The economics of Buddhism books

The economics of Buddhist book publishing

The idea that you can make a lot of money by writing a Buddhist book gets some people really upset.

Brad Warner, a Zen teacher I admire, started getting a lot of flak recently when his books did “well.” People said he was “selling out” or had a swollen head. Rumors about his supposed misdeeds started circulating on the internet.

Internet rumors have similarly implied that the Aro lamas are in it for the money, and getting rich off of the sales of their books.

I wish it were possible to do that—because it would mean that there was a lot more interest in Buddhism than there actually is. There probably are a handful of authors whose Buddhist book royalties would cover their living expenses—but I would guess fewer than ten. Brad Warner, whose books are selling exceptionally well, says that the royalties for each one covers about six months of his rent. (He has a day job in the Japanese monster movie industry.)

The typical book contract gives the author about 10% of the cover price—around two dollars for each copy sold. If a Buddhist book sells a thousand copies, it is considered a significant success. To cover six months of Brad Warner’s rent, his books must be selling several thousand copies, which makes him a publishing star.

Writing a book is an immense amount of work—especially if you do a decent job at it. Per hour, you can make a lot more money flipping burgers than writing Buddhist books.

The alternative to a commercial publishing contract is to publish in-house. Aro Books publishes some of our lamas’ work. It runs at a loss, and is subsidized by donations. (Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen have donated all their royalties from their Shambhala Publications editions to Aro Books, but that is so little that it is not a major source of its funding.)

The economic value of Buddhist publication, if any, is publicity. If you have a book out, more people are likely to show up for your teaching events. If you can run those at a profit, books contribute. That is difficult, though. Brad Warner says he runs his at a loss; he subsidizes them with money from his day job. On average, Aro events run around break-even. Some lose money and some make a small profit—not nearly enough for anyone to live on, though.

I started writing a Buddhish book a few years ago. Once I understood how the publishing industry works, I lost interest. I had never expected to make any money on it, but I had the idea that books were the best way to reach a large audience with a coherent package of explanation. Realizing that I could expect to reach only a few hundred readers that way, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble. If I go public with the “book,” it will be on the web.

About five years ago, Ngak’chang Rinpoche said that Buddhism would soon go out of fashion. I didn’t believe him at first. I have noticed since then that the Buddhist section in typical book stores is half the size it was then. So I am afraid he’s right.