The Canon -- Hitting the Target
Staff -- 10/9/00
Publishers, marketers and retailers talk about the challenges of growing this mature market
Tom Mockabee: Surging Sales for Study Bibles
Recent research in the CBA market, sponsored by Zondervan, shows the average Bible consumer owns nine Bibles and is looking for more. Tom Mockabee, senior v-p and publisher of Zondervan Bibles and children's products, confirms there is no slackening in the Bible market. His house, which claims to be the largest Bible publisher in the world and publishes the top-selling New International Version, has seen a 7% increase in Bible sales in CBA stores in the past year, and Mockabee says sales in the ABA market also "show significant increases."
What motivates people to buy nine or more Bibles? Mockabee cites the nightly news--all the images of school shootings, presidential improprieties, plane crashes and other disasters have sent people looking for something they can take hold of. "Those things point people toward a feeling that there must be more to this life," he says. "I think scripture speaks so clearly to that, to why we are here on the planet." Add to that the fast tempo of 21st century living, and you end up with "people who are looking for places they can just be quiet and get away from all the hustle and bustle."
But if the zeal of the typical Bible shopper hasn't fallen off, his or her focus may have shifted. Where niched-out devotional Bibles once ruled, the study Bible is now out front. "It could very well be that people who got started with a devotional Bible want more meat and have now switched to the study Bible," Mockabee says. "We see even the study Bible for children outsell the devotionals at this point, and that is a change in the last two years." Which brings Mockabee to another recent market shift--Bibles for children are just about the hottest thing going, with titles targeted at every age from first grade up. "The children's market is growing and exciting," Mockabee says, noting that it is, of course, driven by adults who are looking for substance for their kids. "They want meat--that is our instinct at this point."
But with all those Bibles in people's homes--and, with about 20 different translations and almost innumerable editions, all those Bibles on bookstore shelves--the problem facing the Bible industry now is how to keep the old text fresh. Mockabee says new translations are a must to keep pace with changing language and maturing generations. But he also says reexamining Bible backlist is key to keeping Bibles up-to-date. "We are careful to look at the cover, the typeface and have scholars taking notes on a regular basis," Mockabee says. "We have to be innovative and keep it relevant." Other factors he sees having a growing influence on the Bible market are technology and new media. More and more clergy and serious laypeople are buying CD-ROM Bibles. "But I think even at the not-so-serious level, the proliferation of the Internet will make us look to new formats for how to present scripture to the postmodern generation that is emerging," he says.
Eugene Peterson: Getting Out the Message
Sometimes there's a fine line between paraphrase and translation. Eugene Peterson, author of the popular The Message series, believes his work falls into both categories. "I do take considerable liberties," admits Peterson, whose newest book, The Message: The Old Testament Prophets in Contemporary Language, due out this month from NavPress, translates the works of the Old Testament prophets into modern language. "But when you're working from original languages and trying to translate as close to the American idiom as you can, you sometimes have no choice," he adds.
What Peterson says he has never done in any of The Message titles is to explain what needs clarification because of cultural and language barriers. If the text is obscure, he says, "I keep it obscure. If it's ambiguous, I keep it ambiguous. It has never been my intent to put my take on someone else's ancient writings."
Peterson wants to introduce new readers or refresh longtime students of the Bible through The Message, which offers a contemporary rendering of the New Testament and other scriptures from the original languages. Although it was never his intention to create a publishing phenomenon, he did just that, obviously filling a void. To date, the 12-book The Message line has sold more than 6 million copies.
A onetime Presbyterian pastor who retired after 35 years to write full time, Peterson says there was nothing magical or marketing driven behind his plunge into making the Bible more accessible. It dates back to the early 1980s, when he gave a Sunday school class, followed by a series of sermons, on the book of Galatians. He looked out into the congregation and saw plenty of bored faces. "They just weren't getting it." He decided to use his knowledge of Greek and translate Galatians into contemporary English. When Paul launched into wild syntax with vigor and startling images, so did Peterson's modern translation. He managed to capture the spirit of the text without changing the message. When Peterson retired from pastoral work and moved back to the family home in Montana, he decided he had the time to tackle the whole New Testament in the same style, with the help of nothing more than his Hebrew Bible and the works of his favorite commentators. The result was The Message.
