Forum: Book Power

How the publishing industry is influencing Buddhism in the West, with introduction by Charles Prebish.

Charles Prebish
1 September 2007
Photo by Jessica Ruscello

I bought my very first Buddhist book in September 1965. It was Edward Conze’s Buddhism: Its Essence and Development. That same day I also bought its companion volume, Buddhist Texts through the Ages. I found both books in a well-known bookstore in a major American city. More notable than my actual book purchases is that these two books were the only books on Buddhism in the entire bookstore. Today, less than a half-century later, one can’t enter a bookstore, from Chicago to Cheyenne, without finding a whopping array of books on every Buddhist topic you can imagine: Buddhism in its Asian homeland; various Buddhist sectarian traditions; Buddhist doctrines; Buddhist practices and rituals; self-help books on various forms of Buddhist meditation; volumes by Buddhist superstar practitioners. If you can imagine it, it’s there.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism and What Would Buddha Do? are just a few of the many books beckoning the new would-be Buddhist reader. If you want something for your kids to read, no problem. You can pick up a copy of Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Buddhism with Children. Interested in ethnic groups? Try That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. Concerned about sexual preference? Try Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists. Want something scholarly and challenging? If you can afford it, have a go at Dan Lusthau’s Buddhist Phenomenology…all 600 pages of it.

Buddhist books and Buddhist publishers are everywhere. The first page of the Summer 2007 edition of this magazine has a full-page advertisement touting six fun new books from Wisdom Publications, and the back cover has six more from Shambhala Publications. It doesn’t matter whether you pick up the latest edition of Tricycle or Shambhala Sun. It’s the same thing. Where are all these books on Buddhism coming from? Who is publishing them? Who is writing them? Who is buying them?

Until the early 1970s, when Buddhist groups began appearing in North America, almost all the books on Buddhism were written by scholars and published either by university presses or the most erudite and proper of trade publishers. That doesn’t mean that the occasional popular title such as Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen didn’t find a wide audience, but it was clearly the exception rather than the rule. More often, one found books such as Richard Robinson’s Early Madhyamika in India and China.

Once Chögyam Trungpa, Shunryu Suzuki, and Taizan Maezumi hit the scene, everything changed. A huge trade market for books quickly developed, spawning new publishers and a new breed of practitioner, as well as authors and new venues for various Buddhist publications. It even created the environment for scholar-practitioners to test their hand at popular rather than scholarly Buddhist topics. The days of reading Bob Thurman’s wonderful translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra are gone. Now we read his Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness.

With the advent of computer technology, the Internet came alive as a place to advertise and promote the latest new and captivating Buddhist books. They could be ordered instantly from online booksellers, such as or any of the plethora of other cyber-merchants. And some could even be downloaded directly in the form of eBooks, ready for your laptop or handheld device.

Not to be outdone, even some major Buddhist centers, such as Zen Mountain Monastery, began their own publishing ventures, producing volumes that are first rate, both in content and form. It has become a sophisticated, useful way for centers to pursue the path to fiscal self-sufficiency. If would-be readers are uncertain about which new Buddhist books to buy, they can always subscribe to an online group like Buddha-L, where books are frequently discussed with passion, or they can read the more scholarly reviews on H-Buddhism.

By summer 2008, the results of a survey that documents the publishing choices of about 200 North American Buddhist Studies scholars will be available, and it will be possible to see which scholarly presses, trade publishers, and journals are favored by these Buddhist literati. In the meantime, we can read the following discussion and hear what those intimately involved in publishing books on Buddhism have to say about the choices, process, and economics of Buddhist publishing.

Buddhadharma: You each bring a different perspective to Buddhist publishing. Amy can speak from the point of view of mainstream publishing, Reed works in academic publishing, and Tim is president of a company that publishes Buddhist books almost exclusively. Bob is a scholar who is interested in the impact of the publishing industry on how Buddhism is taking shape in the West. Perhaps to start, each of the publishers could say something about how they got into publishing Buddhist titles and what their experience of it has been.

