Against a background of labor strife, the country’s religion scholars met in Chicago to talk shop about pseudepigrapha and hermeneutics and to view religion publishers’ newest offerings for potential classroom adoption. The Nov. 17-20 Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion conference at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center drew nearly 11,000 teachers and students from religion programs in universities and seminaries, a larger number than last year’s conference in San Francisco. The number of publishers exhibiting their wares was down slightly, from 149 to 137, but the space they occupied was larger.

The conference center hotel, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, has been subject to a boycott because of an expired labor agreement with its workers. Conference contracts are negotiated and signed several years in advance, so the labor issue put the two professional groups on the spot. As a result, the SBL was headquartered there; the AAR was based at the Hilton Chicago, two miles away. Members voted with their feet, choosing among 18 Chicago area hotels served by conference shuttles. “The socially responsible thing was to be a forum,” said John Kutsko, SBL executive director. AAR executive director John R. Fitzmier said a joint task force would review policy to help the groups plan more proactively to respond to such events in future contracts. “Our members have a variety of opinions, we care about workers, and we keep contracts,” Fitzmier said.

While McCormick Place offered a roomy and well laid out facility, many attending scholars complained about its distance from the Loop hotels where most of the evening events and some of the sessions were held. The area around the convention center has seen a lot of residential development since BEA was last there in 2004, there is a still a dearth of services such as stores, restaurants, or hotel choices besides the Hyatt McCormick.

While scholars crowded the exhibits to buy books at deep discounts, in most cases they took advantage of free shipping offered by the publishers rather than filling suitcases to haul home, as in the days before 9/11. Several publishers noted that although sales at the conference were still significant, they saw the main benefits of the book exhibit in raising awareness of their titles—with the goal of getting course adoptions—but also in acquisitions.

Publishers tended their current authors at a slew of wine-and-cheese receptions as they scouted the ranks for new authors and titles. “It’s been a buyer’s market for publishers,” said Kutsko, who brought his publishing experience at Abingdon Press to the SBL post; SBL is itself a publisher of scholarly works, and hopes to expand its penetration into library markets, as do other academic religion publishers.

Library business “needs to be developed more,” said Paul Engle, senior v-p of church, academic, and reference at Harper Collins Christian Publishing, which already had Zondervan’s academic program when it combined with Thomas Nelson to form the new publishing group. Since Nelson does not publish for the academy, there is no redundancy, and Engle and Stan Gundry, senior v-p and editor-in-chief at Zondervan, expressed no concern for major changes to their program or their jobs.

One publisher with a refreshed presence at the conference was Fortress Press, which sported a new logo and lightened graphic look in its exhibit. “But it’s not just a new logo, it’s a new program,” said Will Bergkamp, publisher and managing director, referring to the culmination of a two-year process of reinvention and a relaunch as three separate imprints: Fortress Academic; Fortress Reference, and Fortress Education. “Ten years ago everyone published everything,” he said, but the new Fortress program will focus more tightly on three areas of study: Bible, theology, and Christian history. “We’ve doubled the number of editors, from three to six, and will be doubling our title output to 120 over the next 18 months,” he added. Though Fortress will be 50 years old in 2013, “we’re not emphasizing that anniversary—we’re looking forward.” Bergkamp also said the press has done extensive research on “the new academy,” looking at how advanced education and scholarship has changed and continues to evolve. “Our publishing will reflect those changes.”

Fortress may be growing its list more quickly than most, but many of the publishers who spoke to PW said they planned more titles this year than last, a sign the economy might be rebounding. Jennifer Banks, senior editor at Yale University Press, was busy with acquisitions appointments in a quest to develop Yale’s list to reflect the realities of a religiously diverse world. “We have to have a list that tries to get at what’s happening and doesn’t do what it’s always done,” Banks said. She is especially seeking titles in Eastern religions. Yale’s backlist title A Quiet Revolution by Leila Ahmed (2011), about women and the veil in the Middle East, is enjoying renewed attention and course adoptions.

Many religion publishers are busy developing their digital publishing programs for a changing academic market that includes increases in the number of distance learning programs, mixed receptivity to the use of e-books in classrooms, and fast-changing technological functionality, on top of the ever-present financial pressures involved in publishing leading scholarship to tiny audiences. Zondervan has 1,700 professors signed up to use Textbook Plus, which offers instructors such supplemental resources as test banks and slides; a student edition was just launched. “Lots of effort has gone into that portal,” said Paul Engle. Zondervan took a humorous approach to theology--unusual among the ranks of the tweedy--with its Theologian Trading Cards, touted as “a fun way to learn church history and theology.” Almost 300 cards convey at-a-glance information about theological heavy-hitters, organized into such teams as the Orthodoxy Dodgers and St. James Padres.

Some publishers, like Westminster John Knox, are issuing both digital and print versions of new titles simultaneously; others issue e-versions shortly thereafter. Wipf and Stock’s digital books follow print by 60 days, and it is also busy converting a considerable back list to digital. “We have catch-up to do,” said marketing director James Stock.

All of the publishers pointed to growing e-book sales, though the speed of that climb has leveled off. Most are experimenting with different models for working with libraries—including aggregating their content with Project Muse’s University Press Content Consortium and other products (such as Books at JSTOR ) that libraries buy or subscribe to. Oxford University Press has turned its Oxford Scholarship Online project into University Press Scholarship Online by inviting other presses to aggregate with them. Senior Marketing Manager Brian Hughes said that presses like Fordham, which does not have the resources of a press OUP’s size, are benefiting from participation in UPSO. “And the agreements we have with these presses are nonexclusive, so they can still be a part of other aggregations if they want.” Hughes also noted that despite early fears, “E-books have expanded our audience, not shrunk it, and have not affected print sales—yet.”

Georgetown University Press Director Richard Brown said that with library print sales declining he, along with 75-80 other UPs, has aggregated with the UP Content Consortium. He also said Georgetown was not discounting electronic editions of its very scholarly books. Although going digital saves 20% of the costs for their books--on production, warehousing, and shipping--that savings does not greatly affect the margins on these highly specialized books, most of which sell units that would make a trade publisher blanch. “I don’t know if that’s going to work—we’ll try it for another year,” he said. “We do discount titles that are more crossover to the trade, to about 60% of the print cost.” Brown also speculated that POD would be the future for print copies of scholarly books.

Another potential way to get a third or fourth revenue stream from content might be “shorts”—15,000-20,000 word e-books excerpted from already published books. Among those leading the experiment is Princeton University Press. Princeton Shorts is a new series of e-book only excerpts from already published works on the press’s list; a new one is forthcoming on Afghanistan. The necessity of peer review of university press material makes it logical, and expeditious, for Princeton to cull from already published material. “We can’t have the same speed as commercial presses that don’t have to do the vetting,” said Fred Appel, executive editor for religion and anthropology.

The old-fashioned business of selling physical books still took place for some publishers. Paulist Press was having success with Catholic Perspectives on Sports from Medieval to Modern Times by Patrick Kelly (Nov.) Bob Byrns, director of sales and marketing, was surprised, given the non-liturgical audience, at the degree of interest in Liturgy: The Illustrated History by Keith Pecklers; He said half the print run of the heavily illustrated and pricey ($79.95) title was already sold.

There were less costly impulse buys, too. Both Wm. B. Eerdmans and World Wisdom were enjoying sales of their children’s books. “We’ve been so busy,” said Mary-Kathryne Steele, president of World Wisdom, after serving an adult and child pair of customers. “A lot of people in religious studies embrace the idea of exposing young people to different religious traditions.”

AAR and SBL will convene Nov. 23-26 next year in Baltimore.