The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature--the learned societies of professors of religious studies and biblical studies--met Nov. 21-24 in San Diego for their annual joint conference. For many academic religion publishers, AAR/SBL is an important selling show; the combined book exhibit is a place for them to promote their titles for course adoptions as well as sell their books to scholars at deep discounts and scout for authors and projects. The exhibit hall buzzed with eager buyers: Westminster John Knox Press reported selling out of two books, and Baylor University Press was on track for a record year of sales “if day one is any indicator,” said press director Carey Newman.
SBL director John Kutsko cited a drop of 300 in attendance at the conference over last year. Despite uniform approval of the San Diego location, West Coast meetings make it more difficult for scholars from Europe and Africa to come to the conference, he said. The final attendance figure on Sunday, which included walk-ins, was 9,847, compared to more than 10,000 last year in Baltimore.
The significant role played by publishers at the scholars’ annual meeting has AAR and SBL studying whether to build in a consumer component at the end of the conference that would make Tuesday, the final day of the four-day event and a traditionally slow time, more valuable for publishers. Unlike the consumer component evolving at BookExpo America, the AAR/SBL book exhibit already has publishers set up to handle sales. SBL’s Kutsko, a former associate publisher at Abingdon Press, said organizers had begun sounding out publishers about the desirability of such a change, as well as exploring solutions for logistical issues.
SBL is itself a publisher, and earlier this year began branding itself as SBL Press, providing members with an outlet for the publication of highly specialized academic monographs as other publishers shift their efforts away from such titles. “Our margins are so low we can get high quality books out,” said Kutsko, who said the press’s revenues had grown by 30% in the past 2 years. One of its current significant projects is a new critical edition of the Hebrew Bible.
Topics being buzzed about by the religion academy included Islam, once again at the top of the list. The International Qur’anic Studies Association, which meets in conjunction with AAR/SBL and was established in 2012 as a group related to SBL, earlier this year became an independent learned society and has grown to 450 members. A number of religion publishers with strong lists in Islam, including Oxford, Georgetown, Princeton, and University of North Carolina Press, are benefiting from that surge in interest. Another subject area front-of-mind for both scholars and publishers is the intersection of religion and environmental issues, specifically climate change. Books on global Christianity also continue to proliferate.
At the Evangelical Theological Society meeting that preceded AAR/SBL, Zondervan sponsored a 50th anniversary celebration of the NIV Bible that drew more than 700 for a dinner and a program featuring Douglas Moo, a New Testament scholar who was on the translation committee that updated the NIV Bible in 2011. Zondervan also hosted a Saturday morning session with Bart Ehrman and a panel of responders to his controversial How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, Mar.), who published their own book, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature (by Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling; Zondervan, Mar.). The packed session drew more than 600 people, according to Zondervan Academic s-v-p and editor-in-chief Stan Gundry.
AAR director Jack Fitzmier said its membership was down 15% since 2007. “There’s no discernable pattern, and we don’t know why,” he said. But he pointed to a problem that is affecting all scholarly fields: the over-supply of Ph.D.s for the number of available teaching positions. “It’s unsustainable,” he said, adding that projects were in the works by his and other learned societies to come up with alternative career paths for Ph.D.s, in government, business, publishing, and other fields.
Next year’s AAR/SBL conference meets in Atlanta Nov. 21-24.