The American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL)—the learned societies of professors of religious studies and biblical studies— attracted over 10k people to Atlanta for their joint annual conference from Nov. 20-23. An important selling show, the AAR/SBL conference is also a vital place for academic religion publishers to promote their titles for course adoptions and scout for new authors and projects.

SBL executive director Kutsko cited a slight increase in attendance over last year’s conference in San Diego, with a total number of 10,041 attendees compared to 9,905 in 2014. Also up from last year’s 143, there were 148 exhibitors this year, although the number of booths fell one digit, from 284 to 285 because “publishers are having less footprint” with digital sales, said Kutsko.

While AAR does not have its own book program (it publishes through Oxford University Press), SBL Press now publishes 39 titles per year, up from 26 six years ago, providing its members with an outlet for their highly specialized academic monographs, which fewer publishers do than in the past. “E-book sales exceeded our expectations by 33.9% over 2014,” said Kutsko. “Although that’s only 1.7% of overall sales,” it is an uptick that might signal a change in the continuing preference of scholars and students for print books.

AAR executive director Jack Fitzmier told PW of plans to launch a new feature in its journal, JAAR, called Booknotes, with brief book reviews that provide click-throughs to publishers and vendors to purchase the books. “We want to substantially increase the number of reviews we offer to our members” so they have the timeliest information on new books in their fields, Fitzmier said.

This year the two societies offered more than 1,370 sessions and events, which Fitzmeir and Kutsko noted was a feat of scheduling and coordination. SBL has a membership of some 8,200 scholars, AAR’s current membership is about 9,000, according to Fitzmier; after a drop of 25% during the recession, “it’s back up now,” he said. He also described AAR’s work with the State Department to provide expertise in religion, particularly, these days, on anti-Semitism and Islam. In addition, AAR consults with and provides training for prison and military chaplains and the FBI.

Under the last contract signed during the three years that AAR and SBL held separate annual meetings, this year’s conference took place within the limited space at the Hyatt Regency, with the book exhibit split between two floors. In response to exhibitors’ complaints over the lack of foot traffic on the lower level, conference officials made frequent announcements over loudspeakers encouraging attendees to visit the bottom floor, where free coffee was also made available. Despite being on the lower floor, head of editorial at Jewish Lights/Skylight Paths Emily Wichland told PW that their first-day AAR/SBL sales matched those in a “prime location” at the show in San Diego last year.

The mood among publishers was upbeat, with several expanding their programs and taking them in more trade-oriented directions. Bob Hosack, executive editor of Brazos Press, described plans to “revivify” the Baker Publishing Group imprint by increasing title output to 15 to 20 titles a year (from nine in 2015), with more emphasis on books for the general trade. Citing the imprint’s namesake, Hosack described Brazos as a “wide river” in the reach of its books; forthcoming next spring is America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and author of the bestsellers God’s Politics and The Great Awakening.

The University of North Carolina Press, which is well known for its books on Islam, is ramping up its coverage of Catholicism with books that include The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Apr. 2016) by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez and St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint (Oct. 2015) by Patricia Appelbaum. “Catholics are the largest faith group in America, if you don’t combine the protestant denominations,” noted senior executive editor Elaine Maisner, explaining the importance of publishing to and about Catholics.

Announced earlier in the week, Zondervan’s academic and reference division has partnered with BibleMesh to offer online distance learning courses. “It’s exploiting our content in a new way, with built-in tech support and course development,” said senior v- and publisher Stan Gundry. The collaboration has already produced seven courses, with a total of 20-25 courses to be developed by the end of 2016.

Paul Franklyn, associate publisher at Abingdon, told PW about a new women’s Bible in the Common English translation it plans to publish in the fall. Unlike many Bibles targeted at women, this will not be a devotional version with commentary focused on motherhood and marriage, but will include the work of female scholars writing on a wide range of topics. Franklyn said it would be marketed as “not your mother’s Bible.”

After the retirement this year of long-time executive editor Jon Pott, Eerdmans has welcomed James Ernest to the role. President and publisher Anita Eerdmans and Rachel Bomberger, Eerdmans’ new marketing director, told PW the company also was taking a new direction with the hiring of acquisitions editor Lil Copan, tasked with leading the press into publishing titles that appeal to the “spiritual but not religious” reader, a growing demographic in America. A preview of Copan’s acquired titles included Chris Anderson’s The Soul Might Be Like This: Coming to Trust in Our Moments of Joy, expected in the fall.

Among the standout subjects represented at the conference were Islam, Mormonism, and LGBQT and other social justice issues, with titles on each offered at many of the publishing houses. Also creating a buzz was the move of Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God) from long-time publisher HarperOne to Simon & Schuster; Ehrman’s agent, Roger Freet of Foundry Literary + Media, had been his editor at HarperOne. Novelist Marilynne Robinson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 for Lila, is the recipient of AAR’s 2015 Religion and the Arts award and was the featured participant in a Sunday evening panel.

This year brought the debut of Retail Tuesday, with consumers admitted to the exhibit to buy books and listen to a public lecture by scholar and author John Dominick Crossan (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography). The new feature was promoted to local seminaries, colleges, and faith communities. Its addition was simpler than the launch of Book Expo’s consumer show, BookCon, since AAR/SBL exhibitors are already set up to handle sales. No information on the outcome of Retail Tuesday was available at press time.

Next year’s AAR/SBL conference is being held in San Antonio from Nov. 19-21.