BOOKS FOR YOU TO READ
Copyright © 2001
"I WILL MAKE MY WORDS KNOWN TO YOU" - CAROL JOHNSON'S MINISTRY
A CONVERSATION WITH MIKE LEEMING
1. EDITING IS ARTWORK
As a teacher of English I know how much it takes to write a page that stirs the mind and soul of its readers. More often than not, all our writing is matter of fact, lacks elegance, and even purpose. I also know that with some devotion and application of patience and skill we may be able to craft that page into something tolerably good, grammatically correct, and stylistically somewhat novel and even elegant. But beyond what we could achieve on our own, the editors are able to infuse greater life into that page and turn it into an artwork.
2. CAROL JOHNSON LEADING THE WAY AS EDITOR OF CHRISTIAN LITERATURE
For Carol Johnson, an editor of great repute with the evangelism and missions-oriented Bethany House Publishers in Minneapolis, who handles the creative works of authors who sell millions of copies every year, this talent comes easy because she really thinks that the Lord goes before her in every piece of editing she does. Early in her life, as a young graduate of a missionary training center in Minneapolis, she turned to the Lord's reproof, and He has been continually making His words known to her (Proverbs 1:23). I have the privilege to know her as the editor of Bethany House Publishers for many years, but the work of an editor was always mystifying to me. So I thought that I should visit with her one-day and have a chat with her about her work, life and ministry. What I write below about my conversation with her has immense tips for the young aspiring Christian creative writers.
3. FROM TYPESETTING TO COVETED EDITOR'S POSITION
Many writers began their career as typesetters, proofreaders, plate makers, and plate grinders! Carol began her career in publishing as an apprentice in the typesetting department of the then fledgling Bethany Fellowship publishing ministry. It was her practical training assignment as part of her missionary training. "In those days it was linotype machines, using hot lead. It was very different from the photo-electronic means that we have now," she tells us. Her first editing project was an Andrew Murray book about raising children, Raising Your Children For Christ." [Children For Christ by Andrew Murray, was first published in 1888.]
4. THE BEGINNINGS OF BETHANY HOUSE PUBLISHERS
Gary Johnson was in charge of the bookstore of Bethany Fellowship. In addition to his work in the bookstore, he also was involved in seeing through the project of publishing that great little book Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill. Bethany Publishing House was in its infancy with about half a dozen titles. Gary started searching for the classics of Andrew Murray and others, and encouraged Leonard Ravenhill to write another title. "Gary and I were married in 1962, and eventually I was assigned to the campus library. So I was the librarian for quite a few years in the college. So I got to know books from that end-what people were reading and how they were responding, what books were being published. Along with that I was doing any major editing that was required. One of the early ones that I worked on was entitled Gone the Golden Dream."
5. FROM THE JUNGLES OF BORNEO TO THE WORLD OF MODERN BOOKS - OBEDIENCE TO GOD LEADS THE FAITHFUL
I asked her, "How did you choose this field of Christian literature as your career?" She smiled and said that she "simply fell into it." As a resident member of Bethany Fellowship, she was doing what was assigned to her. However, "I've always had a calling, if I can describe it that way, to books, to literature. I think I've always understood the power of words and have been very influenced by them. And so it wasn't a huge step for me to do editing. It was sort of a natural thing."
"Would you say that you're fond of books?" "Yes," Carol said. "I grew up on the mission field in Borneo. There wasn't much for entertainment. So I read lots of books, and some of them I read over and over, even many times. So from an early age I was a committed reader." From the jungles of Borneo to the worlds of modern books! An interesting journey, indeed!
6. FACING THE CHALLENGES
I asked her, "How did you equip yourself to meet the challenge? Did you receive any type of training in how to do editorial work?"
Carol: Not really. On the English and literature side of things, both through high school and college here at Bethany College of Missions, those were strong subjects for me, and ones of great interest. So, I would say that both my typesetting and my librarian work really dovetailed to give me some type of platform for directing the editorial assignment.
