November 16, 2009
What I’ll Be Doing At SBL
Later this week I’ll be traveling to New Orleans to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute for Biblical Research. I calculate this is my twenty-third consecutive trip as an editor. I have a number of appointments with authors I’m working with and hoping to work with. I’ve got a few sessions I want to go to. There will be friends old and new to meet, and no lack of schmoozing and catching up. And naturally, there are some books I want to buy from other publishers at their (mostly) generous conference discounts. But as I’ve reflected on the upcoming trip this week, there is a consistent subtext beneath this whole conference gig, and it can be summed up in one word: context.
Many of us have been attracted to publishing because we love ideas, particularly ones that are printed and bound in books. They somehow seem more important that way. And it occurred to us that it could be really fun to get involved with this process of turning ideas into books. We would get to read these ideas before others had a chance to read them. But then we found out that we also needed to take in those ideas before they reached print, sorting out which ones are good or bad or only so-so. Year ‘round these pre-print ideas arrive on our editorial desks, tumbling out of emails and files. And the SBL convention is a flood—or a virtual megamall—of new ideas, but it is also a contextual reality check on whatever half-baked or unrealistic or plain bad ideas we have indulged over the past year.
So back to context. Even when I’m not particularly conscious of it, I realize I am constantly trying to understand what’s happening in the context of our academic publishing, and particularly in the arena of theological studies. At its lowest and crudest common denominator, SBL might be described as one huge “data dump” of conversations, books, papers, more conversations, more books, stories, observations, impressions, controversies and convergences. And yes, there’s the scuttlebutt about what’s hot and what’s not. And some good academic jokes to laugh over and maybe remember. Plus there is the real-time feedback on what books are selling and not selling at our booth. I will try to make sense of some of it as I take it in, but that’s like trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose. Much of this data will go into the hopper of my mind—conscious and subconscious—to be sorted out and processed in the days, weeks and even months ahead.
I have come to realize that a hunger for understanding my publishing context is something close to a driving force for me at this conference. What are people talking about? What are they sick of talking about? What books need to be published? What books don’t need to be published? Where and how are my ideas and perceptions in need of correction? (Some offer this service for free!) What is the next big thing? What is the next least thing? What is the last well worn and about to be discarded thing? Where is the fresh talent? Who might be the right person to write this book I have in mind? Is this the one or do I look for another? What books are worth taking home to furnish my mind? What, pray tell, is the makeup of the air I’m breathing here, and how has it changed from last year or five years ago?
That’s the way it goes at SBL. For me at least.