Salt Press Merges with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship: An Interview with Jenny Webb

On April 9, 2013 the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship announced that it had reached an agreement with the managing editors of independent academic Mormon publisher Salt Press to republish Salt’s current titles under the Maxwell Institute or Brigham Young University Press imprints. Additionally, the Institute would publish and distribute all forthcoming titles and include Salt’s editors in a new editorial advisory board for titles in Mormon studies.
The founding of Salt Press in 2009 was a quiet but significant development in Mormon studies, specifically with regard to scholarship on Mormon scriptural texts, for at least three reasons. 1) It was an independent though scholarly endeavor, contemporarily reflective of that crucial aspect in the development in Mormon studies generally of scholars from many diverse fields and even amateur scholars without official institutional training converging on the study of Mormonism. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these studies, including studies in scripture, have been historical in nature. Salt, however, sought to broaden the scholarly attention brought to Mormon texts by seeking out and publishing titles derived from from multiple fields and viewpoints. 2) This was reflective of the work of the Mormon Theology Seminar, the collaborative scholarly forum (still ongoing) out of which Salt would eventually emerge. The Mormon Theology Seminar is an illustrative example of the democratization of Mormon studies, a virtual, cooperative engagement with Mormon texts in which diverse groups of people from around the world, in focused discussion and dialogue, bring sustained and concentrated attention to specific passages of Mormon scripture. These collaborative endeavors have thus far resulted in two published volumes with more on the way. Finally, it was significant that Salt chose to participate in open access publishing, allowing its titles to be freely copied, distributed, and transmitted in PDF form on its website, as well as low-cost on-demand print volumes. This will continue under the Maxwell Institute. Salt Press’ standard of open access publishing and broad interest in close, often collaborative readings of Mormon texts is a model for future endeavors in a burgeoning field that in many ways  has only just begun to be explored.
I recently had the pleasure of being invited to direct some questions about the Maxwell/Salt merger to one of Salt’s managing editors, Jenny Webb. My questions and her responses are below.
1. Before we talk about the merger of Salt Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, tell us a little about the origins of Salt Press, its original vision for its contribution to Mormon studies, and what the press has published in the last few years. 
Adam Miller has a great post up reflecting on the winding road that led the four of us (Adam Miller, Joe Spencer, Robert Couch, and I) to found Salt Press in 2009. But the short story is that we were all interested in work that engaged Mormon scriptures thoughtfully, creatively, and faithfully without being polemical, fictional, or devotional. And we weren’t finding any place at the time that showed interest in producing this kind of work. We had already had discussions online together and we had already started to sketch out our plans but we didn’t have a name. One night, probably after MSH (Mormon Scholars in the Humanities) or SMPT (The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology), I don’t recall which, we found ourselves sitting in Jim Faulconer’s living room tossing about possible names for a press dedicated to fostering this work. By the end of the night, thanks to the sustenance from Jim’s stash of Amano chocolate, we settled on Salt Press. (And, just to set it down for posterity’s sake, the runner-up was “Rocks In a Hat.”)
Originally we saw ourselves as providing a space for those interested in reading scripture or other foundational Mormon texts while engaging contemporary critical thought. (Critical thought here, by the way, was very broadly conceived: philosophy, anthropology, literary theory, history, sociology, economics—we felt that the lens used wasn’t as important as the fact that it be applied carefully and thoughtfully so as to produce new interpretive spaces.) It was important to us that our books be accessible, both in terms of readers (so non-specialists should be able to read them) but also in terms of authors (by this I meant that we were open to publishing serious, interesting projects by anyone willing to do the work, regardless of their degrees or lack thereof).
