On Easter weekend, an extraordinary conversation unfolded on Twitter (in hundreds of tweets) among several well-known evangelical women writers. A number of concerns were raised:

  • Why so much attention to building “platforms” and author “brands” these days?
  • Doesn’t platform-building redirect attention from doing quality work?
  • Is it self-serving for an author to think of herself in terms of a “brand” and does it reduce an author to a narrow message?
  • What happens when an author is no longer in agreement with the “tribe” he or she has been serving?
  • How do expectations differ for women writers as opposed to men?
  • Is there a dehumanizing effect to the publishing “machine” within evangelicalism?

The answers to these questions are neither easy nor obvious, and if they seem that way to you, I suggest you do some deeper thinking.

Is Platform-Building a ‘Necessary Evil’?

It is good to glean wisdom from women who are honest about the various struggles in growing an online community of readers. We can and should be alert to the temptations that accompany the discipline of writing in public.

At the same time, I worry that in conflating these issues, we may be relegating “brands” and “platforms” to the category of “necessary evils,” instead of carefully considering ways in which these realities may be “dangerous goods.”

Spiritual Landmines

I’ve been on both sides of the author/publisher divide, both as a writer and as an editor. (Chris Martin, a friend and co-worker, has written about this subject from the perspective of someone who helps develop authors. Read his perspective here.)

While I do not feel qualified to speak to the expectations for women writers specifically, I do see spiritual landmines for writers in general, and for publishers also.

I’ve seen how our social media context can be a terrific help to young writers getting started, but also how it can reinforce the lie that perception—not reality—is what matters.

I’ve seen how social media connect people in ways that stir the soul, but also how this brave new world can crush the writer who skates through with “brand messaging” and “platform building” no longer connected to the passion that propelled a person into writing in the first place.

I’ve seen people thrive as authors and speakers, using social media to elicit feedback and keep in touch with readers, but I’ve also seen authors skimp on sustaining and growing in their own walk with Jesus, only to later find their souls had shriveled—flattered by adulation or crushed by criticism.

I remember someone who sat in my office and said, “My brand is provocative.” I wanted to roll my eyes, take a shower, and face palm all at the same time. “My brand?” And then “provocative”? No wonder other writers feel slimy when they talk about “brands” and “platforms.” I’d worry if they didn’t.

Writer’s Core Message

But even if we banished any talk of “brand” or “platform,” we would have to replace these words with something like “core message” or “audience,” because at the heart of publishing is the desire to connect a writer with a message to an audience with a need. What is the message? Who is the messenger? Where is the audience?

Even here, I assume some writers resist being narrowed to a “messenger” for a “message.” We are so much more, right? Of course. And it may sting a little to feel reduced to a category or a single type of ministry. But I encourage writers to find areas of freedom and flourishing within the “messaging” constraints that may accompany a publishing deal.

A year ago, I surveyed 500 regular readers of my blog and discovered that the articles people found most helpful were my cultural commentaries. I love to write book reviews, fictional stories, prayers, and devotional material. But my most-appreciated work has been the articles that help people see the world through a Christian lens. So, in This Is Our Time, I embraced that affirmation from my readers and devoted the entire book to showing how the gospel is more beautiful than many beliefs and practices in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean I will stop writing book reviews, articles, stories, and prayers. But it’s unlikely I will write books in that arena. If King Jesus has opened up a door for me to serve the church with a particular message, I’m not going to resent the confines of the subject matter. I want to do work that best serves my readers and builds up the church.

Why Marketing Matters

In the end, writing should be about delivering a message, not just marketing a product. Unfortunately, for many writers, the emphasis on marketing has sullied the experience.

But marketing still matters. It always has. Marketing is simply amplifying the writer-audience connection.

In our day, publishers depend more and more on authors who cultivate a devoted audience. (That means they must know how to help in marketing their message.) Gone are the days when excellent content stood on its own, got picked up by publishers, and then was promoted primarily by the publisher. In fact, I’m not sure those days ever existed, at least not in the nostalgic and romantic way they get presented. In Christian circles, prominent authors in previous generations were well connected—to evangelistic crusades, famous pulpits, radio ministries, speaking tours, or magazines, newspapers, and newsletters.

Publishers today sense the need for a writer to already have a platform, and they see themselves as partners who can amplify that message and grow that platform. But marketing and platforming are not new.

Temptations Old and New

Writers today sense the seriousness of temptations that come in a social media age. But these dangers aren’t new either.

Yes, we easily forget that there are real flesh-and-blood people behind the Facebook picture or online avatar. There’s a real person behind the meme, a wounded heart reading the angry blog comment. Those of us who’ve been writing for a while can trace the scars from our online engagement.

But surely older writers faced this kind of discouragement when they had to answer letters from people who saw them as one-dimensional thought machines, right? We are not the first generation to grow weary in doing good, in writing or anything else.

Battlefield of Truth and Pride

Platform-building is a dangerous business, because the platform is almost always built with a mix of truth and pride. Truth—because the author is compelled to share a God-given message that he or she hopes will be significant in the lives of others. Pride—because the author must find avenues of delivering that message, pathways that wind through the perils of fame, money, and power. The writer’s motives are always tainted to some degree or another, and if you are a writer and believe there is no vanity in your heart, you do not know yourself as well as you should.

So, in our age, the battle will be fierce—for truth and against pride. The evil one is prowling around looking for writers to devour. If he can get you to fudge on truth, he’ll render you ineffective no matter how many likes you receive. If he can get you puffed up with pride, he’ll win by making “truth” to appear ugly, with writers whose message may still be about Jesus but whose ministries will be all about themselves.