Chicken soup for the marketer's soul

Our reporter ventures inside a think tank for the most successful book publisher you've never heard of.

By Steven M. Zeitchik

Published June 30, 2000 7:35PM (EDT)

"The biggest groups that watch 'Touched by an Angel' are teenage boys and girls," declaims Catherine Lanigan, the author sitting to my left at this eight-person think-tank session. "I talk to independent bookstores and they say: 'We want something for kids, so just give us something with an angel.'"

"Why do you think that is?" asks the moderator, her pen sliding along the pages of a pocket notepad.

"They want to be told, 'There's an angel watching over me'; that's why they watch 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'" Lanigan answers confidently. Cindy Randall, a heavily made-up producer of media tours sitting across from Lanigan, jumps in. "They want something for the new millennium."

OK, so maybe calling this a think tank is a stretch.

But on this windy Saturday at the Boca Raton Beach Resort, speculation about the reading habits of Middle America goes down as easily as an "Inside Edition" segment. That's exactly the way HCI, the event's sponsor, likes it. The company (the acronym stands for Health Communications International) is the absurdly profitable publisher of, most notably, the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series. You may have seen one of the millions of copies sold lying around a friend's house. Perhaps you own one as a result of an awkward moment at Christmas. You'd hardly be the only one. Total sales at the publisher topped out at more than $100 million in 1999, up more than 10 percent from the previous year and 20 percent from 1997.

Such success doesn't happen by accident. Every year, the Deerfield Beach, Fla., publishing house flies in dozens of publishing professionals from around the country, as well as its own authors, of which Lanigan is one. Their goal -- now mine -- is to riff on the future of the book business in small groups moderated by HCI employees. The moderators then take their findings to higher-ups, who use them to shape lists and marketing plans.

It's a strange approach for book publishers, who, to the extent they use consultants in the first place, normally go with the professional kind. Most are leery of opening their doors to outsiders. This isn't just because publishers don't trust us (though they don't) but because they don't want to leave the impression that they are vulnerable to the fickleness of non-experts.

But then, HCI is not most publishers. Where most are cliquey, HCI is friendly and open. In its mission statement, it boasts, "From the very beginning we have maintained our goal of reaching communities of people with our messages and effecting positive change throughout the world."

I can't help but grin as I think of some of the long-dead tweedy types in publishing -- say, Bennett Cerf -- who would turn as white as the sand outside this room and choke on their martinis watching a focus group debate whether people prefer to read self-help, recovery or spirituality. But HCI is serious about its goal. It believes in the perfect triangulation between publisher, readers and the collective soul. What's good for HCI is good for America.

As someone whose sensibilities lie somewhere between Cerf's and HCI's, the question of why I came continues to weigh on me, even as I take another stab at an impossibly sweeping prediction. As a journalist, I suppose, I thought it would be nice to serve as a kind of informal consultant, only instead of a salary, I'd take my remittance in margaritas and tennis-court privileges. I also thought of it as a networking opportunity. But none of these motives compare to what I suspect is the real reason: tawdry curiosity.

So far, I've not been disappointed. The day began with a meditation session that transported us into the future. Leading was one Sister Jayanti, a Hindu (prophet? leader? figure?) affiliated with "Brahama Kumaris World Spiritual University." Jayanti is known for her "unique ability to impart deep spiritual truths with the utmost clarity," according to my packet. She looks the part, too, with dark leathery skin and a serious face.

As she starts giving instructions, I don't think anyone will go for it. But the encouragement of the many overrides the sheepishness of the few. I'm still skeptical. Just as I think about begging off, though, I remember a recent fortune-cookie message about the importance of navel-gazing. I close my eyes.

Only it's not what I think. Instead of having us resolve the turmoil within, Jayanti has us envision the future of -- what else? -- publishing, and imagine what categories will be hot. Presumably, since we've astrally placed ourselves in 2005, we won't need much clairvoyance to figure that out; we can just walk into the nearest superstore and see what's on the shelves. It's an emblematic moment: New Age with a capitalist twist. Or is it the other way around?

If the formula seems silly, it may also be shockingly effective. The publisher has been holding these summits for four years, a period that coincides with an annual rise in profits and profile for HCI. Not a shabby feat, especially given the wave of consolidation that has come over the industry over the past few years. HCI is among the largest publishers outside New York, and depending on how you calculate it, may rate as one of the top 10 houses in the country. It has severely strengthened the so-called alternative market, placing books in channels like Home Depot and drugstores. Those wondering why the majority of books are sold outside traditional bookstores can thank, among others, HCI for its role in paving the road to new venues. At this event, representatives from wholesalers like Levy's, which specializes in drugstore and supermarket placement, are as much of a presence as those from more traditional quarters.

These wholesalers, along with the panoply of characters -- a slew of authors; Carol Fitzgerald, the sharp-tongued editor of the Book Reporter; Fred Ciporen, the publisher of Publishers Weekly -- lend the proceedings an impressive diversity. But that also creates a problem; the people and topics are just too general. At each session, the conversation either runs completely off course -- into talk of an episode of "Extra" about the recovery of long-lost skulls in one case -- or overly specific, kind of like, well, the "Chicken Soup" series itself.

A discussion at one session meanders into electronic publishing and the future of the book. The moderator, Allison Janse, doesn't seem keen on tolerating something so abstract. She lets it wander for a few minutes but then steers matters back in a more practical direction. "So," she asks, "where do you think recovery will go?"

