The Credibility Gap

This was a tough post to write. I felt at times that I was arguing with myself on these issues, but maybe in today’s “journey” through the topic of author credibility you will sense the struggle that Christian authors confront and maybe some truth with be revealed in the process.

If you were a mathematics professor at a junior college and had a revolutionary insight related to something about mathematics, few people would take notice.

If you had the same thought and taught at MIT, it would be published worldwide and considered groundbreaking and important.

It wasn’t the thought, it was the perceived credibility of the person expressing it.

Using the same analogy, if the junior college mathematics professor reminded her students “One plus one equals two,” it would barely register on the thought Richter-scale because it is true and simple.

But along comes an MIT professor who has a complicated theorem proving that “One plus one is three,” and the statement will be discussed in all sorts of venues and media.  One plus one equaled three because a very smart person with impeccable credentials said so. (They are wrong, but we were in awe of the thinking)

Truth with low-perceived credentials is ignored while error with high-perceived credentials is actually considered and discussed.

Now let’s move over to the theological world.

When dealing with Bible truth, often the unaccredited online Bible School with retired ministers serving as teachers are teaching closer to what God had in mind rather than PhD’s at Ivy League divinity schools. In the world of Biblical theology, degrees are not always an indication of orthodoxy. In some cases, it is the opposite.

God’s truth does not require man’s approval and endorsement to make it true and therein lies my struggle. But I can’t ignore publishers and readers who primarily buy credentials, so I require it of authors.

One of the most common reasons I will decline to represent an author of non-fiction is that they are not qualified to write on the subject they want to publish. An insurance underwriter is not qualified to write on the history of nuclear power. Or their qualifications are not considered of the highest order.

So, when we know God’s truth doesn’t need man’s credentials or endorsement to make it true, why is it important to require them for authors and their books?

Non-fiction requires credentials because publishers will promote a book and put the author in various media and frankly, if you don’t have some credentials to go along with your thinking, it would make for an embarrassing situation for everyone. “So, Peter, you are a fisherman?”

You can write a book about marriage principles and never been married.

You can write about raising teenagers today when you never parented any.

You can write about overcoming the challenges of addiction but had never gone through it yourself or with someone close to you.

You can write a book explaining the meaning of a difficult Bible passage without ever taking a class in theology.

But agents are tasked with finding authors that publishers want to publish and readers want to read.

And for them, credentials matter.

Publishers and readers want marriage books from people who have been, well, married and are actively involved in a growing ministry to help marriages improve.

They want a book on raising teenagers from someone who successfully raised a few of them and is actively helping other parents in large numbers.

They want a book about addictions from someone who has gone through it themselves, who have a long track-record of work in the field and certified by some credible professional group.

And they want theology explained by someone who is actively involved in teaching it at a high level and a widely recognized authority in the field.

Try explaining any of these to someone in a rejection letter and some pretty raw emotional reactions will come back in response.

It’s a temptation to lie and just say the book is, “Not my cup of tea,” or something innocuous as that.

I circle back to the fact that God’s truth doesn’t need our credibility to make it true, but agents, publishers and readers do.

Why?

Because that same old thing we’ve mentioned before…competition. There are so many books and authors, we all use the credential issue as a filter to reduce the number of books to consider from thousands down to hundreds, so we can focus more.

I’ve had any number of difficult exchanges with unpublished authors who submit a well-crafted proposal to me. I read the premise of the work and then I look at who the author is and their credentials for writing. If the book concept is interesting I keep going, but if the author doesn’t have the credentials, I stop because there is no reason to continue.

Of course, when I decline to represent the work and the prospective author asks, “Did you even read any of the actual writing sample?” and I reply that I did not, hurt feelings and even anger are evident.

Writing quality rarely survives a lack of perceived credibility and qualifications.

The competitive publishing market (remember those three words) requires that you have all the tools and a track record showing you know how to use them.

Even when we all know that God’s truth doesn’t require an advanced degree to understand it.

 

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