A recent New York Times article on self-help publisher Hay House is a glimpse into the fascinating life of founder Louise Hay. Whether you believe she really cured her own cancer is up to you, but beyond the human interest part of the profile are some great insights about publishing, including the importance of keeping practical business concerns in mind:
But an attitude is not a business plan. Hay House was not, in the beginning, very well run. The employees were mainly “people I knew,” Hay says, “a friend, or somebody who turned up, or somebody who wanted to work for Louise Hay. … Meanwhile, large trade publishers, like HarperSanFrancisco and Tarcher/Putnam, were seeing the potential in New Age and investing heavily. Hay House would have failed quickly, or been bought out, but for the vision of Reid Tracy, who joined the company as an accountant in 1988 and became president in 1998. He invested his own money, too, and now owns 35 percent of the company; he is the sole shareholder besides Louise Hay herself, and everybody at Hay House, including its founder, considers Tracy the true leader.
That itself isn’t terribly novel. But Reid Tracy’s recognition that for authors (and savvy publishers) books are often just a means of enhancing their reputation in order to sell speaking engagements and ancillary products presaged the current buzz around using free content as a promotional tool:
[Tracy] realized more than 10 years ago that much of the money in New Age was to be made in items other than books: in card decks, audio tapes and page-a-day calendars. Major authors like Wayne Dyer and Marianne Williamson, who first came to Hay House just for ancillary products, later abandoned big trade houses to also do their books with Hay House.
And while the content Hay House published arguably couldn’t be farther from what we publish, O’Reilly editor Andy Oram (who shared the original article link) pointed out some notable parallels to our eponymous brand:
- They realized that their authors had many channels for making sales besides conventional books, and they use all these channels to bolster one other.
- They recognize that their authors’ work complements each other, and bring their authors together in group seminars.
- They play up the celebrity of their founder, who tends to choose trusted people based on intuition.
- They have a brand that goes far beyond the significance of any single offering, and fans accept what they think up next while staying true to the brand.
- They tend to follow their star authors wherever they take their ideas, and trust them.
- They’re very self-consciously branching out into specialized products that also hold interest for children.