Amy Hertz: In the late eighties, I was a young editor at Holt, publishing political memoirs and literary fiction, when I met Sogyal Rinpoche. I’d become interested in Buddhism because of personal health crises and other big issues I was dealing with. At the time, I didn’t realize I was beginning to think in a different direction that only Buddhism was going to be able to address. Somebody told me that there was a Tibetan lama who wanted to do a book on dying, and I asked, “What’s a Tibetan lama?”

I was interested in hearing about what he had to say about dying, so we met and when I heard him talk, I realized that this was the thing I’d been waiting my whole life to hear. I told him he needed to write a book that people would buy in shopping malls. All the people around the table, mostly students of his, were horrified. They accused me of just wanting to make a lot of money. I said to Sogyal Rinpoche that there already were authors serving the people deeply interested in Buddhism, but my mother needs to hear this information and she buys books in shopping malls.

I went to my editor-in-chief and said I was going to be Holt’s New Age editor. He asked me why, since he knew I hated New Age, and I told him I wanted to do damage control. I wanted authentic teachers to deliver the authentic information in a way that a larger number of people could access. That’s how The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was born, which started me on the road of publishing Buddhist books for a larger audience.

Tim McNeill: What process did you and Sogyal Rinpoche follow to create the book?

Amy Hertz: There were some public talks to work with but a lot of it was one on one, with Sogyal Rinpoche dictating. Rinpoche had asked me to read a number of Buddhist books, and to my ears, with a background in mainstream publishing, they read like packaged talks. They didn’t work as well on the page as I wanted. So I said to Sogyal Rinpoche that he had to start over, not just package his talks. He had to write a book from scratch, and I wanted Andrew Harvey to help him because he’s a brilliant writer. Also, having his name on the book meant that I could go to the New York Times Book Review and point out that they had given Andrew Harvey lots of space in book reviews before, so now just because he’s working on this weird Tibetan thing doesn’t mean they should ignore it. In fact, when the book came out in 1992, they did review it. It was the first time it ever reviewed anything of that kind.

Tim McNeill: That book was indeed a critical moment for Buddhist books reaching the larger marketplace and for Buddhism in the West.

Amy Hertz: Thank you, but I will say it got a mixed reaction. Many people were happy about it, because it was blowing people’s minds and getting out to people who had never heard this information before. But many people in the dharma community were upset that anyone was making money. The books I do need to make money if I want to keep my job, and the whole reason I stayed in publishing was to try to do these books.

Robert Sharf: It wasn’t the content, then, but the commercial success of the venture that made them nervous?

Amy Hertz: Yes, but also a lot of people were complaining that it bastardized and dumbed down the teachings, that it lacked integrity, although to my knowledge no one articulated that in an actual review. I don’t feel that was a fair criticism. I am a dharma student, so I’ve always fought to maintain integrity, to present teachings in a way that’s not going to create misunderstanding. Sogyal Rinpoche himself was extremely thorough. He took draft after draft to Khyentse Rinpoche and other teachers in Asia. He checked everything left and right and back and forth and made sure he was doing his job.

Reed Malcolm: That book came on the scene at a good time, because people were starting to get interested in death and dying in a serious way. Whenever I try to push a book that looks at death and dying, I cite Sogyal Rinpoche’s book as the prime example of how well the subject does. That book also provides a superb introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, or even just Buddhism, for folks who don’t know anything about it.

Amy Hertz: For a certain group of people, though, it was still way too complicated and too laden with jargon, so when the possibility of editing the Art of Happiness with the Dalai Lama came up, I jumped on it.

Buddhadharma: Reed, can you tell us how you got into publishing Buddhist books at an academic press and say something about trends in academic publishing these days?

Reed Malcolm: I had been interested in Buddhism on a personal level for a long time, having studied at Kopan monastery in Nepal. I also studied Buddhism in graduate school and was fortunate enough to be hired by a publisher with a large Asian studies list that incorporated Buddhist titles.

