An ever-expanding definition of wellness has given consumers new ways to think about their health, and plenty of conflicting advice about how to maintain it. Publishers of health books are watching the evolution of the global wellness market with an eye toward acquisitions and author development.
As they do, they’re also considering questions of credibility. Goop, a highly visible producer of wellness content now worth $250 million according to the New York Times, made headlines in 2018 for settling a false claims advertising lawsuit with the state of California. Other equally well-known proponents of the wellness industry have faltered, and some have fallen, under similar circumstances. Still, their influence is undeniable.
“I’m trying to learn from these wellness gurus,” says Jen Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist in San Francisco and a regular contributor to the New York Times. Citadel is publishing her women’s health handbook, The Vagina Bible, in August. “The fact that Instagram has become such a marketing behemoth tells us that people want celebrity influencers. We have to listen to that.”
Gunter too is in the public eye, since a January 2017 post on her personal blog went viral: “Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m a GYN and your vaginal jade eggs are a bad idea.” She says the realities of the mind-body connection have been “bastardized to become this modern wellness movement,” which she says capitalizes on the illusory truth effect: repeated information on a subject can be mistaken for accurate information.
Gunter’s criteria for determining credibility in a health source: “As soon as you’re telling me that you’re selling something, I’m telling you that you’re not helping this patient.”
PW spoke with editors and publishers about their barometers for assessing health experts, and the ways in which the wellness industry is influencing what they publish.
Most editors acknowledge the complexity of the wellness boom, even as they recognize the benefit of an increased emphasis on health. “We should be considering everything from a scientific perspective rather than jumping on every wellness trend,” says Jennifer Croll, editorial director at Greystone Books.
In May, Greystone will release Hormone Power: Transform Your Diet, Transform Your Life by Dutch health coach Marjolein Dubbers, whose Energetic Women’s Academy website has 200,000 monthly visitors. Publishing an author such as Dubbers, who does not have an MD or similar qualifications, “is a bit new for Greystone,” Croll says, adding that medical experts vetted the book during the editing process. “We found [her ideas] intriguing, and she’s built up this reputation for being an expert. She’s trusted in the Netherlands, and that trust is important.”
The gold standard for expertise depends on the kind of advice a reader is seeking, says Leah Miller, senior editor at Grand Central Publishing, which will release The Power Source under the Goop Press imprint in May. The book, which details the importance of the pelvic floor along with a program for strengthening it, is by celebrity trainer Lauren Roxburgh.
“There are people that will offer you medical advice, and there are people who will offer you ‘friend’ advice,” Miller says. “What I look for are people who have done the work—who have studied and who have sought out the highest credential that’s available in the field that they’re interested in.” What also lends credibility, she says, is “having personally put yourself through the program that you’re recommending for others.”
Physician Andreas Michalsen, a professor of clinical complementary medicine at Charité University Medical Center Berlin, is the author of The Nature Cure (Viking, Aug.), a primer on naturopathy—a system of treatment that avoids drugs and surgery and relies instead on herbal remedies and noninvasive practices, such as massage or hydrotherapy. “He’s been a pioneer in applying scientific rigor to naturopathy,” says Viking assistant editor Amy Sun. “What I love about him is that he takes the best of both worlds: he was conventionally trained and working as a cardiologist, and increasingly became interested in more holistic healing.”
At Little, Brown Spark, Tracy Behar is the longtime editor of Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and founder of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass. She says that while social media has impacted the category, readers “look to the people who you can follow from book to book and site to site.”
Hyman’s earlier titles include 2012’s The Blood Sugar Solution (291,000 print copies sold), 2016’s Eat Fat Get Thin (192,000 print copies), and, most recently, Food: What the Heck Should I Eat, which has sold 162,000 copies in hardcover since its 2018 release.
A companion volume, Food: What the Heck Should I Cook, pubs in October. Behar says that while Hyman has remained rooted in functional medicine, a practice that emphasizes an individualized approach to causes of disease, he’s gotten increasingly involved in nutrition science and research, and more focused on the idea of food as the key to good health. What the Heck Should I Cook “moves more in a lifestyle direction,” she says. It’s the first full-color cookbook from Hyman, who calls his paleo-vegan hybrid approach “pegan.”
Will Cole, a functional medicine specialist in Pittsburgh, originated another plant-based, high-protein mash-up, which he promoted in 2018’s Ketotarian. In October, Avery will release Cole’s follow-up, The Inflammation Spectrum, which defines the ways in which inflammation is “at the core of most common health woes,” according to the publisher, and explains how “every food you eat is either feeding inflammation or fighting it.”
“I think that Will is a great example of an author in the health space who is really talking about lifestyle as well,” says Marian Lizzi, Cole’s editor. “It’s not, ‘Oh yeah, as a footnote to my life, I’m on this weird diet, and nothing else has changed.’ It’s looking at how I live and how my body responds to how I live.”
Other titles drawing a direct line from food to wellness to health include Page Street Publishing’s The Healing Kitchen (Oct.) by Devin Young, who writes the holistic lifestyle blog Nitty Gritty Life, and Eat to Beat Illness by Rupy Aujla, a general practice physician in London and author of The Doctor’s Kitchen. “We see consumers not just understanding the importance of food as medicine but seeking books from experts that specifically address symptoms,” says Gideon Weil, v-p and editorial director at HarperOne, which will publish Aujla’s new book in September.
