Spotlight: One Mission, One Method, 40 Years — The New Harbinger Success Story

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August 2013
by Linda Carlson

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Self-help with real help: that what’s psychologist Matthew McKay and writer Patrick Fanning set out to publish when they founded New Harbinger in 1973.

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Oakland, CA, publisher pioneered what has become the standard for self-help books, books that provide readers with inspiration, enlightenment, and, most important, real tools for real change in life.

Adia Colar, who handles publicity for the firm, explains that self-help books of the early 1970s typically belonged in one of two categories. Either they were what she calls lengthy “ain’t it awful” descriptions of a problem, perhaps with a single chapter at the end offering brief, generalized comments about a solution; or they were inspirational books that discussed the benefits of a transformational process without providing specific how-to’s for it.

The model for New Harbinger’s first book was a popular do-it-yourself magazine. “Our content was based on the needs of my clients for specific life skills,” McKay says. “The tools came out of the research literature. Pat’s contribution came from his love of self-help, and the magazine Popular Mechanics. He wanted to take PM’s step-by-step approach to building something into psychology self-help. And we did.”

Colar illustrates the point as she talks about how a New Harbinger book on overcoming depression might be structured. “It would start with helping the reader get mobilized,” she explains. “That process is broken into steps: first, recording all daily activities; second, adding pleasurable activities to each day’s schedule; third, adding self-care activities to each day’s schedule; and finally, clarifying values.”

The approach McKay and Fanning selected was unique, she says, because they created workbooks that teach in exactly the way people learn best—by understanding the concept, by observing how it’s done, and by doing it themselves, with guided exercises and practice.

Fueled by Scientists’ Findings

New Harbinger’s founders were unusual in other ways too. Often, they were the first to introduce the general public to scientifically valid interventions that were already well documented in academic publications. As an example, Colar cites interoceptive exposure, noting that “science tells us that panic is best overcome” with that process, which entails panickers doing “specific exercises to trigger internal physical sensations like rapid heartbeat that frighten them. Eventually the panicker habituates to those sensations so they’re no longer frightening. Interoceptive exposure is a tool to overcome panic, a tool for change.”

Other New Harbinger titles are also easy to label “highly successful.” The company’s first self-help book, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, written by McKay, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Martha Davis, was issued in 1979. Today, in its sixth edition, it has more than a million copies in print. There’s also an edition oriented to children, and an audio version of its exercises, Progressive Relaxation.Another example she and McKay cite is the technique called defusion for dealing with worry and rumination. “Defusion helps people distance themselves fromupsetting thoughts, making these thoughts less believable. It’s a technique that has been researched for more than 20 years, and it’s a core component of acceptance and commitment therapy,” Colar says. “But New Harbinger was the first to publish it in a trade self-help format, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, in 2005.”

Although Fanning left the publishing company in 1999, he and McKay continue to write books that New Harbinger describes as “highly successful.” They include When Anger Hurts Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide, launched in 1996; Prisoners of Belief: Exposing and Changing Beliefs That Control Your Life, first issued in 1991; and The Self-Esteem Companion: Simple Exercises to Help You Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal Strengths, introduced in 2005—all still in print and still selling.

In total, the company has published more than 825 titles. Its current backlist is about 600, with most titles available in print, EPUB, and as PDFs. About 60 new titles are launched each year.

Designed to Address Real Problems

Like DIY periodicals, New Harbinger emphasizes concise text that’s easy for every reader to understand. “Our books avoid jargon and theory,” says Colar. “We try to intersperse simple sentences among compound or complex ones in our text. An effort is made to keep trade books at a high-school reading level.”

In addition, says McKay, “we value books that address the real problems of our readers. We value research-based and clinically proven work written by respected, experienced clinical professionals.” And that, he notes, means that the company’s books are often “the first choice for general readers and professionals looking for effective, reliable information on a range of mental health, medical, and personal growth topics.”

Many New Harbinger titles are based in cognitive behavioral therapy, a method effective for treating a range of psychologicalproblems. “We are the leading publishers of books based in the new ‘third wave’ of behavior therapy,” Colar reports. “Using acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, these books combine traditional cognitive and behavior-therapy techniques with other approaches like mindfulness and acceptance.”

She and McKay point out that although New Harbinger publishes books on familiar subjects such as anxiety, depression, anger, relationships, and health, the staff also strives to recognize new diagnoses and offer strategies based on the newest research. “We were the first publisher to provide sufferers of fibromyalgia with a factual, reliable source of information about their little-understood condition,” says Colar. “Our Fibromyalgia and Chronic Myofascial Pain has brought relief to thousands of people struggling with this condition. With more than half a million copies sold since it was issued in 1996, this book has become an indispensable resource for professionals and patients alike.”

Management Moves

Now employing 53 full-time equivalents, New Harbinger has weathered a few challenges in the last decade or so.

One involved distribution. Although direct mail has always been an important marketing tool for the company, which has supplemented it with digital campaigns for the past 10 years, trade distribution was outsourced to PGW until 2003. Then New Harbinger management decided to switch to self-distribution. Rather than add space and staff for its own warehouse, they chose to outsource those functions to a vendor in Michigan near McNaughton & Gunn, its usual book manufacturer.

A major recent project—converting to employee ownership through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan—involved two challenges: one financial, and one involving what McKay calls “a culture of employee ownership.”

He believes that employees come to New Harbinger at least in part because of their commitment to its mission. “We exist, and we choose books, with the goal of reducing human suffering. All of our employees, regardless of their role, believe their work contributes to this mission. Everyone at the company knows we don’t choose books to get on the bestseller lists. We publish books we all believe can make a difference. We’re in this together.”

But commitment to the mission is not the same as commitment to being an owner. For an ESOP, McKay says, management needs to “create a culture of transparency where employee/owners know all about the financials and management decisions; encourage employee/owner involvement in strategic planning; and encourage employee/owner feedback through a representative on the ESOP board.”

He recommends ESOP as a corporate structure because it allows entrepreneurs, especially those approaching retirement, to sell at least a part of a company while maintaining company integrity. When the company is a publisher, he adds, an ESOP ensures continuity of editorial direction and vision for years to come; it protects employees, who might lose their jobs if the company was sold; and an ESOP retirement plan helps retain valued employees, especially those who might take their expertise to other presses.

McKay cautions publishers considering conversion to an ESOP that they need to consider the cost of creating the legal framework, and that their profit margin must be high enough—at least 8 percent, he believes—to buy owner shares.

Two Keys to Success

For new publishers, or people thinking of publishing, the psychologist has other advice. To be successful, he says, “Find a niche you believe in, one that reflects your core values, and build a strong, trusted relationship with consumers in that category.”

After four decades in business, McKay has seen many publishers make mistakes. Among the most significant:

  • Chasing money rather than quality: “We rejected three mediocre workbooks on anxiety and phobia before publishing The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, which has now sold more than a million copies. Our key motto: profit follows a commitment to quality.”
  • Failing to establish a niche in which you can be an expert, and not developing a clear sense of how you will serve the niche audience: “Large, general publishers are a dying breed. Publishers thrive with a carefully selected niche.”
  • Focusing on sales at the expense of infrastructure: “We put as much energy into managing inventory, cost of goods sold, and new publishing technology as we do into marketing. Mission plus sound fundamentals are the key ingredients of success.”

New Harbinger is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year because of commitment to those key ingredients: McKay’s recognition of an unfulfilled need that spelled out a mission and Fanning’s advocacy of step-by-step, how-to information for the general reader.


Linda Carlson writes from Seattle, where she has a strong commitment to no-puff, how-to writing and speeches.

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