New Age: Still Glowing



In a period of overabundance of sometimes inferior material, the true believers among publishers and retailers are stressing the movement’s basic values


This year in New Age publishing, the key words are no longer “crystals” and “channeling,” but “quality” and “discrimination.” Confronted with an evident overabundance of material, some of it judged to be poorly written and ill-conceived, publishers, distributors and retailers with an interest in the New Age movement are placing a renewed emphasis on highlighting the enduring values and ideas of the movement rather than its passing fads.

Like a number of others in the field, Marilyn McGuire, executive director of the New Age Publishing and Retailing Alliance, points with dismay to a March 10, 1988 Wall Street Journal article that asserted that publishers were exploiting the New Age fad by squeezing a lot of inappropriate books into the category. “There was an implication that publishers were dusting off old books and calling them New Age to make money,” she says, “and yes, there’s some of that. But this thing called New Age is just not a narrow category, it is very broad. It includes anything that is about being better people, having a better world and being more creative.” Toni Burbank, executive editor of Bantam Books’ New Age imprint, says that she and co-editor Leslie Meredith are deliberately trying to keep the category broad. ‘We were doing a New Age line before the media took it up and said that it was synonymous with channeling and crystals.”

No one doubts that the category has seen tremendous growth in the last year. While estimates are hard to come by—given the difficulty of defining the category—anecdotal evidence of the profusion of New Age publications abounds. New Leaf, a specialty distributor of New Age books and products, carries 11,000 titles. Paul Zuromski, publisher and editor of the New Age monthly Body, Mind & Spirit, observes that the “flood of review books coming in is amazing—it isn’t ebbing and flowing, it keeps growing. We must get 25 to 50 books a week, and I’m sure we aren’t getting them all.” Judy Black, owner of the Blue Unicorn bookstore in Boise, Idaho, makes the same point: “There are so many new things coming out now that it’s like a flood. I’ve got so much coming at me that discrimination has become real important.”

An Overabundance of Product

With so much material coming so rapidly into the New Age market, a glut appears inevitable, according to a number of distributors and publishers. Charlie Winton, of Publishers Group West, believes that “the glutting process started six or seven months ago,” and points out that his company has actually reduced the number of New Age titles it carries. Peter Guzzardi, editorial director of Crown’s Harmony Books, details the backlash process: ‘When a topic in publishing gets hot, the consumer gets inundated by a variety of books. At first it’s good, and then it’s not so good; the consumer is increasingly forced to make choices, and at some point the quality material gets awash in a sea of mediocre books, then the public loses interest and moves on to something else. It’s a fairly typical pattern.”

Von Braschler, from his vantage point as marketing manager at Theosophical Publishing House, which has been publishing since 1926 the kind of esoteric material now called New Age, observes that there is currently “a lot of really soft material, pabulum, in the New Age literature, a kind of feel-good, think-good, be-good thing. Some of the books have been paper-thin, and the authors and publishers more profit-minded than quality-minded.” While praising many of the field’s desktop publishers, “who have great enthusiasm and imagination about how to distribute books of common interest,” he predicts that many “will dry up and blow away in a couple of years. Some will have delivered high-quality books of lasting value and others will have simply ridden on the popular wave of the New Age movement, and they’ll be gone.”

Any field of endeavor that is as open as the New Age movement to all varieties of beliefs will necessarily be broad and difficult to define. But as journalist Frederick Levine, author of The Psychic Sourcebook, sees it, the openness of the New Age movement is not sufficiently balanced by critical thinking. The result is that superficial and even exploitative material is allowed to obscure more important work. The danger acknowledged by New Age publishers and retailers stems not from inappropriate material being stuffed into the category, but an overwhelming excess of low-quality material. New Age publishers and retailers are responding by stressing the importance of quality. Current trends suggest that the public is beginning to make similar demands. With so many New Age books now on the market, the emphasis is shifting from the more sensational aspects of the New Age movement to what are generally described as more serious and enduring works and subjects. Asserting that the New Age is “essentially interested” in profound questions about “the nature of consciousness, and how our consciousness forms the world in which we live,” Los Angeles publisher Jeremy Tarcher remarks that “in the past year or so there has been a significant diminution of interest in channeling, crystals, UFOs and psychic experience in general, and a rising interest in more solid aspects of the movement.”

