Serving as a Service Organization: Pariyatti’s Not-for-Profit Strategy
by Linda Carlson
From Pariyatti’s spacious building about 100 miles south of Seattle, you can watch deer, sheep, and cows grazing, and the occasional visits of a hungry coyote. But this is no sleepy bucolic company. Pariyatti serves colleges, libraries, and temples with almost 900 scholarly titles in print and a warehouse that stores more than 55,000 books, besides audiobooks, DVDs, cards, and other materials.
Established in 1984 to bring the Sri Lanka-based Buddhist Publishing Society’s titles to the United States, this publisher started out as a home-based mail order retailer in rural northern California. Ten years later, founder Linda Warren sold the assets to a friend of hers, Richard Crutcher. He moved the business to Seattle’s Roosevelt district, and nine years after that, it relocated to space near the Northwest Vipassana Center, where many people in its target market go for retreats.
“When space for us became available near the center, we realized that moving to it would reduce our overhead, reduce the cost of living for our small staff—and give us the pleasure of rural life,” explains Julie Shaffer, who has worn both marketing communications and executive director titles at different times in her decade-long tenure and is now again focusing on marketing.
The Aim Is Access
Pariyatti converted to become a not-for-profit company in 2002, and its staff is committed to keeping book prices low. “We regard ourselves as a service organization,” Shaffer continues. “If we had to set prices at the point where they would recover our costs, we would be reducing access to these materials—and that’s our mission, to provide access.”
Besides what it publishes and distributes, Pariyatti until recently gave away the Pali Canon, the multiple-volume record of the teachings of the Buddha. All any scholar, university or library paid was the freight. Of course, it only had value if you could read Pali, which 25 centuries ago was the dialect of northern India, the language in which the Buddha taught. (Pali, by the way, is the source of the organization’s name: Pariyatti is the Pali word for the theoretical teaching of the Buddha. The core of the Pali Canon consists of the Tipitaka, which includes the words uttered directly by the Buddha, believed by most scholars to have been committed to writing in 29 B.C.E. at the Fourth Council in Sri Lanka.)
Like many nonprofits, Pariyatti pays what some consider below-market salaries. Combined with the location in a community of 3,500, that creates recruiting challenges. On the other hand, when people do hire on, many stay for years. One of the organization’s retention strategies has been to offer telecommuting when that’s feasible. Since 2000, for example, the woman handling royalties, consignments, and wholesale accounts has been in Skamania, a remote community a three-hour drive away.
Besides staff, this publisher has an unusual asset: enthusiastic volunteers. The free podcasts that help market books are created on a monthly basis by volunteers, for example (“Many are very tech-savvy and can work on these projects with equipment in their homes,” Shaffer notes). Crutcher, who recently retired, always worked pro bono, and members of the board of directors, which was formed when Pariyatti became a nonprofit, often tackle major projects.
Pariyatti significantly increased its catalog when the Sri Lanka–based Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) licensed it to create English editions of many titles. The house also publishes new works on the Noble Eightfold Path, republishes out-of-print Theravada titles, and distributes more than 1,000 titles imported from the India-based Vipassana Research Institute, the U.K.-based Pali Text Society (PTS), and the BPS. It is the only distributor in the United States and Canada for the PTS and BPS.
Unlike some other publishers, Pariyatti publishes the original dense texts, many of which run 900 or more pages. That’s the product that its audience expects, Shaffer explains, not simplified popularizations of material.
Pathways to Purchasers
To reach this serious market, the publisher attends the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion; exhibiting there has resulted in several titles being adopted as college texts. Other promotion includes the podcasts, direct mail to meditation centers across the United States, and Daily Words, an automated message that often quotes books that Pariyatti sells.
Daily Words may be created in the woods, but its 5,000 subscribers are offered all the high-tech options: you can read the quotes on the Web, or get them by e-mail, iTunes, or RSS feed. Especially given that the publisher has few live authors to help with marketing, all these are important, as are the Facebook and MySpace pages now being developed.
Pariyatti’s most traditional marketing uses direct sales. Its bookstore, which opens for a few hours most Sundays for the convenience of those attending retreats, offers what the organization calls “essential and seldom-seen titles.” In line with its tradition as a mail order retailer, these can also be purchased online at pariyatti.org. Other online offerings include two e-books, currently free. Another title is being converted to digital, and as many as 50 may be offered that way in the near future, Shaffer estimates. Other possibilities for the ancient texts are up-to-the-minute electronic formats, both Kindle and Sony Reader versions.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, not far from where Pariyatti’s offices used to be.