As readers struggled through a bewildering year with Covid-19, natural disasters, and unresolved social tensions, they turned to a few pillars of California’s independent publishing scene for guidance. “Each new generation wants its own teachers,” says Judith Curr, publisher of HarperOne, a HarperCollins imprint based in San Francisco. “People are trying to find some meaning in all of these things that are happening. They are trying to find something outside of themselves that they can actually respect and feel confident with.”

On November 24, HarperOne will publish The Greatest Secret by Rhonda Byrne, the follow-up to The Secret, the self-help text that has sold millions of copies since its release in 2006. The new book collects lessons from about 40 different teachers around the globe, distilling what Curr calls spiritual “high concepts” into practical and essential applications.

Last October, HarperOne also published The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by British illustrator Charlie Mackesy, which has since sold nearly 800,000 copies. The book features handwritten advice and kinetic sketches of a boy learning from four wise animals. One line in the book reads, “Shame keeps you silent, but there is no shame in asking for help,” and that quote has been illustrated and shared more than a million times on social media as readers around the world struggle with the difficulties of pandemic life.

Nature’s lessons

With social gatherings on hold indefinitely, many readers have been reconnecting with nature. California’s Heyday Books has been there to help. Publisher Steve Wasserman says the press has worked since 1974 to “celebrate the bounty of California’s unrivaled beauty and to defend its beauty,” and readers have lately been more receptive than ever. In August, Heyday saw its biggest single month of sales in nearly 50 years of publishing.

“Readers and booksellers alike have all but overwhelmed us with their continued support,” Wasserman says. “Our backlist is flourishing.” Readers have been “eager to slip the noose of the shelter-in-place and find renewed hope by appreciating the wonders of the natural world.” In particular, the publisher has seen increased demand for Jack Muir Laws’s books about nature journaling, including The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling and The Laws Sketchbook for Nature Journaling.

Social healing

As Covid-19 hobbled the country, a series of catastrophic wildfires swept through the West Coast—a harsh reminder of the climate crisis that has brought renewed urgency to the desire for environmental action. Next spring, Heyday will publish Full Ecology: Repairing Our Relationship with the Natural World by Mary M. Clare and Gary Ferguson, “which offers a blueprint for acting in ecologically healthy ways,” Wasserman says.

Other publishers were able to speak to readers and communities directly affected by these natural disasters. Berkeley-based Counterpoint, which published Daniel Mathews’s Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change in April, pivoted to digital events during the quarantine. Mathews had a virtual session at Napa Bookmine that coincided with the wildfire in the region at the end of September. With the help of a local forester, he delivered a timely presentation.

“They spoke to the virtual crowd about the fire happening in their literal backyard, discussing causes, implications, and the future,” says Megan Fishmann, the v-p, associate publisher, publicity at Counterpoint. “It was one of the most moving and local events we’ve had, and people were able to safely tune in from wherever they were.”

Berrett-Koehler has been a part of California’s publishing scene since 1992, helping generations of readers cope with difficult circumstances. In 2007, it published Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk, a self-help title for first responders and others working on the front lines of emergencies. This year, a new generation of healthcare workers, firefighters, and other first responders returned to the book.

“More than a decade after its release, it’s selling better than ever,” says publisher Johanna Vondeling. “Reflecting on all the various traumas this state and all Americans are currently experiencing, we recently ran an aggressive campaign to give away as many copies of the e-book as we could.” Berrett-Koehler counted 20,000 downloads of the free resource, and she noted that e-book sales increased during the giveaway period “despite the fact that we were telling everyone we could how to get it for free.”

In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, California publishers also championed authors who write about social justice and systematic inequalities. Berrett-Koehler accelerated the release of Mary-Frances Winters’s Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit to September. “This book explores the intergenerational impact of systemic racism on the physical and psychological health of Black people,” Vondeling says. “We felt that people needed to read this groundbreaking book as soon as possible.”

In fall 2021, Heyday will publish Freedom to Discriminate by Gene Slater, which examines “how racist practices over the past hundred years in California’s real estate market left a legacy of segregation,” Wasserman says. The upcoming list also includes Making Revolution: My Life in the Black Panther Party by Don Cox, which Wasserman calls “an incendiary and frank account of the late author’s work as the party’s field marshal” during another pivotal moment in American history.

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, which tells the story of Black women across generations pursuing freedom amid the U.S.’s inequalities, was published in 2019 but earned recognition this year as well. It won the NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the 2020 Hurston/Wright Award. “It continues to get well-deserved attention,” Counterpoint’s Fishmann says.

New ways of connecting

Lockdowns forced many publishers to pivot to digital events, bringing authors to readers in new ways. “We have definitely found that our community has become more receptive to online learning since Covid hit,” Vondeling says.

Berrett-Koehler has signed up thousands of readers for monthly in-house webinars featuring frontlist authors. In addition, the fourth online summit, Leadership for a Changing World, received an eager response from readers. “Over 26,000 folks registered for the event, making it our most popular summit,” Vondeling says. Although it was free to attend online, hundreds of participants paid for access to the recordings and training materials.

Counterpoint also hosted digital readings, and Fishmann was very happy with the attendance. “It’s been amazing seeing the turnout and support for these events,” she says. And the publisher has been circulating digital galleys in 2020. “We’ve definitely distributed more [digital galleys] to readers and influencers,” she notes.

“We have invested new energy and resources in our online presence,” Wasserman says. In addition to digital events, Heyday worked on a website redesign ”to make it easier for readers to find books that matter and purchase them more easily.”

Homeschooling has become another unexpected boon for publishers. HarperOne drew new readers for a 2019 book as millions of parents around the country found themselves in the role of educators during lockdowns. The Call of the Wild and Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child’s Education by Ainsley Arment is aimed at homeschooling parents and others who hope to supplement their kids’ education. It encourages parents to extend the wonder of childhood and turn the world into a classroom. The author had built a strong digital community before 2020, making it easier to share resources as kids started learning at home.

“Our purpose is to publish the world we want to live in,” says Curr, who has united four imprints from her New York City office, bringing together Amistad, HarperVia, HarperCollins Español, and San Francisco’s HarperOne together under the HarperOne banner. She highlighted Good Mourning: Moving Through Everyday Losses with Wisdom from the Other Side by Theresa Caputo, published in October, as a good example of how an inspiring teacher can help readers navigate these difficult times.

“The book is really about how to grieve the small things in life,” Curr says. “If you miss going to the corner store, or if you miss your mother, or if you miss other things in your life. It’s important to recognize, register, and deal with the small griefs that we have so that they don’t compound and become something bigger.”

Below, more on publishing in California.

California Booksellers and Publishers Remain United
How booksellers and publishers survived an extraordinary year

California’s Self-help and Spirituality Publishers Make a Difference
California’s self-help and spirituality publishers step up to provide encouragement

Children's Publishers in California Provide an Escape
California’s children’s publishers nurture resiliency.

California Comics Publishers are Rising Up
California comics publishers emerge stronger than ever from a chaotic 2020

California Publishers of Illustrated Books Pivot
Publishers of illustrated books in California are changing to respond to crises and to expand their audiences