A promotion in February and March through 11 branches of Waterstone's bookshops led to sales of 2,000 copies of Introduction to Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in just six weeks. About 1,100 people came to the talks by Buddhist monks in the stores and more were turned away at the door.
The initial print-run of 7,500 has sold out and another run of 10,000 is planned.
Alison Ramsay, sales manager of Tharpa, attributes the success partly to a rejection of the materialism prevalent in the Eighties in favour of spiritual fulfilment. She also thinks that her total lack of experience in book-selling and distribution has enabled her to use unorthodox methods.
A practising Buddhist, Ms Ramsay realised that selling specialist books required some understanding of and sympathy with the subject. Shortly after arriving at Tharpa a year ago, she sacked its distributor and hired sales representatives who had an interest in Buddhism.
Her boldness, against the advice of many more experienced heads, is paying off. The company's turnover in the year to the end of March 1992 was pounds 60,000, rose to pounds 150,000 last year and is projected at pounds 250,000 this year.
The next task is to tackle the export market. Again Ms Ramsay plans to take an unorthodox approach and do without a distributor in Europe.
She is making contact with shops selling English-language books, first by mail and then by telephone, and she is hoping to meet the sellers in person at the Frankfurt book fair.
In further-flung areas she will rely on distributors. She hopes to boost sales in the US and look for new markets in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Malaysia, which has a Buddhist tradition.
The books published by Tharpa are all written by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a meditation master from Tibet and a naturalised Briton. They provide a guide to the essential teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, which is now under threat in its homeland of Tibet because of political troubles.
The emphasis in the books on the practical application of Buddhist principles to the modern Western way of life has helped make them popular in schools and universities.
Ms Ramsay has spotted an opportunity in the National Curriculum's requirement that two world religions are studied in addition to Christianity. She has put forward Introduction to Buddhism as a possible text for the course.
Despite Buddhism's rejection of purely material wealth, Tharpa is run strictly as a business. 'We want to make a profit, even though much of it is ploughed back into the business or given to charity,' Ms Ramsay said.Reuse content