Crystals Lose Their Luster

Although crystal books continue to sell well—Katrina Raphaell’s Crystal Healing: The Therapeutic Application of Crystals and Stones (Aurora Press) is a top seller for New Leaf—overall sales are down. Saying that crystal books “are definitely taking a dive,” Randy Beek, president of Bookpeople, a distributor in Berkeley, Calif., estimates that sales are off “anywhere from 35% to 50%.” While one cause of the decline may be a general disaffection with crystals, the book trade points as well to an excess of crystal books—anywhere from 25 to 30 in print, by some estimates—the soaring price of crystals, and extravagant claims for their power. Kay Allison, owner of the Quest Bookshop in Charlottesville, Va., has stopped carrying crystals in her store because “the prices have just skyrocketed. And the crystal books are coming out like crazy. One I’ve got now on my sale table claims that cystals will improve your sex life and give you improved energy. I just like stones and rocks, myself. But people are getting confused by the directions that are being given about crystals. It’s just crazy stuff, an insult to the intelligence of the public.”

The other popular New Age diversion of the last year, channeling, has suffered a similar if less extreme decline. Randy Beek estimates that sales of channeling books are down by 25%, and Frank Kroger of Moving Books, a New Age distributor in Seattle, states that he has “seen a dropping of interest in channeling, definitely.” For explanation, New Age observers point to an increased emphasis in the movement on self-reliance. In Boise, Judy Black of the Blue Unicorn bookstore notes that “people want to take responsibility for their lives. A lot of my customers think channeling is interesting, but they don’t necessarily think there are some gurus out there who can tell them who they are.”

While not condemning interest in such “diversion” as UFOs and crys-tals, Charles Thomas Cayce, grandson of psychic Edgar Cayce and president of the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia, says that ultimately “these things are dead ends.” Cayce, who is also general editor of Harper & Row’s book series, Edgar Cayce’s Wisdom for the New Age, believes that “the wave of interest in channeling and getting information from psychics and crystals reflects a search, hopefully genuine, for the meaning in life. So far the search has involved looking outside oneself. I would hope the next stage will be a deeper commitment to understanding that the search needs to be within oneself. If this step isn’t taken, there could be a backlash against the whole movement.”

Moving into the Mainstream

The strongest subject within the New Age arena this year, and the one that some observers feel is propelling New Age ideas and values into the mainstream, is health and healing. The subject has always been central to the movement, if not always the center of attention. For many years, health food stores were one of the few outlets for New Age books, and a number of New Age book distributors, Moving Books and New Leaf among them, were started out of an interest in alternative approaches to health. With the continuing success of Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life and Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine& Miracles, however, health has come to the fore.

Bantam’s Toni Burbank points to several Bantam New Age Books titles as evidence of the subject’s strength. According to Burbank, Barbara Ann Brennan’s Hands of Light, published in June as an “experiment,” is one of Bantam’s “great success stories of the year.” The $18.95 trade paperback, subtitled “A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field,” now has over 77,000 copies in print. In May 1989, Bantam New Age will release Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind-Body Medicine, by Deepak Chopra, M.D. An endocrinologist associated with the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, Chopra is a driving force behind a movement to revive the ancient Indian medical tradition of ayurvedic medicine.

Harmony Books’ Guzzardi is similarly enthusiastic about Chopra’s work, revealing that he spent “a nearly six-figure advance” for “this little book called Perfect Health” by Chopra and two coauthors. Likewise, Jeremy Tarcher expects “great success” for Healers on Healing, essays by 37 authors including Lynn Andrews, Norman Cousins, Shakti Gawain, Louise Hay and Bernie Siegel, due out next spring.

At Ballantine, senior editor Cheryl Woodruff describes the firm’s “second wave” of New Age titles as books that “will test the boundaries of known reality and teach us how to explore and validate our inner lives as well as our outer ones in the pursuit of creating a reality that acknowledges that humankind exists in body, mind and spirit.” The list, too, includes books to “provide the average reader with rich food for thought in the areas of health,” including The New Medicine Guide:  The Self-Care Alternative and Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine.

