Publishers of scholarly religion books, in general, are in the same boat as all other publishers—dealing with the effects of the economic recession and wrestling with the promise and perils of the digital revolution. But for the most part, the academic market in religion publishing has remained remarkably stable. PW spoke with some of the key publishers in this area to get their take on the current climate and what the near future might bring.

Beyond the Church

Over the past couple of decades, as mainline church membership has fallen and support for denominational presses has declined, they have had to learn to act more like general trade houses, growing sales and searching for new readers.

"In 2011, growth is not optional," says Will Bergkamp, publisher and managing director of Lutheran publisher Fortress Press. "It will be hard fought, and it may be somewhat modest, but we must grow both the top and the bottom line of our program." He adds, "I'm not sure I believe there is a general outlook for the category, given the maturity of the market."

Bob Ratcliff, senior editor at Abingdon, the United Methodist press, notes that weak sales of textbooks—with professors changing texts more frequently and using more nontextbooks for classes, as well as the impact of used textbook sales—affect the broader programs of publishers who do both. "Without strong sales of a stable of introductory textbooks to undergird [their other] publishing, publishers have found themselves stretched thinner and thinner" and must cut title output, says Ratcliff. "That means that the number of high-quality books published in religious studies will likely shrink for the next several years," he predicts.

David Dobson, director of Presbyterian publisher Westminster John Knox, says, "Like many publishers in our field, our backlist is very important to us. With more than 1,700 titles in print, we've definitely seen the benefits of the long tail that Internet sales and print-on-demand technology has created. But that long tail can also have a backlash, and for us that is used book sales and, now, textbook rental programs." The key, he says, will be "revising core textbooks and developing new ones."

An Optimistic Outlook

Trade publishers with strong academic programs are generally optimistic. Jim Kinney, associate publisher of Baker Publishing Group and editorial director of Baker Academic & Brazos Press, says their sales held steady through the downturn, and they expect increases in 2011. He adds, "Academic publishing will continue in a state of flux for the foreseeable future, as scholars, schools, and publishers figure out how to navigate the opportunities and challenges presented by new ways of delivering information." Among the key questions Kinney sees: "Can online peer review replace or supplement the traditional process? What types of electronic publishing should count for tenure? Is there still a market for printed monographs?"

Theo Calderara, senior editor at Oxford University Press, believes the academic market "remains strong." "Lots of publishers had a tough 2009, he says, "but our religion list held up remarkably well. In a difficult climate, we continue to see substantial year-on-year sales growth." Calderara agrees that "the market for academic books is shifting in all the predictable ways—more sales are going through online retailers and a greater share of our income is derived from electronic products."

In a category by themselves are the nonprofit presses publishing in religion. Tim McNeill, publisher/CEO for Buddhist press Wisdom Publications, says, "[We] have the luxury of focusing on publishing the highest quality content related to Buddhist literature that will serve our specialized market niche. Publishers especially in this emerging age of digital delivery need to know their customers well and get close to them. Wisdom starts from that place." He points to continued growth in the market for Buddhist books and says that since Wisdom concentrates on "the primary classic reference texts of Buddhism translated into English, we continue to benefit from that growth."

University Presses Look for New Readers

University presses—with less institutional support than in years past—also must court the general market. Elaine Maisner, senior executive editor of University of North Carolina Press, says, "Over the past five years or so, we have seen a steady increase in our sales of titles in religion, to scholars and students and to the general trade. We expect this to continue because we are emphasizing key acquisitions of crossover books." She adds, "We are now releasing just about every new title as both a paper book and an e-book, and this is an increasingly robust approach, judging by our sales figures."

Jennifer Banks, senior editor at Yale University Press, expects "strong sales for 2011 that will remain steady with last year's results." Understanding religions in today's global society is crucial, she says, so publishing in the category will remain vital. New digital technologies are also enabling new kinds of dissemination, she says, and "the press is exploring how primary religious texts can be published electronically for greater accessibility and more flexible study."

Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press, says, "Our sales in religion have been steady for the past few years, and we're seeing more activity every year through digital avenues such as Kindle and the aggregators like NetLibrary and Ebrary." Georgetown recently signed a contract for Google Editions and plans to put its recent religion titles into that program. "We've also put dozens of titles into the Professor's Choice program, started by St. Mary's Press, which allows scholars to build customized textbooks for their students by drawing on a wide range of publishers' materials," says Brown.

"We forecast a 10% increase in our sales for fiscal 2011," says Carey Newman, director of Baylor University Press. "Most of this increase will come from one or two frontlist books with strong crossover appeal and from a dramatic increase in textbook adoptions." Asked about the general outlook for scholarly publishing in religion, he says, "That is a tough call. Scholarly publishing is a moving target at the moment, though within it there are some stable areas" such as biblical studies and theology. Sales in other topic areas, like religion and politics, "have evaporated over the last three years," he says, but Baylor's religion and pop culture titles are selling briskly "The burden still rests with the publisher," says Newman, "to discover, develop, and publish works of enduring quality."