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Let's talk endorsements
They may not mean what you think they mean
Reader be warned: This post got way too long as I had nothing better to do on a lengthy flight except finish a manuscript that I need to endorse, but due to too few hours of sleep I could not accomplish anything so productive. Hence, this.
An alternate title: More than you ever wanted to know about endorsements.
If you’re on Twitter, you can go ahead and skip this opening section. You already know what’s prompted this. For the rest of you, a quick primer:
It all started when The Gospel Coalition published an article excerpted from a new book on sex by Josh Butler.
Another evangelical book on sex, what could possibly go wrong with that?
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The article has since been pulled, but here’s a little glimpse:
Many, many people called out the many, many problems—theological and otherwise—with this interpretation. And it wasn’t just the author who came under fire.
The Gospel Coalition, too, was called out for publishing the piece. That this organization, so concerned with theological orthodoxy, saw no theological problems with this piece was striking. The fact that Christian women have been pointing out the errors of this sort of theology for a long time contributed to the frustration. Many of these women have been excluded from TGC in part for their views on gender—views that could have guarded against this sort of theological dumpster fire. And that’s a big part of the problem here. This wasn’t just a poorly conceived and poorly executed idea by the author.
Here’s how I put it:
It wasn’t long before attention, too, turned to the endorsers of the book.
In response to criticism, two of these endorsers withdrew their endorsements. In both cases they explained that they hadn’t in fact read the book carefully, or the offending sections.
Many received these mea culpa’s with gratitude and praised both Villodas and Pierre for their retractions. Still, a number of critics couldn’t resist pointing out that maybe endorsers should, you know, actually read the books they endorse.
I am fairly certain that both Villodas and Pierre have learned this lesson well. In an ideal world, they never would have put their name on a book they hadn’t read in its entirety.
Alas, we do not live in an ideal world, and the world of publishing—maybe especially Christian publishing—is far from ideal.
I happen to have a bit of experience in this line of work, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned while navigating these spaces.
First, I think it’s worth reflecting on the fact that endorsements function slightly differently in academic, trade, and Christian publishing, respectively. I move across all of these spaces, so I’ll share a few observations.
Let’s start with academic publishing. In my experience, the most important role of an academic endorser is establishing scholarly credibility. We have peer review, which helps weed out sub-par scholarship or methodologically problematic work, but then the endorser sends a message to their subfield: this is an important contribution to our field of study. In academic publishing, one wants the most respected scholars in the particular areas or research one’s book engages. When I wrote my first book, I wasn’t particularly well connected. I’d had three kids in relatively quick succession and had skipped out on academic conferences for a time. I stressed over whom to approach and was fortunate to secure endorsements from gracious senior scholars.
With my second book, Jesus and John Wayne, I thought the endorsement process would be easier. My kids were a bit older, I was back at conferences, and I was playing a much more active role the scholarly conversation. With some confidence, I came up with my wish list of illustrious academics whose work I greatly admired who might be inclined to endorse my book. I was then rather crushed when the list came back to me with all but one name crossed off. In trade publishing, I was told, endorsements weren’t so much about establishing scholarly credibility as about, well, selling books. You wanted great writers and smart people to be sure, but with one added qualification: they needed to have sold a lot of books. Endorsements here function more along the lines of “If you liked this author, you’re going to love this one.” Thus, they wanted endorsers who had sold a lot of books so that they could reach as many potential readers as possible with this pitch. Once again, I was in trouble. I’d never really thought of book sales in terms of which authors I most admired. So, back to the drawing board. I embarked upon the excruciating process of reaching out to “famous” authors I’d never even met, asking them to endorse a book by someone they’d never heard of. Once again, I was amazed by the generosity of those who agreed to take on this task.
Side note: One of my dream endorsers in this “famous writer” category said he rarely did endorsements and that he was swamped but he was intrigued enough with my note to him that he’d try to pull it off. I was star-struck simply to receive a DM from him. In the end, he couldn’t come through—he just couldn’t find the time in the short window we had given him. (Because endorsements can’t happen until the manuscript is in its near-final form, but because endorsements need to go on the jacket copy which is in production months before the book’s publication, there is often a relatively small window and tight deadline for endorsements, especially in trade publishing.) I was devastated but I completely understood and still cherished the fact that he even entertained the possibility.
