks adjusting to your audience is evil in and of itself. It can produce stronger books. Arguably, greater work is produced by the heat that challenge brings.
But come on. There's a limit. And I reached that limit when I got overworked. I started accepting the assumption that my standards shouldn't dictate what I acquire—which arose from the assumption that generally Christian readers want books that encourage and affirm rather than challenge or confront (this is common wisdom among seasoned editors). I started accepting that reality and subsequently, my former literary and moral standards started to slip. I stopped thinking about loving the reader by serving them what they need, and not merely what they may want (which God recently reminded is the theme of that great old movie Big Night about the brothers whose restaurant fails for serving fabulously good food. Go rent it if you haven't seen it.) Bottom line, I needed to acquire a bestseller if I wanted to escape the crazy mountain of busywork.
But then my creative energy dried up. I couldn't write while giving weight to the idea that people want easily digestible messages they already agree with. Scrawling a few sentences became a minor battle when I couldn’t go to deeper root issues. And when I look back over the past few months, I realize I tried to challenge the idea, but I felt confirmed in my new course by self-help books that seemed to challenge up to a point and stop short of pushing people to consider anything they weren't already made comfortable with from the book’s front cover. I kept telling myself I wasn’t there to challenge; I was ultimately there to entertain.
So the writing dried up.
And as I drove to meet with my fellow editors, I think what was really going on was that I needed to rediscover the balance in my commitment to quality Christian books–both literarily and spiritually. Between selling out to some commercial "requirement" and holding to high standards, I lost my compass. When the pressure of being overworked took over, I couldn't hold on. It's a common challenge. Are you selling out and calling it something else, or are you just paying lip service to high standards of spiritual or literary quality? My friends in the industry who live this day in and day out are people I greatly admire, but I know they struggle with this too.
I feel compelled to ask the question, even if we don't know the answer. Is the slipping quality of Christian books actually an issue of editors' high standards being crushed beneath the weight of the workload or the pressure to chase big sellers? That might sound like a no-brainer to anyone familiar with the state of business in New York, but in CBA, it’s a relatively new, distressing problem. Some may think high literary standards and deep spiritual value are nice benchmarks, but ultimately subservient when it comes to chasing big sales—they say we only make such arbitrary guidelines into laws to our own demise. But in the end, isn’t finding this balance what the job is all about?
This is what I've come to: that this is what I write for. When I stopped fighting, I stopped writing. For some reason God knows, book people want to inspire readers to live better lives, to challenge them to experience new things, and consider ideas that don't currently fit in their philosophy. But to do that, we have to risk being unpopular. And this standard requires setting aside commercial potential to evaluate a message clearly, whether you're an acquisitions editor, an agent, or an author. It's incredibly difficult even when you aren't overloaded. So it seems most essential that we recognize the need to take the time to see clearly well before we're roiling in the current of looming deadlines and high demands.
I'm done giving up what I'm about. As a writer and an editor, I simply can't afford to waste the time. This summer has been a great lesson and I'm grateful for it, to help me remember that it's important to be noncommercial when evaluating the potential in a book—whether it’s one I’m writing or the one I’m acquiring. You can't cultivate a book worth reading or a life worth living while worrying about what people will say about it. Eventually, your compartmentalization and justifications will fail. And I'm glad to have learned that lesson yet again.
I guess that’s what I’m all about. So what about you?