Once the bread and butter of academic religion publishers, specialized backlist titles are facing tough times: a proliferation of used books, textbook piracy, and a shrinking library market. Here, 16 publishers talk about backlist success stories as well as the pitfalls of today's academic market.

PW: What is your bestselling backlist title for an academic audience, and what are its cumulative sales? Why do you think this particular title has been such a strong seller?

Weiner, Yale: Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be, which was published in 1952. The paperback has sold close to half a million copies. Obviously, he is deceased and can't revise it, but in 2000 we did a new introduction. It makes me happy that in this day and age in publishing, when everything else has a shelf life of a yogurt, we have a backlist book like that.

Appel, Princeton: Our translation of the Confucian classic The I Ching, or Book of Changes, with an introduction by C.J. Jung (1950, 1964). The I Ching became a centerpiece of New Age culture in the '60s and '70s and the one-volume edition has sold more than a million copies. It still sells more than 5,000 copies per year. While it has some classroom use, its popularity is primarily outside the scholarly market.

Stephens, WJK: John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by John T. McNeill, has had cumulative sales of about 80,000 units over the past 20 years. It's used in many classes, from basic theology courses to more specialized history and theology courses.

Frankel, JPS:The JPS Tanakh, also known as NJPS, published in 1985, after 30 years of development by a committee of Jewish scholars and rabbis. This translation in its many editions, including our current bestselling edition known as the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, has sold about 1.5 million copies since 1985.

Crosby, IVP:The Universe Next Door [1975] by James A. Sire has sold more than 250,000 units in four editions. A fifth edition is planned for 2009. We believe it has maintained its relevance and strong sales through periodic updates based on cultural and religious shifts and the insightful perspective Sire brings to them.

PW: What do you see as the most difficult challenges facing textbooks and specialized academic books in the religion category today?

Carrigan, Northwestern: Textbooks are dead. They're too cumbersome and costly, and the information cannot be updated quickly enough. The greatest challenge to specialized academic books—which are different than textbooks—is open access. Do scholars want to hold a book in their hands—the old model—or have a thousand readers viewing chapters or selected portions of their book on the Web—the new method?

Price, Orbis: Competition. There are just a lot of good books out there, and there are also a lot of publishers “doing religion,” so the competition for top authors is pretty keen.

Maisner, UNC: Not assigning whole books for reading. One of the most difficult challenges is the ongoing trend for teachers to utilize copyrighted material by disaggregating books and posting parts of them in e-reserves and online for student use without regard to obtaining the necessary permissions.

Glazer, Oxford: Textbook publishers are all being seen as big corporations that exploit students and value profits over education. The textbook is being devalued in terms of the importance it brings to the classroom. It's now being seen as a necessary evil instead of a meaningful component. The rising costs of textbooks have contributed to this.

Thomson, Eerdmans: Internet used book sales have skyrocketed. These cut directly into actual book sales from the publisher. Another challenge, more future-looking, is the advent of e-books, through Kindle and other possible means of distribution. What the distribution of content will look like in the not too distant future is something we are wrestling with at Eerdmans.

Dean, Abingdon: The increased use of the Internet for research. A great deal of information is free and easily accessible, which certainly cuts into sales of academic and reference books. Also, the used book market. Students now have access to used books through many sources.

PW: Are there some scholarly topics that have softened in the past few years, or that you feel are overpublished?

Maisner, UNC: General introductions, some better than others, to Islam are relatively abundant at this point, as are speculative treatments about Islam and politics.

Carrigan, Northwestern: Biblical studies is certainly overpublished and will likely continue to be so because of the preponderance of courses in that category.

Crosby, IVP: Open theism and intelligent design. Both conversations are ongoing and we continue to see them as important areas of discourse, but sales have clearly softened in recent years.

Appel, Princeton: I'd say that books about mythology and those with Jungian-inspired analysis have dropped out of favor. I also think that the marketplace now has a surfeit of books that provide very general introductions to Islam for the nonspecialist. There has been a flood of such books since 2001.

Malcolm, California: For a while there was a feeling that books on Buddhism were going to be the next big thing. There was a flurry of titles, but that market has since been a disappointment. Anything in Jewish studies has always been a disappointment. For some reason—and I've yet to hear a really convincing explanation why this is—books related to Judaism, including memoir, just never sell.

Dean, Abingdon: The big basic introductory texts seem to have been overpublished, and the pattern now is that they're not used as much in the classroom. Professors are pulling from disparate lists, recommending or requiring different books almost every semester.

PW: On the other hand, what topics still need to be exploited?

Nachbaur, NYU: The megachurch and prosperity gospel phenomenon warrant increased attention.

Barrett, Templeton: Of the subject areas in which we publish, I think that religion and health have seen the biggest surge in new courses over the past five years.

Stephens, WJKP: History of biblical interpretation, new perspectives on historical theology and further research on Christianity outside the modern West are all prime for more exploration.

Weiner, Yale: We've had strength in both Jewish studies and early Christianity. Early Christianity is a really good topic right now. We're also very interested in history of religions, and that's an area we will continue to explore.

Price, Orbis: Ethics is a strong area; “green” is coming back (again); and we're seeing more interest in peace studies and classical spiritual writers, both as religious and literary figures.

Malcolm, California: There need to be more books on contemporary Islam and Muslim culture. (And I emphasize the word “contemporary.”) Another area of interest would be topics having to do with atheism. It is still too early to know whether this is merely a publishing fad, or something that will have legs. But I see this as a still uncharted territory, rich with potential. Last, the newly emerging field of “green religion”—works having to do with spirituality and environmental consciousness.

