Shambhala Publications, born in 1969, is moving toward the half-century mark by going beyond traditional publishing to actively foster Buddhist values for enlightened living. There’s a revitalized website featuring expanded online classes, an upcoming imprint for children’s books and plans for expanded offerings abroad.
At the helm is president Nikko Odiseos, 49, who grew up Greek Orthodox but moved toward Buddhism during his college years at Antioch. He began meditating and attended Antioch’s program in India where he eventually worked as a teaching assistant. His professional career, drawing on his academic background in web engineering, politics and environmental studies, wound from wine-making to working in the tech boom to a role with Microsoft dealing with digital strategies and information management for clients including many publishers.
In 2010, the children of Shambhala co-founder Samuel Bercholz, Ivan and Sara Bercholz who are now owners and executive vice presidents, went looking for a president with an eye to the company’s future. Odiseos was the pick. He knew the family and the critical components of the job: Buddhism, the values of the board, Shambhala’s authors, the burgeoning world of digital publishing and the business side as well.
The company, based in Boulder, Col, since 2015, is showing continued growth. As a private indie publisher, Odiseos would not disclose exact revenue but says, “We are in the $12 to $15 million range” for 2017. This is up from about $10 million reported in 2010. While continuing its four-decade contract with Random House for distribution of its physical books, Shambhala has shut down direct-to-consumer hard copy sales, “doubled down on digital sales” and boosted its email and social media marketing, says Odiseos. Meanwhile, the staff has grown to 39 employees publishing 109 books in 2018 and offering a backlist of more than 1,600 titles.
“Our website was re-launched in 2017 with reader guides and author guides. So if someone is looking for books on a particular subject or writer, there will be tags to those books and other related authors, courses, articles, archives, and newsletters. We call this ‘topic driven discoverability’ – a 360-degree view of a subject. We tell people where author are participating in events (including free events at the company’s Boulder, Col, headquarters), where they are teaching, how to find their videos.”
“With online courses, we have designers on staff that design and develop them so we’re not just throwing up a bunch of videos,” he says. Shambhala currently offers 20 on-demand self-study programs, which cost $100 to $250 and brought in 5% of the company’s revenue in 2017.
The subjects range across the spectrum of Buddhist thought. Making Friends with Yourself is taught by one of Shambhala’s most successful authors, American Buddhist nun and meditation master Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You). He sees growing interest in topics such as Skillful Communication: A Zen Approach, taught by Diane Musho Hamilton, and courses in Christianity such as The Way of the Wisdom Jesus: Going Beyond the Mind to the Heart of His Teaching, taught by an Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, an expert on contemplative practice.
Six to eight new courses are in the works for 2018 including another by Chodron. Shambhala is also bringing up from the backlist Chodron’s titles that emphasize action in the world, beyond a private focus on mindfulness, such as Awakening Loving-Kindness.
In the past, Shambhala has published a handful of children’s books such as a popular title for parents and children called, Sitting Still Like a Frog. This year, Odiseos is particularly excited about launching a full children’s imprint, Bala Kids. “We are taking a very intentional approach. The title is a Sanskrit term with two meanings. The first is ‘strength’ and the second is ‘child.’ We want to introduce more books of quality that impart Buddhist values or help children understand their world.”
The first four Bala Kids books will go on sale in spring 2019 with an “unbelievably beautiful” Life of the Buddha by Heather Sanche, illustrated by Tara di Gesu, Odiseos says. There’s an activity book follow up to the first Frog book featuring mindfulness games, a Where’s Waldo? style book called Where’s Buddha? And Everything Is Connected by Jason Gruhl, illustrated by Ignasi Font.
More books will round out the line later in 2019, including the winner of a contest for a children’s picture book manuscript “expressing Buddhist values, themes, and traditions.” The Khyentse Foundation initiated the contest idea and has underwritten the $5,000 prize, which comes with a publishing contract from Bala Kids. The winner, to be announced in May, had to follow a content rule: No manuscripts on “secular mindfulness, meditation or yoga” would be accepted.
The widespread popularization of those ideas and practices, often divorced from any ties to their spiritual and philosophic origin, has become an issue for Shambhala and other Buddhism publishers, says Odiseos. “We see important books on secular mindfulness that we would be interested in such as work by Jon Kabat Zinn that is decoupled from religion but very genuine. We just don’t want to slip into the pablum of ‘everything becoming mindful.’ We want to be very careful with it and the authors we choose. We are not only trying to reach the yoga reader and the mindfulness reader, we also want to help them go deeper and more broadly into all kinds of topics.”
The company is also approaching the 50th anniversary by revitalizing the Shambhala Pocket Library Series, refreshing backlist titles and adding new ones with Colorado artists doing 50 new covers to celebrate. Eleven books were released in 2017, 20 more will come this year and the balance will be released in 2019. The titles represent “a slice of the core of Shambhala” including classics by Rumi, the Dalai Lama, Jack Kornfield, Henry David Thoreau, Alan Watts and more.
The major imprints with Shambhala include Roost Books (creative living) and Snow Lion (Tibetan Buddhism). In addition, it publishes eight books for the Spanish language market in the U.S. and Canada and Shambhala South Asia Editions (started in 2013 and printed and sold in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan).
When Odiseos attended the Jaipur literary festival in January he found it “heartening to see 80,000 people attended and a majority were young Indians eager to read in English.” He says Shambhala will expand its publishing there, moving from 10 books a year to double that this year. He’s alarmed that “the way we read in the West is superficial. We live in such a distracted time that immersive reading is becoming even more rare. This is a scary thing for all publishers.”
His answer is with Shambhala is to offer readers of all ages fresh opportunities to engage with texts, teachers, and ideas.