Christian publishing and the perils of peer reviews

"Peer Reviews" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Peer Reviews” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

CHRISTIAN PUBLISHING AND THE PERILS OF PEER REVIEWS

Right off the bat I have to tell you that I have a book coming out this summer published by a real publisher, Darton, Longman and Todd in the UK. I’ve published four on my own, but this feels completely different. I’m excited about it.

I’m looking for strong endorsements.

Some people say endorsements are meaningless. I agree that they can be and I’m going to discuss this below. But, if done with integrity, they can alert people to the value of an important book.

Here’s the thing: I’ve had strong endorsements in the past. Many of them won’t endorse my book now because of the scandal I’m blamed for initiating in the emergent or convergent or progressive camp. Understood.

But, I want an endorsement from someone who actually reads the material and recommends it because of its contribution to the conversation or because of its value to people. I want someone with influence to say, “You’ve got to read this book. It’s important.” Not, “You’ve got to buy this book. My friend wrote it.”

Some reviews are so over-the-top that you really wonder if it’s just one friend scratching another friend’s back. Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting a friend to endorse or review our books. But empty praise isn’t helping anybody.

Peer reviews can be useless. Did you read the news that broke on March 27 this year? “Major publisher retracts 43 scientific papers amid wider fake peer-review scandal.” Here’s the killer paragraph:

”Peer review is the vetting process designed to guarantee the integrity of scholarly articles by having experts read them and approve or disapprove them for publication. With researchers increasingly desperate for recognition, citations and professional advancement, the whole peer-review system has come under scrutiny in recent years for a host of flaws and irregularities, ranging from lackadaisical reviewing to cronyism to outright fraud.”

The publishing company discovered what it calls a “peer review and citation ring”. That is, if you have the pull or the cash, there are people, including fake people, who can be relied upon to give a positive review.

I would suggest that the same thing is happening in the Christian publishing world, but in a more personal way. That is, it has its own peer review and citation ring… their circle of mutually published friends. My friend Caris Adel wrote a post yesterday touching on this issue that you should read. Here, we witness the same increasingly desperate need for recognition, citations and professional advancement. There’s a lot of recognition to be enjoyed and money to be made in publishing, public speaking, teaching, coaching, consulting, and events. The more you can get your name out there with the help of your powerful friends, the more successful you are guaranteed to become. It doesn’t seem to matter how good or bad your book is, as long as you get those endorsements, it will fly. We now know that a Christian author can buy his or her way onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Barth tells the story about how his remarkable commentary on The Epistle to the Romans dramatically changed the theological and ecclesiastical conversation. He said he was like a boy climbing the bell tower in the dark, tripped, and accidentally grabbed the rope that rang the bell that resounded around the world. He didn’t try to do it, but his theological hunger along with the church’s theological hunger fused to make it happen.

What if we aspired to this?

I want to read excellent books that actually say something, that challenge my paradigms and renew my mind. To be honest, it is getting more difficult.

I also want to write excellent books that actually say something, that challenge paradigms, and that change minds. To be honest, it is difficult. I’m insecure about it. I wonder if I can do this. Am I able? But, if I am, I want someone with influence to say so. If I’m not, I don’t want my benign book sent out there fueled by vacuous reviews and empty endorsements.

Let’s be frank: There’s nothing wrong with writing books. There’s nothing wrong with marketing them. There’s nothing wrong with selling them. There’s nothing wrong with making good money from a successful book. For me, the issue isn’t quantity, but quality. Sure, I would like to increase my income by the success of a book, but I want to be proud of the book that earns it.

What if we agree to only endorse that which is good and send us back to the desk if it’s not? I want to read important books. And, yes, I want to write them.

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20 Responses

  1. Well said! I wish I had influence…lol 😉 Cannot wait to read it!

  2. Sabio Lantz says:

    Best wishes on the book.
    Endorsements just tell us who your buddies are — but people look at them and buy.
    I was in academia for a dozen years and saw the farce of peer review.

    I must say, some of my favorite cartoons of yours are ones that poke fun at various theologies. I’d love to see a book on those. Those cartoons have disappeared of late. The abuse issues seems to be in the foreground — in particular critiques of particular issues. I loved the general funnier cartoons, but perhaps your new theme is reaching more folks and having greater change.

  3. Ducatihero says:

    Completely agree with what you say about the quality. Not so sure that if we throw out peer reviews we are not throwing out the baby with the bath water. I think having work reviewed by peers can be vital in producing quality work. At the same time I welcome your critique of such that cronyism and getting the “right people” to endorse your book, it will fly. Sadly, the downside of a culture that can be so much about the cult of the celebrity.