A subject rising in popularity is addiction. Although not necessarily a New Age concern, it has become one through the success of alternative approaches that stress self-understanding, holism and spirituality. Selling particularly well are 12-step books, based on Alcoholics Anonymous methods, and books for adult children of alcoholics. New Leaf president Halim Provo-Thompson believes that the “interest in addictions is just beginning. A lot of addictions are very subtle, and there are many of them.”

Jeremy Tarcher credits the New Age movement for much of the current popular concern with addiction. “It is not only that drugs and alcohol are recognized as a great problem in our society,” he observes, “but the people are being more open and honest about it than they were 10 years ago. And part of that openness and honesty is the result of the whole human potential movement and the desire within that movement to share more intimacies about what life is about.”

The Cosmologic Influence

A mark of the more serious direction in which some publishers of New Age material are attempting to take the movement is the growing number of books that attempt to reconcile the New Age with leading scientific thinking, particularly cosmology. New Age disciples have not generally been seen to apply scientific principles to their theories, preferring in many cases simply to reject Western scientific principles altogether. Citing crystals as one example, Von Braschler asserts that “there has been very poor scientific follow-up and validation of their use in healing. It’s just one unexplained law of nature that the New Age movement should have investigated more thoroughly.”

To help rectify that situation, Harmony Books will release next spring a book by the authors of the Whole Earth Catalog, called Fringes of Reason, which is, as Peter Guzzardi puts it, “both a serious analysis of basic ideas on the lunatic fringe and a reference work,” that will take a rigorously objective look at such esoteric and controversial phenomena as spontaneous combustion. Guzzardi says that while there is a strong spiritual aspect to the New Age movement, “there’s a serious interest in science at the heart of it, a quest to know the unknowable. And science is very much involved in that quest. You see those interests converge in books like [Fritjof Capra’s] The Tao of Physics. Physics and its implications . . . have always been a seminal aspect of New Age publishing.”

Featuring such titles as John Gribbin’s In Search of the Double Helix, the late Heinz Pagels’ The Cosmic Code and Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas, Bantam’s New Age list emphasizes the scientific aspects of New Age thought. Acknowledging that Bantam seriously considered placing Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time on the New Age list, Toni Burbank notes that “we have always done science, particularly cosmology, because that speaks to the imagination of man and the universe. We did not put Hawking’s book on our New Age list, but you will find it on the first page of our New Age catalogue. Cosmology at its ultimate reaches is a kind of religious quest, too.”

Other subjects of growing interest that fall under the New Age mantle include women’s spirituality, shamanism, mythology and, surprisingly, business.

Bookpeople’s Randy Beek has found that “New Age books that cross over into the women’s market, such as the goddess books, have been doing well and seem to be getting better.” Representative titles include Tarcher’s Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood, which has sold more than three million copies; the Theosophical Publishing House’s anthology, The Goddess Reawakening: The Modern Feminine Principle, edited by Shirley Nicholson; and Humanic’s A Goddess in My Shoes: Seven Steps to Peace by Rickie Moore. Pat Rose and Ani Chamichian, respectively publicity manager and director of trade marketing of Harper & Row San Francisco, state that feminist spirituality is a leading subcategory of their company’s New Age line, which constitutes “at least 50% of our books.” Notable books include Medicine Woman, Flight of the Seventh Moon and Jaguar Woman, all by Lynn Andrews; Truth or Dare by self-described witch “Starhawk’; and The Womanspirit Sourcebook by Patrice Wynne. (Author Wynne has in fact opened a bookstore in Berkeley called Gaia, dealing exclusively in goddess material.) Julie Feingold of Llewellyn Publications sees the growth of interest in women’s spirituality as “connected with healing ourselves and our planet, because the compassion, intuition and cooperation that are required to work together have been seen as skills that were feminine. The interest in women’s spirituality is a recognition that we need to integrate more of those qualities into our culture in order to get to where we need to be.”

