IVP - Addenda & Errata - The Great Festschrift Makeover

March 11, 2009

The Great Festschrift Makeover

The Festschrift is a peculiarly academic genre. As most readers of this blog are likely to know, it’s a celebratory publication in honor of a scholar, usually presented on or near their retirement (age sixty-five seems to be a classic Festschrift moment). In a Festschrift, academic peers and students honor a scholar by writing him some cracking-good essays on a topic close to his scholarly heart. At least that’s the idea.

I took a look at Wikipedia to see if they had collected any juicy pieces of Festschrift lore. Sure enough. Try this one.

Have any of you ever used or seen reference to ANRW, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt? If you’ve used our IVP NT dictionaries, you’ve at least seen it referred to in the bibliographies. While the ANRW’s focus is on the classical world, it includes some wonderfully expansive essays by leading scholars on topics related to the New Testament and its background, and it currently runs to eighty-nine volumes. You’ll find it in serious research libraries, but not in very many personal libraries! It turns out that ANRW started out as a four-volume Festschrift for the German classical historian Joseph Vogt! As if four volumes would not have been enough! This is publishing as only Germans can do. (Wikipedia lists some other Guiness-Book honorees with multiple Festschriften.)

But alas! The Festschrift has fallen on hard days in academic publishing. When one of these proposals lands on an academic publisher’s desk, many will hit “reject” faster than a Jeopardy! contestant can click the response button. Or if they hesitate, they reluctantly concede to publish a very select few. Of course, a few presses have seen this as an opportunity and have carved out a niche market in this business. If they can do it successfully, more power to them.

Now all this might make you (the proposed Festschrift editor) want to sit these academic publishers down and ask them just what’s behind all this bitterness toward the Festschrift. Is it just because editors don’t have a similar tradition and can only contemplate slipping quietly into retirement with a golden bookmark? Do we harbor a festering editorial grudge against the honoree? Just what is it? Do tell.

Here at IVP Academic, it’s none of the above. While we have published some Festschriften in the past, we are increasingly needing to say no. To begin with, any book with multiple authors (and thus many parts) takes a good deal more editorial time than a single-authored book (more correspondence, more contracts, more personalities, more styles to align, more schedules to juggle, more deadlines missed, etc). And since it is typically technical in nature—having many footnotes and languages to deal with—that too adds to the editorial investment. All of this makes publishers and their editors want to set a higher “acceptance” threshold for publishing any book of essays.

And of all the types of books of essays, the Festschrift is the most likely to trend toward a bag of marbles in terms of its coherence. A general theme may be set, but there is no guarantee—and much that bucks against the likelihood—that the essays will fall closely in line with the theme. Concessions are made (“Well, we can’t omit an essay by so and so, no matter how oddly it fits”); ground is given. And all too often the result is a wide range of essays that will be of interest to only a limited few. And many essays too, since a larger convocation of scholars will bring greater honor to the honoree (though a chunkier and probably less viable book).

A few individual scholars will likely be attracted to some of the essays in a given Festschrift, and so they will get their institutional library to buy it so they don’t need to. That’s good. But not good enough. And it’s why Festschriften often cost so much—they tend to be library items with a limited print run. Publishers who do a lot of them are working on a business (and pricing!) model that fits this reality.

Of course, even as I write this I think of exceptions. I have several Festschriften in my personal library, and if you are a scholar or grad student, you probably have some too. Some of them are in honor of my own professors, others in honor of particularly significant scholars. For one or two I paid dearly, and others I probably picked up at a discounter!

Here’s the bottom line: as a business proposition, a Festschrift is increasingly an unwelcome (and possibly losing) proposition for a publisher. Yet we are torn when the scholarly community wants to honor a significant scholar—one who has probably been our author! Our heart says yes; our business model says no. And it doesn’t take an economist to perceive that in the present climate, the no is going to win.

But here’s a proposition: honor your teacher or colleague by putting together a volume that will be so timely, so gotta-have, so editorially integrated that we can’t resist. In other words, break out of the old Festschrift model and consider a broader audience—which might include not only teachers but informed nonspecialists and students (and pastors too, in our case). Put together a book proposal that’s the “killer app” of a transformed Festschrift. A book that begs to be done regardless of whether it’s honoring a retiring scholar.

This is going to require much more work on the part of the volume editors, and it will require more work, commitment and cooperation on the part of the participants. They can’t reach into their hard drive and dust off an essay they’d always hoped to publish some day. And the editors of this book have to be prepared to be fairly hardnosed (which might be difficult if they are younger scholars inexperienced in this sort of thing). But think about it—a book like this, one that will have a broader reach and longer shelf-life, will bring greater honor to the honoree. Maybe publishers will be fighting for the opportunity to publish this *Festschrift *in its designer jacket.

Posted by Dan Reid at March 11, 2009 4:16 PM Bookmark and Share

Comments are closed for this entry.

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Addenda & Errata

Subscribe to Feeds

Got a Book Idea?

Please follow our submissions guidelines. We cannot respond to book proposals or inquiries within the context of this blog.