Peterson wouldn't recommend The Message as a study Bible because it has no concordance, and he d sn't like to see fellow clergy use it for sermon preparation. "When pastors tell me they preach from it, I tell them they miss the connection with the past with this translation," he says. So what purpose d s The Message serve? Peterson says it's a comfortable entry point for those who have been turned off by the institutional feel of the traditional text. With a translation that speaks in contemporary language, there's no reason for first-time readers to fear the Bible. He hopes The Message will only be a launchpad into the standard translations. "Get weaned from it," urges Peterson. "I actually prefer translations that are archaic and stay close to the syntax of the ancient language. It makes for awkward reading, but it preserves the uniqueness of the works."
Renee Kennedy: Serving the Consumer
While publishers and scholars love to debate the pros and cons of various biblical translations, references to the KJV, NIV, NAB and NLT are often just so much alphabet soup to most Bible purchasers--even those who shop at Christian bookstores. "In the past people bought based on translation, but now they buy based on need," says Renee Kennedy, Bible and software buyer for Family Christian Bookstores. "Whether it's the New International Version or New King James Version d sn't matter to them."
Kennedy can report that the NIV (especially Zondervan's NIV Study Bible and its NIV Life Application Bible) is the top-selling translation overall in Family Christian's 361 stores and that the fastest-growing one is Nelson's New King James Version. Yet these days Kennedy is more attentive to market needs than to Greek vocabulary.
A "clean" database of more than 7 million Family Christian customers gives Kennedy plenty of market demographics to work with. "We have a lot of great information at our fingertips," she says. "And we've really got it honed down, so we can say that a 35-year-old single woman who buys gift books will buy a woman's devotional Bible, for example." Direct-mail marketing with this list has had an "incredible success rate" with Bible sales, she says.
Surveying the current needs of typical Christian customers, Kennedy names the teen market as the most pressing one, especially since the Columbine shootings. Family Christian Stores often attract teenagers with their extensive Christian music departments. While stopping in to pick up the latest DC Talk or Jars of Clay CD, a younger reader might decide to check out a display of Nelson's Extreme Teen Bible. Kennedy admits that "for the most part, it's still the parents who are buying most of the Bibles for teens."
With Bibles sales currently making up 12% of Family Christian's business, Kennedy predicts growth in volume if not in percent of sales. A Bible often makes a perfect gift, and cross-merchandizing in the stores can boost sales. "More and more people want books that are family safe and family friendly," she says. "A Bible is a great thing for folks to pick up as a gift for just about anybody."
Tom Torbett: Identifying the Latest Trends
As a distributor, Appalachian Distributors president Tom Torbett tells PW that his view of the Bible market is not as long as a publisher's. Where publishers may look years down the line, he cares only about the next few months. But he thinks that affords him a closer-to-the ground perspective that offers a different panorama.
While many publishers see no endgame for Bible translations, Torbett believes their fifteen minutes are about up. While many new translations have made the Bible more accessible--and therefore more popular--the proliferation of Bible translations has also succeeded in confusing the consumer. "I think publishers are trying to get more focused" on their most popular translations, Torbett says. "They have realized the limit to how many different brands can you market effectively."
Like Zondervan's Mockabee, Torbett sees a waning of interest in devotional Bibles. But, he said, theme Bibles”those focused on a single topic like leadership, prophecy or spiritual warfare”are enjoying rising sales. And among all Bibles, he has noticed a move toward emphasizing spiritual development, especially in Bibles for "seekers"--usually baby boomers looking for a religious experience for the first time or returning to organized religion after a long absence.
