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Marvin Padgett
Robin Rayne Nelson/Genesis
Marvin Padgett

Book buyer beware

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

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

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. 

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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.

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