Mike: If this process of preparation is a continuing process even now, what do you do these days to meet the challenge of editing?
Carol: I think awareness of the world, and awareness of what people are thinking and how they communicate and, of course, continuing to read books, magazine articles, information that leads to awareness.
7. YOUR BOOK, WORTHY OF PUBLICATION?
Mike: How do you choose and decide that a particular book is worthy of publication?
Carol: I'll say, first of all, that it isn't scientific. It's very intuitive. And much of it is honed over years of experience, both here at Bethany House Publishers and in the Christian book industry. You learn that certain things will work in our industry and other things will not. Every publishing house has a type pf personality. What one publishing house can do very successfully, another might not be able to do at all because it doesn't fit. So, I would say that deciding on whether or not to pursue a book is largely an intuitive matter, and decided with prayer and leading of the Holy Spirit.
First of all, there are three general categories that are supervised by senior editors: adult non-fiction, the children and youth area, and adult fiction. Projects that come to us in one of these three categories start the reviewing process. Then depending upon how those reviews turn out, what type of interest there is, those will then get to the senior editor, and the senior editor will then decide if it should be brought to the floor management committee.
When we find a proposal of a manuscript that gets lots of rave comments, then we decide ourselves if it should be brought to the floor management. The core management is made up of people with substantive experience in these matters and proven leadership and decision-making qualities, who always humble themselves before God and seek to listen to His voice.
8. GENERAL DEFICIENCIES NOTICED
Mike: What are the general deficiencies that you notice in the book proposals and the scripts submitted?
Carol: Obviously, if the person is a good wordsmith, that will get him or her over a whole lot of hurdles, so good writing, expressing oneself well on the page is certainly important, but that isn't the whole story. In non-fiction, we need to ask, is the theme really unique? Is this a fresh approach? Or, has it already been done many times and possibly done better? Those are questions we need to ask in the non-fiction category. What we ask very early in the discussion is, who is going to read this book? So we will even put names to that question and ask, will this person love this book, or would this type of person like this book. So even if we all like the idea of it we have to figure out if there are enough people out there who would be willing to put down ten or twelve dollars to buy this book. And that's where the marketing and sales meetings come in.
9. BOOKS THAT DELIGHTED CAROL'S HEART, AND CHANGED BETHANY HOUSE PUBLISHERS FOREVER!
Mike: Could you please give the names of some books that delighted your heart when you first read them?
Carol: I think probably the most famous of that would be Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke. She had sent in two chapters and I read them and I really connected with the characters that she had created. And so I asked her to send us the manuscript. Then several of us read it. This was in 1978. And I was not editorial director at the time, but I was meeting with Gary [Johnson] and Alec [Brooks] and LeRoy Dugan. And we met as a kind of ad hoc committee to decide on the publication of this book. At the time the only fiction in Christian stores was about two feet of shelf space of Grace Livingston Hill novels, and then a couple authors had come over from the general market, like Catherine Marshall and Joyce Landorf. So it wasn't even a category that most people thought of. But I somehow was able to express that I had really connected with this book, and so we decided to give it a try. And Janette Oke has been on every bestsellers list since 1983!
But there are no guarantees. I have asked around in the Christian book industry to find out if there are people who know ahead of time that they had a winner, and knew this for sure. Like, Peretti, This Present Darkness, or the Left Behind books, or The Prayer of Jabez. Has anyone known or been really sure that this was going to be a winner, and I haven't been able to find anyone who's been able to say "yes."
Mike: So, there is no formula?
Carol: No, there really isn't.
Mike: It sort of gives you the idea that, to a good extent, it's really in the Lord's hands.
Carol: Yes. That's right.
9. NUDGING STEPS IN EDITING TANDEM
Mike: Could you please take us through the general steps that you follow when you begin editing a book?
