The American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) held their joint annual meetings in Baltimore Nov. 22-25, with more than 10,000 scholars in attendance, about evenly split between the two learned societies. With its combined book exhibit, the conference is an important place for academic religion publishers to sell books to scholars, pitch them for course adoptions, meet with current authors, and scout for new ones.
According to publishers, things look good in a market in which print sales are relatively stable and digital sales add to total revenues. The number of exhibitors plying their wares to scholars and, by extension, their students, grew by 15 percent from last year, to a total of 159, while the number of staff registered by exhibitors grew 8 percent over last year. Almost all of the exhibitors were book and software publishers, and they also took more booth space than last year. “Publishers have decided this is the conference to go to,” said John Kutsko, SBL executive director, who came to the organization following a long career in publishing at Abingdon Press. “To see that growth year to year is really heartening.”
AAR executive director Jack Fitzmier also was ebullient about the conference’s growth and the health of the two associations. He cited increasing numbers of other professional associations and learned societies who have joined the annual meeting as affiliates, holding their own conferences in concert with AAR and SBL, which not only offers expanded opportunities for scholars, but also increases AAR and SBL's bargaining power with hotels and convention centers. The strike by Hyatt workers (settled now) had been a difficult issue for the associations last year; they have since formed a joint labor task force to deal with such issues, and, Fitzmier said, “we lean toward union shops and keep a close eye on convention contracts.”
Fitzmier noted that teaching positions (especially tenured) for Ph.D.s remain in short supply. An issue being discussed is what else can be done with an advanced degree in religious studies; among the fields open are publishing, NGOs, and government. Shaun Casey, John Kerry’s choice to head the newly created State Department Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, holds a degree in the field and is an AAR member; he spoke at the conference about sacred texts and public life. Fitzmier and Kutsko point out there is a greater need than ever for social engagement by scholars that brings deep knowledge of religion to the public square.
One of the most significant developments at this year’s AAR/SBL conference was the debut of the International Quranic Studies Association, which had its inaugural gathering as an affiliate scholars group and is co-directed by Emran El-Badawi, director of Arab studies at the University of Houston, and Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame. It’s an idea whose time clearly has come, and publishing about Islam LINK in general continues to flourish. Beginning in spring 2014, the University of North Carolina Press adds to its strong program in the field with a series of short explanatory works (What is Veiling? Who is Allah?) and an exploration of the remarkable growth of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa (The Call of Bilal by Edward Curtis). Rowman & Littlefield’s Demystifying Islam (spring 2014) is by Harris Zefar, who brings an Ahmaddiya Muslim perspective to the subject. Others with strong lists on Islam include Oxford University Press and Princeton University Press.
Some publishers are adding staff and/or increasing title output. With an infusion of cash from the publication of its long-awaited hymnal for the Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) of which it is a part, Westminster John Knox Press is reinvesting in its editorial program, with three new editors and plans to add 10 more titles to its annual output for each of the next two years. Yale University Press has added a position to its program, with religion publishing veteran Eric Brandt as editor overseeing biblical studies titles there while senior editor Jennifer Banks acquires more books in the areas of moral psychology and philosophy.
SBL is retooling its publishing function and will launch SBL Press at the beginning of its new fiscal year in July 2014. Said Kutsko, “We have always published, but this gives us a defined identity as a press.” In 2010, SBL published 24 books, and this year its output has grown to 40. Abingdon Press is rebooting its textbook line, with 12 new ones to be published between now and 2015, said associate publisher Paul Franklyn. David Lewis, v-p of marketing and sales for the Baker Publishing Group, told PW that Baker Academic had its best year ever.
Zondervan’s academic and reference division has released the first volume in its The Story of God Bible Commentary, a 43-volume series to be published over the next seven to 10 years. Even as Zondervan parent company HarperCollins realigns staffing and resources following HC’s acquisition of Thomas Nelson, “they are investing” in academic and reference publishing, said Stanley N. Gundry, senior v-p and publisher. “It’s profitable and stable.”
The highest profile and arguably best-attended session at the conference was led by N.T. Wright, discussing his magisterial new Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Said Fortress publisher Will Bergkamp, "It was standing room only, and the engaging Q&A at the end was a good indication of the interest the book is generating."
Next year’s AAR/SBL meeting will be held Nov. 21-24 in San Diego.