Too many books, fewer and fewer readers—these are challenging times for any book publisher. But publishers of academic religion books cite unique additional problems: more professors are using course packs instead of textbooks. Declining library budgets have led to a drop in the sales of highly specialized monographs, once the bread and butter of scholarly presses. Budgets for marketing and sales have shrunk. More reference books are being published electronically instead of in print editions. Denominational publishers are less interested in scholarly works than they once were. The effect of the Internet—including the siphoning of content by Google and its ilk—cannot yet be fully measured.
Scholars themselves face increasing pressure from sales-hungry publishers to write for general audiences, a task their training has ill-equipped them for. All of these factors, says John Kutsko, director of academic and professional publishing for Abingdon Press, "threaten opportunities for scholarly writing and could potentially erode one of the criteria for professional advancement, tenure and promotion." The publishers, too, are threatened, adds Henry Carrigan, publisher for Continuum's T&T Clark imprint: "The shrinking market cannot support either the number of publishers or the volume of books that are being published. The number of publishers now on the scene will be greatly reduced, either through death or merger."
Now for the Good News
The bestsellers lists over the past several years make one thing perfectly clear: academic trade titles—written engagingly to appeal to the intelligent general reader—have huge potential for success in the current market. "Just look at some of the frontlist titles of tier one university presses," says Kutsko. "In fact, popular culture sometimes drives this market, as in the case, most recently, of The Da Vinci Code," which spawned a plethora of responses from academics eager to defend Christian orthodoxy or to point out the errors in Dan Brown's version of history. Phenomena like this provide "opportunities for scholars who are creative and communicate effectively," Kutsko says He also thinks that reports of the death of the monograph have been greatly exaggerated: "Books will exist so long as the academy depends on criteria for determining original contributions to knowledge—that is, forever."
Carey C. Newman, director of Baylor University Press, points to the success of other serious books by nonacademics, such as Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God, Jim Wallis's God's Politics, Naomi Riley's God on the Quad and Jon Meacham's American Gospel. Says Newman, "These are all books that are accessible without pandering, that try to do both good and well, and are in conversation with larger cultural issues."
In a post-9/11 world, the need for thoughtful, intelligent books about religion and its place in society is greater than ever, our panel of experts all agree. Religious pluralism in the U.S. and around the world, says John Loudon, executive editor at Rowman & Littlefield/Sheed & Ward, means "professors have increasing responsibility to educate not only students but the general public."
Another major factor is globalization—people can no longer afford to be ignorant of the traditions and cultures of those with whom they now interact in so many ways. Richard Brown, director at Georgetown University Press, says, "Think of China and Confucianism. If China is the next big thing, politically and economically, shouldn't we have some basic understanding of the philosophical system that motivates the behaviors and attitudes of millions of Chinese?"
Increasing diversity in universities and seminaries also requires a global approach, says Jon Berquist, senior academic editor at Westminster John Knox. "Schools are progressing beyond the time when racial or ethnic studies were segregated. Many now recognize that culture and diversity need to be cornerstones of every course in every subject area."
In the face of these needs, the long banishment of religion from the general educations of college and university students also seems to be coming to an end. Recently, a curriculum committee at Harvard University proposed that every undergraduate be required to take at least one course in religious studies, according to Fred Appel, religion and anthropology editor at Princeton University Press: "An indisputable leader of American higher education is coming around to the idea that a properly educated college graduate should know something about the role of religion in history and in the contemporary world. This is a remarkable development."
Breaking Down Boundaries
A constant theme among our experts is that the old divisions between academic disciplines have broken down. Religion was once consigned to a kind of academic ghetto, but no more, they say. "Religion isn't something you can study in isolation, and it can't be the sole province of the religious studies department," Theo Calderara, editor at Oxford University Press, says. "Scholars in a whole host of disciplines have realized that you need to know about religion if you're going to study international politics or American history—or just about anything else."
Such interdisciplinary books also figure in the business strategies of publishers. Jennifer Hammer, editor at New York University Press, tells PW the press wants to acquire religion titles that cross over into the other subject areas it publishes. "This is a real strength of our publishing program and allows us to co-promote our religion books with other lists such as race and ethnicity, sociology, history and cultural studies."
Princeton's Appel also looks for "innovative, interdisciplinary books" that appeal to scholars in other fields, as well as to "opinion makers and analysts working in public policy forums, foundations and research institutes."
Joanna Hill, director of Templeton Foundation Press, which specializes in books on the intersection of religion and science, thinks that debate especially requires dialogue across disciplines. "As much as theologians need to know basic concepts of science, scientists have much to learn from sophisticated theological arguments," she says.
