The digital revolution has arrived at seminaries and religious colleges as e-books lighten backpacks and, in some cases, take pressure off burdensome book budgets. For publishers, now comes the hard part: figuring out how to sell into these niche markets digitally, profitably, and without driving anyone crazy in the process.

Maintaining sanity in this arena can be challenging at times. Example: books rich in maps, art, and ancient language characters need formatting across various platforms and require new digital permissions for every image. On the reader side, it can be maddening in class when one person’s page 50 is someone else’s page 47 or 53. And note taking on a screen is still in primitive stages.

“When you have a lot of sidebars, language issues, or images, e-pub becomes less ideal” because it creates technical problems, says Jeremy Wells, digital manager for Baker Publishing Group’s Baker Academic and Brazos imprints. But “in some cases, it can be made to work quite well.”

Therein lies the rub. Few areas of publishing hold as much promise in digital as academic religion, an industry segment whose eclectic mix of players stretches from university presses to diversified Christian publishers. The interdisciplinary nature of religious studies cries out for collaboration, interactive content, tools for carrying around dozens of books—to say nothing of relief from hefty print prices for specialized textbooks. All this lies squarely in digital’s wheelhouse. “Eventually, this will be nirvana for researchers,” says Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press.

With so much potential, digital has started to gain a following among students and scholars alike, especially in the past year. Digital represents 15% of sales at Baker Academic, up from 8% in the fiscal year ended April 30. Georgetown University Press saw its digital revenues more than triple from 2011 to 2012, while unit sales almost tripled.

Even with rapid growth across the board, digital penetration levels vary widely from house to house. For all the recent increase at Georgetown, only about 4% of its sales are e-books. The same is true for Baylor University Press. Meanwhile, Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House, sells 20% of its academic religion books in e-book format. InterVarsity Press measures digital sales at 15% of print sales and growing quickly. Elaine Maisner, senior editor at the University of North Carolina Press, says, “We are seeing impressive growth in the number of digital editions we are selling of all our books, including in religion. Overall, at present, roughly 10% of our overall sales are digital, and, based on our data tracking, we might expect that figure to double or triple in the coming years.”

How Do You Spell Success?

The disparities in growth can be explained by differences in mission, strategy, and capacity. Publishers seeing the most digital penetration are generating books for crossover consumption in nonacademic markets, such as for educated readers of religion, and strive to reach broad audiences with accessible content. Unlike their less digitized peers, some have priced e-books lower than print versions and thus encouraged customers to go electronic. Just as important, they’ve tapped in-house technical know-how to make their books available across wide ranges of reading devices.

Such variation defines the field out of the gate, but these are early days. Experimentation is rife in academic religion as publishers can almost taste the possibilities as well as the peril that comes with adjusting business models. Behind it all are many opinions about whether to go all-digital as fast as possible, or preserve print production to serve a market that still treasures printed pages.

Abingdon represents the digital-all-the-way camp. The Nashville publisher, whose academic division targets students primarily, stopped doing initial print runs earlier this year for the 25 new academic titles it releases annually. Abingdon is transitioning to print-on-demand, which produces only as many books as customers order; the house is clearing out all print inventory over the next 12 to 18 months. Seeing print-on-demand as a part of the digital switch, Abingdon plans to be “almost entirely digital within five years,” according to Paul Franklyn, associate publisher for Bible, theology, and leadership at Abingdon.

“We don’t see the point in storing academic inventory,” Franklyn says. “All-digital is more cost-effective. It’s more viable for an academic religion publisher to go digital as soon as possible. So that’s the path that we’ve embarked on.”

Other presses have been less aggressive to hasten the transition. Rowman & Littlefield, for instance, ranks among several that price their e-books at the same level as print versions. (When R&L’s e-books sell for less than print copies, it’s a function of distributor or retailer discounting.) To be sure, the company embraces digital: it’s seen a 100% increase in digital sales over the past year. It also plans to open its own e-bookstore soon, where readers will find discounts and promotions. But editors admit the electronic kinks are far from worked out.

“I hear complaints that it’s more difficult to browse e-books to review and study than it is their print counterparts,” says Sarah Stanton, acquisitions editor at R&L. “It can also be more difficult to ensure that everyone in class is referring to or looking at the same passage on an e-book due to different reading devices, font sizes, etc.”

Ongoing experiments reflect divergent views on how best to maximize what digital has to offer.

Baylor Press sees potential for new genres within the category. It’s now developing manuscripts for Baylor Shorts, a forthcoming collection of mini-books that make economic sense to produce only in digital format. “The electronic platform makes possible shorter volumes,” Baylor University Press director Carey Newman says. “Electronic publishing does have impact on the genre itself.”

Publishers are finding their best digital sellers in academic religion tend to be the same ones that do well in print. Some have enduring crossover appeal for nonacademic readers, such as Carl Ernst’s Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam for the Contemporary World from the University of North Carolina Press. Others have become classroom staples, such as Baker Academic’s Encountering the Old Testament, which “digital native” students of Generation Y increasingly order in e-book form.

Finding the Way Forward

Survey data are guiding publishers in understanding how academic consumers like to read. Abingdon cites research from the American Academy of Religion, which finds 20% of scholars and students rely almost exclusively on e-books. About 47% use e-books at least sometimes, while 52% work exclusively with print.

“We’re at a tipping point where about half of the academic market is poised for electronic and half is not,” Franklyn says. “We’re trying to move to where we think the market is going to be in the next five years, and that will be almost entirely electronic.”

