I’m very excited to announce a major new feature for SuttaCentral! We are now publishing major translations as books. You can order paperback copies via Lulu print on demand, or download and read versions in PDF, EPUB, and HTML.
This is something I have been working towards for many years, and I’m so happy to see it finally come to pass. Thank you so much to all those who have helped make it possible, including all our donors, the good folks on this forum, our wonderful development team Blake, Hongda, and Sabbamitta, the awesome folks at STXnext who did the bulk of the programming, Deepika who organizes most things, Carmi for her careful and patient work, and so many more.
Meanwhile, let me share some of the background to this work.
what makes a book?
On SuttaCentral we publish essentially translated texts, with some other material like notes and essays. But it is very much built around the concept of a “sutta” as the building block of SuttaCentral. The web rewards “random access” to information, rather than the sequential reading that is provided by a book. The suttas as texts fit sort-of-in-between these two models, as they are mostly independent, but there is also meaning to their arrangement.
To create our editions, we compile all the suttas from a given collection and organize them according to their traditional divisions. They are then supplied with accessory matter such as introductions and the like.
The end result is a work that rewards careful and attentive reading. The web excels in letting you look up what you want, when you want, where you want. A book asks you to slow down. It invites you to pause and savor a phrase. To fold it shut for a moment and reflect. To let the meaning sink in.
books: form and content
In the past, a “book” was a physical object with printed content. Different “editions” of the same book might vary a little, but that’s the basic idea.
The digital era allowed us to separate the content from the form, so that the same text can be expressed in multiple different forms. The problem with that is that it is still no trivial matter to convert from one form to another, and typically this is still not handled well. Consider, for example, ebooks provided by most major publishers; they are written in Word documents, formatted in Abode for PDFs, then exported as EPUB as an afterthought, resulting in crude and error-prone files.
This isn’t good enough for SuttaCentral. Instead, we start with clearly defined and systematic markup in HTML, which we then carefully transform exactly how we need it. We don’t use off-the-shelf converters or formatters.
To create the editions, we first make a single HTML file for one “edition”. This is then converted to an EPUB file for ereaders, and a TeX file, which is compiled with LuaLaTeX to PDF for printing. You can download any of these files or all of them.
what content is there?
To begin with, we’re publishing my translations of the suttas. That’s twenty-two books in total.
We will add Ven Brahmali’s Vinaya translation as soon as he is ready. In future, any translations made with our Bilara web app can be candidates for Editions. But we will apply stricter criteria than we do for web publication.
- They must be properly proofed and corrected.
- They must be translations of whole collections.
- The translator must also supply any Introductions, etc.
Translations from any other source than Bilara cannot be produced as Editions.
Just as with our website, the editions will be regularly updated. If you follow the thread on corrections here, you’ll know that I’m always looking out for feedback so I can improve. Nonetheless, these translations have been fully proofread by four readers, and corrected over nearly five years since first publishing, so they are fairly stable and any changes will be incremental. We record the exact date of generation in the metadata of all Editions, so if you see differences you can always know which is later.
All of the content for Editions is available on the Edition web page, as well as via download.
what are the files good for?
Well, EPUB files are pretty straightforward: you use them in ereaders. Luckily for all of us, Amazon has recently decided to support the EPUB standard in Kindles, which means that you’ll be able to read these EPUBs in pretty much any device. Lots of people like ereaders because they encourage book-like reflective reading in a handy form.
The PDF files can be used for reading on a screen as-is, but their main purpose is for printing. Send the interior and cover files to any printer and make a lovely book!
TeX files are the source for producing the PDFs. You probably don’t care about these unless (a) you want to publish your own custom edition or (b) you’re a LaTeX geek.
HTML files give you a single file with the whole collection in it. You can open these in your web browser, import them into a Word document, serve them to a website, or whatever you like. This is the most useful form if you want to create your own project.
- Note that for uninteresting technical reasons, when you download an HTML file it’ll show you the raw code in your browser. Right click and save-as to keep it locally.
There’s nothing like paper. It feel nice, it looks nice, it has a weight and a smell to it. Information sinks in.
We made our books to be not-too-big, so you can put them in your backpack, or snuggle with them in a couch. Books are a bit like cats that way.
SuttaCentral makes the files, but we must rely on third parties for printing and distribution. For this initial launch, we are using Lulu, the long-established print-on-demand service. You order on Lulu just like you would on Amazon. Lulu will print the book at one of its vendors and post it to you. We use Lulu because:
- It’s well established
- They give freedom as to licencing
- It’s free to publish
- Book quality is reasonable
- Postage is reliable
Lulu has a Global Distribution deal with companies such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, so our books will appear on those platforms in due course. This increases the reach for people already using those platforms, but you’re better off ordering the books directly from Lulu, otherwise the royalty payments go to the third parties rather than SuttaCentral.
Speaking of which, SuttaCentral gives everything for free, so why are we selling books now? Good question! For me, the fundamental principle is that no-one is shut out from the Dhamma because they cannot pay. The same content is available for free in many forms, but if someone wishes to spend some money for a print copy, we give that option.
We do hope, however, to make free printed editions available in the future, so keep an eye out for that. I think both approaches are complementary, as free books tend to be distributed through established Buddhist channels, whereas print-on-demand reaches those who don’t necessarily go to temples or Dhamma centers.
For the sake of transparency, let me break down the pricing structure for one of our books, the Heartfelt Sayings or Udāna. Lulu asks you to set a revenue goal per book, which we set as US$2. That means that when this is sold via Global Distribution (i.e. at Amazon etc.) SuttaCentral receives a minimum of $2. When it is sold on Lulu, we receive the $2 plus whatever royalty would have been paid to Amazon, giving us a total of $8.22. To this is added a share for Lulu of $2.06, plus $5.28 for printing, resulting in List Price of $15.56. To this is added shipping and handling per your location.
- Note, on Lulu you can only order an individual “book”, not a set, so you’ll have to order each one individually.
Just like a donation, any money that we earn from this is handled by the SuttaCentral Development Trust, and will go towards future development of SuttaCentral. Just so you know, I worked with developers pretty much the whole of 2022 to make this possible. None of this is easy or free, and as always our only wish is that we can make the Dhamma available to more people.
Initially we take a maximalist approach, including everything that might be useful. Apart from the translations themselves, this includes:
- Notes (if any; currently in KN texts only)
- References in margins
Once something has been included, it is pretty easy to leave it out, so we may offer some custom options in future, for example, a “pure reading” edition with only the translation. But we’ll wait and see on that.
Meanwhile, you are all encouraged to make your own versions if you want them to be a certain way. Download the source files and have at it.
The only restriction is that our fonts are proprietary—we had a special extended version of Arno Pro made including the Sanskrit special characters. So if you want to compile the LaTeX, you’ll have to BYO fonts.
printing for free distribution
If you’d like to sponsor printing, fantastic! A couple of printed editions have already been made, and we’d love to see more. You’re most welcome to send our PDF files to any printer or publisher. If you want to add information such as a dedication or donor page, or information about your center, that’s no problem. Just add them directly to the PDF files.
If you want more extensive customization—for example if you want to print on a different page size—you can contact me here and we’ll talk. However I don’t really recommend changing anything: every detail has been carefully considered and optimized. The books look and feel great.
For the next year, I want to focus on:
- Improving Bilara for our translators
- Writing notes for all the suttas
- Various other fun things
Thanks everyone for being our friends! Stay happy, and wing swiftly to Nibbana!