Still, Torbett thinks there is broader interest in the Bible overall, especially in the West, where Appalachian's Bible distribution business has steadily increased over the last 25 years. This comes as no surprise to Torbett, who notes that many of the major movements in contemporary American Christianity had their birth in the West--Promise Keepers, megachurches, and postmodern congregations like Vineyard Christian Fellowship all began in the western United States. Torbett thinks the West will continue to grow as a Bible market because many popular ministers, like John MacArthur and Charles Swindoll, have headquartered their ministries there. "They have just heightened the spiritual awareness and stimulated people to Bible study," says Torbett.
Another trend he identifies is an attempt by Bible publishers to better develop the ABA-indie market. One place he sees marketing dollars going is into Bibles that tie in with another popular product, like the Left Behind series. "If you can tie a Bible into something like that and ride on that a little bit, you will certainly get a boost in sales," he notes.
Joseph Dearborn: Ensuring Inclusive Language
The Rev. Joseph Dearborn d sn't see the Inclusive Language Translation Project as just another Bible translation effort. "One of the teachings of Vatican II has to do with language," he tells PW, referring to the historic gathering of Catholic prelates that sought to integrate laity into modern church life. "Care in language is a first and necessary step in raising consciousness."
That's why since 1988, Priests for Equality, of which Dearborn is a member, has been laboring to produce a version of the Bible that reflects contemporary American social perceptions and uses language that includes women. Volume I, The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is being published on October 15. Already in print are inclusive-language versions of the New Testament and volume III, The Writings, composed of the wisdom literature, historical books and apocryphal books of the Bible. Volume II, The Prophets, is scheduled for publication in December 2001. The organization's inclusive-language Bible is the only such version on the market for Catholics.
Now 25 years old, Priests for Equality began as an attempt to carry out the promise of Vatican II to enlarge participation by women in the Catholic Church. It is now an international movement of 4,000 clergy and a project of the Quixote Center, an administrative umbrella for a portfolio of social justice programs. The inclusive-language Bible developed out of an earlier effort by the group to produce a Catholic lectionary, or readings for worship, that included women. After the lectionary was completed, the rest of the Bible seemed like the logical next step. "We literally sat down and went through New Testament readings, and we had already handled about two-thirds of it, so we simply finished it," says Dearborn.
Translators of the inclusive-language version check the original Greek and Hebrew texts to gauge their accuracy. Text preparation also includes a panel of eight women readers who review the translation to ensure a "strong feminist voice," Dearborn says. He is responsible for checking the translation against a comprehensive style sheet that has been developed to produce a nonsexist, nonclassist text. Dearborn can cite testimonials from women readers who have written to express gratitude for the work. "'I can experience God's all-inclusive presence,'" writes one reader. The market for the PFE inclusive-language version includes about a dozen seminary and academic bookstores and an ecumenical audience of women, including Episcopalians, Methodists and Baptists as well as Catholics, reached primarily through direct mail. A mailing of 30,000 will promote the current release of TheTorah. Some readers are also finding the translation through Amazon.com. The texts are distributed to the trade through Ingram, and Dearborn hopes the market will continue to grow. "Our next goal is to get on Oprah," says Dearborn.
To contact Priests for Equality, call (301) 699-0042 or visit their Web site at www.quixote.org.
--Marcia Z. Nelson
Ellen Frankel: Selling Jewish Scripture
In recent years, Ellen Frankel, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, has noticed a definite upward trend in Jewish Bible sales. And the increase is driven partly, she said, by unlikely customers: Christians. With growing awareness and appreciation among Christian scholars and laity of the centrality of the Pentateuch--the Five Books of Moses, or the Torah--n the shaping of the New Testament and of Jesus' worldview, Christians are buying Jewish Bibles in ever-greater numbers, Frankel tells PW.