Finally, there’s Christian publishing. I haven’t published with Christian publishers, but since my own readers overlap significantly with theirs, I get a lot of endorsement requests. A lot. As in, several each week. More on that in just a bit.
First, though, my sense is that endorsements function slightly differently in Christian publishing. In many cases, an endorsement stands as a guarantor of theological orthodoxy (as particular camps define orthodoxy). If John MacArthur endorses a book, if Tim Keller or Scot McKnight or David Gushee endorse books, you’re going to have a pretty clear idea of which theological camp the book falls into.
In some cases, endorsements may depend almost entirely on matters of fit. Complementarian? Great, that’s all I need to know: “This book is brilliant, everyone should read it.” End up on the right side of the lgbtq divide? “This book is a must-read.”
Endorsements, too, can be a way of boosting those in your “coalitions.” In response to the Butler episode, I’ve seen a number of allegations that endorsements really just amount to a whole lot of mutual back-patting. This can certainly be the case, and not just among complementarian bros, and not just in Christian publishing.
One author on Twitter suggested that endorsing books was really about pride—that endorsers are doing it for the honor, for the (admittedly miniscule) boost in one’s own sales, for the connections one forges and the anticipated reciprocity—again, mutual back-patting. (She made this point as an act of self-confession rather finger-pointing, it should be noted.)
This particular take stopped me in my tracks because I’d never before thought of endorsing another author’s book as something prideful. Quite the opposite. I’d considered the costs entailed far exceeded any benefits. In fact, I’ve always understood endorsements as acts of generosity, not pride. First, endorsing a book is a gift of time. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually read the books I endorse. I don’t say that to brag, and I don’t say that to condemn those who have admitted publicly that they skim the books they endorse, because I understand why they do this. I’ve debated doing this myself. I’ve worried that I’m offending too many people by turning down too many requests. I’ve been told point-blank that I’m doing it wrong by actually reading all of these books. I’ve been told to hand that task over to my assistant, which would enable me to “endorse” all the books I felt guilty about declining. But I just can’t bring myself to do this, for a few reasons.
First, I want to know what’s in the books. If it’s an academic book, I want to see what the author’s research and analysis has produced. This is what being an academic is all about, and keeping up with new scholarship means not cutting corners. Still, I feel the pull to drift from academic spaces to influencer spaces. I resist this pull, however, because at my heart I’m an academic. I have interesting things to say in influencer spaces only because I’m an academic. I have a platform that isn’t massive but also not insignificant, and I try to use that to foster better conversations about things that matter. Promoting academic books is a big part of that. I know full well what it’s like to labor as an academic for more than a decade to produce a deeply-researched book that very few people read. This familiarity drives me to accept more endorsement requests than I should. For a stretch last year, I was spending every single Saturday reading and blurbing books. At a certain point I realized that wasn’t fair to me or to my family, and I’ve tried to cut back.
In the Christian publishing world, too, I know the pressure placed on authors to build their own platforms. For many, this is a crushing expectation. Since I was one of the very fortunate ones to stumble upon a platform almost inadvertently, I felt a sense of obligation to share that platform as much as possible. If those of us with platforms share them, I thought, maybe that will take some of the pressure off of individual writers to develop their own platforms.
That has been my philosophy of promotion and endorsement, and I’ve tried to endorse books with no strings attached. I’ll endorse books by authors whose views I share and whose views I don’t share but who are nonetheless making important contributions. I blurb books for friends and I blurb books for people I’ve never heard of. I blurb books for authors of color whose work I might be able to get in front of white Christian audiences. I blurb books for survivors. I blurb books for junior scholars just starting off. I blurb books for people I greatly admire and for people who are unlikely to be in a position to do me any favors.
