Dr. Chris Spinks (Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock): Editors behind the Great Books in New Testament Studies

Dr. Chris Spinks (Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock): Editors behind the Great Books in New Testament Studies August 24, 2020

I have known Chris Spinks for many years. We share a love for the Pacific Northwest and for Portland soccer. Chris knew me when I was just out of my PhD, and he took a chance on my first book, Prepare, Succeed, Advance (2011). I had never written a book for a wider readership and Chris was helpful and gracious. Since then, we have worked on a bunch of stuff together, including the second edition of Prepare, Succeed, Advance (2019). (I am now working on my 5th book with Wipf & Stock!)

As you will see in the following interview, Chris has high standards and good instincts. He loves fresh ideas and is willing to sit down with rookies like me. Enjoy!

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I’m the grandson of a bi-vocational rural Baptist preacher from the Pineywoods of East Texas. As a good Baptist boy in Texas I eventually ended up at Baylor University after a couple of years at my local community college. There I thought ministry might be my vocation and so I became a part of the first class at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor. In seminary I caught the academic bug and found my way to the PhD program at Fuller Theological Seminary. I entered the program with an interest in New Testament Theology but could not get past the nagging hermeneutical questions that come up in the reading of sacred texts. So I wrote a dissertation on the concept of “meaning” in the burgeoning area of theological interpretation, paying particular attention to Kevin Vanhoozer and Stephen Fowl. In some ways, then, I have always been more interested in how and why people read biblical texts than in doing my own deep readings of the text; although, I enjoy and have training in doing that deep reading as well.
I am married to a wonderful woman who is a psychotherapist. We have three young boys, twins who are nearly 13 and their younger brother who is nearly 10. In what little spare time I have, I enjoy running and reading things other than theological and biblical books. I’m also kind of obsessed with keeping up with new music.

Few editors I know aspired to be in publishing. They sort of wandered into it and ended up enjoying it. How did you become an editor? What do you enjoy about it?

Yes, it’s true, most editors in theological and biblical studies do not set out to be editors. Many of them start on the path I started on. But, as you and your readers will well know, the academic job market is tough and the life of teaching, administration, research, and writing is not as idyllic in reality as it is in the heads of eager, intelligent undergraduate students (or seminary students, as in my case). Those two realities came together in my life. On the one hand, I was having a tough go of it on the job market; and on the other hand, I was beginning to wonder if I wanted the academic life at all. While at SBL one year, I had just one interview with a school and a handful of less promising connections to job openings. At the same conference I struck up off-the-cuff conversations with two different publishers. The following spring and several more formal conversations later, I had two job offers with two wonderful publishing companies: one more established and one more of an up-and-comer. Also at the time, my wife and I were wanting to start a family. I accepted the job with the younger upstart, which also happened to be on the West Coast, where my wife and I wanted to be. Becoming an editor for Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications, imprints of Wipf and Stock Publishers, allowed me to utilize the skills, knowledge, and growing networks I had as a young PhD graduate, as well as be in the part of the country we wanted to be in for our family and my wife’s career. If you traced the genesis of my job, you would find it started in Washington D.C. at a wine tasting held in a hotel suite. I found my way to the back bedroom where I heard a football game on the TV. There I met Jon and James Stock, where we talked football and our mutual disdain for Notre Dame and USC, the teams on the television. As a Baylor Bear and two Oregon Ducks we were obligated to complain about them, right? We talked about other things as well. I knew then I was talking to good people who valued relationships above most all else.
What I find most enjoyable about the work I do is helping others—helping them see the worth of their work; helping them express themselves well; helping them shepherd a project through all the steps of publication. There is something extremely satisfying about having a hand in getting so many good books on the market. Aside from this, I enjoy being able to keep myself tangentially involved in the world of academic theological and biblical studies. And I especially enjoy the connections (and even friends!) I make. There are a lot of smart, thoughtful, and good people working in this wide field of theology. I am happy to be able to meet and get to know so many of them. And when I can help them get their work out into the even wider world, I’m proud.

What are some things that stand out to you in a book conversation with an author or a book proposal that grab your interest?

As I said above, I am very interested in how and why people read texts, especially their own sacred texts, in the way they do. Because of this, I am especially intrigued by authors who are aware of their contexts, influences, etc., and push them in new directions, not for the sake of novelty alone but for the sake of extending conversations. So when an author is not simply repeating tired conversations but instead asks her readers to consider this angle or that take and does so in accessible, intelligent, and convincing ways, I’m intrigued. I realize often in academic writing new angles and different takes come about by the smallest of tweaks, so it is important for an author to know what’s come before. On this notion, I am also always intrigued by those who are able to explain and introduce complex conversations to a wider audience, thus helping that audience to be better readers themselves.

What are your book proposal pet peeves?

