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This week saw the launch of the Pagan Bundle, a one-week special deal in which for $50 (or more) you can purchase a bundle of goods and services from a variety of Pagan vendors, saving hundreds of dollars off of the normal list price.

bundle_logo

“We’re taking a bunch of awesome things made by great people and selling them all together at a huge discount. Simple as that. The Pagan Bundle proceeds will help support excellent pagan practitioners who produce superb and original works for the benefit of us all. The project was born from a longing to help those who are striving to make a full-time living with a spiritual practice or craft, so that they can focus less on the month-to-month struggle to make ends meet and more on doing what they are here to do; creating awesome things that enrich the lives of others.”

Included in the bundle are books by Brendan Myers, music from Amelia Hogan and Sharon Knight, access to video teachings by T. Thorn Coyle, and tattoo designs by Morpheus Ravenna, among other items and services. When I asked Ravenna about her participation, she said that “I joined on as a contributor to the Bundle because I think it’s a great idea, and because it’s the first project of its kind that I’ve seen that’s been designed by and for Pagans.”

Morpheus Ravenna

Morpheus Ravenna

“The Bundle is a way for me to sell my own artwork and creations, and so it benefits me directly. But I also feel strongly about creating a vibrant social economy that supports the arts, and so I’m also on board because I’d love to see more projects like this succeed for other creators. As an artist, I’m keenly interested creating a world where artists and creative people can make a living doing what they were born to do. The Bundle is a beautiful way for me to help support a whole bunch of great creative people while also hopefully bringing a bit of success to my work as well.  I also had a lot of fun creating some original, new designs for it. Jan asked me to do a range of original designs that would be of interest to people from different traditions and backgrounds, so I got to step outside my comfort zone and explore different thematic and symbolic areas. I’m the kind of artist who responds to novelty and a bit of creative pressure. In the process of working up the designs, I found myself developing my style into new areas. So it’s been a creatively fertile project for me.”

Fellow Bundle participant T. Thorn Coyle added: “We need more art and magick in the world. Many artists struggle to get their work out, and do so much for our communities. I’d like to see more artists getting paid for their efforts. I’m proud to be part of The Pagan Bundle because I love supporting beauty and magick, helping to re-enchant the world.”

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

Curious to know more, I posed a few questions to Jan Bosman, a web designer and creator of the Pagan Bundle project, about how this came about, and what the goals are moving forward.

What inspired the Pagan Bundle?

“It started last Samhain with a conscious effort on my part to be more generous with the people I encounter in my life (I was inspired by Brendan Myers’ book The Other Side of Virtue). I began attending pagan events a few years ago, and I’ve since become close to a number of inspiring, authentic and powerful people – they are musicians, artists, authors, spiritual teachers, and practitioners of one flavor of paganism or another. They are doing what they are on this earth to do, and yet none of those callings tend to translate into lucrative careers. I dislike watching idly as those I care about struggle to provide for themselves and live month-to-month while trying to be soulfully employed. I have a good job designing websites and the luxury of not worrying about meeting my basic needs or the survival of my business, so I was compelled to find a way to help. After a few weeks of trying to figure out exactly how, the answer came to me in a dream – a very lucid and specific dream (down to the pricing model and distribution). The format of the Pagan Bundle was partially inspired by other bundle sales such as the Humble Bundle, as they are fantastic vehicles for helping contributors become more well known and well paid.”

Do you think this bundle initiative will provide a boost for the individual vendors?

“That’s the ultimate goal of the whole thing. All the profits from the sales are split evenly between the eight contributors. If we sell a few hundred bundles, that’s a huge direct impact for them. It’s a difference that helps them not have to worry about how to pay rent for a few months so that they can continue the awesome things they do, and so that they can have a bit of a cushion to finance a new project. In those terms, its easy for me to see that we all benefit from this. I’ve donated a few thousand hours to organizing the project and building the website over the last year, as well as a decent chunk of money to make it happen. If we get hundreds or thousands of sales, I can cover a bit of overhead, but I’m not taking a cut – it’s all going to the artists, authors, musicians, magicians and teachers.”

Jan Bosman

Jan Bosman, creator of The Pagan Bundle.

 How are you promoting the bundle?

“The eight people who have contributed goods to the Bundle all have followings of their own, and all of them are promoting the Bundle to their blogs, mailing lists, social media, and so on. One of the ways I hope to provide a boost for the contributors is through the cross-contamination of their fans. For instance, someone may buy the Pagan Bundle solely for the 6-week Introduction to Energy Work online course may find themselves a big fan of Sharon Knight’s albums – a fan that may end up buying the rest of her stuff as well. We’ve also been running a few promotions that give people discounts while they spread the word to their friends – not because 89% off isn’t enough of a saving, but because spreading the word is a huge help to the whole project.

 Thus far, sales have been steady but measured. I’ve learned that its a damn hard thing to build a big website to sell something at the same time as promoting it.”

 How were the creators picked for this project?

“While a number of the creators were personal friends of mine, I had to come up with some very specific criteria in order to keep a consistency of quality and to ease potential logistical issues. I picked contributors must produce authentic, excellent and original works, preferably to the benefit of the greater pagan community. This isn’t required of every single item, but the bundle should be well-balanced. Contributors also had to be able to provide items in digital format. In large part because if we happened to sell 3,000 bundles, that’s a completely unmanageable demand to have to instantly fill. An all digital bundle means that distribution cost of the goods is pennies, as we’re only paying for bandwidth and not physical shipping. I also gave consideration to creators who: are making (or attempting to make) their spiritual practice or craft their full-time profession; are currently unemployed or underemployed (i.e. struggling financially); and have a substantial online presence and following (as this is a key method of promotion for the project).