Although I just claimed to endorse books with no strings attached, at some point I realized that this isn’t actually possible. Even endorsements freely given can’t help but come with strings of obligation attached. Consider, for example: Would a scholar whose work I endorsed and promoted because I thought it was excellent be as likely to critique my next book, if they deemed critique necessary? Maybe not. If so, that critique would probably be cushioned with praise. Even acts of generosity can create bonds of obligation.
So, have I stopped endorsing? Nope. I still feel an enormous sense of responsibility to use what I have to amplify the work of others. But I’m not naive about what I’m participating in—I’ve just decided that the benefits for fellow authors outweigh the drawbacks, given the system we’re all necessarily participating in.
If this all sounds fraught, it is. But to me this feels much more fraught in the world of Christian publishing. Let me share a little story.
Just last week, I was asked to endorse a book. This happens nearly every day, but this request came from my agent, who rarely asks me to do this. Normally any request from my agent would be an automatic yes. But this time I hesitated. The book in question was not written by an evangelical, or even a Christian, but it was on a topic related to the Bible. Here’s what I wrote:
“Sounds like a fun book, but this will depend on a couple things. First, the deadline. There’s no way I can take a look at this one before May—I have several stacked up already and I don’t think I’ll get to all of them. Also, I’d need to take a look at [their] approach. If it’s more a work of cultural history, that would probably work. If it’s theology, that depends. I’m not a theologian or biblical scholar, so my expertise is pretty thin in those areas. That said, evangelicals keep trying to try me as a heretic, so an endorsement like this could very easily be used against me. Which is fine—I don’t mind being called a heretic for things I actually believe. I just don’t exactly know my way around [this particular subject.]”
My agent’s response went something along the lines of “It’s fine if you’re too busy, but you could just say something like it’s an interesting book and people should read it.” To which I was very tempted to respond: “ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, you’d like to think that, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
Clearly, he doesn’t spend a lot of time in evangelical spaces. Things work differently there.
I got an inkling of this very early on, not long after Jesus and John Wayne released, when certain conservative evangelicals were looking for ways to discredit the book but couldn’t take it down in terms of its evidence or scholarship. Instead, I saw someone attempt to discredit it because “one of her endorsers is affirming.” This was such a strange allegation, because as an academic, I’d never once thought to ask endorsers about their views on that subject. Or on any subject. That’s just not how we do things, or at least not how I’d ever done things. I wasn’t even sure which endorser they were talking about, because when I looked at my list of endorsers, I guessed every last one of them was supportive of lgbtq rights. (Scholars of religion will appreciate that the scholar in question, it turns out, was Kathryn Lofton, one of the leading scholars of religion and culture, a kind and generous soul, and someone I admire greatly as scholar and as human being.) This was the first shot across the bow letting me know that things operated differently in this world.
When I was asked to endorse David Gushee’s book After Evangelicalism, I did so knowing full well that critics would come for me on that front. The only surprise here was that it took them so many months to seize the opportunity. It caused a little firestorm, which is why, when I saw David a few months ago and heard he had another book coming out, I offered to endorse that one too. (Also because I think it’s a book that I think is desperately needed: Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies.)
And then, of course, there is the matter of the words “A book that America needs now” appearing on the cover of my paperback, the words of a reviewer who wrote one of the major media reviews of J&JW, a respected scholar and writer on related topics who also happens to be a transgender woman. Cue the next firestorm. Even today, conservative evangelicals in the SBC/CBMW pull this out regularly in an attempt to discredit my scholarship, even as they know full well (having been directly informed) that trade publishers, not authors themselves, select the words to appear on the cover. For my part, I’m honored to have them there.
So yes, things operate differently in evangelical spaces, I explained to my agent. Even so, I told him that I would be happy to take a look, but that this book would require a more careful reading than most. I didn’t mind attacks, but I wanted to be ready for them, and it was a matter of taking the time to know the angles of attack that might be triggered, and then also being willing to invest time in another potential firestorm. In the end, we decided I should just decline so that the author could line up other endorsements.
Reading a book takes time. Writing an endorsement takes time. Promoting someone else’s book takes time. And getting caught up in controversies around other people’s books can take a lot of unanticipated time. This is how this works.