Though the Hebrew Bible has always been part of the Christian Bible, there are several reasons why Christians are being drawn to Bibles such as the JPS Tanakh. For one, Christians' interest in the Jewish Bible tended in the past to center on the prophetic writings, Frankel says, while Jewish Bibles emphasize the Pentateuch much more. Also, more Christians are coming to believe that translations like JPS's--finished in 1985 after 30 years of work--are more authentic, since their translators went back to the original Masoretic text and discarded use of any previous translations.
Frankel says Christian interest in the Pentateuch has extended to other sacred Jewish texts as well. "There's a growing understanding that the commentary tradition is central to the understanding of Jewish scriptures, so there's a growing interest in the non-Jewish world in commentary as a lens through which to view Jewish scripture."
The challenge of Bible publishers, Frankel says, is to make traditional texts ever more accessible. "A classical Jewish text assumes the reader knows the Bible by heart," she notes. "We're not assuming a huge Hebrew and Judaic literacy." To aid in accessibility and readability, she says, publishers are increasingly emphasizing clear and usable design and, in the case of texts in which the original Hebrew appears alongside the translation, larger type.
The upswing in Jewish Bible sales is, of course, also driven by increased interest among Jews in their heritage and tradition. Aside from Bibles and commentaries, JPS is beginning work on a 12-15 volume, fully annotated translation of the Zohar, a 13th-century mystical text that is the foundation of Kabbalah, the chief form of Jewish mysticism. And JPS is beginning to discuss embarking on yet another new translation of the Hebrew Bible. "What g s into a totally new translation is theological and philosophical perspective," Frankel says. This time around, there will be new scholarship to contend with, along with discussions about gender issues, the dates of the texts, and how best to integrate the knowledge gleaned from the Dead Sea Scrolls. "I believe every generation has to do its own translation," Frankel declares.
Bob Sennett: Finding More Niches to Fill
Just when you think every possible Bible niche has been filled, Thomas Nelson repackages the Good Book for a new group of readers--be it thrill-seeking teens, computer-savvy kids, soccer moms or people working through emotional issues. In each case, the key is to make the centuries-old scripture come to life for contemporary Christians. "People want to know how to apply God's word to the world they see around them," says Bob Sennett, editorial director of Nelson Bibles. "We try to make the Bible's teachings relevant in a way that meets their needs."
For teens, that means making the Bible hip and "edgy." Nelson's new Extreme Teen Bible, released last October in hardcover and paperback, appeals to high school and college students with a flashy cover promising "no fears, no regrets, just a future with a promise." Inside, conversational sidebars supplement the New King James Version translation, turning the Bible into a survival guide for the world teens live in today. Initial marketing with the Christian band Audio Adrenaline ramped up the hipness factor and made it Nelson's most successful new Bible product of the year.
For the generation of even younger readers--those who seem to have been born with a mouse in their hands--Nelson has created a Bible that not only imitates the Internet but also has its own Web site. KidsBible.com features bright illustrations and lots of "links" between sections. "The material is presented in small 'clickable' bites like you see on a computer screen," says Sennett. Both the print version and the Web site will "help kids relate to the Bible."
Although Nelson is known for its line of tried-and-true study Bibles, these niche Bibles that emphasize practical relevance are their current focus for new products. "Our commitment is to reach people who have not traditionally been customers for Bibles," says Sennett. The Women's Life Bible (Feb.), created in conjunction with Christianity Today magazine, is a King James Version with notes for women trying to juggle marriage, family and career. The Soul Care Bible (July) combines the New King James Version with articles about emotional issues by 90 contributors from the American Association of Christian Counselors.
The bottom line in all these niches, as noted above, is practical relevance. "People want a shorter investment of time and a greater payoff in the short run," says Sennett. "They want to learn what the Bible has to do with what they care about and what they're facing right now."
