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The Dirty Little Secret of Endorsements

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A couple of weeks ago Carl Trueman posted a review of a new book from G.R. Evans. Trueman had read The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture in the hope that he would be able to use it as a text for his Reformation History classes. Very quickly he came to see that it would not be suitable, saying, “The Reformation section is unfortunately replete with errors of historical fact, some of which are very serious, even if a few are possibly the result of typos. The sheer number of these errors renders the book a liability in the classroom and undermines its stated purpose as a textbook.”

After documenting a long list of errors–and even then only the errors that he noticed on the basis of one read–he came to this conclusion:

Sadly, the multitude of factual mistakes it contains render it a complete classroom liability. Pace the stellar jacket commendations from some of the most learned Reformation scholars alive, I cannot recommend it other than as a salutary lesson in what happens when one writes too quickly and too confidently outside of one’s own field of expertise. As a teacher, I cannot use this book because it does not do that which I require of a textbook: provide a reliable guide to names, dates and events.

IVP, the book’s publisher, responded well, immediately taking the book out of print and getting to work on a revised edition that will correct the errors. They have also promised to provide a complimentary copy of the second edition to anyone who purchased the first. This is a praiseworthy response.

Well and good. Because The Roots of the Reformation is a scholarly, historical work, it is one that few of us would know of but for Trueman’s review. However, I find this situation interesting because I think it points to a wider issue, and one I have been meaning to discuss for some time. Trueman hints at this in the conclusion of his review:

In short, this is a very curious book: curious for the fact that a fine scholar such as Professor Evans would produce such a seriously flawed piece of work; and curious for the fact that highly respected scholars have given it their imprimaturs in the form of glowing jacket commendations. Sadly, in line with the old proverb, you cannot judge this book by its cover.

It is curious indeed that several highly respected scholars–J.I. Packer, Timothy George, and others among them–wrote endorsements for this book. What do you make of a book that receives such accolades as “superb” and “remarkable” and “essential reading,” and yet contains such a multitude of serious errors?

You may well conclude that many of the endorsers had not read the book or, at the very least, had not read it closely. And without accusing any of the people whose names appear on the back cover, that may well be the case.

What is the purpose of an endorsement? Essentially, an endorsement is a means by which one person attaches his credibility to another person. The endorser is saying, “If I have any credibility in your eyes, then take that credibility and extend it to this person and his work.” In that way endorsements are an important part of publishing, and especially so when a popular person endorses the work of a lesser-known one. Good endorsements can make the difference between a bestseller and a work that goes completely unseen.

But here’s a dirty little secret of publishing. When you look at the back cover of a book and see a list of commendations, it is possible–likely even–that the majority of those people have not read the book or have not read it carefully. There are some people who will only endorse books for which they have carefully read every word, but more commonly, people merely skim a book before writing their blurb; others do it sight unseen and still others have assistants do it.

I doubt there are a lot of people who like to write endorsements based on less than a careful reading, and yet that is often how it ends up happening. There are many reasons for this. Here is one: People have good intentions but little time. A person receives a manuscript in June–a Word document via email or an unbound stack of paper–and is told that an endorsement will be due by August 31. It is an honor to be asked to provide an endorsement and he genuinely want to serve that author. There is lots of time and it all seems like it should be simple enough. But then August 29 rolls around and the publisher sends a reminder that the book is about to go to print and endorsements will be due in just two days. Now there isn’t time to read the manuscript carefully, so he skims through it quickly, tries to get the main idea, and jots down a few words, sending it to the publisher just on time.

Or perhaps the manuscript is from a well-known author, a man who has written forty or fifty books. This new book will look at a subject he has covered before. Even by skimming the book this endorser can quickly see how the argument will be framed and what conclusions it will lead to. And so he gives the book a cursory read and writes a blurb.

Or maybe this book has been written by a friend. The endorser knows his friend’s stance on the subject; maybe he has had conversations about it or heard him cover the topic at a conference. He then pens an endorsement based on what he knows to be true of his friend.

In any case, there are many ways in which endorsements can reflect less than a complete reading of a complete book. This is something we all do well to keep in mind.

I started out promising myself that I would only endorse books for which I had carefully read every word, but along the way found myself doing a little bit less–reading too quickly close to a deadline. I recently had to catch myself and reaffirm my commitment to endorse fewer books and to do so only after reading the whole book. It is important to me that any credibility I offer a work carry as much weight as it can.

Let me give you two takeaways:

First, as a general rule, do not attach undue importance to endorsements. Outright skepticism may not be appropriate, but neither should you necessarily assume that every endorsement is as meaningful as you might hope. At the very least, do not buy and believe and apply a book only on the basis of its endorsements.

Second, get to know which authors write endorsements that are credible. There are a few whose endorsements are weighty and meaningful (Mark Dever and John Piper come immediately to mind–men who endorse few books but who, to my knowledge, do so only after a careful reading); get to know who they are and weight them higher than others.

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