Friday, August 16, 2013

Inane Ramblings of a Middle-Aged Publishing Professional

Here, reposted from the Young Professionals page at the High Calling, are excerpts from a conversation I had recently with Sam Van Eman about stewarding influence over the course of your career. I enjoyed the conversation; I thought you might as well.

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SVE: YPs [young professionals] are hot off the education press and want to know that they matter in the workplace. Give us a story from your twenties when your voice shaped something at work.

DZ: I remember this time we were brainstorming a new corporate tagline. (I should mention here that IVP is remarkably flat in its hierarchy and wildly collaborative in its strategic planning.) Sally Craft, then leading our publicity team, floated the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—Scripture, tradition, reason, experience—a grid by which we make responsible decisions. We liked the flow of it, but our audience, we thought, is much broader than Methodists. I threw out the language of the Shema, which Jesus identified as the greatest of God's commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength" (Mark 12:30)

“Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength.” resonated with everyone, and I developed a reputation as a bit of a wordsmith.

Of course, when we announced our new tagline in our next catalog, we screwed up the order of the terms on the cover: "Heart. Mind. Soul. Strength." Sigh.

SVE: At IVP, you work with Likewise, an imprint which focuses on making a difference in the world. The name itself comes from Jesus’ words to the lawyer after telling the Good Samaritan story: “Go and do likewise.” So Likewise has a voice; it has influence. How much of that voice is Dave Zimmerman’s?

DZ: I'd say that even given the "all-in" collaborative culture of IVP, it's safe to say I've been the primary curator of Likewise's voice. I’ve served as the editorial liaison for the line (my colleague, Andrew Bronson, is our marketing liaison). Andrew likes to stay a bit behind the scenes; me, I like the attention. So I blogged fairly regularly about a “Likewise ethos,” and I wrote regular newsletters trumpeting the line to Likewise authors and readers. We’d also often gather together people who matched our "psychographic" within larger events and conferences, so we could commingle with them and reinforce what we saw as the core values of the line.

There's a reverse process in there, of course; the books we've determined along the way to be Likewise books have shaped my worldview and informed my values, even messed with my voice. So I suppose it'd also be appropriate to ask, "Dave has a voice. How much of it is Likewise's?"

SVE: Touché. I read a mystic who said the things we build “are outward manifestations of inward realities.” You’re implying that this goes both ways. Something to ponder.

DZ: Thanks for that. I won’t be sleeping for a few days.

SVE: How much "Dave" would we see in Likewise 10 years from now if you were to stick around?

DZ: Likewise has always had a strong countercultural bent—for example, The Unkingdom of God by Mark Van Steenwyk calls for a posture of repentance as the basis for our discipleship, an orientation he arrives at by thinking of Christianity in anarchist terms. Given that, it's ironic that I'm the editor. I live in a single-family house in the suburbs. No one looking at me would think Who let that anarchist hippie in the building?

The authors I acquire and develop, and the character of the line I've tried to cultivate—I think these are reflective of my aspirations for myself: I want to be someone who's thoughtful, passionate, who doesn't settle for abstractions and isolation. I want to be led by my authors, to be taught by them, to be transformed as I edit their stuff.

Ten years from now the world will look quite different, I'll look quite different, the publishing industry will look quite different. I hope that taken together we'll all look more like Likewise looked on its best days: thoughtful, active, hopeful, realistic, humble, audacious, all that and more.

SVE: Do you have a superhero power when you’re at work?

DZ: I take possession of the authors I edit. I take a little credit for their ideas. I see myself less clearly because I cloak myself in the best of what I see in them. Take Mark Van Steenwyk, for example: I see him as a moral genius, and I see myself as a moral genius for recognizing that genius in him. And I see myself as heroic for having made space for him to share his vision.

SVE: Your talent and his, joining to create something more than the sum of the two. I like it. What’s at stake when it comes to having influence?

DZ: The let-down. I tell people that their idea doesn't merit publication all the time. That's not how I put it, and that's not even always what I mean—I often mean that we're the wrong publisher or medium for their work—but I've sought publication enough on my own to know that what gets heard is "You're not good enough."

That unintended message gets heard even by authors I do acquire for publication; they hear it when I call on them to revise their draft, when I critique their assertions, when I make casual jokes that I thought would strengthen our relationship. I once edited a book that, in one passage, went into more detail than I thought was needed about some particular plot point in some particular sci-fi or fantasy film. I wrote in my comments, "Nerd alert!" I thought I was being funny, but in that one comment I eroded nearly all the trust we'd built together to that point. Writing is an act of vulnerability, and editing very easily becomes an act of tyranny, of colonization, of violence.

SVE: We’re fragile people, and I’ve seen this interplay in many places: between managers and cooks, teachers and students ... between me and my kids! What’s the tension like for you?

DZ: It's weird: editors are both behind the curtain and up on a pedestal. Writers want to hear from us, they want to talk to us, they want to be around us. We have a lot of power. But we're also standing behind our authors, whispering in their ears, steering some of their steps. It's a private, arcane, almost secret work, and yet we get sought out and crowded around when we are out and about in any kind of official capacity.

SVE: It’s clear that you have an influential voice—even power—in others’ lives. Give us another story that makes you proud to don your cape.

DZ: I recently had lunch with a woman who, by virtue of her vocation (and her gender, unfortunately) has developed a tragic lack of self-confidence in her ability to communicate truly life-changing messages in her writing. I've watched people get moved to tears when she talks; I've been similarly moved myself. I've seen people go through paradigm shifts in her audience. She's, like, a dream author. But she's been forced into this artificial mold, and she struggles to find her writing voice. So my challenge with her will be to help her cut free of the constraints that have been placed on her, to help her write like she talks instead of writing like she's being judged for it. It can be a terribly traumatic experience, but it can also be incredibly freeing and empowering.

The editor-author relationship, I'm convinced, is built almost entirely on trust: the author must feel safe and secure with the editor, the editor must help the author find their footing in this new realm. On the days when I get to participate in that, I feel pretty dang good about my job.

SVE: I would too. You’re helping people find their way. What’s the best advice you´ve received on developing influence?

DZ: Well, "Be not afraid" is always a good one. And Frederick Buechner wrote a book whose title was Speak What We Feel, not What We Ought to Say. I always thought that was a good one, too. You have to own your influence and your message—own your voice and the words that take shape in it—while also recognizing that you're not infallible.

Another thing that's been helpful to me: If something's worth doing, it's worth doing for free. It's also worth getting paid to do, of course, but don't let money and all it represents—security, prosperity, etc.—tyrannize you.

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Don't forget: My book Deliver Us from Me-Ville is available as an ebook for 99 cents for a few more weeks. If you haven't gotten the book yet, you can get it for a song right now. (Seriously; it's cheaper than "Come a Little Closer" by Cage the Elephant.) One reader called it "a joyfully sarcastic look at our own self-absorption from a Christian perspective." That reminds me: if you post a review of the book in the next three weeks, send me a link and your mailing address, and I'll send you a free copy of my booklet Parable of the Unexpected Guest.

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