I really want to emphasize this point, because I think it’s something that’s been somewhat missing in the recent discussions surrounding Salt Press: Salt was founded on open source principles in the best and broadest sense of the term. Sure, there’s the economic side, but more significantly, Salt was willing to provide resources to anyone, whatever their formal training (or lack thereof), so long as they were willing to work seriously with scriptural texts. Anyone can sit down, read carefully, study it out, and ask questions, with or without a degree. Robert and I don’t have formal philosophy or theology training, but Joe and Adam have never treated us with anything but respect and a genuine desire to engage our thoughts. And we each have essays in Salt volumes, essays that underwent blind peer review and stand side-by-side with those who have the formal training. There’s an underlying democracy of thought in Mormonism, and that’s definitely something Salt was (and still is now that we’re at the Maxwell Institute!) interested in. So, in terms of Mormon studies, we wanted to expand the interpretive spaces surrounding the scriptures, and we wanted to invite others interested in this work, whatever their formal training, to do the same.
We had a good start: An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 edited by Adam Miller, Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: 2 Nephi 26–27 edited by Joe Spencer and myself, and of course Joe’s incredible An Other Testament: On Typology all came out within about a twelve-month span. Our most recent book is Jim Faulconer’s The Doctrine & Covenants Made Harder: Scripture Study Questions, which provides really thought-provoking questions keyed to the Gospel Doctrine lessons on the D&C.
2. How did you personally become involved as an editor? 
I’ve known Adam Miller for years and our families are close. After the birth of my first child, I finished up by MA in comp. lit. at BYU and then started my own editing and design business. I had worked for Steven Sondrup at BYU all through grad school, and received a great education in academic editing. It was going all right, but after a few years I desperately missed my grad school discussions. When Adam helped start up the original Reading Abraham seminar, I read every post and comment: I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in. Eventually I ended up on the Alma 32 Mormon Theology Seminar, got to know Joe and Robert better, and things just evolved really organically from that point on. We all had a skill-set that would contribute to Salt, and mine was more on the technical end of things. By the time things started, I had worked with enough academic journals and monograph publications through my business that I felt like we could work with an off-site printer, something that was necessary to getting Salt off the ground. I really feel like part the reason I ended up in editing and book design as a career (something I never had planned on doing) was so that I could help start Salt.
3. How did the merger with the Maxwell Institute come about? Who initiated it? 
We were really surprised—they approached us, pretty much out of the blue, saying that they were interested in a merger and would we like to talk about the possibilities with them. We all flew out to Provo for a fairly intense Saturday during which it became clear that, if we wanted to, we could make this work. Salt is a labor of love—we all have other jobs, families, callings, etc.—and while I, at least, will genuinely miss the creative outlet, we all felt like ultimately that if the Maxwell Institute wanted to fold this type of scholarship in, that we would be selfish to hold on to it.
4. What are the primary reasons for why the managing editors at Salt thought this would be a good move for the press? 
For one thing, distribution. The Maxwell Institute has access to various distribution networks that we were still a good 5-10 years out from being able to negotiate. And we wanted our upcoming authors to have that opportunity.
For another, resources. The Maxwell Institute’s physical resources for manuscript preparation, editing, book design, and production far outstrip our own, both in terms of quantity and manufacturing quality. Turning over the physical production of the books to the Maxwell Institute frees up our time and energy so that we can work on fostering the kind of scriptural scholarship we’re interested in.
We worried, of course, about losing our autonomy, and our ability to put any book out there that we felt was deserving of publication. But the Maxwell Institute was clear that part of what they wanted out of this merger was not just our content, but us as well: we all have positions on their newly-formed Acquisitions editorial board, which allows us to continue to seek out new and exciting work, and additionally Adam and Joe will edit a series of books called “Groundwork: Studies in Theory and Scripture” that gives them the institutional space to really develop an interesting series.
There were a few other reasons as well that emerged during the negotiations that were fairly significant, but I’m not at liberty to discuss them right now. Just know the excitement isn’t over yet!
5. Tell us how the Maxwell Institute specifically benefits from this merger. 
Well, they gain our super-cool-cutting-edge-hip image. I say that joking, of course, but honestly I think that the move on their part was motivated at least partially by a desire to bring in some of the excitement that Salt Press has managed to generate. People have been very generous with their reviews for our books, and we have a really supportive social media network—people we don’t even know offering their time and resources to help us out. When you have something that people are not only excited to read, but also excited to support in other ways, you have something special: momentum. And we really do hope that the Maxwell Institute can utilize that momentum, even more than our titles, to bring on a new wave of Mormon scriptural scholarship. It’s a little nerve-wracking but we’re optimistic. Because in the long run, if we can work together to foster more people doing more things, and doing them well, with Mormon texts, then it’s worth it: we all win.