Beyond the Book
Thinking beyond print—trying to predict the very future of the book as we know it—has become one of the greatest challenges publishers face today. Scholarly presses still have to publish technical studies, says Abingdon's Kutsko, but "more and more of us will turn to the Internet and electronic media to keep expenses down. This is one of the greatest opportunities for the academy now: [discovering] economical ways to publish and distribute academic research." That also will require new methods of peer review, he notes.
Georgetown's Brown points out that "in so many other fields—hard sciences and languages in particular—multimedia and electronic delivery and interactive Web sites are becoming the norm." Younger generations of students—and in time, academics—will come to expect that, he says. "If we don't start planning right now, and coming up with creative ways to reach digitally savvy generations, we really will be left behind."
And there are other wrinkles to consider, according to Ellen Frankel, CEO of the Jewish Publication Society: "The Internet has fostered thousands of small affinity groups, a significant number of them focused on religious exploration and study. New publications will emerge from such grassroots communities, whether in the form of collective wiki-type writings, threaded commentaries or edited anthologies from blogs and podcasts. Top-down religious authorities will increasingly find themselves in dynamic negotiation with bottom-up religious populism."
"How do academic publishers continue to add value to authors when publishing and marketing on the Web is so easy and print-on-demand is accessible to everyone?" asks Stan Gundry, senior v-p and editor-in-chief at Zondervan. "Have blogs made obsolete vehicles of information and argumentation like books, CD-ROMs, or online data banks? It is inevitable that more and more scholarly works will be published only in digital form and accessed as needed on a subscription basis. The question is, will people actually pay for it?"
Jon Pott, v-p and editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, also wonders about the role of print-on-demand technology in this brave new world. "It could enable the publication in small runs of some extremely good books with highly specialized and limited audiences," he says. "But it could also encourage the publication of everything under the sun and make publication less a measure of the quality of the work and a less credible warrant for tenure or other academic advancement."
Still, along with the challenges it presents, the Internet provides many benefits for publishers of all kinds, says Joel Scandrett, associate academic and reference editor at InterVarsity Press. "As a mid-range publisher, the key to our survival lies in adapting to the Internet, which enables us to keep our backlist alive, [to] develop our direct sales and [to] maintain a competitively high profile while still remaining mobile."
New Demands on Authors
Holing up in the ivory tower and writing 500-copy—print-run monographs to their peers just won't cut it today, many of the publishers say. Scholars shouldn't fear topics with mass appeal, and they should be able to write for general audiences, says Mark Tauber, deputy publisher at Harper San Francisco. "This might sound simple, but it is far from it. Connected to this is a willingness to get personal, and most academics are not experienced and comfortable writing their or others' personal stories." He cites as "counterexamples" Bart Ehrman, Francis Collins, Marcus Borg and Elaine Pagels. "Here are four academics at the top of their fields who have integrated their personal stories into their books, and it has clearly resonated with readers."
Wendy Lochner, senior executive editor for religion, philosophy and animal studies at Columbia University Press, agrees. "The usual approach, either from the left or the right, just isn't satisfying. People want lived experience and a new way of thinking about issues." And, she says, declining monograph sales "seem to have failed to appear on the radar screens of most scholars. I wish that submissions were more cognizant of the need to make a broader argument in their fields and—especially in the case of American religion—to appeal to a wider educated audience."
Still, for all the buzz about "academic trade" and bestsellerdom, that is not the target Elaine Maisner, senior editor at the University of North Carolina Press, is trying to hit. "The study of religion is improved when religious subjects are approached with sympathy, but the faith-driven inspirational books published by religious or commercial publishing houses, even with those enviable popular sales numbers, are not in our purview."
Jenna Johnson and Andrea Schultz, editor and senior editor respectively at Harcourt, both believe that the role of the public intellectual in religion is an important one, and they call on younger scholars to "follow in the footsteps of the Pagels, Kings, Armstrongs, and address a market still hungry for the religious history and context that academics often take for granted."
Jon Pott wishes that doctoral advisers did a better job of guiding their advisees, who often are expected to be able to get their dissertation published as a book. "Publishers can do only so much to help them deal with a project that should have never gotten off the ground in the first place if eventual publication was a goal," he says.
Finally, says Baylor's Newman: "I direct a university press, so I have to love bone-crunching monographs. But I privately yearn for an academic book that proves once and for all that some lost and suppressed secret gospel preserves the true message of Jesus, that a complex number cipher when randomly applied to this lost gospel will decode it, and that, once decoded, the gospel reveals a universal spiritual message about the seven people we will meet in heaven."