John Vitek: Addressing Catholic Teens
When St. Mary's Press decided it would publish a Bible for Catholic teens to capture what v-p John Vitek calls "a growing interest among Catholics in scripture" since Vatican II, the Minnesota-based publisher of youth ministry resources put together a $1.25-million marketing plan that included an ambitious expansion beyond its well-established customers among parishes and schools. St. Mary's wanted the 1,550-page text--which features more than 650 articles that draw on biblical scholarship to illuminate the text--to land right in the hands of soul-searching 13-17-year-olds and also catch the imagination of a general trade audience.
The prepublication launch of The Catholic Youth Bible, edited by Brian Singer-Towns, was orchestrated at a conference of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry last November. The publisher hired teens from a local youth group as booth staff to sell the product to their peers, hoping to lend the Bible authenticity through peer influence.
Though niche Bibles aimed at specific demographics or designed for a special purpose have long been a staple of evangelical publishers, this was new territory for a Catholic house. St. Mary's relied on an outside publicist, the Littfin Pratt Agency, to broaden the Bible's exposure on the trade side. While the image of a churchg r with a Bible snugly tucked under the arm is not usually associated with Catholics, Vitek admits, the publicist sought mentions by religion writers at major newspapers and magazines as well as the monthly magazine U.S. Catholic and the newsweekly National Catholic Reporter. "The movement into trade type publication for St. Mary's Press is a newer phenomenon,'' Vitek says, noting that the press specializes in church resources and youth textbooks.
Roughly 120,000 copies of The Catholic Youth Bible have sold to date. Three-fourths of those sales have been through institutional channels, while almost 10% sold through bookstores--mostly independent Catholic stores, but perhaps 3%-4% through CBA stores. The remaining 15% of sales have been via direct mail or online, Vitek says.
"The most challenging thing was the reach,'' Vitek says of their efforts to promote the Bible (which is the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition) and distinguish it in a crowded market. "There are so many other youth Bibles out there--even some that are positioned as Catholic youth Bibles but not published by Catholic publishers."
More fruits of this push into the trade will come during the Christmas season. Target will carry a $27.95 paperback version in 880 of its stores nationwide. There will also be a $47.95 leatherette edition, with the same specs as the $37.95 hardcover, available through other retail outlets. St. Mary's hopes to strike a chord with grandparents or parents looking for a gift Bible.
--Theola S. Labbe
David Shepherd: Explaining a New Translation
Just when you thought it was safe to go into the religion section of your local bookstore, another version of the Bible joins the crowd already on the shelves. The Holman Christian Standard Bible--translated by a team of 90 scholars under the direction of David Shepherd, senior v-p and publisher of Broadman & Holman Publishers--debuts this December.
Why add another translation to the already dizzying array? "It's important to bring the scriptures into recognizable 21st-century American English and do it without compromising the linguistic precision of the ancient biblical languages," Shepherd explains. "Doing this makes Bible study easier and more meaningful for the next generation of emerging believers."
There are other reasons as well. Modern technology assists today's translators in accessing ancient manuscripts and pieces of scholarship that were not available to earlier translators. Add to this a better understanding of Hebrew and Greek grammar--with computer programs that can cross-reference any word or phrase in every major translation and the original language with a simple click of the mouse--and the result is "exceptional consistency and precision," he tells PW.
Finally, there's the theology behind the $12-million investment: "Our decision to do a new translation involves our desire to leave our generation and future generations of Christians with a modern English translation that is free from the influence of cultural trends toward pluralism, political correctness and drifting ideology."
The project is as challenging as it is expensive. First, "there is the core challenge of starting with ancient texts and translating them into our modern language without compromising the message one bit," Shepherd says. "A common scene in our offices is to come across a group of editors sifting through lexicons, dictionaries, the thesaurus and stylebooks, debating word choices and syntax."