"Recovery is out," David Hogue, a marketing director at book wholesaler Baker & Taylor, says baldly. Janse drinks in every word. "Why?"

"Because I think people are pretty much recovered."

It's an idle thought, and an arguable one at that, but Janse scribbles it down anyway. Then someone who's obviously read one too many Newsweek stories about the graying of the boomers makes a point about the exploding senior demographic. At the roundup after the session, an HCI employee reads back what we found, saying something about the teen market dying and stressing geriatric titles. Then, in a booklet that comes in the mail later, a write-up from the session reads "Health/Wellness will continue to sell as people will live longer."

Not surprisingly for a publisher that bases decisions on focus groups, most of HCI's titles seem pretty safe: "Second Thoughts on How to be as Terrific As Your Dog Thinks You Are" and "Feeling Great, Looking Hot and Loving Yourself." One would be hard-pressed to argue with these premises.

And then there's "Chicken Soup." Despite the success of the series, HCI, like many publishers carried by one property, remains conflicted about its anchor product. On one hand, success is a tasty dish, and the forces behind "Chicken Soup," through clever marketing and a keen sense of the zeitgeist, are proud of their achievements. But the stigma of Johnny One-Note is a powerful one, and employees at the publisher almost seem to bristle at the suggestion, however true, that "Chicken Soup" alone has enabled it to thrive.

It's a matter of economics, too. HCI's decision-makers are rightly concerned that as the "Chicken Soup" books get increasingly specialized -- recent editions include "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work," "Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul" and "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Part III" -- the bubble could burst.

So, to stave off some of these consequences, the house has embarked on a kind of manic expansion. It launched a Judaica line such curious titles as '' ('it will change the way you think about your computer, about God, about the future'). To the extent that its cookies-and-milk framework permitted, it created sensationalist books like "The Cult of the Born Again Virgin," though one source later told me the book didn't do so well "because people don't want to be chaste."

The publisher even created a heretofore undevised category in American publishing: visionary fiction. I learn this the hard way -- foot-in-mouth. On the taxi ride in from the airport I share with Lanigan and her oilman husband, I decide to test her irony meter, despite knowing her for all of 10 minutes.

"I wonder if we could just make things up," I say "like 'you guys should definitely publish more literary fiction; there's a lot of money in that.'" Lanigan stirs excitedly. "I would love it if you did that because that's my category: visionary fiction." Later, reading the materials from HCI, I learn that visionary fiction, the "newest publishing pillar mirrors the Soul/Spirituality pillar [I have no idea what this means], but offers reading lessons on the divine through an entertaining fictional format. Examples of HCI's visionary fiction titles include 'The Sai Prophecy,' 'Rings of Truth' and 'Wings of Soul' [Lanigan's book]." In other words, New Age nuggets in a candy shell.

HCI's expansion lends this year's proceedings an urgency that repeat visitors say was lacking at previous summits. There are four Saturday sessions instead of three. Moderators seem intent on extracting as many lessons as possible. As the session winds down, they ask one person to summarize. It's one step shy of asking for "takeaways" at the end of a corporate board meeting. Later, I realize why the session leaders show so much interest in our discoveries: They're under pressure from their supervisors to come up with results.

The question, of course, is how exactly they use the information gathered. My query is answered several weeks later when I receive a booklet in the mail with the wisdom accrued from Saturday's sessions. Among the lessons learned:

"The teen market will be hot."

"Home-based business books" will be a "hot book topic of the future."

"With more people working from home, a book on how to separate your work/family time; how to deal with burnout, seclusion, etc."

Others are muddled, but meatier:

"1989 [sic] marked the end of the post World-War II era, with the dissolution of the Communist bloc nations. This dissolution paved the way for the millennial fluidity that is beginning now. Spirituality/community and holistic/health well-being are becoming more and more important to people."

Others are simply deluded: One category "might be called 'holistic business.' Basically, it would acknowledge the movement that is bringing spirituality into the workplace."

And then, the obvious: "Publishers should look for ways to provide products to bookstores."

Yet there's something refreshing about all this. Unlike, say, Random House, which exudes confidence (whether false or genuine) at every turn, HCI, in its willingness to hold this conference, offers a tacit acknowledgment that it is as much in the dark as anyone else regarding how this strange book business works. Still, I can't help but feel that its naiveti works against it, makes it open to suggestions that aren't necessarily in its best interest (should a throwaway comment about recovery really be taken that seriously?) and sends it scurrying off in different directions without sufficient evidence.

By Saturday night, however, most of these concerns are forgotten. After the dirty work of determining the future of the book business, HCI brings on the entertainment. I had heard tales of the sheer over-the-top quality to the event, and indeed, the company has spared no expense. Performers on stilts, a calypso band and garish desserts are a few of the touches. It all seems a little schmaltzy, which, of course, is the point. I mention this to a woman affiliated with HCI who has a somewhat removed, even cynical, attitude about the weekend, adding that one participant in particular seems strange, though plugged in. She quips, "Yeah, she's plugged in all rright, but someone forgot to hit the rese' button."

"Kind of like HCI," I mutter, and, though I can't be sure, I think I detect a small smile.

Steven M. Zeitchik

Steven M. Zeitchik is an editor at The Industry Standard. His work has also appeared in such publications as the Nation, Conde Nast Traveler and Publishers Weekly.

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