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Christian Books and Christian Retail

Let me set the stage. You are an executive at a major Christian book publisher. The mother of one of the most recognized and influential Southern Baptists comes to you with a book proposal. She wants to publish a book on parenting. You think, “should we publish this book?” It seems like a no-brainer question, right? The author will have instant name recognition, and the book will probably top the CBA‘s bestsellers list if you publish it. The only problem is that the author of this book is Lynne Spears, the mother of Britney Spears. The publisher is Thomas Nelson.

Now, I do not want to criticize Thomas Nelson too severely here. They have published edifying works that I have on my bookshelves. They have published authors that I love and respect–people like John MacArthur and Wayne Mack. And to be honest, I commend them for rethinking and delaying the publication of Lynne Spears’s book. I do wonder, however, why they considered it in the first place. I am certain that they are not the only Christian publisher that would have seriously considered publishing it. None should have, though.

Also, I’m not trying to go all TMZ on another member of the Spears family. I’m just saying that as my wife and I are preparing to become parents, this potential work would not make the short-list for books that I would want to read in order to make sure I raise my child in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And without having read it, I am still confident that I would not recommend it if I were still selling books. Contrary to popular belief, you can judge many books by their covers (trust me, I can send you a list), and you can usually judge them based upon what you know of the author.

I love the Christian book industry. I really do. This is not meant to be a polemic against it, but a caution for it.

I worked in the field for several years at one of the finest Christian bookstores in America, and I had the privilege of working for one of the kindest, most connected, and well respected guys in the industry. I loved working there because the company represented much of what is right in the industry. The way the owner of this store treated his employees and customers put the “Christian” in “Christian Retail.”

As much as I enjoyed my time in the industry, I also saw some things that just made me shake my head. At one point, I worked keying in orders for books. For months, I poured over every page of every catalog we received from every Christian publisher. I read descriptions of books and often thought, “how is that edifying in the least?”

And that question is the crux of the issue. Christian publishers should–SHOULD–exist primarily for edification. Should they still make a profit? Absolutely. But their purpose should primarily be that of edification, and I will daresay that the bulk of what makes it to Christian retail stores fails that test. A book on parenting by the mother of the poster-child for wayward behavior likely doesn’t meet that criteria, and plenty of others that make it to the shelves fail that test as well.

Christian publishers and retailers have an obligation to God, and to their customers, to ask this question before all others. Before they even consider whether or not the book will sell, they need to ask, “will it edify?”

n.b. Before the Witness boys start sending me a bunch of emails questioning my manhood for reading People on a regular basis, let me alleviate your fears. Someone forwarded me the link. A hat tip to that person. You know who you are :)