Feingold likewise speculates that the current confusion “about the direction our planet is going in” may be responsible for an increasing interest in shamanism, “an earth-based tradition that sees the sacred in everything around us,” and in learning to “honor the world around us so that we can save ourselves and the planet.” Books that focus on shamanism or native American religions include Ken Carey’s channeled narrative, Return of the Bird Tribes (Uni-Sun); Carl Hammerschlag’s The Dancing Healers: A Doctor’s Journey of Healing with Native Americans (Harper & Row); Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman (Bantam); and, in part, Harper & Row’s The Coming of the Cosmic Christ by Dominican priest Matthew Fox, recently disciplined by the Vatican for his controversial New Age revisions of Catholic theology.

Additional interest in mythology was spurred this summer by PBS’s broadcast of Bill Moyers’s interviews with Joseph Campbell. So sudden and enormous was the demand for Campbell’s books that many distributors and booksellers were caught short.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of the breadth of subjects being addressed by New Age publishers, and an indication of how far the New Age consciousness has surged into mainstream American culture, is the new emphasis on practical applications of New Age ideas, particularly in business. In explaining the 400% growth of Humanics New Age in the last year, marketing manager Jennifer Birdseye points to a growing public awareness of the practical applications of New Age ideas. “We’re publishing books on business, family relations and wellness, and I think the general public is seeing how those books apply to their lives today. They see how New Age ethics are helping in business, and how proper diet helps everyone in the family, physically and mentally.”

In explaining the strength of New Age publishing, Paul Zuromski argues that “if there was ever
any area of interest that is truly dependent on the printed word, it’s the New Age. I have concepts for television shows coming across my desks all the time, and I turn them down all the time. It’s very hard to make it visually interesting. The New Age is really ideas. Perhaps that is why there is such an explosion in New Age publishing.”

But if books remain the primary medium for the New Age, audio tapes and, to a lesser extent, videotapes, are showing increased strength. As in other areas of publishing, spoken word renditions of books are popular, particularly when read by the author. Being a particularly interactive subject, the New Age lends itself especially to cassette tapes that supplement books, such as workshops and lectures, and those that are designed to encourage relaxation and meditation. Cassettes mentioned as doing particularly well include those from leading New Age writers such as Louise Hay, Shakti Gawain and Lynn Andrews, Tarcher’s Audio Renaissance cassettes and Vital Body’s and New World’s cassettes.

New Age video tapes, according to Bookpeople’s Randy Beek, “tend to be instructional, and present yoga exercises, talks with people like Ram Dass and Joseph Campbell and straight interviews, although there are a few meditation tapes.” New Leafs Provo-Thompson states that “video is still very marginal for us. If it were mature where it is now, we would drop it, but we feel that it’s going to grow.”

Marketing Sophistication

While the popular perception of New Age publishers may still revolve around inexperienced and underfinanced houses on the fringes of publishing, the field is in fact marked by a steadily rising level of sophistication, particularly with regard to marketing and distribution. Sophia Tarila, owner of First Editions publishing in Sedona, Ariz., and author of a directory called New Age Marketing Opportunities, observes that people of a New Age bent “have been concerned with success on a personal level, but making it in the marketplace is the next step.” In a statement that she says reflects New Age attitudes in general, Tarila says she has learned that “it is okay to be spiritual and do business. My workplace is a sacred place.”

As might be expected of a movement that stresses alternatives, the New Age market is developing both along mainstream channels of distribution and through more creative approaches. Tarila notes that people are “forced by the nature of the New Age business to be very creative in the way they reach the marketplace.” She stresses the use of such methods of marketing as direct mail, cooperative advertising, card packs, collective mailings and trade shows and fairs. “As long as a person has a post office nearby, a telephone, and a computer, she can do business,” Tarila adds. She puts a particular emphasis on the computer and repeats, not without irony, a friend’s remark that “the New Age began with the Macintosh.” Although Tarila used distributors successfully for her first book, she is distributing the directory on her own, “because they take such a long time to deal with money. They have to, in order to do business . . . but that is very hard on a small publisher.” While she reiterates that her distributors can be “fabulous,” she warns that “it might be better to build slowly and get to where you can use the distributor effectively.”