Our eight contributors are fairly well known, create high quality stuff, and they can all use a boost in exposure and income. I knew most of them, and those creators recommended the others. We stopped inviting contributors after getting eight because more would mean further having to split the profits of the project, and less of a tangible impact for everyone. That said, there are many countless creative pagans who fit all of those criteria and, especially if this first Pagan Bundle sells well, I would consider more of these sales in the future – in which case there would most likely be a more open invitation process.”

 It should be interesting to see how well this initiative does, and if this new approach to selling Pagan goods and services on the Internet will create a new paradigm for promotion and sales. That will no doubt be up to the consumer, and they have 5 days left to make their voices heard. Be sure to check out interviews with all the creators, and more about what’s in the Pagan Bundle, at: http://paganbundle.com/.

Internet auction house eBay recently released their Fall 2012 Seller Update, which, starting in September, prohibits the sale of divination services (including tarot readings), spells, tutoring services, and potions. The reason for this move, according to eBay, is to “build confidence in the marketplace for both buyers and sellers.”

“Transactions in these categories often result in issues between the buyer and seller that are difficult to resolve. To help build confidence in the marketplace for both buyers and sellers, eBay is discontinuing these categories and including the items on the list of prohibited items.”

In short, if you’re dissatisfied with the spell to give you a big butt, it’s hard to quantify if the “product” had been delivered, and what the proper expectations on booty enhancement magic is. Because of the (usually inadvertently) comical nature of many of the spells  being sold on eBay, long a source of easy snark on the Internet, sites like Mashable, The Mary SueJezebel, and even mainstream news outlets, have been having a bit of fun with the news.

“In its 2012 Fall Seller Update, the online marketplace said it was banning all sales of supernatural goods and services, exiling its witchy and wizardly clientele to the wilds of Craigslist and other Web-based Diagon Alleys.”

It should be noted before we go any further that magical items, physical objects that have an attributable value, are not banned under this change. Spokeswoman Johnna Hoff told Tiffany Hsu at the Los Angeles Times that such items would be allowed in most cases.

“It’s important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases.”

Which means most of the products in the Wicca and Paganism section of eBay are safe, at least for now. A comfort, no doubt, to the many Pagan vendors and shop-owners who supplement their income by placing items on the site. However, the banning of spellwork, and especially tarot readings, should be explored with greater depth. Pagans in the community seems somewhat split over this move by eBay, some, like Patti Wigington, About.com’s Paganism & Wicca Guide, see this as a smart move by the company.

“…this isn’t a case of religious discrimination at all – it’s a case of a business realizing that customers are being made victims of fraud by unscrupulous sellers – and putting practices in place to prevent the problem from continuing. It does not say “No Wiccans, No Pagans, No Druids.” It says no magic, spells or potions, or prayers — that’s an entirely separate thing. Personally, I’m a little sad Ebay has done this, because it means fewer things for me to make fun of, but it’s definitely a smart business decision.”

Others, meanwhile, see this a chilling move that could start a domino effect, marginalizing tarot readers and magicians from mainstream commerce sites. Some have pointed out that PayPal is owned by eBay, and a similar shift in their policies to be more in line with up-and-coming companies like Square, could have a disastrous impact on small Pagan business that rely on divination services as an important part of their income (it should be noted that Google Checkout used to ban “occult goods,” but don’t anymore). Patheos blogger Kris Bradley, while acknowledging the rationale for this new prohibition, is worried that companies like Etsy might soon follow eBay’s lead.

“I admit I’m a bit torn on the subject.  While I see the possible beginning of the end for sellers on sites like this, I won’t be sad to see the sham “spell casters” go, and the end of taking advantage of desperate people with promises of something that can’t possibly be delivered.  As I sell products of a magical variety, I definitely don’t want to lose my Etsy shop.”

As a private business, eBay, and other online retailers are free to limit what product and services they’ll allow. That said, it is troubling that managing complaints and fraud resulted in a total ban of selling divination and magical work. Recent courtroom decisions have leaned towards defining divination, tarot readings, and other psychic services as protected speech, which could have actually helped push eBay away from trying to simply regulate it on their site. After all, who wants to be the ultimate arbiter of what sorts of speech are acceptable, and which kinds are not? Being in the business of selling speech and expression will always be volatile, and it looks like eBay wanted out, the question now is what the ramifications of this move will be for Internet commerce.

I’m out of town today, attending a doctor’s appointment in Ashland, Oregon, so I don’t have the time to do my usual exploration and analysis of news of interest to the Pagan community. Instead, I’d like to offer some links from across the Pagan media world that have drawn my attention. So enjoy, I’m hoping to hit the Oregon vortex on my way home!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day, I’ll be back tomorrow.

Don Lattin, author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Following Our Bliss,” reports on growing pains at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, for the Religion News Service. According to Lattin’s piece, there are growing complaints about the “corporatization” of Esalen, long a haven for spiritual seekers, with some claiming it is “turning into a spa for the 1 percent.”

A view of Big Sur, California.

A view of Big Sur, California.

“David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend. What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest. Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.”

Jeffrey Kripal, author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”, tells Lattin that what Esalen is going through are classic generational struggles that all religious movements face, the “institutionalization of charisma.” In addition, Esalen President Gordon Wheeler says “we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations” and that those stirring up discontent aren’t tuned into what Esalen is like today.

