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Publishers of scholarly religion books, in general, are in the same boat as all other publishers—dealing with the effects of the economic recession and wrestling with the promise and perils of the digital revolution. But for the most part, the academic market in religion publishing has remained remarkably stable. PW spoke with some of the key publishers in this area to get their take on the current climate and what the near future might bring.

Beyond the Church

Over the past couple of decades, as mainline church membership has fallen and support for denominational presses has declined, they have had to learn to act more like general trade houses, growing sales and searching for new readers.

"In 2011, growth is not optional," says Will Bergkamp, publisher and managing director of Lutheran publisher Fortress Press. "It will be hard fought, and it may be somewhat modest, but we must grow both the top and the bottom line of our program." He adds, "I'm not sure I believe there is a general outlook for the category, given the maturity of the market."

Bob Ratcliff, senior editor at Abingdon, the United Methodist press, notes that weak sales of textbooks—with professors changing texts more frequently and using more nontextbooks for classes, as well as the impact of used textbook sales—affect the broader programs of publishers who do both. "Without strong sales of a stable of introductory textbooks to undergird [their other] publishing, publishers have found themselves stretched thinner and thinner" and must cut title output, says Ratcliff. "That means that the number of high-quality books published in religious studies will likely shrink for the next several years," he predicts.

David Dobson, director of Presbyterian publisher Westminster John Knox, says, "Like many publishers in our field, our backlist is very important to us. With more than 1,700 titles in print, we've definitely seen the benefits of the long tail that Internet sales and print-on-demand technology has created. But that long tail can also have a backlash, and for us that is used book sales and, now, textbook rental programs." The key, he says, will be "revising core textbooks and developing new ones."

An Optimistic Outlook

Trade publishers with strong academic programs are generally optimistic. Jim Kinney, associate publisher of Baker Publishing Group and editorial director of Baker Academic & Brazos Press, says their sales held steady through the downturn, and they expect increases in 2011. He adds, "Academic publishing will continue in a state of flux for the foreseeable future, as scholars, schools, and publishers figure out how to navigate the opportunities and challenges presented by new ways of delivering information." Among the key questions Kinney sees: "Can online peer review replace or supplement the traditional process? What types of electronic publishing should count for tenure? Is there still a market for printed monographs?"

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