While publishers like Jennifer Birdseye agree that distributors are ultimately “the best way the books are getting out,” they are also energetically exploiting alternative means of distribution and publicity. Distributor Charlie Winton acknowledges that although books on specialized and unusual subjects like homeopathy that were difficult to sell five years ago can now sell 25,000 to 30,000 copies, “whether through bookstores or not is another question.” Using Dana Ullman’s book Homeopathy: Twenty-First Century Medicine as an example, Winton says that Ullman “has sold 20,000 to 25,000 copies through his own mailing list, and probably just 5000 to 7000 in the mainstream trade.” Winton adds, however, that “we’re not giving up on getting the mainstream trade to realize the potential of the book—we’re going to rerelease it and push on it a little bit harder.”

Health food stores, long a bastion of New Age marketing, remain a strong outlet for New Age books. According to Erin Prophet of Summit University Press, publishers of “the teachings of the Ascended Masters,” including The Lost Years of Jesus and The Lost Teachings of Jesus, by Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Summit is “a major distributor for macrobiotic and health food books to most of the health food stores in the country.” Prophet states that health food stores are increasingly stocking Summit’s metaphysical titles “because more and more people are asking for them.”

Llewellyn’s Julie Feingold is working on putting together a study with the ABA that will explore how New Age books are being presented and marketed in bookstores. She believes that much floor space is being allotted to books that don’t sell as well as New Age books “because everyone is loading [the New Age category] with too much emotion and taking it out of the objective marketplace. I’m interested in getting people to recognize the sales potential of this area and get away from treating it as a fad.”

A Global Expansion

Although the New Age movement may strike outside observers as a uniquely American—or Californian—phenomenon, Sophia Tarila describes it instead as “global” in scope. Jennifer Birdseye states that Humanics New Age is “looking mostly internationally for new efforts in marketing—and it is definitely an international market. In Frankfurt we found French publishers actively searching for New Age titles, and the same is true for Italian and Greek publishers. For every new title we had in 1988, we sold French, Italian and German rights.” The distributor Moving Books, based in Seattle, is actively expanding its market in Canada, although owner Frank Kroger notes that “they are buying totally different books there.”

Behind all the efforts of New Age publishers, distributors and booksellers to develop the field into a long-term enterprise is the New Age Publishing and Retailing Alliance. The people interviewed by PW were virtually unanimous in their praise for the organization and its goals. Von Braschler predicts NAPRA will be an important force in keeping publishers more “quality-minded” than “profit-minded” because “I think it’s going to be an organization that will stand for standards and quality, and the readers, distributors and booksellers will all benefit from that.”

Numbering about 30 when the organization was formed in 1987 at the ABA convention in New Orleans, NAPRA’s membership is now approaching 300. The organization’s goals are a mixture of business, spiritual and social aims, from improving communications among New Age publishers, distributors and booksellers, to encouraging “understanding, awareness and acceptance of the notions of human and global transformation and ultimately [assisting] in the expansion of peaceful human interactions and more responsible stewardship of our planet.” This idealistic and reformist attitude forms the common bond of NAPRA members. As charter member Jeremy Tarcher puts it, “I regard myself in many ways as a propagandist as much as a publisher. I see my company as having a social, intellectual purpose as well as a business agenda.”

According to Marilyn McGuire, the initiator and executive director of the group, NAPRA was formed “because the New Age clearly needed defining, and it clearly needed visibility, and it absolutely needed credibility.” NAPRA’s educational sessions at the ABA have been particularly successful, and the organization will sponsor another program at the 1989 ABA convention in Washington, D.C. A central element of NAPRA’s marketing efforts is its New Age bestseller list, compiled quarterly from seven major U.S. distributors (see box, p. 18).

The challenge facing NAPRA members, which they are confident of meeting, is to balance their business objectives with their passion for the values the New Age represents. Hedda Lark, a buyer and editor for DeVorss, a distributor of metaphysical titles since 1929, expresses the necessity of such passion in describing the perilous tendency of publishers and authors to overproduce: “An author cranks out book after book, and after a while says the same old thing. You can’t do that in this field. It should come from the heart and the soul.”

Bethune is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.