In uncertain times, California publishers dedicated to books about personal growth, self-help, and spirituality have found that encouraging individual development can have a community-wide effect. “The pandemic has demonstrated how small actions make a big difference,” says Georgia Hughes, editorial director at New World Library.

Headquartered in Novato, NWL has been active for more than 40 years. Hughes notes that, though many of NWL’s books emphasize on personal growth, they ultimately empower communal support. “Our authors often focus on individual development, but it is through that awareness and personal power that each individual can fight for justice, for health, for resources to support every human in their community,” she adds.

NWL saw readers return this year to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which the press first released in 1999. Hughes says that readers take comfort in the author’s focus on appreciating and living in the present moment rather than obsessing about the past and future. Books about resilience have been particularly popular, especially Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times by Hersch Wilson and Lifeboat: Navigating Unexpected Career Change and Disruption by Maggie Craddock.

“There is a strong interest from readers who want help with uncertainty, with negative thoughts, with challenging relationships that are amplified by the pandemic and by politics,” says Heather Garnos, v-p of publishing operations at New Harbinger. The Oakland-based independent and employee-owned publisher focuses on books and workbooks about psychology, health, spirituality, and personal growth. “People are suffering in different ways. What matters to us is that we can offer evidence-based tools that work.”

Garnos says New Harbinger has been sharing “short and effective exercises to support our readers who are in pain from trauma, anxiety, fear, and depression” as free resources for email subscribers, e-booklets, and social media posts. The free e-books include How to Strengthen Your Inner Shield by Cynthia Li and A Guide to Self-Care for Practitioners in Times of Uncertainty by Helena Colodro and Joe Oliver.

And problems are not limited to adult readers. “Kids and teens are struggling to manage their own lives and schoolwork with much less direction than they need,” Garnos says. “We’re also hearing how very hard this is on parents.”

New Harbinger has The Gaming Overload Workbook by Randy Kulman, for kids getting too much screen time, and The Grit Workbook for Kids by Elisa Nebolsine and Judith S. Beck to help kids apply cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to deal with obstacles. In February, the press will publish The Teen Girl’s Anxiety Survival Guide by Lucie Hemmen, for kids managing scary feelings.

With six different imprints, New Harbinger aims to help lay readers and mental health clinicians alike cope with difficult times. “We’ve heard from therapists and teachers who are going the extra mile to serve clients and students online, and we’re doing everything we can to provide resources that help professionals navigate this new reality,” Garnos says. To that end, the publisher updated The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook this spring with more resources for professionals facing unprecedented challenges.

Social changes

The lockdowns have reinforced how readers’ personal well-being is intertwined with community health, and some California publishers see an opportunity to change the social fabric. “Books and publishers can and are playing a huge role in a shift in consciousness,” says Tim McKee, the publisher at North Atlantic, a nonprofit press in Berkeley. Since 1974, the press has published a list of self-help, spirituality, ecology, and social justice books. “Witness the makeup of the major bestseller lists these days,” he adds. “Racial justice is finally on the radar of the mainstream.”

North Atlantic’s Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah found a new life this year. “It came out in 2016, but has sold more copies in the last few months than it has since it was first released,” McKee says.

The publisher’s recent and forthcoming releases include books from authors who McKee says “have traditionally been ignored or marginalized by mainstream publishing and society at large.” These titles include Fat Girls in Black Bodies: Creating Communities of Our Own by Joy Cox (out now), Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow by Breeshia Wade (Feb. 2021), and Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists by Chenxing Han (Jan. 2021). “No longer should these voices and perspectives be relegated to the sidelines,” McKee says.

North Atlantic has made systemic changes these past few years. After some staff members attended a Race Forward workshop in 2018, the company created a racial-equity committee to reform power dynamics and policies at the publisher. “We want our list to reflect the voices and experiences of all people, not just some,” McKee says. “We worked to increase our percentage of frontlist books written by Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color from 16% in 2019 to 40% in 2021.”

Earlita K. Chenault, publicity director at Parallax Press, a Berkeley-based nonprofit publisher focused on “engaged Buddhism,” or the application of Buddhist teachings to real-world problems, says, “As socially engaged publishers, we are aware of our responsibility to publish mindfulness books that meet people right where they are in daily life.” The daily routine at the publisher includes meditation. “This means mindfulness not only on the meditation cushion but also when confronting hatred, racism, inequity, and the abuse of our natural environment,” Chenault adds.

That theme is particularly important as the U.S. confronts its legacy of systemic racism and police killings such as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As Black Lives Matter activists adopted nonviolent approaches to protesting, Parallax has seen bulk orders for Healing Resistance by Kazu Haga.

Chenault highlighted the newly released America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal by Larry Ward as a book that uses spirituality to engage with some of our deepest problems. “It is clear that we need to tap some deep wisdom to repair our relationships as individuals and as a nation,” she says.

Parallax runs a prison outreach program, sending letters and 1,500 books to incarcerated people every year. The publisher also donates books to schools and community groups. “It’s through such seemingly small acts, sustained over time, that social and cultural change is happening,” Chenault says.

New Harbinger has made social justice and diverse authors a priority, and two books in particular have found new readers as the Black Lives Matter movement brought police violence and racial inequality into sharp focus: The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health by Rheeda Walker and The Racial Healing Handbook by Anneliese A. Singh.

“We are having a companywide conversation about how we can be anti-racist,” Garnos says, “with a large and active committee of staff doing personal work together, analyzing our policies and procedures to see where we can do more.”

Confronting isolation

As lockdowns shuttered bookstores around the country, California publishers had to turn to new digital tools. North Atlantic hosted more virtual events, using Facebook Live and Instagram Live.

“The pandemic has knocked down many of the usual gates between reader and writer, author and publisher, and so we’re stepping right in with direct dialogues with our authors,” says McKee, who garnered more than 10,000 views for his interview with North Atlantic author Farzana Nayani about her book Raising Multiracial Children: Tools for Nurturing Identity in a Racialized World. “Our hearts went out to our local bookstores, whom we consider a lifeblood and who obviously were already dealing with narrow margins before the pandemic hit.” To support booksellers, the publisher purchased gift cards to local shops and raffled them off to readers online.

Parallax responded to the environment with virtual events and retreats for readers. “We have really beefed up our presence on social media, both regular posts and ads on Facebook and Instagram,” Chenault says. “We’ve also made our children’s titles available for free for online storytimes for individuals, libraries, and schools.”

Above all, the isolation of lockdowns has caused suffering for many readers. Parallax tackled those feelings with How to Connect by Parallax founder Thich Nhat Hanh, who declares in the book, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness,” and encourages people to connect.

Books can help people find that sense of connection. “Readers are definitely ordering comforting backlist books,” Chenault says. “We know books are a lifeline for people who may feel otherwise alone.”

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