The book business, like all fashion businesses, has trends that are often predictable. Election year? Bring on the political books. Internet surging? Get out some geek guides. Baby boomers aging and simultaneously regretting and romancing their wayward ways? Calls for some redemptive memoirs, I'd wager. Unless you're solely in the business of publishing perennials—diet books or home decorating guides, say—which may vary by philosophy, but remain fairly constant in their public appeal, there's always a changing cultural zeitgeist to explore and exploit.
So what's on our collective national mind these days? Our hearts and souls, apparently. Last week, HarperCollins and Random House both announced deals to publish sociological and psychological treatises on what makes people happy. New York Times columnist David Brooks leaves Simon & Schuster (after the bestseller Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive) to write How Success Happens for little Random; it is, according to the press release, not at all a Good to Great—type of business book; rather, it's an examination of “how individuals develop, cognitively and socially.... [It] will illuminate the forces—within us and around us—that lead human beings to flourish.” Gretchen Rubin signed with Harper to do a more personal book about “learn[ing] to be happier.” Apparently, this lawyer turned author with “a strong marriage, two lovely daughters and a successful writing career... had a nagging feeling that... she was coasting along in her life... [so] she decided to get happier.”
(She also announced, cheekily via press release, that “working with Gail Winston, Jonathan Burnham and the team at HarperCollins” was one of her more successful get-happy strategies to date. She failed to mention whether the significant advance they're reportedly paying her contributed to her newfound sense of well-being.)
Yes, apparently happiness is hot. But while Rubin's book makes use of several other successful trends—the how-to genre (another perennial) and the “my year of” gimmick, an approach of which I am particularly, personally, fond—its appeal to publishers and, they hope, to readers, surely has to do with the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. The journalist's memoir about a midlife woman searching for fulfillment, even if she's not sure what kind, has sold a whopping 770,000 copies in paperback this year, according to Nielsen BookScan. (It sold more than 100,000 in hardcover.) The Harper press release takes a slight dig at that Viking book—Rubin is not “moving to Walden Pond or Tibet, or taking a sabbatical from her husband”—but it's clearly aimed at the same audience: women looking for contentment.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But being perverse, and this being publishing, I can't help looking most forward to the happiness backlash, which might just begin this spring, when Sarah Crichton Books/FSG releases its Against Happiness, a wicked, wise and cheerfully misanthropic treatise by Eric G. Wilson, chair of the English department at Wake Forest. (Another trend-crosser: see On Bullshit, last year's high-low brainy-prof hit.) For every trend, after all, there has to be a countertrend.
See? Publishing is a fashion business, after all. And this season, happiness, apparently, is the new black.
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