Backlist is the rock on which academic frontlist is built. "Strong and deep and wide" backlist is what all publishers crave, says Niko Pfund, v-p for academic, professional and medical books at Oxford University Press.
The point is more than academic. The most accessible UP titles are workhorses, appealing to educated general trade readers and religion professionals as well as seminary professors developing reading lists. In religion, as in other disciplines, backlist books by venerable and established names—from Bonhoeffer to Borg—provides food for a broad range of readers.
Backlist books are also golden eggs for publishers. They allow university presses to take on less profitable projects consistent with their mission to promote new scholarship and ideas. "Religion remains a very big frontlist and backlist seller for California," says University of California religion editor Reed Malcolm, "subsidizing our other less profitable, more specialized programs."
PW surveyed nearly a dozen university and denominational presses as well as seminary bookstores to find out what books make a great religion backlist. These are the star picks.
Theology and Biblical Studies
The field of Christian Old and New Testament studies includes several nominees for bestselling backlist. Influential theologian Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress, 1997) "is a huge seller for us after only four years," says Fortress biblical studies editor K.C. Hanson. Even the text itself, which offers a fresh approach to Old Testament analysis, is huge: 775 pages, bearing a hefty price tag of $48. Student customers at General Theological Union Bookstore, which serves the Berkeley-based ecumenical complex of theological schools, like An Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor Bible Reference Library) (Doubleday, 1997) by Raymond Brown. Yet another essential contemporary angle on biblical studies can be found in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Fortress, 1991), edited by Cain Hope Felder, professor of biblical studies at Howard University. The collection of essays by African-American biblical scholars is now in an 11th printing.
In a more general theological vein, GTU students also keep buying the work of Marcus Borg, particularly Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (Harper San Francisco, 1995) and The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (HSF, 1998). The theologian-teacher lives in Oregon and "he comes here during the summer and teaches a class," says bookstore manager John Seal. "He likes the GTU." A standard evangelical theological work selling well at the bookstore of Trinity International University, an evangelical seminary in Deerfield, Illinois, is Christian Theology (Baker, 1998) by Millard Erickson, in its second edition.
Students on both sides of the liberal-evangelical theology divide continue to read Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996) by Miroslav Volf. It sells at Yale, where Volf teaches, and at Trinity International. "I think we're all reading a lot of the same people because they're saying significant things," suggests Trinity's bookstore director Stacey Douglas. Volf's book sold well even before it was given the prestigious Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion earlier this year; prior to that the respected evangelical journal Christianity Today named it "One of the 100 Best Books of the 20th Century." Another distinctive theology title reaches across the divides of discipline. Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000) by Cambridge theologian Jeremy S. Begbie has caught the ear of musicians and composers as well as theologians, says Kevin Taylor, press publishing director in humanities and social sciences.
Books for the Soul
Some books keep seminarians sane while they study or act as consoling balm for the overtaxed pastor. At Yale Divinity School Book Supply Store, a 60-year-old former co-op that serves the needs of div school Yalies, customers don't purchase just one copy of Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987) by Nicholas Wolterstorff, an emeritus faculty member. "People buy them three at a time," says store manager and buyer Lisabeth Huck, who is also president of the Association of Theological Booksellers. She now automatically asks "How many do you want?" when customers request the elegiac title. Popular at GTU and offering an Episcopal perspective is Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse, 1998) by L. William Countryman.
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford, 1998) by Belden C. Lane marries contemplative spirituality, geography and Islam in a unique combination that has made for a title successful in a variety of retail outlets, from Amazon through chains and indies and at theological stores. Dallas Willard is his own competition at Trinity, where both Spirit of the Disciplines (Harper Collins, 1998) and The Divine Conspiracy (Harper San Francisco, 1998) have lasting appeal for evangelical Christian students.
Tools for the Pastoral Road
Ethics is one field in which the rubber of theology meets the road of life. Christian Ethics: An Essential Guide by Robin W. Lovin (Abingdon, 1999) "has become a mainstay for the study of Christian ethics in just a short time," says Stephen Graham-Ching, business manager for Abingdon's academic and professional unit. Ethics in Pastoral Ministry (Paulist, 1996) by Richard M. Gula is a bestseller at Berkeley's GTU; Gula teaches at the school's Franciscan School of Theology.
