Matlins: Importance of publishing on religious diversity

For 20 years as a publisher, Stuart Matlins has inspired readers with more than 500 books guiding us along authentic spiritual pathways—often stepping beyond our comfort zones into the larger world beckoning just outside our windows. Based in Woodstock, Vermont, Matlins is celebrated in Jewish communities for his imprint Jewish Lights Publishing, which specializes in the cutting edge of Jewish spirituality. But his loyal readers span the entire spectrum of American religious life through his imprint SkyLight Paths Publishing.

In preparation for Passover this year, we’ve already recommended “Creating Lively Seders” (for Jewish readers) and “How to be a Perfect Stranger” (for all readers). Today, you’ll meet Stuart and learn why he sees a booming future for anyone who can help people find timeless connections with the world’s religious traditions.


DAVID: ReadTheSpirit is a small publisher compared with your work over the past two decades, but we both see a huge audience of people seeking spiritual connection. What’s the size of the audience?

STUART: The audience is big. I don’t know how big—but it’s a strong audience. The question we all are trying to answer is: How do we reach people? That is becoming an ever-larger problem with the reduction in shelf space across the book-publishing industry. In simplistic terms, we can divide the world into two kinds of people: those who read books and those who don’t read books. And in the world of book readers, the vast majority of people used to go into bookstores and browse the shelves.

In every book we publish, we place a reader-response card. I have looked at close to 100,000 of those cards over the years, and the No. 1 reason people have bought our books is: “Saw it on the shelf.” Not only is it the No. 1 reason but if we were to list the Top 10 reasons people buy our books, “Saw it on the shelf” would be the first 9 reasons, because it’s so far-and-away important in the way people find us. That’s true for all of our imprints and I think it’s the same for all publishers historically. Now, we’re losing the chance for readers to see a new title on the shelf. There are fewer and fewer shelves for books at Barnes and Noble—and we all know about the problems at Borders. Over the past 10 to 15 years, these superstores also diminished the number of independent bookstores so significantly that, when I started SkyLight and Jewish Lights, there were more than 5,000 members in the American Booksellers Association and today the membership is less than 2,000.

Our question becomes: How do we keep reaching what we know to be a very strong audience out there? We’re working hard to figure out answers along with everyone else in this field of publishing. One of the most important issues is: How do we create experiences like “Saw it on the shelf”? It’s true that Amazon will recommend books to you and that can be useful, but it’s substantially different than when a reader could browse the shelves and see connections that Amazon may not see in our reading.

DAVID: The reasons people buy our books are changing in dramatic ways! Not too many decades ago, Americans tended to read what their religious denomination provided—from scriptures to small-group study books. When I began reporting on religion for American newspapers 30 years ago, many of the “religion writers” still were confined to a “church page,” compiling news items for “local churches.” Today, it’s as obvious as front-page headlines that religion is a driving force all around the world. Now, whether we’re active in a congregation or not, we all realize that healthy communities depend on appreciating our religious and cultural differences. That’s why we’re so strongly recommending your book, “How to Be a Perfect Stranger.”

STUART: We first published that back in the 1990s and the immediate response was powerful! What’s interesting now is our growth in foreign editions of the book. I’ve been exhibiting books at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I meet with acquisition editors from other publishing companies around the world. And this is our most-requested book. But, in the past, they’d say, “That’s interesting. Send me a copy.”

But, until three years ago, not a single one of those initial expressions of interest resulted in a sale of rights in any other language. We were doing very well with the book in this country. It’s now in its 5th Edition and we’ve sold a lot of copies, but people in other countries didn’t see its significance.

DAVID: Why weren’t they seeing the importance?

STUART: I would get these responses saying: “That’s an absolutely fascinating book and we do have people of other faiths in our country, but we never mix. We don’t go to their ceremonies. They don’t come to ours. We don’t intermarry.” That’s what they used to tell me. But, now, something really odd is happening out there. Three years ago, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK acquired the UK language rights to the book, recognizing that they’d want to revise it to reflect traditions in the UK. So, they also acquired our methodology for gathering the information. That book has come out in the UK as “Hats, Mats and Hassocks.” For us, a hassock is something you put your feet up on. A hassock for them is a kneeler.

Two years ago, a French publisher acquired the French-language rights and then last year a Russian publisher acquired the Russian-language rights. I think we’re seeing two phenomena. One is reflected in the UK where their society is changing. There is more mixing and marrying going on and people are aware of that. In the other two cases, and certainly in the Russian case, it is a realization that, on the one hand, this is a book about religion and, on the other hand, it is a very important business book to have on your shelf if you are making contact in other countries with people form other traditions. In the Russian case, the publisher’s interest in our book is clearly for people engaged in business. In this country, the Staples chain is smart enough to see that point and, back when Staples offered only a dozen or so books in stores, Staples put “How to be a Perfect Stranger” onto the shelves. Staples understood that people need information to do business with people who are not just like them.

Think of the growth in business between India and the United States. We do business with people in India all the time. And we all realize that good business is more than just transactions. It’s about relationships and trust, so we establish relationships with each other. Then, if someone’s daughter gets married or mother dies or there’s a major holiday—how do you express joy, grief or good wishes with your colleague? Our book provides those answers.

DAVID: You go a step further than just improving civic relations, though. You’ve got a passion for connecting people with these modern expressions of ancient traditions.


STUART: In SkyLight Paths, our argument is: We go beyond tolerance. In much of American society, the interest in cross-cultural learning starts with: Learn something about the neighbors so we don’t hit each other. Or, perhaps: What is it about you that I can learn that will benefit me? In “Perfect Stranger,” we do provide the answers you need so that you won’t make a fool out of yourself as you begin to build relationships with other people.

But there’s something much bigger here than just the goal of learning not to hit each other. And one example of how I experienced this came during a visit my wife and I made to a big historic hotel in San Diego. I went to the spa there and was sitting in the locker rom, when this guy came in and said: “Can I ask you a question?”

I was suspicious of a stranger coming up to me in a locker room like that, but I said: “Yeah, what’s your question?”

He said: “I’m the manager of the facility and I saw your name on the schedule today and I just wondered if you’re the author of my favorite book.”

I was still a little leery and asked him, “What book?” He mentioned “Perfect Stranger;” I was surprised, and I said, “Yes, I’m the person who put that book together. Why is that your favorite book?”

Then, he said: “That book kept our family together. I grew up Catholic. My wife is Protestant. My brother in law is Jewish. And we’ve got a Hindu in our family, too. This book not only made peace—but it helped us to understand each other. We have you to thank for keeping our family together.”

We want our international conversation to continue

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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