Saturday, May 12, 2012

Shambhala Swallows Snow Lion

In a development likely to have far-reaching influence on the state of English-language Buddhist publishing, Shambhala Publications of Boston, Massachusetts this past Thursday announced that they have acquired Snow Lion Publications of Ithaca, New York, for an undisclosed sum.

Shambhala thus absorbs its only effective competitor in the field of Tibetan Buddhist books, and while the acquisition is being heralded as a good thing for both companies, it remains to be seen if it is a good thing for the reading public. 

According to Snow Lion's management:
Thirty years ago His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave the founders of Snow Lion a mission: to publish books from all the traditions of Tibet.  It was most important, he told us, to be non-sectarian in our approach. More specifically, he suggested that we publish translations of classic texts and monastic textbooks from each of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, commentaries by eminent lamas past and present of their respective lineages, and works by Western practitioners and scholars skilled at bridging the cultures. In addition, he suggested we publish books for those newly interested in Buddhism, books for serious students and scholars, as well as materials for advanced practitioners. 
Whether or not Shambhala can manage to hold that editorial vision intact is a valid question. Snow Lion had the courage to take on projects that were less than viable from an economic perspective, but vital from a spiritual perspective. Snow Lion also went to considerable lengths to identify, cultivate, and publish new authors, often outside the mainstream Shambhala represents. 

Once a renegade independent, with its roots in a storefront on Berkeley, California's Telegraph Avenue, Sam Bercholz's Shambhala -- now run by his children -- has reinvented itself as an upscale, establishment publisher with an unadventurous list. The firm originally came to prominence through an exclusive relationship with Trungpa Rinpoche, but in recent years has depended mainly upon authors such as Pema Chodron to define a mass-market stance. Shambhala also controls magazines, and a fledgling digital presence principally concerned with promoting its products and its authors.

In many other fields, Shambhala's acquisition of Snow Lion might prompt anti-trust scrutiny, but it is unlikely in this particular case. Nevertheless, the move does represent a tightening of Shambhala's grip on English-language Buddhist print media in North America.

Apart from Dharma Publishing and Wisdom Publications, we are pressed to find anyone else of comparable consequence in the field. Both of those firms are closely held by non-profit entities.

The fate of Snow Lion's approximately 300 title backlist -- including several works by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and "initiation only" titles such as Yeshe Lhamo or The Roar of Thunder -- is now in some question. According to sources, Shambhala follows the business model of "running out" its backlist in order to maintain interest in its new titles. One presumably well-informed source quotes Shambhala founder Sam Bercholz as believing, "That an open backlist printed on demand would slow the demand for new books."

Look for Grandmother Pema's Sixty-Second Weight-Watching Meals Without Fear from the Vajrayana Kitchen, coming to a bookstore near you. And, copy the below to pin up in your cubicle:

"Dharma books die when driven by market demographics."

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9 reader comments:

Unknown said...

What a tragedy. Now I understand the atmosphere in Ithaca the last time I was at Snow Lion in person.

Does anyone know where we can get those large giclee thangkas that they were selling now that they are gone? I had meant to order one and now the opportunity evaporated overnight.

Anonymous said...

I smell commie pinko talk. Interfering with capitalist market forces is distinctly un-American.

Anonymous said...

You really have it wrong about Shambhala and their keeping books in print. I've noticed that Shambhala does everything in it's power to keep books in print and they publish scores of books that are far from commercial. You are doing reader's a disservice by such non-sensical jealous talk.

Karma Yonten Gyatso said...

As a small, independent dharma publisher in Canada, I have had a working relationship with Snow Lion for some time. There is no question that they published wonderful books, and it is likely that back list is of most interest to Shambhala (in or out of print). However, an equally important aspect of Snow Lion's business was distribution - both of books by other publishers and of resources for practitioners. That is going to be a great loss, but it is not getting much attention. Equally sad will be the demise of their newspaper chronicle.

Change is constant and publishing is a perilous craft. The koan is "How will you speak of dharma in 10 years?"

Cliff in Cleveland said...

I am concerned. Have to focus on needs. Wants are endless, even when it comes to precious dharma texts. I will miss Snow Lion.

lalalila said...

Shambhala, the home of the "Kosmic" Ken Wilbur...what more need be said! )':

Anonymous said...

I know multiple Snow Lion authors as well as some from Shambhala.

I love this site and what you do, but this post is not up to your usual standards and I think is kind of embarrassing. Anti-trust scrutiny? Please.

Anyone can read the tea leaves and has paid any attention at all to publishing knows that Snow Lion was struggling, its management at the end of their run. Whatever we might think of Shambhala's more pop-books, this is infinitely better than SL being bought by some large publisher who would be all about the numbers. No more marginal but important books would be considered. They'd probably sell off a bunch of stuff. Seems to me that Shambhala has been able to to these kind of books (the Padmakara stuff, Tulku Thondop, et al, *because* they publish the Pema Chodron and Wilber stuff. That stuff is not my taste but they do dish out some other great stuff.

Also, both these publishers - and really any their size - rely on their backlist. Print on demand is what all publishers do, - no one wants to kill stuff off anymore.

I dont care so much about the design stuff - I care about whats inside - though, Shambhala's I think is generally considered better - I guess they have been able to throw more resources at it. As far as the kind of books they will do, it sounds like things will continue. We will have to wait and see, but as far as a change in Buddhist publishing, this seems pretty mild.

Please keep your posts real, we love 'em.

Editor said...

Thank you for your kind comments. Maybe I am not up to my usual standards :-) I'd like to bring up a couple of points anyway. First, I personally regard this as a great opportunity for (a) Shambhala to get back to its roots, and (b) for somebody new to jump up and fill Snow Lion's void. The corporate culture of these two houses was/is very different, you know? Next, I hear of two views, the first being from publishers, editors, and the like, and the second from readers. For a considerable time now, the views of the readers have been rather negative where Shambhala is concerned. We have run little items on this in the past, so perhaps you might want to read them, etc., and get a feel for this. There is definitely a backlash. Now, say what you like, but this guy Cox had courage, and the readers appreciated his courage -- maybe not enough to keep him afloat :-) --- but they certainly could see what he was doing. You take Treasury of Knowledge as a case in point. Nobody Snow Lion's size would be crazy enough to try that the way they tried, but Cox went ahead and did it anyway. I met Cox only one time, and we discussed publishing for maybe a half hour or so, but I was very, very impressed with him and no way was he (2008) at the "end of his run." I think many thousands of people owe him a debt of gratitude for running Snow Lion the way he ran it....and I told him so when I met him. As to Shambhala, my issue is I remember the "old" Shambhala, from the Berkeley days, and I feel they've lost or sacrificed their vision in pursuit of the dubious goal of "bigger." Bigger does not mean better, but you can easily seduce yourself to believe that it does. I think they have succumbed to that seduction. Also, before I forget... the reader above, from Canada, makes the point about distribution, and I think this is a neglected point. I hear that Namse Bangdzo has some designs on the void, but I do not think they are mature enough to handle it. Maybe it is time for the various house imprints to band together, and give more thought to distribution for the benefit of all. Why don't you join the FB discussion on all this? Lot of interesting ideas floating around.

Anonymous said...

As a subscriber of Snow Lion Publications, finding the “Dalai Lama Quote of the Week” in my email inbox had always been the high point of my week.

When reading His Holiness’s quote, it was like hearing a live and vivid teaching session from him……...never fail to inspire me and putting a smile on my face at the same time.