Esalen President Gordon Wheeler said most of the people stirring up discontent “have not been here for quite a long time.” “They are remembering a time when the world was different. People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” said Wheeler, a Gestalt therapist who first taught here in 1997 and went onto become the CEO. “Sometimes we make mistakes, but we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations … Everything we do here is about the evolution of spiritual transformation.”

Interestingly, Lattin’s article doesn’t directly cite the critical site Esaleaks, or mention the recently released (and earlier leaked) leadership culture survey, which showed a cautious, “reactive,” culture of leadership at Esalen. As the resort hits its 50th anniversary, their troubles ask larger questions about the overlapping “Human Potential” and “New Age” movements. Movements that have had quite a considerable influence on modern Paganism (take a look at Esalen’s past teachers list as confirmation).  Lately, with the United States dealing with one of the worst economic downturns in recent history, with the high rate of unemployment, and with the rise of populist backlashes to the status quo (especially in the Occupy Movement), we are more sensitive than ever to the money and power-related failings of movements which claim to be working for the benefit of all.

This crisis of identity at Esalen comes during a time of scandal for the New Age/Human Potential movements, from Anusara’s sex-and-power shake-ups, to the deadly power-tripping of “Secret” teacher James Arthur Ray. It truly does seem like a “midlife crisis,” but I think it’s more about a lack of accountability to the values that these communities claim to espouse. There has always been scandal in the New Age movement, but in better times it didn’t seem to hit as hard, nor did the stakes seem to be as high. There was a long-running joke in the Pagan community that the difference between a Pagan event and a New Age event was where the decimal point was placed in the check you wrote to attend, but I’m starting to think it goes a little deeper than that. Yes, our relative poverty compared to the New Age has kept us humbler, less out of touch with the world around us, but I also think that because we’re a movement of religions, we are fundamentally different from the “spiritual but not religious” elite.

The New Age movement is, at the end of the day, a means towards transmitting a set of technologies for living, usually acquired for a monetary price. Your theology is ultimately immaterial, which is why it can encompass both Oprah and Robert Anton Wilson. Because a number of those technologies overlap with the beliefs of modern Pagans, we have sometimes seen our teachers “cross over” to their high-paying events (though not often), and many Pagans have happily attended New Age seminars looking to pick up new teachings. That overlap, however, should not be mistaken for one being the other. Wicca and other Pagan faiths were once mistakenly called “New Age religions,” but that’s a misnomer, one that was eventually corrected as more research was done. We are spiritual and religious.

Pagan faiths are also going through generational struggles, though they are more about evolving our stances on social issues, or creating new leadership, than about money. We are more worried about building simple infrastructure than evolving that infrastructure into resorts for the rich. Perhaps a day will come when Pagans, too, will argue over corporatization and whether we are out of touch with the non-rich, but I somehow doubt it. Our open-source experiential nature will always unbalance attempts to codify our faiths into money-making machines, no matter how much some attempt to automate the process. We will never, I predict, collectively escalate far beyond the middle-class in our ambitions. That may frustrate some of us who yearn for “New Age money,” but it will also spare us the crisis of conscience and leadership faced by institutions like Esalen.

Last weekend saw the World of Witches Museum in Salem, Massachusetts permanently close its doors. Opened in the Summer of 2010, the museum represented “a coming of age for the Witch movement, which allows us to recognize that we do have a history worthy of sharing” according to Rev. Don Lewis, Curator of the Museum, and chief executive officer of the Correllian Nativist Tradition. However, due to a string of  misfortunes, staying open was no longer a viable option. In a statement sent to The Wild Hunt, Rev. Don Lewis recounted the many challenges the museum faced, and the health problems that  finally made him decide that closing was the best option.

Rev. Don Lewis and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll at the museum's opening.

Rev. Don Lewis and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll at the museum's opening.

“This last Halloween season was especially hard for a lot of Salem businesses. The whole season was somewhat slow, but the snowstorm on Saturday of Halloween weekend, which would be anticipated as the biggest shopping day of the season, was devastating. I had hoped that this winter would be better than the previous one and it turned out to be as mild a winter as the previous year’s winter had been severe -but in a town geared to a single holiday off season business was just as hard and slow with a mild winter. A number of Salem businesses have found it necessary to either close or move to new locations this spring, especially in the Pickering Wharf area.

At the beginning of the March I found myself in the hospital with cardiac problems exacerbated by stress and exhaustion. It was made clear to me that I needed to make some changes in my life and could no longer sustain the workload I had been carrying. Although there were people I could trust and rely upon to help in the short term, and they did help tremendously, there was no one available that I could see as a long term manager for the Museum. Closing the Museum was a very hard choice, but it is one I felt I had to make.”

The World of Witches Museum is the second Witch-related business in the Pickering Wharf area to close its doors in recent months. In January, Laurie Cabot, Salem, Massachusetts’ official Witch, announced that she would be closing the doors of The Official Witch Shoppe at the end of that month, bringing to an end Cabot’s 42-year run of owning and operating Witch-related stores in Salem. Some observers, including Salem business-owner and promoter Christian Day, noted that in addition to a weak Halloween season in 2011, tourist foot traffic has shifted somewhat away from the Pickering Wharf area towards the renovated Peabody Essex Museum and the Bewitched statue.

