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."