    However hasn’t this often been the way, people who have produced quality work that has benefited humankind often not being recognised in their own lifetime? Independent thinkers are always a threat to the status quo and nobody likes to feel uncomfortable.

    Therefore it takes adherence to some higher principle than being popular or comfortable to achieve something that is going to be of value and stand the test of time. A path that few people are willing to travel on.

    I’m interested in your book David. Is there anywhere I can advance order a copy of it from? Thanks.

  4. Not yet.

    Thanks Sabio. Ya I get that from others as well about my focus of late. I’m thinking about what to do about it.

  5. I am working on a book now, and have been trying to develop my platform. I feel icky trying to find people “with influence” to endorse it because it feels so phony, so brown-nosing. And, at the end of the day, it is what sells books, often more than the content of the book. And I KNOW my material is important, and yet the smarmy just is too much. I was even informed that I should write the endorsement in the type/style that the person would write it and just ask them to sign off on it. GAH!

  6. Laura Beth says:

    I like the heart that you show here, David. I spent my younger years in Nashville and witnessed first hand the “circle of friends” you are referring to – as well as some of those who were trying to operate with more integrity. I’ll buy an advanced copy of your book and I will respect you enough to tell you if I think it’s awful!

  7. esbee says:

    How exciting to have a book published and kudos to you for asking for fair reviews based on what is in the book and not the author or friends. Best of luck to you!
    I have found that friends endorsing friends (which I consider a type of discrimination) happens in all aspects of society and over my life time I have been the victim of many of these kinds of friends endorsing friends—
    1- I lost a job that I badly needed because one had to go and the boss kept his friend, who was always ups front yacking with him and not dressing according to dress code while I was the one in the back doing all the work.
    2- I lost any chance of being fairly judged in local art shows because the judges hired by the club would bring his/her students and pick their work to win.
    3-The kids whose mothers were in PTO were treated special and their entries in school contests always placed highest.
    4- I heard a father at a horse show tell everyone –“that judge knows who to place first (the daughter) because I am the one who hired him!” My father was just a janitor who could in no way ever afford to buy me the quality of horse I would love to have owned and I could.
    5-I lost out on a teaching position because the daughter of another teacher was chosen instead.
    6-My husband had 2 positions taken away from him at church (he did nothing wrong) so a family member or cousin of a famous actor could have that position. Neither time was he told or even asked, the new person was in his place at the next service.
    Dang, when i think about it, I have had so much fall out discrimination against me by default, that I wish I could have a parade to raise awareness of how I have been treated so unfairly in life, then get laws passed so I get better treatment. But actually, God intervened in so many ways in each event that the end results turned out better than if they had not happened. In fact, I would rather not be part of someone’s personal agenda, especially in the church!

  8. JRD says:

    The idea of peer review is good. The problem in this case, it’s really a buddy review system, so it’s really been distorted.

  9. Kathi says:

    “I want to read excellent books that actually say something, that challenge my paradigms and renew my mind. To be honest, it is getting more difficult.”

    Agreed! This is why I have such a problem with reading books by Christian authors. Generally, they’re boring to me and they don’t offer anything new that I don’t already know.

  10. karen says:

    I really needed this post this morning. I just wrote about this topic a few days ago on my own (very small and not really growing) blog. I wrote a book about the psalms (talk about a niche!) that David C Cook just published and I’m struggling with the marketing of it — not how to market it, mind you: I’m a professional high tech marketing exec! I know how.

    Its that I don’t want to market it at all — i want it to be available for anyone who might find it companionable in some way. In fact, i was laughing yesterday with my pastor who is taking 100 copies to Romania next summer as part of a conference he is leading — I’m buying the copies because our Romanian students can’t afford them — so I will probably end up the only “purchaser” of my own book. Is that even legal?? I too have been watching the book endorsement cluster unfold for the past few months and before that the silencing of Julie by Tony Jones Inc. and the entire thing has been so formative and clarifying for me as I wrestle through how to have a book “out there” and yet how to not productize it in ways that are, in my view, antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus and the broad sweep of the Scriptures.

  11. Laura Beth says:

    Karen – I appreciate your struggle as well. I was in marketing and promotions while in Nashville and have worked since then in “community relations” for churches and not-for-profits – i.e. church marketing (though I have been asked not to use those two words together!). The question of how to speard a message without publicly bragging about your own message and ability to deliver it is, at the very least, puzzeling. (“We are the most humble church around, and we will gladly tell you that on all our billboards.”)

    I’ve recently been through a divorce (just finalized last week) and as I looked for material to help me mentally and spiritually through that process, I honestly could not care less what a pastor, another author or psychologist thought about an article or a book. I wanted to know how it had impacted people who had actually been through a divorce!!! I think the best endorsements for your book on the Psalms will be from people who needed God’s peace in their lives – single parents, struggling teenagers, pastors who nearing burnout, perhaps even 100 Romanian students who are possibly quite new to faith in Christ and wrestling with how to relate to him.