Carol: Most of the time we don't have a complete manuscript to make a decision from. These days, most writers submit their proposal, a description of what they want to do, and then several sample chapters, and we will say yes or no based upon that, and we will contract with them. Then the next step is for the author to finish the manuscript. Sometimes we will give editorial direction from our early response to what a person has and we will say, for example, "Instead of doing it exactly like this, why don't you move it a little more this way?" And so then the author finishes the manuscript, we get it in, and we get reviews from senior editors, or other people in house who are experts on that particular topic.
From that we know if that author needs to do any further rewrites, are there any argument holes, or any parts of the story that don't hang together. So then the author does some directive rewrites if necessary.
Then the line edit begins and that is when we ask, for example, do these sentences work together right, should these two paragraphs be transposed. It's a kind of work where we go through it representing the reader out there who doesn't know anything about the story or the theme that the author is presenting and just making sure that it all works very well. That is the line editing. After the line editing then the copy editor goes through just to make it consistent, check the spelling, the style, the format, checking a fact that might look out and look a little funny, so that's more the technical side of it.
Then, after that, the edited version goes to the author to read through it and make sure the changes haven't changed his book to something different from what he wanted. Then the author approves it or he fixes it by changing it further.
Then it goes into typesetting and it's typeset and made into page proofs. And those also go to the author for approval. In the meantime it's being proofread for typos and anything like that. We usually have three proofreading by three different people who have not already read it to make sure that it's correct.
Then the final corrections from the author and the proofreaders are combined to make it ready to print.
10. TOUCH-ME-NOT! HOW DIPLOMACY WORKS!
Mike: Do you ever get authors that feel that you are touching something sacred when you suggest some changes?
Carol: Oh, yes, absolutely. Diplomacy is incredibly important. We need to be convincing, but respectful of their work. So we tell them that we are representing the reader out there and we have questions about it. So usually we're able to arrive at a reasonable compromise.
11. STANDARDS OF CHRISTIAN LITERATURE
Mike: Have the standards of Christian literature improved over the years?
Carol: Well, yes and no. There are ways in which Christian literature has to be to some degree "dumbed down" for a less literate society. In some ways Christian writing has not gotten better.
For example, the depth of what C.S. Lewis did in Mere Christianity is not being done. Many Christian books can be read by a junior high school age student with no trouble. So my answer falls in that realm. But, on the other hand, there are a couple of novelists who, in my mind, I think can stand up against any novelist writing today or in the last fifty years. Two of those are Jamie Langston Turner and Lynn Austin. In depth, breadth, and otherwise they have a wonderfully lyrical quality to their works. From that standpoint there have been improvements in Christian writing.
12. DOES AN EDITOR READ WHAT SHE EDITED?
Mike: Have you ever read any of the books that you edited again after these were published? Why did you choose to read these books?
Carol: I would just love to read every book we publish after it's released, but I just can't. So, the one I'm reading right now is Becoming Friends With God by Leith Anderson. I'm reading that devotionally! I'm able to turn off my editor's hat and just read it and enjoy it. I've found it to be a simple message but profound.
13. A BIT OF AN ADVICE FOR THE NOVICE WRITER
Mike: If I were to tell you that I love to read and that I love fiction and that I thought I might be gifted in the area of writing, if I wanted to get started as a writer, what would you tell me?
Carol: Write articles for magazines. There are not as many Christian magazines today as there have been, but getting published in a magazine format, and doing something of that length is a good discipline.
14. ANOINTED AND GENTLE WRITER
Carol is an anointed and gentle editor. She looks at her nearly forty years of service in and stewardship of Bethany House Publishers, one of the largest Christian publishing houses in the whole world, as worshipping the Lord with the talent He has given her. And He has given her talents not just in editing Christian books, but in singing as well. For a number of years she helped develop the choir at Bethany Missionary Church in Bloomington, Minnesota. She has brought out a few albums of songs with her husband Gary Johnson that have received wide acclaim from all over the world. Her word to us, "Do not waste your God-given skills. Dedicate them to the Lord and worship unto Him, and He will prosper you."
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