Another type of practical ministry book sells well at Trinity International, where 35% of bookstore clients come from the community rather than the university. Bookstore director Douglas describes these titles as "tracts for the times." These books offer answers to current ministry concerns until the answer they suggest becomes accepted and the concerns shift accordingly. Then book sales begin to taper, she observes. One such book has been The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message or Your Mission (Zondervan, 1995) by Rick Warren. Sales of the seven-year-old title are slowing at Trinity, but Douglas has high hopes for Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Zondervan, Oct.), fresh out of the carton. Douglas says of such "tracts" from evangelical publishers Zondervan, Baker, InterVarsity Press, Eerdmans, Crossway, "we sell a ton of all their materials."
References and Basics
Students of religion—inside and outside the academy—need reference works: dictionaries, atlases, grammars, guides. At Yale's div school store, student-to-student recommendation over the years has sold The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997, third edition), edited by E.A. Livingstone, despite a stiff price of $125. In a recent store newsletter highlighting indispensable books, it was named by a student staff member as the one book students couldn't live without, says manager Huck.
The title is less than sexy, but A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000, third ed.), edited by Walter Bauer and revised and edited by Frederick William Danker, has become a standard reference for biblical scholars since it was first published in 1957. "Without question it's our bestselling religion book," says Erin Hogan, director of publicity at the press, "and it's expensive" ($125).
Trinity's bookstore sells lots of The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 2001), edited by Walter Elwell. This second edition updates a "comprehensive collection of articles," says Douglas. She also does good business with The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody, 1985), partly because author Barry J. Beitzel, a well-known Bible cartographer, also happens to be Trinity's provost.
Texts on Islam, Judaism
Oxford University Press enjoys a strong backlist in Islamic studies—"six pages in our catalogue," says OUP v-p Pfund—and reaped from it even before backlist sales took off post-September 11, 2001. The press's star is John Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, who became a talk-show fixture on political Islam following the terrorist attacks in America (See "Go to the Head of the Class" in this issue). But several thousand of Esposito's titles already were selling annually before the terrorist attacks, as were titles on Islam in America by scholar and Esposito colleague Yvonne Haddad and Islam in the World (2000, second ed.) by English scholar Malise Ruthven. Robert Dannin's Black Pilgrimage to Islam (2001), done with his photographer wife, Jolie Stahl, was also attracting readers by offering a fresh look at orthodox Islam among African-Americans, as distinct from Nation of Islam beliefs and practices.
Princeton University Press is happy that Frank Peters, an expert on Islam and other monotheistic religions and author of A Reader on Classical Islam (1994), has another title due next spring, since the Reader "has continued to sell extremely well," says religion editor Fred Appel. A solid backlist name for them in Judaic studies is the late scholar Gershom Scholem, whose works they publish in English. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626—1676 was published in paper in 1997 and has sold almost 12,000 copies in that edition. Scholem's The Origins of the Kabbalah (1991) has always sold well; current popular interest in the Jewish esoteric tradition hasn't produced a really discernible bump in sales, Appel says. And Princeton has kept in print since its 1987 publication The Jews of Islam by historian Bernard Lewis, another post-September 11 backlist star.
Publishers naturally hope they have a few classics-in-the-making. Yale likes the prospects for John Polkinghorne, winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize in Religion. Two of his strong paperbacks for them are Belief in God in an Age of Science (1999) and Faith, Science and Understanding (2001). The University of Chicago did not see many returns on The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed by English theologian J.R. Porter (2001). Cambridge's Taylor reports particularly strong sales in North America for An Introduction to Judaism by scholar Nicholas de Lange (2000). Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (Harper San Francisco, 1992) by the popular novelist has been selling well for 10 years at Yale's divinity school.
The best religion backlist gathers no dust on publishers' and booksellers' shelves. Like wine, it ages well, and some select works are even now in the process of becoming as timeless as the spiritual truths that inspired them.