A second challenge is educating people about the motives in crafting a new translation. "Readers put so much personal stock in their translation of choice because it's a tool they use to grow closer to God," notes Shepherd. "So we're putting a lot of time and effort into breaking the ice with gatekeepers like pastors and seminary professors." What is all the money, time and effort aimed at achieving? Answers Shepherd, "A precise translation good for Bible study, a readable text for devotional use and ease of understanding."
Marci Blankenbaker: Making Bible-Buying Practical
To Marci Blankenbaker, assistant manager for Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Ky., buying a Bible is like shopping for a car: "There are so many options: gold edges, silver edges, genuine or imitation leather, thumb indexing, hardcover, softcover, study Bibles, devotional Bibles, one-year Bibles, gift Bibles....We help people narrow down the choices based on what they will use a Bible for and how much they want to spend."
In its Christianity section, Joseph-Beth carries more than 500 Bibles arranged by translation. Therein lies the challenge, says Blankenbaker. "If a customer wants a copy of Angela's Ashes, we just give it to them. But Bibles are very personal. The first question is, what type of translation are they most comfortable with?" Of the 15 translations Joseph-Beth carries, the New International Version (NIV) sells best. "Our customers want a Bible to study, not just to sit on a shelf and gather dust," she says.
If customers do not know what translation they want, Blankenbaker suggests they read a few verses from different versions to find a good fit. More unusual selections include Bibles in Spanish, Chinese and German, and even one to hang on the wall: a poster version (produced by a local printing company) that can be read with a magnifying glass. Children's Bibles are shelved in the children's section.
Bibles sell better than any other book in the store, Blankenbaker notes. At Christmas, holidays and graduation--prime times for buying, when as much as half of the year's sales take place--the store increases its stock by 50 percent and sets up special displays.
Because the bookstore serves a largely Christian market, its other religion sections are smaller. With fewer choices of translations and editions, sacred texts make up only 10% of each of the other religion sections, Blankenbaker estimates. These other texts include the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud (Judaism); the Koran (Islam); the Bhagavadgita and Upanishads (Hinduism); the I Ching and Tao Te Ching (Taoism); and the Dhammapada (Buddhism).
Blankenbaker tells PW that publishers don't offer much guidance in merchandising sacred texts, so knowledgeable staff are key in steering customers in the right direction. Although there is no substitute for experience, the Ingram Guide to Bibles, a reference booklet available from the distributor, helps newer staff members sort out the differences among the versions. Blankenbaker concludes, "Our goal is to have someone leave our store with a Bible they really enjoy and which has everything they need."
Debra Williams: Shelving for Sales
At Barnes & Noble stores, helping customers navigate the multiple choices when they are looking to buy a Bible is mostly a nonissue, says corporate spokeswoman Debra Williams. "For the most part, consumers know what they're looking for when they come in," she says. "So it's more a matter of displaying them in a way that's clear." That means sorting Bibles by translation and giving them their own dedicated shelf space in the religion section. "If someone's looking for a King James Bible, they'll also find the New King James Bible close by," Williams says. For those who aren't sure which version is right for them, all B&N stores make available Bible-comparison guides that help customers and sales staff alike. The guide, in the form of a brochure, outlines the unique characteristics of all the major translations.
When it comes to display and presentation, Williams says, publishers are making stores' jobs easier by providing "friendlier" covers on their Bibles and other sacred texts. "Covers use a combination of text and graphics now," she notes, whereas in the past, Bible covers relied purely on text and were therefore what she calls "imposing" and "intimidating." The new covers are in part a result of who is buying these books and why: "Consumers usually buy Bibles for children--for communion or for a birth," Williams says. "We find that women buy the bulk of Bibles."
The most popular of the large crop of Bible translations, she adds, are the King James and the NIV, with the former selling particularly strongly in the South. In addition to offering the range of translations, Williams says B&N stores stock the increasingly popular niche Bibles and sacred texts geared toward specific demographic groups or for specific occasions, such as Bibles for teens or students or devotional Bibles for women to use at bedtime.