“I think there are a constellation of issues keeping the Wharf in the situation it’s in. As Ed [Hubbard] pointed out, my own marketing of my shops on Essex Street has probably contributed to the shift in foot traffic to that area but I have, over the years, hosted events there in hopes of spreading around the work that I do but it was hard to make it work due to the space limitations of venues. A huge factor in the popularity of Essex Street is the 2002 renovation of the Peabody Essex Museum, which created an enormous buzz around the street. The Bewitched Statue brought people even further down, which is what inspired me to put HEX at it’s slightly off-the-path location. As a member of Destination Salem, we’ve often discussed ways of encouraging that area to help market itself better but it was hard sometimes to get buy-in. My own opinion is that the landlord needed to do a lot more as the owner of the space to brand it more clearly as a shopping and dining destination. Laurie Cabot has, perhaps, the most recognizable brand of all of us, including the Peabody Essex Museum, and she had trouble at the Wharf as well. I think, though, that the largest factor is probably the economy. With so many people unemployed and money as tight as it is, I think people are spending more carefully. We’ve had at least two closings on Essex Street recently so the downturn is effecting people there as well. While both my shops and Crow Haven Corner are doing well, both Lorelei and I have had to spend quite a bit of money in advertising to maintain that success. It’s a hamster wheel that’s not easy to keep running on but we’re determined. That said, I don’t think I could make it work at Pickering Wharf myself.”

One obvious question is how this closing will affect the larger Correllian Tradition, and Witch School, the successful Internet-based learning program that has been closely intertwined. According to Ed Hubbard, a Correllian Elder and CEO of Witch School International, the closing would make no difference in the day-to-day operations of the school. Meanwhile, many of the museum’s Correllian-oriented artifacts and exhibits are being moved to the Sacred Sea Temple in Georgia, overseen by Stephanie Neal, Temple Head and Arch Priestess within the tradition. Neal expressed that she felt the museum, ultimately, was a good idea that moved the Pagan community forward.

“Even though the World of Witches Museum had a relatively short life span, it greatly advanced Pagan thought, to the wider community and its influence continues to reaffirm it was a good decision to open the Museum.”

While Salem has become the epicenter of Halloween in America in recent years, that’s no guarantee of success, especially in these uncertain times as we slowly crawl our way out of one of the worst recessions in our nation’s history. New businesses are especially susceptible to failure, and just one factor not going right can make things unsustainable. The World of Witches Museum faced many challenges, and in the end, the smarter move was to walk away than lose money or further risk the health of the curator. No doubt the Correllian Nativist TraditionWitch School, and other related projects like Pagans Tonight will continue their impressive successful track-records, learning important lessons from this experience. I wish them all well, and hope that Rev. Don Lewis makes a full recovery.

Sometimes, the best way to understand an issue, particularly in the Pagan community, is in microcosm. One of the biggest issues many Pagan communities face today relates to providing services and infrastructure, how we fund the things we say we collectively need. With the current focus by Pagan media and social networks on the question of gender within our rituals, communities, and events, my mind immediately turned to The Pagan Alliance-organized conference from last year. That event, the 1st Annual Conference on Earth-Based, Nature-Centered, Polytheistic & Indigenous Faiths, had a theme of Gender & Earth-Based Spiritualities, and sparked a dialog that the organizers decided should continue this year as well.

That such a conference now exists, and can act as a space for the important work that needs to be done on that issue, is heartening, but how does The Pagan Alliance come up with the capital to provide such a service? A partial answer is through social events like their upcoming Witches Ball on March 3rd.

Scene from a previous Witches Ball.

Scene from a previous Witches Ball.

I asked Pagan Alliance president JoHanna White about the relationship between the good work The Pagan Alliance does, and the social fundraisers it holds, and here’s what she had to say:

“The Pagan Alliance does many things that make a difference to the community. In 2011, we organized a Conference on Earth-based Spirituality and Gender, we donated food to the spiritual encampment in Glen Cove, CA that was preventing development on a Native Sacred Site, we sponsor local Spiral Scouts groups, we did outreach in women’s prisons, donated money to the important work of Rev. Patrick McCollum and created visibility for the Pagan community via the  10th annual Pagan Festival and Parade. It is through events like the upcoming 4th Annual Witches Ball 3/3/12 and the The Hunger Vampire Lounge: VAMPIRATES 3/30/12 that we raise the funds that allow us to do the work we need to do in our communities. In the coming years, it is likely that the Pagan Alliance will be expanding to the East and Gulf coast. Without the support of the Pagan community, we can not continue to grow and make change. Please support us by attending our events! We’re also renowned for putting on a great party, which those of you who attended Pantheacon hopefully stopped by and saw.”

Yeshe Rabbit, High Priestess of CAYA Coven, who was Keeper of the Light (the equivalent of a grand marshal) at last year’s annual Pagan Festival and Parade in Berkeley, California, noted that The Pagan Alliance’s successes are “largely due to the solid guidance of the active Board and the support of donors and event attendees,” and that “by supporting them, we support the shared growth of the Interfaith Pagan community.” Author and teacher T. Thorn Coyle, who will be this year’s Keeper of the Light, remarked that she felt “grateful for their tireless efforts,” and emphasized that “they are bridge builders and educators who help our local community to work in coalition.” What both of these leaders understand, is that tickets purchased for the Witches Ball, or for upcoming events like VAMPIRATES! or their Pirates’ Ball, ensure that the community-knitting parade, the local resources, and the gender conference, can happen. Without these funds, organizations like The Pagan Alliance would be severely limited in what it could do.

