Editorial Standards: A Time for Clarity

Last week, Publishers Weekly ran an article about our new editorial standards. The article asserted that “future contracts will require authors—even those writing in non-religion categories like business—to signal their agreement with both the Nicene Creed … and Philippians 4:8.”

This is, of course, simply not true. We have not written our editorial standards into our contracts nor do we intend to. As far as I know, it has never even been discussed as a possibility. Unfortunately, this error has been picked up by others, amplified, and made to sound silly and extreme.

For example, MediaBistro.com said that we were making theological demands on our authors. The New York Times ran a short piece on Saturday, repeating the PW error and claiming that authors who signed with us must “swear to two religious articles of faith.” Writing for The Nashville Scene, Bruce Barry, said we were being “heavy handed.”

Several Christian bloggers also weighed in. Most seemed confused. Some asked for clarification. Thankfully, a few even defended us.

Regardless, I thought rather than answer all these posts directly, I would try to clarify our position here.

First, we have defined editorial standards. Yes, this is true. It has been widely reported that these standards are The Nicene Creed and Philippians 4:8. In part, this is true, but it is far more than this. To put these into their proper perspective, you have to understand the background.

Over the past several years, we have experienced significant growth at Thomas Nelson. We have added new imprints, new editors, and scores of new authors. Unfortunately, we have not always had alignment internally with our own mission and values. Some of us have “colored a bit outside the lines.” (I’ve been guilty myself.) This has led to some corporate soul searching, discussion, and even debate. Who are we as a publisher? What is our unique mission as a company? What kinds of projects best serve this mission? What kinds of projects detract from it?

After a year of internal reflection among our executive team, we came back to our legacy as a company. The bottom line is this: We are a Christian publisher. Perhaps this is obvious. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that this is newsworthy. But I think that fact merely underscores the problem. In straying from our mission, we have sometimes confused the market. Worse, we have caused people to think we are something we aren’t.

Having said that, we understand our identity as a Christian publisher in a very different way than most of our colleagues in the industry. Like other Christian publishers, we want all of our books to be written from the perspective of a Christian worldview. This is the foundation of our publishing program. However, unlike most Christian publishers, we want our authors to explore any subject they wish.

Yes, we want to publish books on spiritual and devotional themes. This is part of life and, honestly, the most important part. But it is not the only part. We also want to publish books that deal with the other aspects of life: business, culture, politics, entertainment, etiquette, cooking, family, etc. And, of course, we want to publish fiction. Lots of it! No topic is off limits, provided it is written from a Christian worldview, written well, and has commercial value. (We are, after all, a commercial publisher.)

Theologically, our vision flows from our conviction that God is sovereign. He doesn’t preside over part of the world (the “religious sphere”), leaving the rest autonomous (the “secular sphere”). No, He rules over all of it. Ultimately, there is no secular/sacred dichotomy. Because God is the Creator and ruler over all, any field of human inquiry can be explored—and sanctified.

To say it another way, all truth is God’s truth. Some of the books we publish will be explicitly Christian (mentioning the name “Jesus” or citing specific Bible verses); others will be implicitly Christian (never referencing anything spiritual). Both are acceptable and appropriate, depending on the author’s purpose and audience. The important thing is that the content flow out of a Christian worldview.

Second, these standards focus on the author. This doesn’t mean that the content is not important. Quite the contrary. But it does reflect our belief that content flows out of a worldview and, ultimately, out of a writer’s heart (cf. Matthew 12:34, 35). To say it another way, we want to align ourselves with people who share our vision, our mission, and our values. “How can two walk together unless they agree” (Amos 3:3)? This is where it starts.

Specifically, we want to publish:

  • Authors who profess a personal faith in Jesus Christ. We want to work with people who are willing to say, “I am a Christian.” We do not try to judge their profession or assess the validity of their faith. Only God knows their hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). Nevertheless, we want to work with communicators who claim to be Christians and are not ashamed of it.
  • Authors who embrace the central truths of historic Christianity. Such ancient documents as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are simply convenient summaries of these truths and nearly all Christians can agree on them. Beyond these basic truths, we want to allow latitude—and even disagreement!—on non-essential doctrines. And, contrary to the reports in the media, this is not a contractual requirement.
  • Authors who seek to live according to the standards of biblical morality. We do not expect perfection. We acknowledge that all Christians—even Christian authors—fall short of God’s standards. But we want to promote authors who are committed to living in obedience to God’s revealed will. We want to promote authors who “walk the talk.”

Third, beyond these standards, there is great latitude. This is precisely how we have used Philippians 4:8 internally. We did not cite it as an editorial standard per se, but as an inspiration for how broad and expansive our publishing program could be. The verse says,

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

Notice the word whatever. It is repeated six times and then followed by the word anything. Based on this verse, we believe that Christians are free to think or write about anything—whatever they want!—provided it meets eight minimal criteria:

  1. It must be true. This means that it must be authentic or corresponds to reality. We want to publish books that embrace reality as God created it, not books that “sugar coat” reality or try to make reality something it is not.
  2. It must be noble. This means that it must raise us up and make us more like God. The opposite is to debase or degrade. We want to publish books that ultimately motivate people and call forth their best qualities.
  3. It must be just. This means it must be righteous or consistent with the commandments of God. It also means it must be fair. We want to publish books that promote righteousness and godly living. By the way, this doesn’t mean that novels can’t have evil characters. (There are plenty of them in God’s story.) But it does mean that in the end righteousness is rewarded and evil punished—if not in this life, the next.
  4. It must be pure. This means it must be chaste, modest, clean. We want to publish books that promote holiness and offer a necessary corrective to the current trend to sexualize everything. This does not mean that we are opposed to sex, of course. But we want to make sure that our books advocate a view of sex that is consistent with Christian morality.
  5. It is lovely. This means it must be aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. We want to publish authors who are committed to beautiful writing. Both what is said and how it is said are important. Beauty is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself, because it reflects the beauty of the Creator.
  6. It is of good report. This means it must be commendable or of high reputation. Again, the emphasis is on that which represents the best, that which anyone could read and agree that it is well-written.
  7. It is virtuous. This means it must affirm behavior which is consistent with the highest values. Values that don’t manifest themselves in behavior are merely platitudes. We want to publish books that challenge people to live lives of moral excellence and virtue.
  8. It is praiseworthy. This means it must be worthy of recommendation; something you can personally endorse. At the end of the day, we want to publish books we are proud of, books that we are willing to give to a family member or friend with the confidence that they will enjoy it and grateful that they took the time to read it.

All of this really goes back to our focus on the Thomas Nelson brand. We want this brand—our name—to mean something. We want our customers to be able to trust it. We want people to have confidence that our books will be written from a Christian worldview, by people who profess to be Christians and are striving to walk the talk, regardless of the subject matter they may be addressing.

We want to supply great Christian content to our traditional Christian sales channels. Most of this content will be explicitly Christian. However, we also want to reach beyond these sales channels and penetrate deeply into the general market with implicitly Christian content. We are already doing this, of course. In fact, more than half of our sales now come from the general market. But we are not satisfied. We want to go further. We want readers to discover our books on every shelf, of every outlet, in every part of the world.

But to do that, we must be aligned with authors who share our vision, our mission, and our values. That’s why we have invested the time and energy to clarify our editorial standards. We believe that clarity will produce unity and unity will produce collaboration. And together, with God’s help, we will fulfill our mission “to inspire the world.”

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