At a time when many businesses are retooling and often retrenching, New Harbinger Publications is expanding and acquiring. On May 1, the independent press, known for its self-help, psychology and health titles, toasted not only the opening of its second building across the street from its original Oakland, Calif., location, but also the acquisition of Context Press, a publisher of academic books on contextual and behavioral psychology.
Matt McKay, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, founded New Harbinger in 1973 because he wanted to produce books to help his clients. Once operating, NH started getting requests from professionals for books they wanted to make them better practitioners.
Thirty-six years later, NH is still guided by both of those motivations. NH's bestsellers include The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook; The Relation and Stress Related Workbook; and Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. McKay describes NH's books—whether for the lay person or professional—by their key ingredients: user friendly, easy to read (but not “dumbed down”), and focused on helping readers develop core skills.
McKay points out that in hard economic times, people are even more stressed, but might not have the means to get professional help, making NH's psychology and self-help titles in even greater demand. But the company started expanding long before the current economic crises. In fact, it doubled its staff in the past five years.
The acquisition of Context comes just over a year since NH acquired Instant Help Books, which brought the publisher into the children's and YA markets. New Harbinger's sales last year of $10.5 million showed a 12.7% increase from 2007, and its profit margins measure 13.5%. By expanding into a second building, NH will have space available for its authors to conduct workshops and for a bookstore for its titles, establishing it as a resource center for professionals, students and the community.
The press's connection with professionals in the field contributes greatly to its stature within that community, says McKay, who still maintains a psychology practice and teaches at the Wright Institute, a graduate school in clinical psychology. NH is acquiring Context from Steven C. Hayes, a leader in acceptance and commitment therapy, and also a New Harbinger author.
McKay attributes NH's overall success to its 45 employees, although most do not have psychology backgrounds. Its employee stock ownership plan provides an incentive for employees to stay with the company. As of February, the employees owned 51% of New Harbinger.
Employee ownership is part of NH's long-range succession plan. “We want the company to continue for a long time,” says McKay.
Acquisitions director Catharine Sutker has been with NH for 11 years. “I never thought I'd work for a company for that long,” she says. “It feels like a family. You feel like what you do matters.” Every year at the Christmas party, she says, McKay addresses how each department contributed to the company's success. “There's no hierarchy,” she adds.
NH produces 60 books a year, but its sales ratio is 70:30 backlist to frontlist, which also contributes to its stability. But McKay is aware that, as with reference books, technology is a threat to self-help books.
“I'm sitting here in a business that is doing very well, but I stare into the future,” says McKay. NH is starting a Web site called WebTherapist.com, like WebMD but for psychology and with more detailed treatment information. If users want even more information, they can download NH's books from the site. NH is also investing in e-books and closely watching how consumers might want to piece together books in an iTunes-like way in the not too distant future.
So is now the time to be adding an entire building' lease to the bottom line?
NH invested $850,000 renovating the “North Campus,” as the new building is dubbed. “The new building is a vote of confidence in our future,” says McKay.
The architectural designer worked closely with NH's art director, Amy Shoup, to recreate the space in the 1939 building, which had housed both a Safeway and an AIDS resource center. The old character of the loft-like space with its barrel truss beams exposed was kept. The offices on the ground floor do not have ceilings so as to take in more natural light from windows above them, and there is a mezzanine of offices above the kitchen and the bookstore on either ends of the North Campus building. Adding the second site also gives NH a much coveted parking lot in an area of Oakland that is known to be a little sketchy. NH employs a security guard to protect its people and property, but McKay and the employees feel comfortable in their neighborhood.
On a tour of the site, Sutker observes that the bright new building “really improved the neighborhood.” Her statement is not an exaggeration, according to other local businesses.
After all, self-improvement is what New Harbinger is all about—with its books as well as its buildings.