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Scholars, Publishers Meet in San Antonio: A Report on AAR/SBL

The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature held their joint annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, November 20-23. The meeting drew 8,422 scholars—down from last year's 8,799, the largest ever—and 154 exhibitors, up from 142 in 2003. The mood this year was subdued, with low-level buzz about what the planned separation of the two meetings in 2008—referred to as "The Big Divorce" by some—will mean both for scholars and for the publishers who populate the all-important book exhibit. In addition to being a time-honored draw for the scholars—who crowd the displays to purchase books at 40-50% discounts—the exhibit allows publishers to lobby for crucial course adoptions, as well as to meet with authors and scout for new projects. The meeting is also a place to key into trends and topics in the academy that are poised to spill over into general trade publishing. Many already have—books on religion and politics or pop culture abounded, as well as the standard hot sellers in biblical studies and religion reference.

The split of the meetings—initiated unilaterally in 2003 by AAR—will have significant financial implications. Most of the publishers who spoke with BookLine agreed they would have to do both meetings, and, said one senior executive who requested anonymity, "essentially we'll have double the expenses with the same revenue. We're still trying to figure out what that will mean in the long run." Said InterVarsity Press executive director Bob Fryling, "I think it's going to hurt the academy, and it's definitely going to hurt the exhibitors who may not be able to go to both shows. More importantly, it's going to hurt scholars, who won't be able to go to each other's shows. This will segment the dialogue." Since most of IVP's sales occur with the SBL conference-goers, he said that IVP would maintain a strong presence at both SBL and the smaller Evangelical Theological Society conference that precedes it. The real question, he noted, was whether IVP would still go to AAR, which will move to an October schedule. "It'd definitely be a smaller presence, but if the scholars go to AAR in big numbers, we'd be there," he predicted.

Doubleday also plans to attend both shows ("like we need another show to go to," sighed Doubleday Religious editorial director Trace Murphy). Doubleday editor Andrew Corbin echoed the common frustration. "Most of our sales are driven by the SBL," said Corbin. "But we still have plenty of our list with the AAR crowd, especially with the new Three Leaves Press imprint" (a world religions line that Doubleday Religion launched earlier this year).

Lynn Garrett, Jana Riess

Rising Stars

Some see the political and institutional change reflected in the AAR/SBL divorce shaping the scholarship itself. Bobbi Joe Heyboer, director of academic marketing for Baker Publishing Group's Baker Academic and Brazos Press imprints, pointed to the launch of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible as reflective of a trend: an increasing convergence of biblical studies and theology. "Those used to be two tracks, but now scholars want to meld those two streams, and the split will feed that," said Heyboer. "The biblical scholars want to keep the AAR people interested, and vice versa." The first three volumes in the commentary series—with 40 planned—release next November.

The five-year-old Brazos imprint—with titles in spirituality, pop culture and cultural criticism as well as biblical studies—gained important recognition at Friday evening's Association of Theological Booksellers banquet, garnering the Theologos Publisher of the Year Award, shared this year with six-time winner Eerdmans Publishing. Eerdmans also took awards for Best General Interest Book (Whose Religion Is Christianity? by Lamin Sanneh), and Best Children's Book (Clare and Francis by Guido Visconti, illus. by Bimba Landmann). Westminster John Knox was the other big winner, with awards for Best Academic Book (An Introduction to the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann) and Book of the Year (Credo by William Sloane Coffin). The American Academy of Religion's own Awards for Excellence, presented on Saturday, went to Santeria Enthroned by David H. Brown (Univ. of Chicago), Democracy and Tradition by Jeffery Stout (Princeton Univ. Press), The Friend by Alan Bray (Univ. of Chicago) and Effortless Action by Edward Slingerland (Oxford Univ. Press).

In addition to its Theologos Awards, WJK was celebrating its "best list ever" for spring, according to director of product management David Dobson. Added to its popular Gospel According to... line will be The Gospel According to America (Mar.) by David Dark (Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons and Other Pop Culture Icons, Brazos). Dobson noted that WJK would not award its Presidential Prize for Excellence in Religious Scholarship and Writing this year. Established in 2003, it is to be awarded to a scholar in early to mid-career who submits a manuscript that "demonstrates originality in a particular field and promise of influencing theological and intellectual conversations more broadly." Said Dobson,"Nothing we saw got significantly away from a dissertation. Young scholars really need mentoring. We saw things with seeds of excellence, but nothing really qualified."

One Sunday session trying to offer some of that mentoring was "Ask the Experts: Turning the Dissertation into a Marketable 'Scholarly Trade' Book," cosponsored by Publishers Weekly and SBL. A standing-room only crowd of scholars, hoping to duplicate the success of colleagues like Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, heard editors from Oxford, University of North Carolina Press and Continuum, as well as authors Stephanie Wellen Levine (Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers, NYU) and Jim Bennett (Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans, Princeton, Mar. 2005) offer tips on every stage and aspect of the trade publishing process.