It’s worth noting, too, that whereas academic and trade publishers usually go with 2-3 endorsements, Christian publishers seem to think “the more the better.” Some books have more than a dozen endorsements. This is why the demands on prominent Christian writers can be so excessive. It would be impossible for me to endorse every book that comes my way. I could put in 40-hour work weeks reading and endorsing books, but it would be a low-paying job. As in, no pay. Endorsements are done for free. At most, we get a copy of the book when it comes out. In my world, any benefits are minimal, but the costs are high.
For many reasons, I’m not shocked that some authors have confessed to skimming books they endorsed. I’m also not “disappointed” in those who confess to doing this. Once or twice, I’ve had to skim the final chapters of a book I’m endorsing when I’m up against the deadline. When the book in question is an academic one, the chances of being called out for heresy are fairly slim. When it’s a religious topic, that’s not always the case.
All of which is to say, endorsements are many things. Endorsers have many motives. Back-patting, selfless generosity, a sense of obligation, owing a favor to an editor or author, genuine enthusiasm for the topic, or in most cases probably some combination of these factors all play a role.
I suppose at this point I’m supposed to offer suggestions for how to fix this. Publishers, stop asking a dozen authors to endorse your books! Readers, understand what endorsements are for and how they work! Authors, read every word of the books you endorse! But honestly, we’re all caught up in this system—a system that is not entirely bad. I love being able to use my platform to promote good work, whoever writes it. I love taking a bit of platform pressure off of aspiring writers. I love pointing readers to books that are just the thing they need. I like to return favors, to help friends, to smooth the way for junior scholars, and to praise books that I love—and I genuinely love many of the books that I am asked to endorse.
And it’s also too much. The demands placed on endorsers are substantial. The risks are great. For some of us, the sense of obligation and guilt when we can’t come through—the emotional toll—is significant.
And so, I’ve got no clear takeaways. I sympathize with Villodas and Pierre. I have no doubt they wish they could go back and redo this whole thing. It’s fine to hold them accountable, but let’s do so with an awareness of how this system works, and address the system itself, not just those who are navigating that system. (Kyle Howard pointed out, too, that the only endorsers to rescind their endorsement of Butler’s book happened to both be people of color, and by acknowledging their missteps, they opened themselves up to a wave of additional critiques.)
I worry that all of this attention to endorsers might distract us from a more important matter: a lack of accountability within Christian publishing. This topic requires another post entirely, but let me say just a few words here.
When I move back and forth between academic, trade, and Christian publishing, one of the biggest differences is in how expertise is acknowledged and required. In academic spaces and in the general media, I am frequently asked to weigh in on issues or topics within areas of my expertise, but rarely on areas outside of my expertise. On the rare occasion when a journalist or academic reviewer asks me to comment on an area outside my expertise, I simply explain that I’m not an expert and that I haven’t done research in that area. Whenever possible, I direct them to scholars who do have that expertise. They respond with gratitude and move on.
In Christian spaces, this is not generally how things work. I am expected to have definitive opinions on…everything. This has at times been bewildering, but if you know this world, it makes sense. Many Christian pastors and speakers and influencers operate this way. They have opinions—definitive opinions—on every topic under the sun. Setting themselves up as arbiters of truth—God’s truth—they write books on any topic that strikes their fancy. These books generally do not undergo rigorous (and blind) peer review. When it comes to being endorsed and promoted, all they need to do is to align with whatever is deemed the right side of whatever issue is under discussion.
I have opinions on a lot of things. But I draw careful distinctions between when I’m speaking out of my expertise and when I’m sharing an opinion. When I’m speaking publicly, I’m careful not to confuse the two.
I’m all for rethinking endorsements, but in the meantime, I’d recommend simply taking endorsements for what they are, with a grain of salt, and with a clearer understanding of how this process works.
Far more pressing, however, is the need to inject more rigor, honesty, and expertise in the Christian publishing realm. The problem is that this isn’t a money-making strategy. Which means nothing is likely to change anytime soon.
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