Robert Dees, president of Canadian cookbook publisher Robert Rose, says that his company has moved from what he calls “a pretty straightforward relationship between nutrition and health” and titles that provide diet plans for particular health conditions, such as diabetes, toward “something that gets you much more into the cutting-edge science dealing with health and helps transition to the idea that ‘this isn’t just about me, but about society in general.’ ”
In September, Robert Rose will publish You Are What Your Grandparents Ate by Judith Finlayson. “The more I read, the more excited I am to learn about the intergenerational impact of nutritional and other behaviors on long-term health,” Dees says. “It sounds awfully science-y, but the people who have read it are astonished by how accessible it is.”
Lifestyle as Medicine
As the concept of food as medicine evolves, a variety of alternative lifestyle practices are gaining traction. Alyse Diamond, associate editorial director at Harmony Books and Rodale, describes seeing more of what she calls “Goopier wellness books” that include information about crystals, healing baths, and other therapies. “These are big, well-researched, $26 health books that are living on the health shelves with [titles by physicians such as] Mark Hyman and Sara Gottfried,” she says.
The Healing Power of Essential Oils by Erik Zielinski was the first title Diamond acquired for Harmony. Since its 2018 publication, it has sold 59,000 copies in trade paperback. “I knew it would resonate with people who were into alternative health; I hoped it would resonate with people who buy mainstream health and wellness books, but I didn’t know it would be as big as it was,” she says. Harmony will publish The Essential Oils Diet by Zielinski and his wife, Sabrina Ann Zielinski, in May.
Equal parts guide, memoir, cookbook, and coffee-table book, The Vibrant Life: Eat Well, Be Well and Love Your Midlife is the next title from Amanda Haas, author of 2016’s The Anti-Inflammation Cookbook. Chronicle executive editor Sarah Billingsly says the August book represents a shift for the publisher, which, until recently, kept separate its lifestyle list—inclusive of mind/body-related titles—and its cookbook lists. “We merged the lists because the reader was the same,” she says.
Other publishers are drawing similar connections. Earlier in April, Abrams published Eat Clean, Play Dirty, a cookbook and lifestyle guide by Danielle Duboise and Whitney Tingle, whose organic-plant-based meal delivery service, Sakara Life, has raised $4.8 million in venture capital since its 2012 founding. Holly Dolce, associate publisher at Abrams, calls it a departure from traditional health books that “bring a sense of morality to health and well-being.”
“Eating clean and having a sensual experience in life are not binary choices,” Dolce says, adding that the authors have received coverage in what Dolce calls “the traditional places that people turn to for wellness, and also from places like Vogue and Elle.” The book debuted on PW’s hardcover nonfiction list at #19 in its first week on sale.
Carla Oates, founder of Australia’s Beauty Chef wellness brand, has written The Beauty Chef Gut Guide, which Hardie Grant will publish in June. This follow-up to The Beauty Chef, a 2018 James Beard Award nominee in the health and special diets category, also includes information about mindfulness and yoga as well as advice about choosing cleaning products. “Carla’s philosophy has grown from her initial desire to remedy her and her family’s skin and health issues,” says Jane Wilson, publishing director at Hardie Grant Australia. “In her words, ‘Beauty is an inside-out process.’ ”
Oates, The Vibrant Life’s Amanda Haas, and the Sakara Life founders are not medical professionals, but, as Blue Star Press acquisitions editor and marketing director Brenna Licalzi puts it, “students of their particular area who learn so much that, over time, they become teachers.” In July, Blue Star will publish The Happy Hormone Guide, which the publisher describes as a vegan guide to women’s hormone health. Author Shannon Leparski is a certified hormone specialist who blogs at the Glowing Fridge. “Shannon has tried everything that she recommends,” Licalzi says. “Her journey to hormone health and overall wellness is inspiring, but also attainable.”
Consumer interest in hormone health is growing. The success of Greystone’s The Obesity Code by nephrologist Jason Fung, which has sold 210,000 copies in trade paperback since its 2016 release, has made the publisher “aware of how people are interested in the power that hormones have over their health and want to control their hormones naturally,” Croll says, leading to acquisitions such as Hormone Power.
Hangry, which St. Martin’s will publish in June, proposes to “tackle hormone optimization and fatigue from every angle,” including insulin, cortisol, and hormones that influence thyroid function, according to the publisher. Written by Sarah Fragoso, author of the Everyday Paleo books, and Brooke Kalanick, a licensed naturopathic doctor, the book offers advice about managing inflammation, which the authors call “the great hormone mess-maker.”
St. Martin’s senior editor Eileen Rothschild says she appreciates the complimentary perspectives that Fragoso and Kalanick bring to women’s health, making for a “comprehensive” book that includes a meal plan and an exercise plan, as well as, via meditation instructions, a mind-body-spirit component. “As an editor,” Rothschild says, “I gravitate toward, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done all that research, and I want to talk about it in a plain way.’ ” The most impactful authors in the category, she says, give readers tools to ask questions of their doctors—and to make decisions themselves.
Sarah J. Robbins is a writer and editor in Michigan.
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