When New Harbinger Publications cofounders Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning were establishing their small press in 1973, it was Fanning’s monthly reading of Popular Mechanics magazine that served as a step-by-step guide to book publishing for the partners. “In a practical way, it showed how each part of the process happened,” explained McKay, “and also showed how self-help books should be written so that people can actually learn from them.”
McKay’s career as a psychologist was the driving force at New Harbinger, whose goal hasn’t changed in four decades: to publish books that relieve human suffering. It was with that objective in mind that led New Harbinger to publish The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Handbook (Davis, Eshelman, and McKay, eds.) in 1979. One of the industry’s first self-help workbooks, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Handbook is still in print and has sold more than one million copies. Other bestselling New Harbinger titles adhere to this core mission, including Susan Albers’s 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food; Edmund J. Bourne’s The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook; and Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed by Wendy T. Behary.
New Harbinger’s annual revenue is now about $15 million and the company has 50 employees. Fanning retired in 2000, but remains on the board of directors. Long distributed by Publishers Group West, Oakland, Calif.-based New Harbinger left there in 2002 when McKay and the board decided to convert to employee ownership. McKay believes that employees must be cared for and well compensated. “We had to leave PGW because the company needed a higher profit margin with ESOP,” said McKay. “To do that, we had to have our own sales force and be self-distributed.” Julie Bennett, director of sales and marketing, has been with New Harbinger since 2002. Today the press ranks Amazon and Barnes & Noble as its biggest customers. “We’ve found that there’s not a lot of interest in our books at the indies now,” McKay said.
The special sales department is a strong component at New Harbinger. “Our biggest special- sales customers are the military, pharmaceuticals, and HMO insurance providers,” McKay said. “We even got an order from the IRS once— they purchased 7,000 copies of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for their employees.” As for e-books, McKay said that last year digital accounted for 16% of sales, while print sales dropped 4% in the same period.
McKay’s business formula is based on the ideas of John Huenefeld, whose book The Huenefeld Guide to Book Publishing (1978) has been an indispensable tool at New Harbinger. “We do 70 books a year,” McKay said. “That’s based on having available resources from the past year’s sales. Those books are intended to generate income. Otherwise, cash accumulates in the bank, which pays very little interest.” McKay runs a tight ship, carefully monitoring and controlling the company’s inventory. There is also an on-site technology department. “We do our own digital conversions, and recently built a new Web site. We have to keep up,” said McKay.
With over 800 titles in print New Harbinger has expanded into the spirituality market. The Untethered Soul (2007) by Michael Singer spent 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The company has also added more journalists to its author roster rather than strictly professional writers. McKay also envisions a kind of hybrid book in the future, one with a code on the back cover which, when scanned by a Smartphone, will take the reader to New Harbinger’s interactive online self-help program. McKay believes that in the self-help area, interactive resources can enhance the reading experience.
To mark the 40th anniversary there will be a party for McKay and the staff in August, and at BEA the press will give away tote bags and other goodies. McKay still practices psychology and, thanks to his management team, only works half-time at New Harbinger. “Pat [Fanning] and I were old hippies together back in the day. We lived on communes,” he noted. “Our goal always was to make a positive contribution to the world.”