This paradigm experienced by The Pagan Alliance is replicated within Pagan communities the world over. A variety of balls, masquerades, dinners, and events designed to help organizations keep their lights on. Persephone’s Masquerade in Washington DC to support The Open Hearth Foundation, or the Hypatia Day Drive to benefit Cherry Hill Seminary, to name just two examples. Not being tied into the competitive network of grants given to religious nonprofits means that our fundraising has to come from the roots up, not from larger benefactors or foundations. Pagan community, as we today understand it, exists only so long as we are willing to fund it.

Much is often made of the practice of tithing a portion of one’s income towards their religious community so that it can thrive. There are some Pagans I know who, in fact, set aside a portion of their money each year to donate towards building Pagan community. However, I’m not going to make a call for five or ten percent of your paychecks, I understand that our great diversity often means that many Pagans don’t feel there’s a singular religious group or community they’d want to give to. That said, I do think that we should be conscious of the events and services around us that do provide us things we use, enjoy, or find important to our growth. Let us all make an effort to fiscally support them when given an opportunity, especially when it involves a chance to engage with others in a fun or creative setting. So if you’re near Benicia, California, why not head to The Pagan Alliance’s Witches Ball on March 3rd? It’s rare to have fun and support a good cause at the same time, so revel in that opportunity!

As for me, I don’t live in California, but I feel that the work The Pagan Alliance is doing is important, particularly with their upcoming conference in September focusing on gender within the Pagan community. So I’m donating to them directly as a show of my support, and I hope those of you who feel similarly will do the same. Maybe we can collectively jump-start a new ethos of simply giving to the groups we think are doing the work, and advancing the changes we want to see, even if we can’t put on our party clothes.

Minnesota newspaper the Star Tribune does a profile of local business Llewellyn Worldwide, the largest publisher of Pagan and metaphysical books. In the article owner Carl Weschcke addresses the recent collapse of Borders, which cost the company half a million dollars, saying they’ve managed to stay profitable.

Carl Llewellyn Weschcke with author John Michael Greer

Carl Weschcke with author John Michael Greer

The company has weathered the Great Recession despite losing $500,000 in the Borders bankruptcy, Weschcke said. He credited stringent controls put in place by his wife, and company president, Sandra Weschcke, for keeping the company profitable despite the Borders loss. Their son Gabe Weschcke is Llewellyn’s vice president. The company ended its 2011 fiscal year June with $15 million in sales. “For every change, there is opportunity,” Weschcke said. “The main thing is to recognize change and be flexible and say that change is not bad. The only things that are bad are taxes.”

The article also discusses plans to expand more into fiction, and the central role the business plays to metaphysical booksellers. Quote: “Joseph A. Amara, vice president of business development and an owner of Magus Books in Dinkytown, said that Llewellyn is “one of the great pillars” of its industry.” Considering how close-lipped the company is about its finances and internal workings (they wouldn’t talk on-the-record to me about the Borders closure), its nice to get some news from a company that’s so central to the Pagan economy.

The other day I was at my local used bookstore and found an out-of-print edition of Rosemary Edghill’s “Book of Moons,” part of a trilogy of mysteries involving a Wiccan protagonist and a number of lightly-fictionalized real-life Pagans. While not fantasy in the slightest, as Wiccan and Pagan spells in the novels “work” much as they do in the real world, I can only imagine that these books, if released today, would benefit greatly from the current boom in fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and genre fiction in general. The old saw states that escapist entertainment thrives during tough economic times, and with some saying that were already in, or about to be in, a new depression, something to take our collective minds off the increasingly grim news is probably one of the few safe investments you can make.

Whether its recent rise is due to growing economic unrest, or if we are simply witnessing a tipping point after years of slow and steady growth, I can’t remember a time when mainstream entertainment was so flooded with fantasy. Some have speculated that this current boom is simply a bubble, but I think there’s a far larger shift at play here, as evidenced by the growing number of literary authors dipping their toe into genre work. This isn’t surprising since fantasy and science fiction, as a genre, now eclipses literary fiction, and has claimed a far bigger stake on the bestseller lists.

“In the face of declining print sales, major publishers are increasingly seeking crossover hits that break genre molds and resonate with a broad swath of readers. Fantasy and science fiction made up 10% of adult fiction sales last year, compared with 7% for literary fiction, according to a survey by book industry analyst Bowker. In 2010, 358 fantasy titles hit the bestseller list, up from 160 in 2006, according to a study by Stuart Johnson & Associates and Simba Information, which track books sales.”

I’ve been a fan of fantasy novels since I was a teenager, and am used to selections being much smaller, and my choices limited. Genre works were always relegated to the back, separated from the “regular” fiction that deserved respect and proper consideration from book reviewers in newspapers. While fantasy authors like Ursula K. Le Guin have long argued that genre fiction be taken seriously, it seemingly took a great recession, the partial collapse of the bookselling market, and the massive success of fantasy-oriented media franchises like Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Southern Vampire Mysteries for it to sink in. In addition, fantasy itself has changed. While there are still many popular “high” (albeit grittier) fantasy works from authors like George R.R. Martin, hybrid genres like urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mythic fiction, steampunk, and gaslamp fantasy, have been ascendant in the last decade. These genres, while fantastical, are often grounded in some form of our “real” world and feature flawed protagonists who seem to take more than few cues from Raymond Chandler. Harry Potter, for all its high fantasy topes, is thoroughly grounded by the fact that the witches and wizards there coexist with humanity in an uneasy balance.

