Friday, September 04, 2009

Publishing Dharma: Struggle of A Passing Paradigm

I love books. I always have. I love every aspect of them -- writing them, designing them, printing them, binding them, taking them down from shelves, and reading them.

In my lifetime, I have been an author, book designer, printer, hand-binder, librarian, and yes... I have been a publisher.

Because it is something I truly enjoy, I have been involved with various and sundry publishing projects for over 40 years. Once or twice, I made a great deal of money doing this, but money was never what made it click for me. Usually, I published for the intellectual pleasure it gave me.

In the old days, the front end costs were huge and paper was cheap. Now paper costs are huge and the front end is almost nothing. It is funny.

I do not know what will happen to books in the future. The bookstores are shrinking and is growing. At the same time, Amazon is pushing its market away from paper to something it calls a "Kindle." I thought that was a Yiddish word for something.

It is still possible to make money publishing books -- this, after all, is how most publishers stay in business -- but I do not know how long that will last. Right now, it is a bit difficult to make money from digital content delivery. Everything is free, and nobody has figured out how to change that -- unless you count iTunes. Face it: how long would you read this blog if you had to pay? Less than two seconds, right? Nevertheless, fine minds are at work all over the world, figuring out ways to deliver inkless content to you for a profit.

So the big English-language dharma publishing outfits -- and here I mention Shambhala, Snow Lion, Wisdom, Dharma Publishing -- have their work cut out for them. How are they going to survive as the digital delivery age keeps snowballing?

In the publishing world, pure dharma -- and here I mean translations of core texts, sutras, etc. -- doesn't make money: it loses money. It is a prestige item supported by sales from commentaries, pseudo-commentaries, new age pap, cookbooks, coffee table books, and what have you.

Ask any publisher (off the record of course) if this is correct, and see what they tell you.

The market is simply too finite -- too small, and one major segment of that market is evaporating: library sales of all kinds are on a downward spiral, and university library sales -- the last bastion of the high-end translation -- are frozen at a factorable state that argues against the greenlight on anything costing anywhere near what it needs to cost in order to break even.

Don't even ask me about fine press. I'll start to cry.

So, where do we go from here? Thinking back to Khyentse Rinpoche's big translation conference, I wonder if they had the foresight to include a panel of publishers to tell them what their 5, 25, and 100 year plans really mean in terms of content delivery.

A century from now, will people read dharma books, or will they just Kindle?

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