    Finally, I think if God has blessed you with insights into His word, there should be no shame or hesitation in sharing that with people. There were times when Christ told people to be quiet and times when He told them to go and proclaim. If this is a season for you to go and proclaim then I encourage you to do so unappologetically – giving all glory to Him.

    And you can start by replying with the name of your book and where we can find a copy 🙂

  12. Hannah says:

    I realize this is going to sound nitpicky, but there is a big, big difference between the peer-review process that happens in academic publishing (often a blind review where the name is taken off the paper and the other researchers are ostensibly evaluating the quality of the work itself) and the process of going about getting book endorsements in commercial publishing.

    The peer-review process, while certainly subject to fraud, is designed to evaluate the quality of the work and the research itself. When it works right (which it doesn’t, always) it means that scientists or academics in the field have evaluated the research itself and have looked for flaws in study design, analysis, etc. Peer review is supposed to critique research and make it better.

    Book endorsements in commercial publishing are not held to any standard at all, really. There’s no way to know what’s involved or if the endorsers have even read the book. In the cases where I’ve asked for or received endorsements for books, all that’s been on offer is a free copy of the book in question. I do know that publishers might put pressure on their authors to endorse books by other authors; that’s one factor at play in why there’s so many mutual endorsements, in addition to other forms of personal relationships. There are some well-known authors that write endorsements for so many books, I seriously doubt they can have read the manuscripts

    I would also like to point out that manuscripts in commercial publishing – including Christian publishing – are generally not subject to a serious peer review process when it comes to content AT ALL. The content of the manuscript is not always fact-checked (think James Frey, Jonah Lehrer, and many others) by editors, nor has any research necessarily been evaluated by experts in the field.

    For instance, in the field of theology, one theological publisher might have a peer review process for their manuscripts, while another might not. I really think that is a question worth asking of publishers too.

    Where I’m coming from: I’ve worked for peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, and I spent some time working in the Christian publishing industry as well.

  13. Karen says:

    Laura Beth, wow, thank you so much for such a thoughtful and encouraging comment! I mean that in the actual use of those words, by the way, not the christian-y version 🙂 I’m so sorry you had to go through a divorce, and glad you are through! I too seek out books and other material (music, for example) to help me through particular life circumstances, but oddly it never occurred to me that others would or might approach my book in this way. Part of the oddity of my situation is that i never intended to publish it — it started out as a psalms journal meant only for me, and yet here I am. Of the small number of people who have read it, I have had the most amazing conversations and a number have written their own psalms poetry and sent it to me, and so I feel like I’ve already received 100-fold from writing the book than I could have imagined. That said, you give me courage and motivation to press on despite the dissonance of it all, and for that I thank you! Per your very kind request, you can find my book, Travelogue of the Interior: Finding your voice and God’s heart in the Psalms, here: http://karendabaghian.com/book/

  14. Lydia says:

    You know what I thought of when I read this? How many potentially great writings we have missed out on because of “peer review” from powerful influencers. The writings of Pelagius destroyed. The writings of the Anabaptists that were destroyed even old Servetus had much of his writing destroyed and no matter what folks think of him he had some medical theories that proved quite correct later on.

    It is a shame it takes influencers to sell books. And they can kill them too. just ruminating…. I will want to read your book even if there are no endorsements.

  15. gadfly1974 says:

    In his latest critique of Christian culture and its inevitable hypocrisies, Nakedpastor David Hayward has spoken directly to God!!!!

    If you want wealth, fame, and power like me, a VIP reviewer, then you have to buy this book NOW!

    Share this book with all your friends, too! You don’t want them spending an eternity in hell just because you were unwilling to shell out a few bucks, do you?

    Or even worse, lose a debate to Tony freakin’ Jones?

    If you really love Jesus, you’ll buy 8 billion copies of this book, one for each human being on the planet, plus a few spares.

    Act now, before Jesus returns!!!! Do YOU know the day or the hour???

    This is the most important purchase of your entire life.

    Please enter your SS# or other identification, two credit card numbers, and a recent photo, along with your endorsement of this Very Important Book!

    I thank you. More importantly, the Creator of the Universe thanks you for loving people more than any of your earthly possessions by buying this book!!!!!!

  16. Gadfly… this review doesn’t sound genuine.

  17. Andy says:

    So sorry I cut off the conversation. Would you like to delete my comment? It was satire.

    I meant to joke about the kind of review you wouldn’t want.

  18. No I love it Andy. Thanks though for making that clear to others.