Demonizing Self-Publishing for the Faith?

Recently, E. Stephen Burnett posted an article over at called Three Scriptural Cautions Against Self-Publishing. It should be said that is an organization that excludes self-published author, no matter the quality of their work, from consideration for its Clive Staples Award. In this ill-advised and ill-argued post, E Stephen Burnet “cautions” that “Self-publication could distract from God and chief ends, bypass the Church Body working together, and sacrifice team-built excellence.”

The post is prefaced with the following:
“Please note that word caution. Anything I write below is to caution, not condemn, Christians who choose to self-publish their own fiction.”

“Also note that here I risk writing for a narrower audience. Usually I hope to reach readers, because the “Christian speculative story” field is small enough without fencing out more neighbors and putting up a clubhouse For Aspiring Authors Only. Yet these cautions matter especially for those who believe we have stories not only to write, but to share with others.”

What he’s saying here is that this post unnecessarily alienates self-published authors. You know what, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt with his intentions, but I will rebut this post in te spirit of “what’s good for the goose…”

Here’s his first point.

1. Self-publication may draw attention to self— away from God and others.”

Burnett attempts to support this one by first saying that “ANY hypothetical journey to self-publication would at this point be based on reasoning like:

  1. I’ve been working on this novel for X years; it’s time people started realizing that.
  2. I’ve proposed this project to Y number of agents, editors, and publishers, to no avail.
  3. I’ll give up on The Industry. And I’ll just publish it myself. Then people will know.”

He then quickly pounces on that straw man argument by giving saying, “Yes, all those start with the favorite letter of the world’s second-oldest religion, Meism.”

Wait. Why is it a straw man? Because he claims that ANY hypothetical journey to self-publication would be based on the reasoning he offers. Problematically enough, my ACTUAL journey to self-publication is vastly different from his HYPOTHETICAL reasoning, invalidating his sweeping generalization.

You see, my reasoning went like this:

  1. I’ll send author proposals to traditional publishers
  2. In the meantime, I’ll self-publish because
    1. it’s a different world than it was 100 years ago, and I can
    2. and I have a family to feed so a supplemental income would be nice.

Even if my actual reasoning didn’t contradict his hypothetical straw man, there’s an added problem with his line of reasoning. It applies equally well to traditionally published authors. Consider the following:

  1. I’ve been working on this novel for X years; it’s time people started realizing that.
  2. I’ve proposed this project to Y number of agents, editors, and publishers, and someone has finally recognized my awesome talent.
  3. I’ll mock self-publishers as pathetic hacks who can’t admit they aren’t one of the Chosen Ones while accepting the worship of the grateful fans my publisher has marketed for me. My hour has come!”

Yes, that was over-the-top, but so was Burnett’s hypothetical straw man. I strongly suspect that most Christian authors who do so through traditional publishing houses are far from egotistical about it [though I have encountered a couple who needed some stiffer preaching than they were used to]. Reductio ad absurdum is a useful tool when exposing the flaw in an opponent’s argument; in this case, namely that self-centered egotism or me-ism can be a problem for any author, no matter their method of publication.

Burnett next supporting argument for this point is worse still. He states that:

“At least for me, self-publishing my own fiction would not even be my attempts to craft and share a story that gives edification, evangelism, or entertainment. And I would not be motivated by the still-greater reason for stories’ existence: to help us explore the beauties, goodness, and truth of our Author, His people, and His world. It would be all about me and my own supposed brilliance. Yes, even the word self-publication could be a giveaway.

Ergo, if that’s a possible motivation of mine, surely it’s a risk faced by other self-publishers.”

First of all, I have to ask myself why would his writing change so drastically if he were self-published? Doesn’t writing occur BEFORE the publication process? It stands to reason that one’s writing would be essentially the same whether one was self-published or traditionally published. The only differences in writing that could conceivably occur would be the result of the differences in the editing process.