Lynn Garrett

Back to Business

Attendees were almost universally positive about the San Antonio location, with hotels, the convention center and the city's signature Riverwalk all within easy strolling distance—that despite the driving rains that hammered down on conference participants throughout the weekend. In fact, some publishers expressed gratitude for the rain, because the foul weather kept people indoors and happily buying books. Kanishka Gangopadhyay, marketing manager for religious studies at Rowman & Littlefield, said this was the busiest AAR he's attended in the last three years. "It slowed down just a little on the last day. I think people left a little earlier this year because San Antonio isn't the easiest place to get in and out of."

Echoing most of the publishers who spoke with BookLine, Zondervan V-P of Marketing John Topliff said this had been a "banner year" for his press at the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, held just prior to AAR/SBL in the same location. "Attendance was way up over last year, and we did really well, especially with our Bible software and the Scripture and Hermeneutics commentary series." Zondervan's bestseller at AAR/SBL was The Reader's Greek New Testament, and one special feature of its booth was the presence of two scholars from the independent Committee on Bible Translation that worked on its controversial Today's New International Version of the Bible (see A Feast of Good Books, PW, Oct. 11), on hand to interact with attendees. The completed TNIV releases in February.

Many other publishers were ecstatic about their receipts at the two shows. At the InterVarsity Press booth, director of sales and marketing Jeff Crosby said that AAR/SBL sales were running about 30% over last year. ETS had been IVP's best ever, with sales up 25% over last year. Fryling said that the press's big books were I. Howard Marshall's New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Nov.) and Eckhard Schnabel's Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church. Although Schnabel's book retails for a hefty $90, IVP made it available at a show discount of 50% off. Publicity director Brooke Nolen said another hot seller was the IVP Essential Reference Collection on CD-ROM. With the CBA market contracting, IVP is actively seeking a greater presence in general trade bookstores, and to that end is now being repped by Midpoint, said Crosby. He also said they had just hired a new senior marketing manager, Betsy Conlin, who has 20 years of experience in direct marketing and educational publishing.

Eerdmans was also busy at both shows, with particularly heavy sales for Henry Mitchell's Black Church Beginnings (Nov.), Richard Burridge's What Are the Gospels? (Aug.) and James D. G. Dunn's Jesus Remembered (2003). Said v-p of sales Sam Eerdmans, "What we're most pleased about is Davis Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite. We had already sold out of the hardcover, so we brought the paperback edition here and sold out of all the copies on hand." He added, "Of course, our biblical studies and theology series always sell well."

Emily Gewitz, publicity manager for Palgrave Macmillan, reported strong sales and good traffic, despite the booth's poor placement in one of the outside aisles. "Palgrave has been coming for the past few years, but this is the first time with a double booth," she said, noting that the house brought 200 books to display this year. Palgrave wasn't the only house to upgrade its presence; Knopf exhibited for the first time under its own banner (rather than as part of the Random House family, though Doubleday was conveniently located just across the aisle), and World Wisdom jumped directly to double-booth status in exhibiting solo at the show for the first time.

Wiley's Jossey-Bass imprint also enjoyed brisk sales. Sandy Siegle, senior marketing manager of J-B's Religion in Practice line, now seven years old, said the press would be expanding its booth at next year's show. "Our higher education stuff does really well here"—professional titles such as Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction by Rita-Marie Conrad and Ana Donaldson and Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education by Elizabeth Tisdell. Said Jessica Egbert, marketing manager for the higher education line, "Over the last two years I've noticed a trend at this conference— professors seem to be really interested in our distance education—online teaching and learning—books. It's not surprising, what with reduced budgets and pressure to teach classes in a virtual environment, but it is interesting that it's moved into the field of religion." Added J-B editorial director Sheryl Fullerton, "Other higher education books on our list that sell well are Sharon Parks's "Big Questions, Worthy Dreams," which is on young adult spiritual development, and James Fowler's and Thomas Groome's books on Christian education. Bonnie Miller-McLemore's Let the Children Come—a theology of childhood—also seemed to get a lot of attention at the meeting. Of course Parker Palmer's new book, A Hidden Wholeness, and Don and Emily Saliers's A Song to Sing, A Life to Live were also big hits." (Don Saliers teaches at Emory University; his daughter Emily is half of the Indigo Girls.)

In a new role at AAR/SBL was Jon Sweeney, formerly with Jewish Lights/SkyLight Paths and now newly appointed associate publisher at Paraclete Press. Sweeney said their The Jesus Creed by New Testament professor Scot McKnight was selling well, and that he plans "to acquire more books that work for the classroom but are still popular treatments that can also reach a wide audience. We want to branch out from our strength in spirituality and do books in history, ideas. So I'm here looking for authors."

