Profiting from a Bankruptcy

anthologyofworldreligionsAre you looking for a way to think through what it takes for a local idea to spread worldwide and be adopted globally — an idea such as the now taken-for-granted assumption that the world has such things in it as religions, which exist in a variety of (as Wilfred Cantwell Smith once phrased it) major or minor forms that, mostly, end in the suffix -ism?

Well, look no further than the marketing campaign for W. W. Norton’s new anthology of world religions readings. I can only imagine how much money is up for grabs in the textbook/anthology market to prompt them to invest the sort of budget they must have in promoting it. (I also can’t imagine the permissions budget they established to acquire the rights to all of the reprints it includes.)

For example, the Norton rep, working out in the field, kindly paid me a visit at my office about a month ago (textbook reps never knock on my door) and gave me the two volume hardbound set — for free. How many campuses did this happen on and did others on my campus get one too? Then, the other day, boxes started appearing in the Department mail — did you receive one too? — addressed to most of the faculty, containing some or all of the softcover editions that each contain the separate chapters from anthology, so that you can just buy the Buddhism readings, for example (a marketing strategy we’ve seen before, e.g., with Huston Smith’s still used world religions textbook — also available in an illustrated, coffee table edition).

Picture 12Question: How many of these “magisterial” volumes (or so says the publisher’s blurb) have been mailed out for free across the US? North America? The world?! At what shipping cost? (Sadly, the US Post labels on the boxes don’t list a mailing fee.) And given the inflated prices of books these days and the troubles facing the print publishing industry, what sort of long term plan is needed to justify selling the hardcover set for only $100 US when it is clearly worth more than that? (Each separately-bound paperback chapter is worth a magisterial $46.87 so that’s certainly where they’ll make their money.)

It’s clear that Norton is in it for the long game.

And there you have a lesson in how to spread a resource, which is not dissimilar to how the category of world religions itself was spread — as one of the classificatory tips of a massive, long term economic engine that eventually infiltrated every part of the globe, moving from various intellectual and political centers of power in Europe; it’s a classification that today claims to be so universal that even atheists are thought of as but one more religious group, irresistibly drawing scholars of religion to their study. It’s just part of human nature, we’re now told — which is ironic, at best, given how the early explorers quickly concluded that the so-called savages had no religion whatsoever.

That the world religions category is intellectually bankrupt according to a variety of scholars is irrelevant, of course, since the interests that drive its continued use (by governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, scholars and schools, etc.) and the money that finances resources that bear the words in their titles ensures that it is likely futile to fight against it — if, that is, you think you’re going to topple it. For the interests and finances that drive alternative work in the field surely can’t hope to match what Norton alone is putting into marketing this one resource, ensuring that very few will likely ever read a critique of this way of identifying the world. How many will this blog even reach? After getting reviews like this:

Picture 13does Norton even care what I write? And if we add to just this one publisher’s marketing budget all the other world religions textbook publishers, all the other second and third and fourth and… (in the case of Mary Pat Fisher it’s the 9th and for the late Lewis Hopfe, it’s the 12th!) editions of these books that annually appear in our mailboxes uninvited…, well, you get the picture of the massive amount of resources going into ensuring that we think of the world as naturally divided in this way.

So if writing a history of the world religions category seems too daunting, or if the rise of what the Germans first called Weltreligionen in the late 19th century and then its spread and gradual expansion presents too complex a story to tell, then just think about the techniques (and financial resources) being used to get us to buy and use this one book, adopting it in classes that seat 30 students, or 50, or 100, or…, at this school and then at that, year after year… Norton’s gamble is that we can’t unthink talking about Hindus and Muslims and that, over time, it’ll pay off for them — for, unapologetically, they are, like any corporation, in the business of maximizing profit through the value attributed to their brand, no? That people the world over now seem unable to think and act themselves out of these very same categories — going so far as to contest the right way to be the thing that Europeans first called their ancestors just a few centuries back — suggests to me that Norton’s gamble will, quite literally and handsomely, pay off.

For who doesn’t like getting free books?

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