His second point here is insulting to the highest degree, both to my intelligence [because he offers no compelling reason why the route of publication should make anyone’s writing so spiritually vapid] and to me personally. I self-publish and I know a good number of other self-published authors who care deeply about their craft, their story, their message and the Gospel. All he’s offered us is a false dichotomy: either you publish traditionally or your writing might be devoid of a Christian worldview and message! Of course, that’s a false dichotomy because it is not the route of publication that determines the content of our writing.

It is the depth of our commitment to Christ and evangelism that determine whether our writing reflects a Christian worldview and message, NOT the method of publication.

Having thoroughly refuted Burnet’s first point by noting that the method of publication is independent of one’s capacity for ego and/or the depth or spiritual content of one’s writing, we move on to his second point…

2. Christ’s Church should be a body with many members working together.

“Dear Jesus, I love You. But please, make Your wife stop writing.””

OK, I just have to stop there and ask, What is that supposed to even mean? Really?

Again mischaracterizing self-publishing as simply giving up on the industry based on one’s desire for fame, he claims that “in the case of Christian fiction, there just might be some overlap between Giving Up On Christian Publishing, which isn’t a sin, and Giving Up on the Church, which is surely sinful.”

“By giving up on spiritual siblings — yes, even the annoying ones — we diss Christ’s bride.”

Wait. So if I give up on traditional Christian publishing houses, I’ve dissed Christ’s bride? Does anyone else see this as a logical leap?

Determined to give this non sequitur some legs he suggests that “1 Corinthians 12 never meant to give exhaustive lists [of spiritual gifts]. Surely the Spirit’s gift lists also include His gifts of editing, grammar, business acumen, cover design and typesetting, marketing and distributing, and other book-related works.

Versus this truth, might some aspiring authors either give up banding together with these gifted believers, or else never try? Might they in effect say, “I have no need of you”?

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” […] God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

OK, as a preacher I have to say: This is a legalistic, judgmental, self-serving mistranslation and misapplication of Scripture. In fact, it was this particular bit of Scriptorture that compelled me to write a rebuttal.

Listen closely: If have no need of the “spiritual gifts” of a Chevy mechanic because I drive a Chrysler, I’m not dissing the Body of Christ. Just because other people have particular talents and gifts doesn’t mean that I will necessarily need your specialized variant of said gift. Likewise, I have no need of another person’s “spiritual gift” of illustration because I actually have that gift myself. So why would I neglect my own gift just to utilize someone else’s?

I can also turn this argument on its head. Why aren’t traditional publishers publishing every single Christian author who submits his work? Wouldn’t they be saying “I have no need of you,” by Burnett’s bad reasoning and misapplication of Scripture.

You see, Paul is talking about Christian unity and rebuking arrogance; he’s not saying we have to utilize traditional Christian publishing houses or that we must always eat Chick-fil-A over McDonald’s. To conflate a Christian publishing houses with the Body of Christ would be like conflating churches that utilize steepled buildings with the Body of Christ at the expense of storefront churches, underground churches in countries where Christians experience persecution, etc. As a preacher, I will say plainly that this blatant attempt to normalize traditional publishing and demonize self-publishing cannot be supported with Scripture and I hope Burnett repents of his twisting it here in this post.

Burnett continues:

“No, I’m not suggesting that if Christian fiction suffers lackluster writing, we must all suffer and never attempt breaking free. But, it should be Christian self-publishers’ goal to honor the body of Christ — not just ourselves, or even God Himself, or even secular readers.”

That’s actually really bad advice. A Christian self-publisher’s AND traditional publisher’s/author’s goal – any Christian’s goal, in fact – should be to honor Christ alone who is the Head and crowning glory of the Church/Body of Christ. Never, ever reverse these priorities. Elevating the glory of the Body over its Head would be self-defeating.

Burnett finishes his point with the following argument:

“And God may have even arranged for that editor to say “this story needs work” not because she’s only able to sell books to Church Ladies, but because, well, that story needs work.”