Oh boy! This might be a can of worms. I’m known among my colleagues as the curmudgeon. For instance—this does not pertain to your question really—I become a grumpy old man when I see people talk about getting someone to write a “forward” for their book. It’s FOREWORD! When we get a proposal that says something about a “forward,” my colleagues teasingly say something like, “Well Chris is not going to like this one.”
More seriously, though—this will come up again in a question below—many authors are not very good at understanding their audience or who their audience should or could be. We see a lot of proposals that answer questions about audience with things like, “All Christians” or “Academic readers as well as general lay readers” (in other words, EVERYBODY!). These are not helpful answers because they are so broad. Other proposals will say the book is for a general audience but then the proposed table of contents and/or sample chapters are filled with academic jargon, neologisms, and niche topics that only a small group of academics could love. Related to audience is book size. General readers who are used to $9.99 ebooks, $5 pulp books, and light devotional titles are not going to want to spend the money or the time to buy and read a 400-page theological book that retails for $40+. Academic audiences are more apt to buy longer and more expensive books, but even they have a threshold.
Another pet peeve in proposals and in-person pitches is an overinflated sense of the importance of one’s book. I have to be careful here. I said earlier that I am intrigued by those authors who push and extend conversations, so in some ways an intriguing author will promote the unique qualities of his book, making a case for how it does something no other book does. I get that. I look for that. I want that. But I also know there are very few books that in a few hundred pages will overturn decades, even centuries of conversations on a subject matter. Sure a book can help readers see things in new ways, understand something in a new light, and possibly change minds, but they often do this by extending conversations not overturning them completely. Too often a claim of overinflated importance betrays a lack of immersion in the conversation. To say “No one is talking about this!” makes me suspect that the author has limited herself to a narrow sliver of the conversation. I could be wrong, I know, but I’m more receptive to even the most unique and intriguing proposals that situate themselves in a larger conversation.
A final pet peeve is failing to submit a complete proposal form. All publishers have proposal forms or templates. They need authors to follow them. We see hundreds if not thousands of proposals a year. If we see that an author is not inclined to follow directions for submission, we will likely assume they will be difficult to work with during the publication process when sticking to style guidelines, revision processes, and other things will be more involved than the proposal. One of the biggest issues in this regard is a proposal that does little more than submit a short bio and the entire manuscript. Folks, we don’t have the time at this stage to read every manuscript that comes our way. A synopsis and sample chapter or other shorter writing sample will do for now.
Let me summarize these negative pet peeves by flipping them into a positive set of recommendations. Authors, submit proposals by following the submission guidelines of the publisher, demonstrating the innovative contribution you are making to the larger conversation, and appropriately aiming the size and tone of the project at a well-defined audience.

Talk about one or two books that you acquired or edited that you are especially proud of and why.

I’ll have difficulty limiting myself to one or two books. Inevitably I’ll have an author or two who will wonder why I didn’t mention their books. I more often think of the authors with whom I’ve worked rather than the specific books I’ve shepherded through the publication process. After these disclaimers, I’ll hope you’ll permit me to speak of a handful of books and authors that serve as good examples of the sorts of books I find intriguing for the reasons I mentioned above. An author who immediately comes to mind as being a delight to work with, innovative in content, and especially adept at making the complex simple is Michael Gorman. His Cascade Companion, Reading Paul, was one of the first projects I worked on when I took this job over 13 years ago. And it is still one of the best, most accessible, short introductions to Paul and his writings and theology. I was not around when it was first acquired. I think I did well enough on this early book. Well enough at least for Mike to work with me on two other books since then. I wish I could hand out his Reading Revelation Responsibly to anyone and everyone who has an inkling of interest in the last book of the New Testament. And his The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant is a must read for those interested in the ongoing conversations about atonement. It also embodies the things I find most intriguing: it is unique, extends the conversation, and introduces the topic better than most.
I’ve worked on many great titles in our Cascade Companion series. I like the series as a whole because it aims to introduce big, complex figures, themes, and topics to a lay audience. I also believe authors enjoy writing these books, and I like to work with happy authors.
One book that I’m particularly proud of from the last couple of years is Toward Decentering the New Testament by Mitzi J. Smith and Yung Suk Kim. I had worked with Smith and Kim separately on a handful of individually written books, each good in their own right. But this book pushes the genre of NT introductions in new directions and does it with the student in mind. It does not go over heads. And the fact that it is co-authored by an African American woman and an Asian American man testifies to the sort of diversity and collaboration needed to extend conversations in innovative ways.
Finally let me mention two new series I am especially proud to have had a hand in getting off the ground. The first is Critical Theory and Biblical Studies. The second is Popology: Short Theological Engagements with Popular Music. Both series move in directions a bit outside “normal” biblical and theological studies. The former focuses on issues like money, possessions, and empire in biblical texts by employing critical methodologies not often used by “traditional” biblical scholars, and it does so in accessible ways. The latter listens to and discusses popular music artists, albums, songs with well-tuned theological lenses. The first two volumes—one on Radiohead, and the other on Tupac—are exceptional! In addition to being the resident curmudgeon (see above), I’m also kind of the resident music guy. I’m consuming and sharing new music all the time. My Spotify playlists are many. So Popology is sort of a passion project.

There are many good pieces of scholarship by biblical scholars, but we are not necessarily good at the art of writing. If you were to help an author improve their writing and communication skills, what would you recommend?

