We’re at a watershed,” said Tim McNeill, CEO and publisher of Wisdom Publications, a Buddhist publisher in Somerville, Mass. For him, that’s an accurate description, for the changes taking place at the 10-person press, which evolved from seekers sharing their notes about the teachings of Tibetan Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, founders of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, into a publisher of books from all Buddhist traditions. In January 2014, Wisdom will mark its first 25 years as a full-fledged publisher with a change in distribution from PGW to Simon & Schuster, which will handle worldwide distribution, except for the U.K. and Australia.
McNeill has been at the helm of Wisdom since 1988, after being asked to transform the then nascent press into a viable trade house. One of his first actions was moving the press to Boston from London, where in 1983, Yeshe’s followers had established a charitable organization to publish books and distribute those of other Buddhist presses. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm outweighed their business sensibility, and they racked up $750,000 in losses. Within a decade of McNeill coming on board, he had mostly retired the debt, and Wisdom was named one of PW’s fastest-growing small presses in 1998. Now he is on a mission to ready Wisdom for its next major transition, to a new CEO by 2017. “I’m very conscious that I don’t want to be an obstacle to Wisdom’s next step of evolution,” said McNeill.
McNeill was at one time pejoratively labeled “a corporate Buddhist,” but his knowledge of both the religious and business worlds has enabled him to turn Wisdom into a successful, albeit not-for-profit, operation by publishing a mix of contemporary and classic Buddhist titles, including 15 works by the Dalai Lama, and practical books on mindfulness. That solid financial footing enables Wisdom to publish scholarly works like the Library of Tibetan Classics hardcover series, which will include 32 volumes when it is completed sometime around 2025, or to spend $180,000 in printing costs this year to keep the Teachings of Buddha Pali translation series available. “We’re balancing scholarly and textual resources with trade books,” said McNeill. “We’re trying to make sure, as interest in techniques like mindfulness explode, that the essential Buddhist philosophical roots aren’t severed.”
Moving Wisdom’s distribution is the first step in the press’s transition. “In terms of going forward, we’re placing a bet on Simon & Schuster. They have only 20 or 24 client publishers,” said McNeill, who thinks that Wisdom will benefit from being in a smaller distribution bag. S&S won him over with its staff’s enthusiasm for the list, in particular Michael Selleck, executive v-p of sales and marketing at S&S, who told him that Wisdom’s time has come. “We’re making that our new mantra,” said McNeill. Sales to date are about even with last year, McNeill said, something he is satisfied with given the preparation necessary with the switch in distributors.
Before the new agreement goes into effect on January 1, Wisdom had begun repositioning itself with a new Web site (www.wisdompubs.org), introduced last month. On it, the press has begun offering free content, including 48 of the 152 sutras in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, under a Creative Commons license. McNeill hopes the free content will promote interest in the complete book as well as discourage piracy. (Expensive titles like The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism by Dudjom Rinpoche, which retails for $90, are among the press’s most pirated e-books.) The new site also enables Wisdom to better promote collections of its books, provide photos and information on its authors and books—and to sell direct. Wisdom is also selling some books before publication, and received more than 1,400 pre-pub orders for The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, which helped offset the cost of printing 10,000 copies.
To fulfill McNeill’s aspiration to make Wisdom more robust, McNeill said he is considering making greater use of the press’s nonprofit status by doing more fund-raising. Last year, donations were 4% of the press’s overall revenue of $2.3 million. More proceeds from fund-raising could enable the press to publish even more academic titles, ones that McNeill said even university presses are shying away from, like Wisdom’s 16-volume Studies in Tibetan Buddhism series. At present, though, McNeill has no plans to tinker with Wisdom’s publishing schedule of 24 to 26 titles a year.