The shape of publishing continues to shift, but academic presses still face the perennial questions: audience, sales, course adoptions, a shrinking library market. There are new issues, too, such as how to use evolving digital formats and how to price them. Although a rarified enterprise in some ways, publishing scholarly books in religion is a business like any other—it’s all about identifying the customers and figuring out how to get them to buy, all while running a commercially viable operation.
Everyman vs. the Professor
As the library channel contracted and online used booksellers began to raid sales of course books, many scholarly presses turned to publishing trade books, hoping to reach general, nonspecialist readers and expand their markets. Some continue that enterprise, but others are refocusing on their core audiences: scholars, libraries, and students. As Jeff Crosby, associate publisher and director of sales and marketing at InterVarsity Press, says, “We are virtually 50-50 academic versus trade, and academic has grown as a percentage steadily over the past decade, with far more emphasis now on textbook adoption.” Patrick Alexander, director of Penn State University Press, points to the press’s religion list as “about 30% trade and 70% scholarly.”
Other publishers have broadened their definition of trade to include church professionals. Westminster John Knox’s executive editor, Robert A. Ratcliff, says WJK’s fall list is “balanced pretty evenly between books for academic, church-professional, and general-interest readers,” and title output for all three audiences has grown in the past three years. Jon Pott, editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, notes, “Our bona fide academic books are at perhaps 60%, with most of the remaining targeted at a quite educated readership. We’re very interested in bridging the academy to the church.”
About audiences, Carey Newman, director at Baylor University Press, says, “We will do books in traditional subject areas from senior scholars, but also from emerging scholars, as well as books and authors at the margins. We fold in a few textbooks and then one or two surprises.” However, Newman says that after moving aggressively into the general trade over the past several years, “Baylor has refocused its efforts. We believe in books by scholars, for scholars.”
HarperOne sells books into courses, but doesn’t segment its list into trade and scholarly. Executive editor Roger Freet says, “Publishing the work of top scholars remains a vital feature of our program and core to our mission. All of our projects are acquired, developed, and promoted as books for the general reader.” Perhaps trying to move in that direction, senior acquisitions editor Tony Jones at Fortress Press says he is acquiring trade books written by scholars, but also accessible to general readers; the new line will be announced at the joint annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature.
To Print, or Not to Print?
As the emphasis swings between trade-like academic and formally academic books for many religion publishers, and as the demand for e-books slowly increases, these presses seek ways to capture their content in whatever format readers want it. WJK’s Ratcliff says, “We now produce all but a few of our books on a print-on-demand basis, and we continue to look for more cost-effective ways to publish books without sacrificing quality.” Jim Kinney, associate publisher and editorial director of Baker Academic and Brazos Press, agrees: “We think a little more about the tactile appeal of print editions. Our production department’s attention to quality is perhaps more important now than it was 20 years ago, when readers had only one choice of medium.” He adds, “We start a few more books in hardcover than we used to, so book lovers will be able to own a really nice copy.”
Religion presses also look more closely now at prices and discounts. Penn State’s Alexander says that with the drop in library and institutional sales, “We’ve had to print more copies to realize cost savings, discount higher to allow others to resell, and price lower to encourage more individual sales.” Eerdmans’s Pott says, “We’re having to be more aware than we used to be to price in a way that’s savvy.” Oxford senior editor Theo Calderara adds, “We are more concerned about list price than about discount. Getting the price right is much more important to the ultimate success of a book.”
All scholarly religion publishers produce e-books and Web-based reference products, but not all are convinced that sales justify production costs. According to Alexander, “We’re seeing more costs for creating new formats and new workflows, but have not noticed a corresponding increase in purchasing for those new formats. Users just don’t seem to want e-books for research.” Newman states it bluntly: “We are just as e-innovative and e-aggressive as any other publisher, but we also remain committed to print, cloth, quality. This is counter to market forces, but we are seeing real growth in what the so-called gurus are saying has already died.”