The University of California Press has a long history of doing Buddhist books dating back to early sutra translations by Edward Conze. We do a lot on Tibet and Tibetan history and recently published a book by Jeffrey Hopkins, but the majority of our books in this area look at Buddhism in a larger context and its impacts and relationships. However, I don’t think books on Buddhism or on Buddhist studies have exploded in the way that many people expected. I haven’t seen a significant change in the size of the Buddhist studies field over the years, and the number of books published that look at the Buddhist religion have remained more or less the same. What has emerged, however, is an increased interest in the societal role of religion more generally, and along with that has come an interest in the role of Buddhism in society.

Academic publishing has changed radically in the last twenty years. First, we had the copier, which led to the use of “course readers,” and then the Internet, which spawned electronic publications. On top of that, library sales, a mainstay for scholarly books, have dropped steeply. All of these trends mean less income for university presses, who have now been picking up the mid-level sellers that large publishers have dropped, as they pursue blockbusters. That’s why university presses now supply books that have appeal beyond the scholarly community.

Buddhadharma: Tim, you’re the president of one of the most important Buddhist publishers. Can you tell us how you got into Buddhist publishing and your general approach to running Wisdom?

Tim McNeill: Like Reed, I also studied at Kopan with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, whose efforts created Wisdom Publications. It was almost thirty-five years ago when I took refuge as a Buddhist. After ten years out in the real world, doing consulting and a corporate job in publishing, I took over Wisdom. At the time it was mostly publishing translations of older texts with a few contemporary commentaries. A lot of geshes were teaching Westerners at the time, and those teachings were being translated and published. Some of the work we were doing was not of the quality I would have liked, so around the mid- to late nineties, I began trying to build us into a more serious and scholarly publisher. Around that time, the renowned Tibetologist Gene Smith came to work with us as an acquisitions editor. As a result of his work, and that of a few other key people on the editorial board of our studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism series, we developed a successful and helpful series of books, which is now up to eleven volumes.

This work is helping to fill the gap caused by the contraction of scholarly publishing that Reed alluded to. These kind of serious books need a lot of back matter and notations, which even university presses are balking at these days. That’s an area that has been working well for us. For these books, we might print between one and three thousand copies, which is tiny by comparison to mainstream publishing numbers, but it’s very important for people who are creating a record of ancient traditions in a way that is usable in the West.

Then, we have books intended for a slightly larger audience, such as one suggested to me by Bob, a selection of readings from the Pali canon. Since the Middle-Length Discourses alone, for example, runs to fifteen-hundred pages in English and costs sixty-five dollars, it’s not something that teachers can assign to students in basic classes on Buddhism. The anthology Bhikkhu Bodhi did for us sells for eighteen dollars, and as a result we’ve sold over 30,000 copies.

Robert Sharf: Is being a non-profit essential to what Wisdom is able to do? Are these books in effect subsidized through charitable donations?

Tim McNeill: Being a non-profit is essential. However, most of what we do is not underwritten. Our Library of Tibetan Classics, for example, has no underwriter. We have one benefactor who helped out, but he cut back, ironically because we’ve been successful. I’ve always managed Wisdom based on succeeding commercially.

Buddhadharma: Are foundations interested in supporting your work?

Tim McNeill: Foundations are not particularly interested in underwriting religious pursuits. We survive based on conservative management and some personal generosity. When I took over Wisdom, it was entirely bankrupt. I didn’t take any salary for five years. I was in a position to do that and I don’t regret it. I don’t see how it would have gotten on its feet any other way.

To keep ourselves self-sustaining, we looked for new and creative approaches to Buddhism that might grab people’s attention, while always maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the Buddhism. As a result, we have branched into what you might call applied Buddhism and Buddhism that relates to popular culture. We have been very successful with Mindfulness in Plain English, which has sold over 120,000 copies over twelve years. More recently, Hardcore Zen, which many people told us to stay away from, has sold nearly 30,000 copies. Those kinds of books have made a contribution to our work that enables us to still be here.

Buddhadharma: Mainstream publishers can only afford to publish popular books. For specialty publishers and academic publishers, popular books enable them to underwrite less lucrative but very important books. When publishers use that logic, are they tempted to compromise the Buddhism in a way that might not have happened in the absence of such commercial pressures?

