Religion scholars and academic publishers gathered in Denver, Colo. for the joint annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) from Nov. 17-21. While fewer scholars attended compared to last year’s meeting on the East Coast—where numbers tend to be higher because of greater accessibility for European and other international academics—attendance was up 0.3% from 2016’s meeting in the Midwest, clocking in at 9,427. The number of exhibitors was up nearly 9% compared to the 2016 meeting. “In a time where flat is the new up in publishing, it’s good news all around,” SBL executive director John Kutsko told PW.
SBL has several ongoing projects to provide resources for scholars, journalists, and others outside of the academy, including the development of databases and websites that offer access to the best religion scholarship. The goal, Kutsko says, is “increasing public engagement with religion.” SBL also is about to launch a 30-year review of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible.
Alice Hunt, AAR’s new executive director, debuted at this year’s conference. She reported that membership is 7,670, a 6% decrease from last year. When asked about new initiatives, Hunt said: "We are focused on increasing membership benefits. We have added resources, like JSTOR, for our members. And we are looking at ways members can engage their many publics."
AAR/SBL is the most important academic conference of the year for scholarly religion publishers, serving as a place to not only sell books, but to meet with existing and potential authors as well as colleagues at other houses. Several editors referred to the exceptional sessions available at this year’s gathering, including a panel of religion reporters—from the New York Times, Time magazine and other publications—who discussed the need for a better connection between scholars and the media.
Another session explored issues surrounding the controversial Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which has been criticized for portraying itself as a nonsectarian institution while communicating an evangelical Christian point of view. Speakers included Candida Moss, co-author (with Joel Baden) of Bible Nation: The United State of Hobby Lobby (2017).
Books on faith and political activism have proliferated in the era of Trump, including Faith in American Public Life (Baylor, 2019), Burying White Privilege (Eerdmans, Dec.), and Social Democracy in the Making by Gary Dorrien (Yale, Apr. 2019). Titles are also surging on social justice, immigration, and the deep division between political parties today, such as The Church of Us. vs. Them, coming from Brazos in July 2019. Says senior acquisitions editor Robert Hosack, “I did not know how relevant it would turn out to be.”
Other trends include a push for more academic titles from women and people of color, several publishers told PW. “We are intentionally looking for diverse voices and women’s voices,” said Stan Gundry, senior v-p and publisher of Zondervan Academic.
Liturgical Press continues its feminist Bible commentary series with three new volumes this year; it also will publish In the Mystery’s Shadow: Reflections on Caring for the Elderly and Dying (Liturgical, June 2019) by Susan Swetnam, a retired college writing teacher and author who draws on her work as a massage therapist in hospices, as well as the experience caring for her dying husband. “We are interested in getting a lot of female voices,” says Tara Durheim, associate publisher of the press.
Baylor University Press has a particular emphasis on books about faith and disability and is adding to its nine-book backlist on the subject with Wonderfully Wounded by Brian Brock (fall 2019) which offers a theology of autism. Press director Carey Newman also says he is turning more acquisitions efforts to books from U.K. and German authors.
UNC Press is adding to its list of books on Islamic studies, which executive editor Elaine Maisner called a "solid area." And the subject remains strong at Yale as well, with From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11 by Shakira Hussein publishing in February. "We are investing in these books and are actively trying to do more," said Jennifer Banks, executive editor at the press.
Next year’s annual meetings will take place in San Diego from Nov. 23-25. The event will continue to be a partnership between AAR and SBL, as the learned societies recently signed a rolling agreement through 2031.