6. Do you and the other editors envision any significant creative or methodological changes to the kinds of publications that will be produced in the future? Does coming under the Maxwell and BYU imprint alter the original vision for Salt Press, or does it simply provide additional resources and distribution capacity? 
Our vision remains unaltered. And hopeful. We are still looking for kinds of works we were looking for 8 weeks ago: “books that engage Mormon texts, show familiarity with the best contemporary thinking, remain accessible to non-specialists, and foreground the continuing relevance of Mormon ideas.” I can’t stress this enough. This entire experiment will fail if those people who were thinking “Maybe I should talk to Salt about my manuscript” now say “Oh, the Maxwell Institute would never publish my work—it’s not what they do.” And it really would be tragic, both for the Maxwell Institute and for Salt, if it doesn’t work out. We’re still here, and we’re still interested!
7. Operationally, how will publication under the Maxwell Institute work? You and the other three managing editors are now members of the Institute’s editorial board. Does this mean you will have editorial input along with the rest of the board regarding all Maxwell publications? Or will “Salt Press-like” titles be your main purview? Will there be any distinction among publications in this regard? 
To be clear, we’re not on the editorial board, but rather a Mormon studies editorial advisory board that is still being put together. They brought us on so that we can continue to do the work of acquiring “Salt Press-like” titles. That said, readers won’t know which titles were brought through by Adam, Joe, Robert, and me. All the titles will be published under either BYU Press or Maxwell Institute imprints.
8. Tell us about any future titles that we can look forward to under the Maxwell/BYU publication label. For any potential authors out there, what kinds of scholarship are you looking for? 
Jim Faulconer’s The Book of Mormon Made Harder: Scripture Study Questions is just about ready; it’s the second in the series of his thoughtful Sunday School questions, and even though it’s not a Book of Mormon year, it’s one that I find myself reaching for all the time. Julie M. Smith has edited Apocalypse: Reading Revelation 21–22, which is a collection of articles from another Mormon Theology Seminar, and she’s got a great group with some new Seminar participants like Eric Huntsman, Shon Hopkin, Kevin Barney, and Brandie Siegfried. And Jonathon Penny’s translation of Postponing Heaven: The Three Nephites, the Mahdi, and the Bodhisattva by Jad Hatem, a Lebanese philosopher, is in the fall lineup too. There’s more, but I can’t say anything other than the titles that we had lined up at Salt are all books I want on my shelves.
As you can probably tell from the titles I just listed, we’re open to a wide-range of work from a wide-range of people (it’s worth pointing out again that we’re while we are, of course, open to work by formally trained scholars, that we really believe that such training is not requisite to careful thinking and productive questioning!), so long as it engages with Mormon texts in a way that promotes the richness of the text. We are all interested in the work of Mormon theology, and what it means to read and write from a position of charity.
I’m hoping to be able to do some work with women authors. I know that the Maxwell Institute is interested in doing Mormon women’s studies. I, despite my sex, am not formally trained in Mormon women’s studies. I am, however, committed to the idea that Mormon studies as a whole can only benefit from an increase in women’s participatory voices, whatever their interests and training. In my life, I have met incredibly sharp women, trained in a variety of fields ranging from literature to religious studies to history to biology to engineering and beyond. While Mormon women’s studies is certainly one potential field currently under cultivation, I’m looking beyond that and encouraging women to participate in these discussions, to read scripture and think about it carefully. We all know the internet has leveled many a playing field—it’s been a godsend to me personally, allowing me to participate and work all while moving about the country and raising small children (currently 7 and 2). I think a lot of times women are busy, busy enough that unless someone asks them specifically to participate, they don’t. So I’m asking, and I’m going to keep asking!

Comments

  1. Fantastic interview. Thanks, Jenny and Jacob.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Congratulations on the move, Jenny!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,689 other followers