Robert Sharf: I wouldn’t say there is necessarily anything wrong with dumbing down Buddhism or making Buddhism accessible to a larger audience.

Amy Hertz: I really object to the phrase “dumbing down Buddhism.” For one, I’m not sure it’s really possible, and I also think it’s a little disrespectful to the teachings.

Robert Sharf: I’m not attached to that usage at all, but as a scholar I’m predisposed to step back and look at how Buddhism is transformed as it moves, and how that changes the very meaning of “Buddhism.” When Buddhism moved to Tibet, to China, from China to Japan, it was transformed in profound ways. I realize a lot of Buddhist enthusiasts and self-proclaimed Buddhist teachers will argue that there is no fundamental transformation. They will say that there is an essential Buddhism that successfully moved from one culture to another, but I’m not so sure.

Now a very large transformation is taking place as it moves to North America, and I don’t believe that there is a fundamental essence that moves from culture to culture that guarantees the authenticity of a particular tradition. In some people’s eyes that may mark me as not an authentic Buddhist or a believer, but I would point out that if Buddhism is anything philosophically, it’s a critique of essences.

So, how Buddhism is published and spread in the media in the West has a profound effect on what Buddhism is and what it will become here. I cite, for example, a term that the longtime publisher of Tricycle magazine, Helen Tworkov, used somewhat ironically: Buddhism Lite.

Amy Hertz: I also object to that term. It portrays a kind of arrogance toward the reader.

Robert Sharf: I’m sure, Amy, that you would object to anything that sounds derogatory, but I think one has to leave room to make critical distinctions. In the same way that you want to preserve a space for a certain dignity for the popular reader, I would like to preserve a space for those who have spent thirty or more years of their lives learning Sanskrit, classical Chinese, Tibetan, or Pali, and who are in a position to grapple with the interpretive problems that lie at the very core of these traditions. They can engage in one kind of conversation about Buddhism. Those who are not familiar with the texts in their original languages, who don’t understand the history, who don’t understand the institutional development of these traditions, are having a different kind of conversation.

Reed Malcolm: Bookstores devote only a small amount of shelf space to religion books these days, and of that, books on Buddhism constitute an even smaller proportion. A majority of the dharma books you’ll see in the stores these days aren’t so much about Buddhism as they’re about psychology using Buddhism as the vehicle—self-help with a dharmic twist, how to be healthier, how to live a more fulfilled life using Buddhist concepts.

This tends to fall in step with the publishing industry as a whole, since the books and magazines that sell the best are those offering ways to improve your life. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this. After all, liberation from delusion and suffering is the engine of Buddhist practice. However, it does make me wonder what readers are missing. Many people who consider themselves Buddhists have read all the books by some of the more popular contemporary teachers, but I wonder if they understand the kind of broader context of Buddhism that Bob is talking about.

I tried to find a good basic biography of the Buddha the other day and had a very hard time. If I met a Christian or a Muslim who told me they’d never read the Bible or the Koran but instead had relied on the teachings of their teacher for their understanding of their religion, I might find that a bit troubling, if not dangerous. Is the Buddhist book-buying public gobbling up works of Dharma Lite at the expense of books on the teachings of the Buddha?

Tim McNeill: You can’t expect people to go out and put down sixty dollars for a copy of the Middle-Length Discourses, if they haven’t read something like Mindfulness in Plain English and developed an interest that would lead them to pursue Buddhism a little more deeply.

Amy Hertz: When I got interested in doing Buddhist books, I didn’t intend to become a Buddhist publisher, like Shambhala, Wisdom, Snow Lion, or Parallax, since they’re already serving people who are interested in Buddhism. My goal was to broaden people’s interests, and then those people would leave the books I was doing and be fed into books by the specialty publishers. I was looking to new audiences, to housewives in the Midwest, to a whole group of people for whom this all sounded very foreign, people who never would have gained access to any kind of Buddhism at all.

Robert Sharf: In talking about the differences between one kind of Buddhist book and another, we could use the analogy of physics. There are serious physics books, which probably none of us here could understand, and there are popular physics books that can transmit the excitement and the findings of physics to the public. However, in some very fundamental ways those popular books misrepresent the sophistication, complexity, and the technical nature of this discipline.