Today, fantasy fans are spoiled for choice. I think I have read more works of fantasy in the last year than I have in the previous five. Most of them are urban fantasies that feature magic colliding with our mundane lives in some manner. Authors like Jim Butcher, Darren Shan, Mark Del Franco, Kate Griffin, Mike Carey, Richard Kadrey, and Patricia Briggs fill a space that was once only occupied by authors like Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Terri Windling. A growing number of these fantasy novels feature modern Pagans in some capacity, most notably in the works of S.M. Stirling and Charlaine Harris, to name but two popular examples. There’s also a whole lot of Witches popping up in mystery novels nowadays, not to mention the recent crossover sensation that is “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. I can’t but think that the currently widespread popularity of fantasy, the increasing utilization of real-life Pagan religions in fictional works, and the active participation of Pagans in fantasy-oriented subcultures, will have some effect on us.

Now, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t think that fantasy literature converts children (or adults for that matter) to modern Paganism. We should all hearken well to the words of Oberon Zell.

Harry Potter fans aren’t interested in Wizardry, Witchcraft, Magick, an online school, or anything that isn’t specifically and only about the Harry Potter stories and characters. The only successful vendor was the one selling licensed trademark Harry Potter merchandise—such as Hogwarts House patches and regalia, movie replica wands, Harry Potter games and toys—and pointy hats.

So despite the paranoid fears of some, reading about magical beings or fictional Witches (or even fictional Wiccans) won’t necessarily make you or your child want to be one. That said, I do think this could be a wonderful opportunity to start dialogs, engage with people who have negative perceptions of modern Pagan faiths, but like fantasy novels, and use works that mesh the mundane and the magical to provide jumping off points for a better understanding of where fantasy ends and the reality of our religions and practice begin. Because the curious will seek us out, and we should have an educated and positive response to those seekers. Maybe some enterprising group can produce as “so you’ve read [insert novel here] and you’d like to know more” pamphlet that will lead them to good sources.

There’s also the question of if the fantasy boom is a by-product of a decline in traditional religious adherence, and a rise in individualistic spirituality in a time of reenchantment. Perhaps, in addition to looking for some escapist entertainment during tough times, people are also looking for a sense of wonder that has all but fled Western expressions of faith. For those religions that do embrace ideas of magic, a sacred landscape, and an enchanted world, this fantasy boom may also see a new boom in converts to those belief systems. One that could make the “Teen Witch” phenomenon of the 1990s seem quaint by comparison.

On July 22nd the bookstore chain Borders started the process of closing its 399 remaining locations. This move was long predicted by industry watchers as the once-mighty chain wobbled in the face of Amazon.com’s rise (a company it once outsourced to) and costly missteps in non-book merchandise. The last few weeks of media coverage has featured a mixture of fond reminiscences, 20/20 hindsight analysis,  and predictions for the future of the book-selling industry. Many of the predictions haven’t been too cheery, for example, the investment site The Motley Fool predicts that Barnes & Noble will ultimately suffer the same fate, noting that “just because B&N will be the last one standing doesn’t mean that it will be standing for long.” Even if the Borders closure is the last domino to topple as the retail book market restructures itself for a post-ebook and post-Amazon world, that development alone could have far-reaching and possibly disastrous consequences for businesses that cater to modern Pagans.

The Borders Closure and Pagan Publishers

One of the most obvious ramifications of the Borders closure is the elimination of bricks-and-mortar booksellers willing to carry Pagan, occult, and metaphysical titles. At the beginning of 2010 Borders operated 508 superstores in the United States, plus several more “Borders Express” and Waldenbooks outlets in malls and airports. As more than one reporter has pointed out, in some areas Borders was the only significant bookstore within driving distance. Or as a recent NPR report put it, “an entire arm of book sales has been amputated.” No matter how healthy or solvent a publishing business is, that much reduction in retail space is going to hurt. Worse still, at the time of the Borders bankruptcy filing they owed nearly 300 million to its creditors. One of those creditors was Llewellyn Worldwide, the largest publisher of Pagan and metaphysical books. In its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing Borders revealed that it owes Llewellyn over half a million dollars.

As large as Llewellyn may be to the Pagan community, it’s still relatively tiny compared to the larger publishing houses, and losing that much money has to hit hard. I contacted Llewellyn for comment, but there has been no official response. However, I was able to speak with author Donald Michael Kraig, who has worked extensively with Llewellyn, and speaking solely as an individual, offered his take on what some of the ramification of the Borders closure may be.

“As an author, I don’t get paid until my publishers are paid. I probably won’t directly see the loss in “take backs,” although my royalties will undoubtedly be smaller. Those who self-publish may have a different experience and to them (and small publishers) I hope your losses, at best, are small. My guess, however, is that this will hurt the “bottom line” of some publishers and may have a worse effect on a few very small publishers. This is what happens in business.”

The second-largest Pagan and metaphysical publisher, Red Wheel / Weiser, is also owed money by Borders. Though less than Llewellyn, it is still over $200,000. Again, not insignificant for a company their size.

Jan Johnson, Publisher at Red Wheel / Weiser, responding to my questions via email, says that little should change at their company due to the closing of Borders.

“We’ll, of course, miss the stores and the sales from the books they’ve been carrying. Borders supported many of our titles. We don’t expect it to have a direct affect on the number of titles or authors we sign. Borders closure is another indication of the changing way people find and buy books. In order to succeed as publishers, we need to communicate even more with our reader communities.”

