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Christmas comes early every year for academic religion publishers. At the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL)—held annually the weekend before Thanksgiving—authors come bearing gifts of unpublished manuscripts and proposals to acquisitions editors, and scores of professors and graduate students haul away books at deep discounts. These are book people, and between the excitement on the exhibit floor and the lively discussions in nearby cafes and bars, everyone leaves the conference in high spirits about the future of scholarly religion books.

For publishers and authors, this year's annual meeting in San Francisco (November 18–22) is a momentous one, as the two learned societies meet together for the first time in five years after a controversial split.

"From a publishing perspective," says Richard Brown, director at Georgetown University Press, "separate meetings were burdensome and not very conducive to good communications between teachers and publishers." Having weathered the split, religion publishers are excited about this year's meeting. Jim Kinney, editorial director of Baker Academic and Brazos Press, echoes the feelings of many: "We're glad to see the meetings back together again. Too many people were having to decide between them in recent years. AAR/SBL is still a highlight of the year for us and our authors, and there's no substitute for the opportunity to gather face-to-face with so many academics in our field."

The Year Past and the Year to Come

The feverish activity of AAR/SBL comes when academic publishing faces a number of problems: the national economic recession, the loss of retail outlets, competition from used textbook sales, shrinking library budgets, and the increasing pressure to produce electronic books. As David Dobson, publisher of Westminster John Knox Press, points out, "There's no doubt that this is the most challenging time for book publishers in decades. We're continuing to see the pressure that used-book sales place on our academic line, and the general economy and the decline of book retailers have hurt book sales. At the same time, our sales of e-books and digital products are exploding."

Despite these tensions, religion remains a solid growth category in publishing, and academic religion publishers have seen growth over the past year as they try to respond with care and thoughtfulness to the key issues. Princeton University Press is off to a good start this fiscal year, says director Peter Dougherty. "We've had several record sales years recently, so the bar keeps getting higher." Baylor University Press continues to grow, according to director Carey C. Newman. "Last fiscal year, which ended in May 2011, we were up 28%, and this year we are projecting another 18% growth." At Georgetown University Press, Brown reports "a very strong [2010], with sales up 6% from the previous year, which was our ninth straight year of record sales."

To increase revenue or in an attempt to modify their lists to reflect their strengths in a fuller way, some publishers have revised their strategies. According to Jon Pott, senior v-p and editorial director at Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, "We're doing fewer highly specialized academic monographs, fewer dissertations or books closely derived from them, fewer collections of essays (especially conference collections), and fewer choreographed multiauthor books, and we're trying to cultivate a higher percentage of thoughtful general market books." Other publishers have grown and increased profitability through acquisitions. Baker Academic Books and Brazos Press finished their recent fiscal year with strong sales—up 5% for Baker Academic and 25% for Brazos—after two flat years, according to Kinney. "Last year we had our best ever, fueled in part by our purchase of about 300 academic titles from Hendrickson. We expect steady improvement in sales and profitability in the next year."

Digital Strategies

As in the general trade, perhaps the greatest challenge these publishers face is moving from print to digital. All acknowledge the tremendous shifts in the landscape of publishing over the past five years and the steady rush to embrace electronic publishing, as well as the demands of consumers for digital editions of academic religion books. While the textbook market has still been largely unaffected by the rush to e-books—there is not yet a good or reliable platform that will allow students to easily annotate books, according to Fred Appel, senior religion editor of Princeton University Press—individuals and libraries are now buying more e-books. In addition, many authors are asking acquisitions editors whether their book might appear in an e-book format.

Religion publishers have recognized the importance of entering the e-book market, but most have been conservative and worked through partnerships with library aggregators to license content to libraries. The question of electronic publishing is complicated, as publishers try to decide which vendor—Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, Project MUSE—provides the best compatibility for their books. Although the jury is still out on the success of e-books as a means of generating revenue, publishers have begun to respond to the demand in numerous ways.

Some have decided simply to publish an e-book simultaneously with the print book. At Columbia University Press, says senior editor of religion Wendy Lochner, "all of our books are coming out in the full array of e-book formats, and we're in the process of doing the same for our complete backlist." Houses have been moving at various paces: Baylor's Newman characterizes its response to the demand for electronic publishing as one of both care and enthusiasm. "We do not think a headlong rush into e-platforms or e-distribution for all of our books is a wise move for us. We have, however, moved with swiftness and abandon with those titles we believe have large upsides."

At Princeton, Appel reports that all new books are being released simultaneously in print and electronic formats. Sales of e-books are increasing across the board, he observes; "we're now getting regular reports from our sales department on Kindle sales of our books." Baker's Kinney reports making sure to listen well to conversations about digital books and learn from colleagues in trade publishing about what books might best be digitized. "We're committed to making material available in whatever format readers prefer, and for the second half of 2011 we've hired some additional help to get much of our backlist digitized and ready for distribution." At WJK, "we've been aggressively converting our backlist to various e-book formats since early 2010, and we've seen the results this past year," says Dobson. "E-book sales year-to-date are up almost 1,000% over last year."

University and college libraries remain probably the most important customers for e-books. With shrinking library budgets for print books, many publishers have been less focused on digitizing books for availability on the Kindle or the Nook and more attentive to the demands of libraries. In 2003, Oxford University Press launched Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO). Oxford senior marketing manager Brian Hughes points out that OUP has always cultivated close relationships with librarians, trying to produce products to meet their needs. Libraries buy entire subject collections on OSO, and entire books and images are available within each subject area. New books are uploaded three times a year, including 300 frontlist and backlist religion titles per year.

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