Amy Hertz: Don’t they simply omit rather than misrepresent?

Robert Sharf: Most physicists I know would say that it’s not just omission. They are forced to misrepresent in ways that they would nevertheless completely sanction. They know, though, that the only way to really see what’s going on is to get in on the inside, which involves changing one’s fundamental ways of relating to the world. Doing physics forces them to deal with ideas that they cannot convey in a simplified way without losing something.

Reed Malcolm: I think this is a good analogy. Can you truly write a “popular book” about emptiness?

Robert Sharf: Just as popular physics books are meant for an audience of lay readers who don’t really understand physics, so too there are a lot of books trying to present Buddhism in a popular manner, and they inevitably lose something of the larger context of Buddhism. The result is often a Buddhism in which ritual and institutions and history don’t really matter. It is a kind of Buddhism that purports to float above all that.

Buddhadharma: Can we make a distinction between purely popular books that promise some kind of instant happiness and introductory books that serve a real purpose? Perhaps some distortion takes place, but maybe such simplifying can be beneficial.

Amy Hertz: Yes, it is a necessary part of the transition of Buddhism into North America.

Reed Malcolm: I would agree that it’s necessary to make the material accessible, although that word implies distortion to some people.

Tim McNeill: I don’t think making material accessible necessarily distorts Buddhism at all. There is a wider problem of people oversimplifying what you present. They may think that having read one introductory book, Buddhism is all summed up for them.

Amy Hertz: People are going to think whatever they’re going to think after you put out a book, and a publisher doesn’t have a lot of control over that. Your job is to give them as much choice as possible.

Tim McNeill: That is certainly an issue. There isn’t near the amount of choice that there could be, which has lot to with the nature of the book-selling business these days.

Buddhadharma: Is the marketing of Buddhism, which takes place largely through books, helpful to Buddhism or ultimately damaging?

Amy Hertz: Honestly, I’ve seen both sides of this. Marketing and selling Buddhism through popular books is definitely beneficial. It raises awareness, and many of the books are genuinely helpful to people. But a problem did arise when the publishing industry got the idea that Buddhism would be a real profitable area. People who didn’t know anything about Buddhism or care about it started jumping into publishing Buddhist books. As a result, they may have launched people into the forefront who might not have been as authentic as one would hope.

Tim McNeill: I see stuff being published that I really don’t think is good Buddhism, and I’ve also seen material that has been edited precisely to increase its sales potential, largely from big commercial publishers. I attended teachings by the Dalai Lama in New York that were turned into a book, and in that case the editing process greatly diminished what he said and what I experienced of him at the event.

Amy Hertz: There is really no need to do that. You can leave teachings intact to offer to their intended audience.

Tim McNeill: We’re putting out a book of teachings that the Dalai Lama gave in the south of France on a Dzogchen text. It very carefully follows what he said, but it runs to 370 pages.

Amy Hertz: I never would have been able to do that kind of book in the houses I’ve worked for. I attended teachings His Holiness gave in the Beacon Theatre a few years back, and I remember thinking, how on earth are they going to do this without completely changing what was said. That’s hard to do.

Reed Malcolm: When publishers are deciding what to publish these days, they are not only looking at the subject and the quality of the writing, but they are also considering what now goes by the buzzword “platform.” A publisher takes into account whether or not the author has spent significant time building an audience and making a name for themselves, which is usually done by giving talks or publishing articles.

This isn’t just the way to build a brand name, but it’s also a way for the author to refine an argument. You might think this is all backwards. Shouldn’t the book be the platform and provide the vehicle for bringing the author to the public? However, in the eyes of the publisher, the financial risk is often too great to take the chance that the work of an unknown writer or an unknown dharma teacher will eventually take off and become an important book. So the people who are often published these days in Buddhist publishing are the ones with name recognition.