I go back to what I said above: Know your audience and write with them in mind. For instance, if you are writing for a general audience, you don’t need to impress your dissertation adviser with overly stuffed footnotes and nods to each and every take on an issue. Other than that, off the top of my head, these general bits of advice are ones I’d want to encourage:
  • Writing is improved more often by removing words than adding them. Concision is a skill worth acquiring.

  • Go easy on the thesaurus.

  • Good arguments are more impressive than big words. Related to this, recognize you are immersed in an academic culture that has its own language. Don’t assume your audience speaks that language.

  • Understand writing is different from speaking. It is possible to be too casual.

  • Learn to recognize your writing tics and look to lessen them. Do you use certain phrases and/or words frequently, maybe too frequently? I’d be willing to guess I could remove about half of the “thats” in most manuscripts. I believe saying “I believe” is just as effective as saying “I believe that.” Confession: I’m guilty of overuse of “that” myself.

  • Edit yourself. Then when you are done, edit yourself again.

  • If possible, let several others read your work, preferably at least a handful of people who represent your target audience. Then go back and edit yourself once more.

  • Read good writing and emulate it in your own way.

  • Read good writing on good writing and learn from it.

  • All this to say, take your time. Don’t vomit on the page and expect your editor to clean it all up. If it’s really messy most editors will send it back to you and ask you to try again, which is going to take as much or more of the time you could have spent on the front end.

Explain how you define and interpret “success” in your industry?

Success for myself is having an author get through the publication process with a book they can be proud of and an experience of going through the process that is one they would gladly do again. Success in the “industry” is obviously selling a ton of books. But as an editor I am leery about attaching “success” too much to sales figures. The sad reality is that most books, especially theological and biblical studies titles, sell meager numbers. (I’m not sure if this is apocryphal or if the numbers are completely accurate, but I’m told by some of our marketing folks that there are over one million books published every year. Approximately ninety percent of those sell 99 copies or less!) I don’t want to give the impression that sales don’t matter. Clearly they do. We want our books to sell thousands of copies, and we work hard to make that happen with promotions, conference representation, social media presence, etc. And surely accounting and finance will likely have a different set of criteria for what makes for a successful book.
For me as an editor, my focus is more on putting out a quality product, giving the author a good publishing experience, turning projects around in a timely manner, and giving a platform to a wide and diverse body of voices. In addition to the experience and relationship I cultivate with an author, I think “success” can also be measured in part by the way a book is received by its audience. Are reviewers favorable toward it? Is it getting picked up for classes or reading groups? Is it getting mentions in various social media? In short, is it making a positive contribution? Obviously a slightly revised dissertation will have a different set of expectations than a volume in our Cascade Companions series, and so “success” will look different as well. I am fortunate to be with a company that encourages this focus for its editors, believing that quality books and good relationships contribute to successful sales figures.

 Can you give some thoughts and predictions about how publishing in biblical studies can and/or should change in the next 10 years?

So much of theological publishing, including biblical studies, is tied to the health of theological higher education. And so in these times, I honestly don’t know what the next ten years hold. Everything is so unpredictable right now. If I had to guess, I would say readers are going to want more scholarship, including biblical scholarship, that speaks to societal issues more directly. I don’t know if that will lead to more intersectional, contextual, and/or non-traditional readings of biblical texts or what, but I sense cultural longing for voices that help us think faithfully about and act faithfully in these harried times. And I get the sense as well that biblical scholars are wanting their writing to speak into these times more importantly.

 If you were wanting to invite “fresh talent” to publish with your press, what is your pitch (right here and right now!)? How do you express your press’ identity and purpose and how do you want to shape biblical studies?

Wipf and Stock Publishers is a publishing company with several imprints. I work exclusively in Cascade Books (aimed at wider audiences) and Pickwick Publications (aimed at an academic audience). Finding a publisher is not too unlike the experience of picking a PhD program, an experience, by the way, your readers can learn more about in an excellent book we publish by this guy they might’ve heard about: Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. A lot depends on with whom the author will best work, if the publisher has theological or ideological boundaries, how smoothly and quickly does the process move, how accessible will the book be to the buying public, and what resources and how much support the publisher can provide during and after the publication of the book. There are many wonderful theological publishers who will do most if not all of these things well, so in me making a pitch to “fresh talent” I don’t want to imply that other publishers are not great places filled with good people. With that being said, I hope fresh talent would find interaction with me and my colleagues something they would like to extend into a publishing relationship. Wipf and Stock is fairly new in the landscape of theological publishing and from the start we’ve been a publisher that casts a wide net. We publish authors across a diverse theological spectrum, and we also publish a wide array of topics and theological disciplines. Because of the business model we established back when we were only a reprint publisher, we are able to take chances on less-established authors, pursue creative projects, and provide a publication platform to a diverse chorus of voices. So we are able to be receptive to the writing projects “fresh talent” want to write and not necessarily what we want them to write. My hope is in this way we are able to shape biblical studies by broadening and deepening the pool.

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