A third Pagan publishing company, BBI Media, which produces the popular magazines Witches & Pagans, SageWoman, and Crone, has also been hard-hit by the Borders liquidation. Publisher and editor Anne Newkirk Niven bluntly explained to me how hundreds of outlets disappearing directly impacts the company’s bottom line.

“The cataclysmic news of the final bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders bookstore chain (resulting in an immediate and pressing gap in our cashflow) rocked me back on my heels just as I was setting down to write the editorial for the 25th anniversary issue of SageWoman. In an additional irony, just as Borders was announcing its liquidation, copies of the current issue of Witches&Pagans were rolling off the presses — thousands of which are now sitting on the dock at our printer, with nowhere to go.

The immediate loss — due to the six-to-ninth month gap between distribution and payment of newsstand copies — caused by the Borders collapse is likely to come in between $18,000 and $30,000. Like many other independent titles, this is a clear and immediate threat to our continued existence. Our plan — identical to the one we rolled out in 1997 when magazine distributor Fine Print went bankrupt owing us a similar amount — is to go directly to our readers, and ask them to donate enough to get us over the hump. In 1997, our readers generously donated to keep SageWoman going, and we hope that when we roll out a full-scale fundraising effort in September, our readers will respond again.”

Niven called this event a “body blow” but seemed optimistic that readers and supporters would rally to help save periodicals like SageWoman, which have become an institution to many in the Pagan community. The company also sounded a hopeful note in their recent initiative to branch out into digital editions of their magazines. The Wild Hunt will be following up on BBI Media’s fundraising initiative, checking back in with Anne Newkirk Niven once it launches.

Assuming that the two largest publishers of Pagan-oriented books, and the largest publisher of Pagan periodicals, are able to weather this storm and come out largely unscathed, there are some troubling forecasts ahead. Science fiction and horror author K.W. Jeter recently pointed out that the prevailing lesson some are taking from the Borders closure may be that it carried too many books, and spent too much time catering to the “long tail” that the Internet thrives in accommodating. This is echoed by another genre writer, J. A. Konrath, who predicts that the “midlist is going the way of the dodo.” For those not up on the publishing-world lingo, “midlist” books are titles that are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication. Should Barnes & Noble decide to cut back on its midlist in a post-Borders book market, that could mean metaphysical/New Age sections that are dominated by titles like “The Secret” and  Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” and little else. For many Barnes & Noble stores, this is already nearly the case.

Can Independent Stores Bridge the Gap?

While some are mournfully singing eulogies for Borders, others point out that it wasn’t too long ago that the chain was seen as a villain that many wished doom upon. During their ascent in the 1990s book superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble put many small independent bookstores out of business, and many more nearly so, by offering convenience, big selections, and oftentimes deep discounts the smaller (often niche) stores couldn’t match (illustrator/cartoonist Alison Bechdel famously fictionalized this process in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”). Now that Borders is closing, many are wondering if independent booksellers will benefit, or even grow, in this environment. Jan Johnson at Weiser, when asked about the future of the esoteric bookselling market, said that  “we love it that there are still independent shops who specialize in selling esoteric books, and we’ll continue to support them. We also really like getting feedback and ideas from them.” Will we see independent Pagan and esoteric bookstores rise to fill the gap(s)?

I asked David Wiegleb, current owner of Fields Book Store in San Francisco, an esoteric bookstore that’s been a fixture in the Bay Area since 1932, for his perspective on how the Borders closure will affect business.

“In the short term, we’re seeing some new customers as well as customers returning who we may not have seen in a while. In San Francisco, not only are the Borders stores now closed, but there are no longer any Barnes and Noble stores. This recent uptick for us is certainly welcome, but because of the larger economic and cultural effects our business is still down from prior years. Our challenges are by no means past. There is an opportunity for us to market ourselves to the larger neighborhood as a place people can special order books in any subject and get them usually in only two days. We already carry the Bay Area Bestsellers, and a fair number of customers use us as their “special order” store now. In the medium term, I’m concerned about the ripple effects on publishers and distributors. I’m sure the losses they have incurred with the Borders closing will hit many of them hard, some perhaps fatally, and will impact past and future title availability, as well as pricing. Amazon has already driven list prices up with their demands for deep discounts. This will certainly impact what we can offer.”

Wiegleb also expressed concern that the “next generation will lose the basic cultural experience of browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore,” noting that “more than 1200 Borders and Waldenbooks” have been closing since 2003. Wiegleb’s experience of a recent increase in customers isn’t isolated, other news reports have noted this experience from independent bookshops across the United States. Linda Bubon, an owner at Women and Children First in Chicago, admitted to having “a little happy bookseller who’s jumping up and down” now that “we have this behemoth off our backs.” However, the concerns brought up by Wiegleb are also present. A recent Sacramento Bee report zeroed onto the challenges of growing independent bookstores as more and more people turn to Amazon.com and ebooks,  quoting Mike Barnard, board president of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, who pointed out that “stores that are still left are stressed,” and that “the down economy affects everybody.” Indeed, many reports on metaphysical bookshops I’ve read in recent years have focused on shops trying to stay afloat in a tough economy, in addition to the challenges of the modern bookseller.