Amy Hertz: This is a more recent development. When I first started publishing books in the late eighties, it was not about platform. It was about an idea back then, but the business has changed. It used to be that the independent booksellers were the majority of the market, so you could build an effective campaign using your sales rep to sell an idea, because it was a good, well thought-out, and well-written book. It helped if somebody had a following, but it wasn’t essential. I published a book called The Jew and the Lotus. Nobody knew the author, Roger Kamenetz, but it had a strong idea. It took off, and now it’s a staple of HarperSanFrancisco’s backlist.

That was the sort of book that independents understood there was an audience for. So you could build it slowly over time, let it catch on and sink in, let word of mouth carry it along. Now, the book business is much more like the movie business. The independents are less than ten percent of the market now. It’s all about the chain stores. They used to give you only ninety days for a book to work. Now, they give you thirty days before they start sending it back. There’s a lot of pressure on a mainstream publisher to get something to work quickly and to work big, which of course accounts for the need for an author to have a platform upfront.

Reed Malcolm: A large percentage of the book-buying business is now in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Traditionally, a local bookstore would decide what to display in its window. Many small bookstores meant a wide range of choices, but now you have one person working for a chain store out of the head office who is making split-second ordering and display decisions for entire regions of the country. That places enormous pressure on the publisher to get that chain store buyer’s attention. You just have a few seconds to pitch and entice a buyer.

Robert Sharf: Are they seeing anything other than the cover and the blurb?

Amy Hertz: Sometimes that’s all, but many of these buyers are reading the book and sometimes they will really fall in love with something and get behind it. There are thoughtful buyers out there.

Tim McNeill: Buyers can be difficult, and they do have a lot of influence, but there’s one buyer we deal with who has studied Buddhism and has a real affinity for it, and it shows in his buying decisions. For us that means that a book can get well placed across the country, which can determine how long it will be around for people to read.

Reed Malcolm: We’ve had the experience of a chain store buyer telling us that they didn’t like the cover design, but if we would change it, they would up their order. That’s a lot of influence over how books are presented.

Buddhadharma: If publishers respond to these pressures and make changes to their books, does this mean that teachings are being edited by the marketplace?

Amy Hertz: That’s up to the author. The author has a say in it. The editor does not have free rein to do whatever they want. The author has to approve everything, and if the author decides to cross that line, the responsibility falls on the author’s shoulders.

Buddhadharma: In ancient India, Mahayana commentaries needed to receive royal assent before they could be broadly published, which served as quality control. Do publishers exercise any such quality control?

Amy Hertz: We don’t have any kind of quality control in publishing these days. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which contained material that he admitted he exaggerated, stands as an example. There’s nobody refereeing anything.

Reed Malcolm: That’s not the case for an academic press.

Amy Hertz: Yes, in that case, you’re refereeing everything.

Tim McNeill: Most of the people making decisions at Wisdom have real experience of Buddhism, and we also don’t have to make all the judgments on our own. We have an excellent advisory board of people in the field to help us make decisions. We’re somewhat orthodox in the sense that we kind of cling to the belief that you need to nurture the source, the traditions for the work, where real transmission of the dharma comes from.

However, we will also look for books that could be more accessible, that might have a unique angle or voice, like Hardcore Zen or The Dharma of Star Wars. We will not publish anything we feel distorts the dharma or mixes and matches traditions. In general, we look for authentic Buddhism, but we don’t shy away from Buddhism Lite, if you will.

Buddhadharma: What effect do publishing decisions have on Buddhist teachers and how they’re perceived?

Robert Sharf: One of the trends that concerns me is how authority is conveyed in today’s world. In traditional Buddhism, the authority of the tradition lay largely within the celibate sangha. In North America, we’re scrambling to figure out new modes of authority. One of those modes is the marketplace. Dharma teachers no longer have an institution to support them and allow them to do their practice and teaching. Instead, they are forced into a situation where they have to market themselves.

Reed Malcolm: What establishes the authority of the Buddhist teacher in America is the book. The income derived from the book typically supports the teacher. I can’t say for

Charles Prebish

Charles Prebish

Dr. Charles Prebish is the author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, and co-editor of The Faces of Buddhism in America. He held the Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University from 2007 until 2010.