Learning as We Go

By Billie Jean Collins of Society of Biblical Literature


Realities of Being a Scholarly Publisher

My colleagues and I at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Press are charged with publishing forty book titles and one quarterly journal per year. Our mission to foster biblical scholarship, in addition, means responding to the needs of our eight thousand members worldwide. So, answering the call for more e-books, open-access content, e-content for course packs, and online reference works was an exigency.

But how does a publishing staff of a mere five full-time employees, working with a limited budget, successfully navigate its way through the mushrooming academic e-content industry so as to remain relevant and in a position to fulfill its mission to foster biblical scholarship? I would like to answer that we have done so with careful forethought and planning, but the truth is that we have been learning as we go. Flexibility and selectivity have been our de facto strategy. Our situation, I am sure, is not unique.

My title at SBL Press may be acquisitions editor, but, as anyone who works in a small academic press will understand, my responsibilities are hardly so sharply circumscribed. In reality, my duties encompass production, editorial, marketing, design, and really anything else that is needed. SBL’s initial forays into digital publishing fell to me because, well, someone had to do it, and the challenge interested me, perhaps because I had so little understanding of what was—and would be—involved. I certainly possessed no particular skills and had received no training, save for one very informative (and eye-opening!) trip to the Association of American University Presses annual meeting in 2010.

Any e-publishing initiatives, by the way, were going to have to coincide with a drive to expand our traditional print list by 25 percent—and all of it had to be accomplished with the same staff, plus one, that we had when I joined the press in 2005.

How Did We Cope?

The journal had already gone digital. Web-ready PDF e-books had to be next. Initially we handled the workflow in house. But when it came time to tackle e-books for e-readers, we knew we had reached the limits of what we could handle ourselves (without additional training and/or staff) and made the decision to partner with BiblioVault. This decision not only relieved some of the pressure on the staff but helped us better coordinate the timing of the print and electronic editions. At the same time, and for better or worse, it opened our eyes to additional outlets (for example, OverDrive) that we had not yet considered.

In the end, though, we have elected not to place our e-books with every possible vendor, at least not yet. Our present objective is to maximize what we are already doing, without, of course, shutting the door to future expansion. Moreover, we have handpicked a select list of titles for e-reader editions that we thought had the greatest potential in the educational market. Many of our titles are directed at a niche academic market that can be served as effectively with web-ready PDFs. Our decisions in total have amounted to a (hopefully) strategic hedging, if you will.

In our particular set of circumstances, we have found it best to let others do the heavy lifting whenever possible. Our objective is to retain control over a project (book or new development) on the front end but be flexible about giving up some of that control on the back end. That is to say, things work best when we lay the groundwork on any project (not relying on others to do that work) so that we wrestle with the parameters, processes, and outcomes. After that is established, we can turn over the project to someone else to do the heavy lifting because we now know firsthand what is possible, practical, and preferred with regard to the project. Outsourcing some of our workflow, along with strategically choosing which battles to fight and when to fight them, has allowed us to stay relevant without overtaxing our limited resources.

Finally, we have listened closely to our stakeholders, the SBL membership, even to the point of partnering with them to find new solutions to making scholarship available.

It would be nice to be able to say that every decision we made was based on a thorough consideration of all the available data. But this wouldn’t be true. We have made the best decisions possible given the constraints of time and money, and we continue to review those decisions as we move forward. We are now a few years into this brave new world and faring probably better than we think we are. It is human nature, if not the nature of the industry, to focus on remaining challenges rather than on what has successfully been achieved. Of the former, there are of course many. But I think that we can take satisfaction in knowing that whatever challenges present themselves, we will continue to be able to meet them.