Driving digital adoption are bread-and-butter factors, not bells and whistles. Academic religion books aren’t cheap for indebted students of religion, who’re often destined for professions that pay modest salaries. By choosing electronic versions of Abingdon textbooks, they save 30%–50% on books that routinely cost $40 or $50 in print. IVP’s practice of pricing e-books 20% lower than their print counterparts helps account for the relatively deep digital penetration at IVP.

What’s more, professors seem to love perusing e-books (rather than unsolicited print “examination” copies) as they look for course material and research resources. On September 1, R&L kicked off a program to give professors free 60-day access to more than 200 electronic textbooks. Within two weeks, more than 100 had enrolled. IVP also reports receiving more and more requests from professors seeking e-book examination copies, which serve the added benefit of cutting publishers’ printing and shipping costs.

Academic religion publishers would go further to make digital copies available, but many face limitations that don’t bind others in the industry. For UNC Press, the biggest difficulty is securing all digital rights for every image in its illustration-rich books, according to senior executive editor Elaine Maisner.

Technical hurdles pose headaches, too. Baylor’s books routinely include passages in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Coptic, which can’t always be supported on every device. Unlike trade publishers, which commonly offer all e-books for all major devices such as iPad, Kindle, and Nook, several in academic religion offer books on only certain devices. That’s partly because they lack the budgets and/or in-house expertise necessary to offer content on every platform. Also, not every platform delivers a good reading experience for their uniquely designed books.

“There are few devices and platforms that can really deliver the well-rounded functionality that a student or professor needs,” says Sally Sampson Craft, director of digital publishing at IVP. Among the missing features: flexible search capacity, interior links from tables of contents and notes, note-taking tools that integrate citations, and bookmarking tools that function across a library of e-books.

Device-specific formatting is becoming easier and more affordable as hardware makers build software for the task. For example, Apple’s iBook Author program, which gives publishers user-friendly tools for getting manuscripts onto iPads, is helping Abingdon hold down technical costs while making all its content available for iPads.

Technical issues continue to pose problems, however, especially in the area of piracy. IVP neither applies digital rights management technology to its products, nor does it ask distributors or retailers to do so. The reason, Craft says, is that “DRM causes a lot of problems for customers” and isn’t necessary to protect content if books are priced fairly.

Others have struggled to protect intellectual property. Despite using DRM, UNC Press has seen “massive problems with piracy,” Maisner says, adding that enforcement services have been prohibitively expensive. It’s a common struggle. Baker Academic, for instance, works with distributors and retailers who apply DRM standard, and invests in enforcement efforts. Still, violations continue.

“We have had problems with piracy,” Wells says. “When [theft is] brought to our attention, we try to go after folks that are distributing our content freely on the Internet. I don’t know that you can ever completely control it, but we definitely do what we can.”

The Pricing Question

Pricing presents an ongoing challenge as well. Consider Georgetown University Press. While its digital copies cost 20% less to produce since there’s no paper, printing, or binding involved, new costs have cropped up with electronic publishing. For instance, the press now pays a staffer dedicated to handling e-books, a contractor to disseminate content across platforms, and digital storage fees. Hence e-books from GUP generally sell at the same price as the lowest priced print version.

“Our initial assumption was that every [e-book] should be priced at $9.99, given that this is what we were seeing with Kindle, and that was a bad assumption,” Brown says. “Trade books and scholarly monographs have different pricing models in print, and as we’ve come to learn they need to have different pricing models in digital form, too.”

Unlike Abingdon and IVP, many in academic religion have concluded the same and are diverging from trade conventions and keeping e-book prices as high as print ones. The few who can afford to price e-books lower than print are the ones who also publish far beyond academic religion and can take advantage of in-house competencies. Abingdon, for instance, publishes Christian fiction as well as nonacademic church resources. Using digital know-how from other Abingdon divisions enables the publisher to hold overall costs down and pass along savings—from lower printing, warehousing, and transportation costs—to academic customers via lower price points.

As academic religion texts get primed for their full digital potential, pricing will require continued experimentation. GUP is bending its same-as-print pricing guideline for the spring 2013 release of Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski, a Polish eyewitness to the Holocaust’s early days. While the hardcover print version will sell for $26.95, the e-book will go for just $16.95 because, Brown says, “this book will have huge commercial appeal” and extraordinary sales volumes will make the lower price sustainable.

Pricing enhanced e-books poses particular conundrums. This is, after all, the domain where academic religion books could enter their finest hour by catalyzing interactive graphics and connecting communities of learners. But embedding video and other interactive content adds to the already high costs of doing academic projects for niche audiences. How much more will cash-strapped students be willing to pay for an enhanced e-book version when they can find a used print copy online or from last year’s student who took the course? Will a brisk market for these items lie somewhere beyond the academy? Nobody knows for sure. But press directors such as Brown say they’re certain enhanced e-books will soon become a larger part of the academic religion landscape.

“Enhanced e-books are both exciting and daunting,” Brown says. They’re “exciting because of incredible value-added features such as maps and video clips and links, but daunting because of the cost and uncertainty [about whether] those additional costs can be offset by additional sales.”

Meanwhile, all in academic religion need to assess how they’ll make up for declining sales to academic libraries, who are reportedly managing tight budgets by sharing electronic resources. “They either share an e copy or simply purchase limited access until it is proven that an e copy or a hard copy is needed,” Newman says. “The days of selling 1,000 books to 1,000 libraries are gone.”

Despite problems, academic religion publishers see a promising way forward as they work out technical kinks and tweak business models. All agree digital will be a larger slice of the pie in years ahead, but how they’ll serve that pie is sure to vary from house to house.

“I don’t think academic religion publishers are going to persist unless they go all-digital as soon as possible,” Abingdon’s Franklyn says. That can include print-on-demand, he adds. But how that book arrives on campus will be part of a new story.