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Buddhadharma : Fall 2007
buddhadharma| 57 |fall 2007 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 main- stream 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 essen- tial 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 under- written. 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 particu- larly interested in underwriting religious pursuits. We survive based on conser- vative 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 arly books, have dropped steeply. All of these trends mean less income for univer- sity presses, who have now been picking up the mid-level sellers that large publish- ers have dropped, as they pursue block- busters. 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 gen- eral 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 corpo- rate job in publishing, I took over Wisdom. At the time it was mostly publishing transla- tions 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 qual- ity 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 acquisi- tions 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 uni- versity presses are balking at these days. 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 atten- tion, while always maintaining the integ- rity 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 pub- lishers, popular books enable them to underwrite less lucrative but very impor- tant 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 nec- essarily 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.” 1965 1962 1959 1964