No author works in a vacuum, as Burnett seems to suggest of self-published ones. In my case, I here take a moment to thank my wife, pastor, fellow Christian indie authors on Facebook groups and my beta reader team for all of their helpful suggests for edits. I truly believe that God placed you in my life to help me make my craft and message as good as it can be. Thank you for sharing your gifts with me. May God bless you according to the measure you have blessed me!

Which brings me to Burnett’s last point…

3. Worship must be done with excellence, and team-built by Church members.

Some criticism of Christian fiction is lousy, but truth lies behind it: much Christian fiction is still lousy. Why, then, do so many self-published novels (including, alas, some listed in the Speculative Faith Library!) appear even lousier than all the shallow, apparently derivative, yet-another-Narnia-knockoff fantasies offered by mainstream Christian publishers?”

Valid point. Except that traditional publishing houses are also still putting out lousy books. Frank admission: I can’t stand Ted Dekker [OK, I did like Three] and I did not enjoy Robin Parrish’s Vigilante. Maybe you liked them. I just didn’t. My point is that some of the “lousy” books are lousy according to our personal tastes rather than because they are badly edited or crafted. In the case of Vigilante, the first few paragraphs are so technically awkward that it took me a while to get into it. Guess what? Bethany is a traditional publishing house and that first chapter could have been much better edited.

The mistake Burnett keeps making is generalizing all self-publishers and then demonizing them accordingly. Next, he says:

“Reading is, or should be, worship. So is writing. And worship, at least when rendered with and partly for other believers, should be done with as much excellence as we can muster.”

And self-publishing doesn’t negate writing being done with as much excellence as we can muster, any more than pursuing the traditional publishing route automatically endows one with excellence [hence, the rejection letters].

Burnett: “The divine Artist’s first direct-commissioned subcreation was a) a church building for all His people, b) built with Spirit-inspired excellence by a team.”

Here, Burnett gives us a pic of the Wilderness Tabernacle. Not to nitpick, but God’s first direct-commissioned subcreation was a) a ship built to save Noah, his family, air-breathing land animals and the fowls of the air after their kind, and hypothetically anyone who would have repented from a world-crushing Flood, b) built by a family and possibly, hypothetically by hired workers. Just saying.

Burnett: “I’m not seeing excellence in some Christian fiction. But I must say, at least the mainstream publishers have come together and made the effort. So they’re more accountable for their weaknesses, and/orthey’re less guilty of trying to work this worship alone.

What then of self-publishing authors who effectively say, “I’m tired of trying to work with The System; I want recognition now”? Are they not guilty of worse excellence-rejection?”

Again, he paints the self-publishing community with a sweeping brush. I know a lot of Christian self-publishers with excellently crafted and edited novels with a strong Christian message and a great story. They are not raging egotists. They do not write in a vacuum. All attempts to demonize and/or throw the baby out with the bathwater are ill-conceived and easily refuted.

Burnett concludes with the following:

Questions, comments, or complaints?

For those who prefer reading over attempted authoring — I hope there are more of you! — I ask: What have been your experiences with self-published Christian fantasy/sci-fi? What would you recommend to self-publishing authors?

For self-publishing authors, I ask: Will you take these cautions under advisement?”

I have some advice for the author:

  1. Don’t over-generalize. It never ends well.
  2. Don’t twist Scripture to prop up your opinions and biases.
  3. Write about something you know about. Or research it. Either would go a long way toward making posts like this one a thing of the past.

3 thoughts on “Demonizing Self-Publishing for the Faith?

  1. Tony, it hurts that you felt you had to take a shot at Spec Faith and the Clive Staples Award because you disagree with this particular article and apparently haven't read the discussion about the CSA's requirements.

    When people volunteer their time and money to try and get something started, why shoot it down instead of helping? I haven't had one person contact me and say, we see you hope one day to include self-publishing in your award; how can I help you accomplish that?

    I guess it's easier to carry a chip instead, but it makes me sad and less inclined to do more than what we're doing now. Perhaps other people don't share the vision I have for Christian speculative fiction and maybe I'm trying to force things. CSA almost died a year ago, and maybe that's the best thing.


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