PW: Many publishers have reported problems with textbook piracy, with specialized academic books available online for free or for a nominal fee. Have you experienced problems with textbook piracy?

Glazer, Oxford: Yes, we have encountered textbook piracy and consider it a huge potential problem. The saving grace for us is that our research has shown that many students won't spend the time reading online and it becomes more convenient to buy the print. We continue to monitor where our content is being offered and are notified by our authors and our customers when they notice it being offered somewhere that doesn't seem right. When necessary, our legal department gets involved, but with many of these illegal sites, this has become an international law problem.

Weiner, Yale: The piracy issue is huge. Students scan the book, put it on a Web site, and then take down the site. It's almost impossible to trace. I am sure that it's a problem that will spread.

Frankel, JPS: We don't publish textbooks. And we have not seen much online piracy of our books. We scan randomly and at targeted sites for such unauthorized use, and when we have found it, we've firmly requested removal of the book files. So far, this has been effective.

Malcolm, California: Not only have we had books scanned and sold electronically over the Internet to students, we've had books scanned and reprinted for resale overseas. We just don't have the ability or the resources to effectively police something like this. That said, it hasn't become a big enough problem for us that we need to do something to stop it. I imagine the situation is much different for textbook publishers.

Kinney, Baker Academic: We've not yet had major problems with textbook piracy, but it represents another challenge of the future. Students who have grown up on the Internet have certain ideas about intellectual property and the sharing of information—ideas that don't always comport with existing laws.

Maisner, UNC: Yes, our contracts and rights director notes that some of our books have been scanned and mounted by highly organized piracy sites, where they can be downloaded through file-sharing arrangements. And content (often one or more chapters of one book) may be posted by way of such course management software systems as BlackBoard without appropriate permission or payments to the rights holders.

PW: How has the shrinking library market changed your publishing and marketing strategies?

Appel, Princeton: My colleagues in sales and marketing at PUP have spent a lot of time and effort developing our international business, both in the academic and library markets, to compensate for the shrinking library market here.

Caldwell, Beacon: Our publishing model has always been to first publish hardcovers at the trade price and discount; with the shrinking library market, it's become increasingly important to find authors who can write for a broader audience.

Kinney, Baker Academic: Specialty monographs, as a category, don't sell as well as they once did. I think that can be attributed in part to library budgets. And it has made us more cautious in that category.

Barrett, Templeton: At this year's AAUP meeting, one librarian said in a session, “We are literally out of shelf space,” so we're publishing more and more of our titles in a variety of e-book formats. I believe more than 90% of our titles have been converted to electronic format.

Nachbaur, NYU: We are printing reduced quantities of the hardcover books of dual editions for the library markets. Libraries will often take the paperback edition instead. We have noticed that libraries have approval plans that reject revised dissertations even though these are sometimes entirely new books that have gone through rigorous peer review and major reworking through the editing process.

PW: How are students buying their books nowadays, and how has that affected your publishing and marketing strategies?

Price, Orbis: Online, and used! We are now printing fewer initial copies of our most academic titles, and promoting them vigorously with price incentives to professors, students and readers.

Glazer, Oxford: Students have become very resourceful and don't feel the geographic constraints we once felt when we could only rely on the campus bookstores. They still visit the bookstores, but will also check Amazon, publishers' Web sites and other Web sites until they are satisfied they've found the best price. They are also able to purchase textbooks from foreign markets in developing nations after we made the textbooks available to them at much lower prices.

Thomson, Eerdmans: Online, online, online... to the detriment of too many stores. It has meant we have worked more with bloggers, to keep the online community aware. We have also worked to facilitate sales with all our online partners, as they continue to grow while other market segments atrophy.

Caldwell, Beacon: As we don't do textbooks, we're less affected by digital issues than other publishers. However, used sales certainly affect paperback sales, and make it more difficult to keep titles in print. Lightning Source, on the other hand, has made it easier, especially now that it's difficult to tell the difference between a Lightning Source title and a traditionally printed book. We continue to get good revenues from permissions for course packs.

Nachbaur, NYU: Lots of sales are going through Amazon.com, which has instituted textbook programs that help publishers pinpoint their lead textbooks and get them exposed online. In the future we will see more and more students buying e-books and using services such as CafeScribe, with which NYU Press just signed an agreement. We plan on embedding many of our books for which we have e-rights with XML so that they can be converted into e-books and have a high level of search capability. We want to be ready for the future.

Roundtable Participants
Abingdon Press: Mary Catherine Dean, editor-in-chief

Baker Academic: Jim Kinney, associate publisher/editorial director

Beacon Press: Amy Caldwell, executive editor

Eerdmans Publishing: Michael Thomson, sales director

InterVarsity Press: Jeff Crosby, associate publisher, sales & marketing

Jewish Publication Society: Ellen Frankel, CEO/editor-in-chief

Northwestern University Press: Henry Carrigan, assistant director and senior editor

NYU Press: Fredric Nachbaur, marketing & sales director

Orbis Books: Bernadette Price, associate publisher

Oxford University Press: Adam Glazer, director of marketing, higher education group

Princeton University Press: Fred Appel, senior editor, religion & anthropology

Templeton Foundation Press: Laura Barrett, associate publisher

University of California Press: Reed Malcolm, senior acquisitions editor

University of North Carolina Press: Elaine Maisner, senior editor

Westminster John Knox Press: Gavin Stephens, director of sales & events

Yale University Press: Tina Weiner, associate director