Lynn Garrett, Jana Riess

Advancing Bible Literacy: The Jewish Voice

Jewish Publication Society CEO Ellen Frankel told BookLine her press was involved with the Bible Literacy Project, an initiative to develop curricula and a textbook to teach the Bible as an academic subject—not as religion—in public schools. The project is the brainchild of Chuck Stetson, vice chairman of the National Bible Association, who has provided 60% of the funding himself and donates part of his time to the project. Said Frankel, "We were approached because they wanted to use our translation of the TANAKH. Since I consider it the most authoritative Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible, I wanted their textbook to use the JPS translation." Added Frankel, "I knew that if JPS didn't grant permission, the project would choose a different Jewish translation. JPS would then lose revenues as well as exposure to a wide audience." Stetson has consulted Frankel "about the sensitivities of the Jewish community and Jewish tradition when it comes to presenting this material on the Hebrew Bible. I consider it very important for the creators of this textbook and ancillary material to know that there are important differences in how Jews and Christians interpret the Bible." She added, "Jews need to have a place at the table whenever the Bible is being discussed and taught. As we saw in the last election, it's vital that no group presume that it has a monopoly on religion, values, or the foundations of our culture." Bestsellers for JPS at AAR/SBL included their pocket Hebrew-English TANAKH and Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg's "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth."

Lynn Garrett

The New Testament Juggernaut

Like last year, books on New Testament and early Christianity sold briskly at the show, with interest driven primarily by the SBL throngs. Sam Barry, marketing manager for Harper San Francisco, said that the hot-off-the-press title "In Search of Paul" by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed (Nov.) was "a fabulous success," noting that the authors spoke before a standing-room-only crowd at ETS right before the start of AAR/SBL. "I wasn't able to get in the room, it was literally that crowded," Barry reported. "Also, the first morning of the show, Dom and Jonathan came by, and we had an impromptu signing right at the booth." Other books Barry cited as attention-grabbers were L. Michael White's new "From Jesus to Christianity" (Nov.) and Marvin Meyer's "The Gospels of Mary" (May).

HSF senior director of publicity Claudia Riemer Boutote added the press was responding to the outcome of the election by crashing Jim Wallis's "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" to publish before the inauguration. Wallis, founder of the evangelical Christian social justice ministry Sojourners, was consulted by both the Bush and Kerry campaigns, according to Riemer, and appeared on "Meet the Press" on November 28.

At the Doubleday booth, interest was heavy in several new titles in New Testament and early Christianity, including Bruce Chilton's "Rabbi Paul" (Aug.) and Alan Segal's "Life After Death" (July). Trace Murphy noted that Raymond Brown's "An Introduction to the Gospel of John" generated strong buzz, even though the book came out in 2003, because of an SBL discussion session about the title. "You see current sessions impacting backlist titles in a significant way," he said.

Jana Riess, Lynn Garrett

Alive and Kicking

Last year we reported on the near-death experience of Baylor University Press and of the aggressive efforts to revive it by then-new press director Carey Newman. This year Baylor had a higher profile as the sole Gold-Level Sponsor, paying $12,500 (according to marketing director Rusty Edwards) to have its name on banners on and near the exhibit floor, as well in the convention hotels. Other benefits included print ads and a boldface listing in the program book, and a choice spot on the floor (along the route to meeting rooms where papers were presented and sessions held). Baylor also sponsored the first-ever Cyber Station. Said Edwards, "In Atlanta last year, we noticed AAR/SBL participants lined up at places like Kinko's paying for internet access just to check their e-mail. We believed a free internet cafe would provide a great service to participants. Last January we sent a proposal to SBL and they jumped on it." Since the revamping of the press, said Edwards, "we've achieved our goal of publishing six books per season." Baylor used the meeting to announce the launch of a new Handbook on the Hebrew Text series, which joins its Handbook of the Greek Text series, at two volumes currently. Edwards said the press sold as much on Saturday alone as during the whole conference last year. Among other popular titles was "Building Jewish in the Roman East" by Peter Richardson (Oct.).

Lynn Garrett

Continuing Interest in Islam

A Sunday morning session featured Tariq Ramadan delivering the plenary address via live video feed. Ramadan ("Western Muslims and the Future of Islam"; "To Be a European Muslim"; "Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity") is the scholar who was on his way to a teaching post at Notre Dame this summer when his visa was revoked without explanation by the Homeland Security Department. AAR and the Middle East Studies Association of North America sent a formal letter of protest to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. According to AAR religion news advisor Kyle Cole, the live plenary address drew about 400 attendees; an evening showing of the tape drew another 200.

AAR/SBL conference-goers seemed to be particularly interested in books about the more liberal side of Islam, said Novin Doostdar, marketing director and publisher of Oneworld. Doostdar reported that when the press first released Omid Safi's anthology "Progressive Muslims" in November 2003, it expected to sell about 1,200 copies. Instead, the book has sold 8,000 copies in its first year of release and is still going strong. "We thought we were just publishing a small academic title, and it's turned out to be much bigger," he said. Doostdar also noted scholars' strong attraction to the short volumes of the Makers of the Muslim World series, brief biographies of men and women who laid the foundations of modern Islam. "These books have found a much wider audience, especially among Muslims, who are delighted to come across these more liberal approaches to their own faith," he said. "And this is true not only in this country, but also in places like Turkey and Indonesia, where we are selling language rights. There's a great deal of demand for these books."

AAR/SBL will meet jointly next November 19-22 in Philadelphia.

Lynn Garrett, Jana Riess

Reprinted with permission from

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