One additional issue for those looking to independent Pagan-friendly shops picking up the slack in a post-Borders world is that there aren’t that many robust Pagan/occult/metaphysical bookshops around. The vast majority of Pagan-owned shops carry only a small selection of books, often bought directly from Llewellyn, fewer still carry Pagan magazines. Books are a high-overhead item, and don’t turn the profit that statues, jewelry, stones, herbs, or consignment items often do. I’ve witnessed first-hand how even a single bookshelf full of books can become a fiscal liability for a shop that is barely making ends meet. High-quality esoteric bookshops like Fields Book Store in San Francisco, or independent booksellers like Powell’s in Oregon that are large enough to have a metaphysical/Pagan section, aren’t as common as anyone would like. Creating a new network of esoteric and occult bookstores, along with bigger independents willing to cater to our communities, will take work and commitment from booksellers, publishers, and consumers.

The Bottom Line

The best case scenario here is that some of our largest Pagan-oriented businesses are able to withstand this massive shift, hold out, and recover; that the larger publishing/book-selling world largely stabilizes, and independent booksellers thrive in a post-Borders world, ultimately creating a more diverse and unique marketplace. A worst case scenario would mean that many of the institutions that have  helped define us and support us would cease to be, or exist as a ghost of their former selves. A situation like this would ripple out, hurting many other interconnected Pagan businesses. Economies, especially those that cater to smaller targeted audiences, are like webs. Pull the wrong strands, and the whole thing could collapse. I’m hoping that isn’t the case, and that something approaching the best case scenario wins out. For that to happen, a renewed and concerted effort to invest our time and money in Pagan-owned and Pagan-friendly business should be a top priority.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be returning to this story, for it’s an issue that’s far larger than I can encapsulate here. I want to touch on ebooks, and epublishers, strategies that Pagan businesses are pursuing to survive and thrive, and how these changes might affect other sectors of the Pagan economy.

Resources

Because I was not able to fully quote the statements of everyone I talked to for this piece, I’m attaching them here as PDF downloads so you can read them for yourself in their original contexts. Statement by Anne Newkirk NivenStatement by Jan JohnsonStatement by David WieglebStatement by Donald Michael Kraig.

[The following is guest post from Brendan Myers. Brendan Myers, Ph.D., is a Canadian philosophy professor, a winner of OBOD’s Mount Haemus award for research in Druidry, and the author of “The Other Side of Virtue”, “Loneliness and Revelation”, and other titles. Find him (and his books) on the web at brendanmyers.net.]

The recent interruption to Jason’s blog service, and the generosity of the movement which raised for him the money to pay his increased costs within a single day, got me thinking about volunteerism and community building in the pagan movement.

What does it mean to ‘build’ community? Probably the simplest and broadest answer is this: to build a community is to create and sustain relationships between people. Some are the relations of teachers to students, doctors and nurses to patients, and parents to children. Some are the relations of storytellers (that includes journalists!) and their audiences. Human relationships inform the way that food lands on our table, the way books are published and distributed, the way musicians and poets and artists create things of beauty for everyone to share. The basic relationship, perhaps underlying all others, is the relation between friends: and in ancient European pagan culture, friendship seems to have been at least as important as tribal solidarity, and sometimes more so. Indeed I will argue that the sacred itself, whatever else it may be, is a function of our human relationships. But I would like to make a different point today.

All our relationships are person-to-person. They involve people seeing, hearing, touching, and speaking to each other; they involve sharing goods; and they involve moral values like generosity and compassion.

But they are also mediated and assisted by the material infrastructure: town squares, telephone networks, internet servers, farmer’s markets, schools, libraries, concert halls, and private homes. Relationships do not happen in abstraction. They need a place; they need a centre, even a home.

And infrastructure, as you know, costs money. That’s probably why there are donation drives on the Wild Hunt from time to time. A local community wants to rent a hall for regular public rituals, or rent a campground for an annual outdoor festival. An organization wants to publish a newsletter. An elderly teachers wants to talk to her geographically-distant students on the phone, or drive to visit them once in a while. These things do not come free.

I have decided, therefore, that I will donate 50% of all my book royalties, from January to June 2011, to pagan community infrastructure projects. I also invite other pagan writers to do the same.

Most people can do more than they think they can. Indeed most people can do more than they are already doing. As for myself, I volunteer my labour and sometimes donate money for various local causes, and I also write books which (I hope!) contribute usefully to the movement’s intellectual life. But it occurred to me that, like most people, I can probably do much more than I’m already doing. I would like to encourage more volunteerism. But at least some of the volunteerism has to be in the form of cash donations, for the sake of maintaining the infrastructure. This is, I think, an indirect but very important way to support the human relationships in our community, and the values which animate them.

This may not be much money. In the last six months of last year, my royalty income was less than one month of my rent. Other pagan writers are in a similar position: we write for a niche market, after all. But if people are willing to support me as a writer by purchasing my books, then I will be very willing to support the movement in return by sharing some of my royalties with projects that will benefit many others.

Some such projects are internet-based, such as the Pagan Newswire Collective. Some are pagan owned and operated campgrounds that operate year-round, such as Raven’s Knoll. Some are annual conferences that have rental costs to pay, such as the Gaia Gathering. I invite comments and suggestions from everyone about where people think I should donate the money. I wouldn’t want people to believe that by buying one of my books, they might support a project they don’t believe in. But I do hope that my position in the movement as a writer, small though it may be, can benefit more than just myself.

Communities simply cannot be built unless its members see beyond their own immediate wants and needs, and start to take care of each other in an organized way. I can do that with my book royalties. Communities simply don’t survive unless people are ready to do something selfless for others, which will benefit everyone (and yes, including themselves) in the long run. I can donate some of my money. What more, and what else, can you do? I’m curious to find out.