December 9, 2009
They Asked for a Publisher's Perspective on Theological Commentaries (Part One)
A few weeks ago I was on an IBR panel focused on theological commentary on Scripture. I was asked to give a publisher’s perspective on how theological concerns inform, or should inform, biblical commentary. Here is my contribution, in two parts.
Last night my friend Tremper Longman in his IBR lecture seemed to express reservations about David Clines’s notion that “Just as a tailor cuts the cloth to make a suit according to the specifications of a client, so the biblical scholar exegetes the text according to the expectations of those who pay for the service.” And I was thinking, “Tremper, you have a problem with that?” (I’m kidding, of course. Tremper’s point was that commentators shouldn’t be saying one thing for one audience and another, possibly contradictory thing, for another.)
Academic publishing is where the academy meets the marketplace, where ideas—published in books—mesh gears with the market in the form of real “products” for real people with real interests and real money to spend. Ideas are packaged and monetized. So academic religious-book publishers operate with a foot in the world of the academy and another in the market place. Scholarship and ideas are weighed not only for their intellectual, ecclesial or spiritual value but also for their monetary value (which may sound crassly commercial, but it is what makes publishing economically sustainable if not always profitable).
In addition, the publishing world is a rapidly changing one with clouds of uncertainty overshadowing the horizon of its future—the power of Amazon and others to dictate deep discounts, the new world of ebook publishing, the threat of Google Books, our fractured attention spans and the apparently dwindling supply of serious readers—these are some of the threats to publishing as we have known it, and they should not be underestimated.
Against this backdrop, what about publishing commentaries, and particularly ones that incorporate theology—or more specifically, those that are committed to the theological interpretation of Scripture?
The good news is that commentaries are a perennial genre for religious/theological publishing, and there seems to be a continuing market for them. As one of my editorial colleagues likes to say of commentaries (quoting someone else), “Scholars like to write them, and people like to buy them.” On the other hand, there has been a staggering proliferation of commentary series in recent years, which has led to an almost baffling variety of offerings—these include those with a legacy (and are being revised—e.g., ICC, NICNT, TOTC), those that are tweaking the tried and true, those that are cutting fresh ground (Two Horizons, Brazos, Blackwell’s reception history, etc) and those for which one truly wonders, Why this now? In this environment, it is predictable that publishers are most interested in commentaries that offer something new—a new angle or perspective, a new format, new features & benefits for readers. A commentary series needs to stand out from the pack and have a marketable angle of clear benefits. This new “whatever” constitutes a promise to the paying customer. And so the publisher needs to deliver a consistent product in order to keep its commentary customer base satisfied.
As I have already implied, one thing that publishers value is commentaries in a series. One-off commentaries are difficult to sell. Since marketing dollars, creativity and energy are limited, it stands to reason that more dollars, creativity and energy can be devoted to commentaries in a series than to a one-off commentary. And any single volume within a series will benefit from this larger investment and the synergy that is created. A commentary on a less popular biblical book catches hold of the coattails of a standout on the way up to Jerusalem.
But, of course, it stands to reason that, from the publisher’s point of view, the theological concerns need to be well represented by a market, they need to fit the profile of the publisher, and the series editors and commentators need to have credibility in that market.
Publishers want a commentary to be clearly conceived, consistently formatted and capable of delivering value to a market that will sustain the series. If it is theological interpretation that is being pursued, what is it and how will it be achieved and presented? Individual commentators who are “having it my way” (one doing a Pentecostal interpretation and another a Reformed one and another a Wesleyan or Anabaptist one) from one volume to another might very well serve the guild and a certain coterie of readers, but might not serve the publisher’s goal of targeting a broader paying readership that will sustain the series. Publishers, for example, might want to reach as many pastors with book budgets as they can. Too much diversity within a series is going to distort and undermine the series brand. Unhappy customers will vote with their dollars, and gloom will descend on the commentary enterprise.
As I see it, unless the publisher is closely tied to a denomination or a particular theological tradition, the publisher will gravitate toward theological commentary in the vein of “Mere,” or Great Tradition, or (Tom Oden’s) consensual Christianity—or perhaps a broad-middle perspective of specifically evangelical theology.
[To be continued]