Kim Tano: Finding Unique Bibles
If it's a popular Bible you're looking for, try the local Christian bookstore or even Borders. But if you want something special, something unique, Powell's City of Books in Portland is the place to go, according to Kim Tano, Powell's theology buyer. The independent store offers the ultimate in variety, since it carries both new and used books, and its shelves are stocked with gift editions galore.
Powell's substantial line of specialty Bibles sets it apart from most independent stores and many CBA shops, says Tano. Where else can you find a copy of the Bible illustrated by Salvador DalÃ? (That collectors' edition, which commands almost $100, is kept in a locked case.) "We're always looking for anything that's unique or interesting or exciting," Tano tells PW.
In fact, one of the bestselling Bibles at Powell's has been the 1999 edition illustrated by Barry Moser (Viking), who spent four years crafting the 232 relief engravings that are scattered throughout its acid-free pages. An appearance by Moser helped Powell's sell more than 120 of the $65 Bibles last Christmas, says Tano. Other gift editions, such as classic King James Versions or the Cambridge Bible, also are popular, especially during the holidays.
Tano says the Bible business is "very important" at Powell's, especially in the used-book department. "I'd say 50% to 60% of the Bibles we sell are used," she says. Most customers are looking for a find--maybe an antique family Bible complete with inscriptions--or for a good deal, with used Bibles running about half the cost of new ones.
To showcase its specialty Bibles, Powell's sets them apart at the front of the room that houses theology and religion books. In addition to the one-of-a-kind family heirlooms and top-of-the-line gift editions, the store also carries a complete line of various translations, everything from the New International Version to The Living Bible. Customers who might not frequent a Christian bookstore can count on some assistance from service-oriented independents like Powell's, Tano says. "A lot of people come in and say, 'My aunt's in this church. What kind of Bible would you recommend?' We get a lot of people you wouldn't think would buy a Bible."
Tim McNeill: Getting Back to Buddhist Roots
Growth in interest in the Buddhist canon is gratifying for Tim McNeill at Wisdom Publications, which specializes in Buddhism. "Much of what we concentrate on is translating original text," says McNeill, publisher of the house, which began in London and moved to the Boston area in 1987.
McNeill uses the word authentic carefully in describing Wisdom's list. The house is ecumenically Buddhist, so authentic is not used to single out any one teacher or tradition within the broad stream of Buddhism, which has evolved distinctly in the many Asian countries where it took root. "We hold to the belief it's important to embrace a tradition and develop some expertise and insight in a tradition before trying to force its evolution," he says. That's why Wisdom emphasizes making classical text and commentary available to a new audience of Americans.
McNeill believes the quality of translation for Americans is growing with the development of a cadre of scholars and serious students who are competent in the original languages of texts and commentaries. The new translators also breathe contemporary life into texts that have been available in earlier translations. "Many of those were translated several decades ago," McNeill points out. Wisdom's The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Oct.) exemplifies this trend. Bodhi, an American-born Buddhist monk living in Sri Lanka, is fluent in Pali, one of the classical languages of Buddhism. McNeill also observes that American scholarship on Buddhism has grown more tolerant of scholars who are practitioners as well as analysts of this historically Eastern religion. "Before, the attitude was 'You've gone native,' and I think that's changed dramatically," he says.
Unlike most trade publishers, Wisdom is a not-for-profit organization. "We have a bit of an advantage being a nonprofit," the publisher says. "On the other hand, we still have to survive." That's why Wisdom's list contains a mix of classic Buddhist texts and "books that will sell" to a more general audience, McNeill says. One title on Wisdom's fall list is linked, for better or worse, with current headlines. Chinese Buddhist master Hsing Yun, author of Describing the Indescribable: A Commentary on the Diamond Sutra (Feb. 2001), is the founder of Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, which made news as the site of some questionable fund-raising in 1996 by Al Gore.
--Marcia Z. Nelson
Volume 246 Issue 41 10/09/2000