Health Communications, Inc. History

Address:
3201 Southwest 15th Street
Deerfield Beach, Florida 33442
U.S.A.

Telephone: (954) 360-0909
Toll Free: 800-441-5569
Fax: (954) 360-0034

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1977
Employees: 116
Sales: $70 million (2005)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishers; 511120 Periodical Publishers

Company Perspectives:

Changing lives ... one book at a time. Creating personal abundance for readers and customers.

Key Dates:

1977:
Vegso and Seidler move to Florida to found a rehabilitation-oriented press.
1983:
HCI puts out its first best-seller, Adult Children of Alcoholics.
1992:
Staff and offerings are cut back.
1993:
HCI publishes Chicken Soup for the Soul.
1994:
Chicken Soup for the Soul reaches best-seller list after 16 months on the market.
1998:
The company reissues A Child Called It.
2002:
HCI begins distributing books for the Hazeldon Foundation.

Company History:

Health Communications, Inc. (HCI) is a leading publisher of self-help and inspirational books. The company began by publishing books and pamphlets geared towards counselors and therapists involved in rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction. The company reached a wider audience in the early 1980s with several best-sellers dealing with life issues and personal growth. The company is best known for its "Chicken Soup" series of books. The Chicken Soup books grew to be an international publishing phenomenon in the 1990s. The huge success of these books brought HCI away from the brink of bankruptcy and transformed the small company into the envy of the publishing industry. HCI runs a Spanish-language imprint, offering translations of many of its successful English-language titles; an imprint called HCI Teens; Simcha Press, which publishes books for people searching for "Jewish enrichment"; and the distribution of trade books published by the Hazeldon Foundation, one of the world's leading centers for addiction recovery. HCI also publishes Counselor, a peer-reviewed journal for professionals in the mental health and addiction fields, with a national subscriber base of more than 21,000. Another HCI subsidiary is U.S. Journal Training, Inc., which provides accredited continuing education for mental health professionals. U.S. Journal Training sponsors conferences and workshops and teaches students in distance-learning classes. HCI also operates a creative design business called Reading, Etc. This company specializes in creating reproduction wall art and statuary from primarily ancient civilizations using historically accurate designs. HCI also owns and operates its own printing and binding equipment, producing both hard- and soft-cover books.

Roots in Addiction Recovery

Health Communications was founded in 1977 by Peter Vegso and Gary Seidler, two Canadians with backgrounds in drug abuse counseling. Vegso and Seidler worked in marketing and media relations at a Toronto nonprofit called the Addiction Resource Foundation. They published a newspaper for professionals in the addiction and recovery field, and in 1976 they secured a grant from the U.S. Drug Abuse Council to launch a similar publication in the United States. Vegso and Seidler traveled in a Volkswagen Beetle from Toronto to Florida, where they incorporated Health Communications, Inc. in Pompano Beach. Vegso claimed, in an interview with the New York Times (July 3, 1998) that when the pair began the publishing company, "We didn't know how to do it." They knew there was a burgeoning market for publications dealing with addiction, but they did not know that most publishers offered their authors advances, and that few owned and operated their own press and binding machines. Their unconventional approach did not stymie the pair, however. They met many potential authors at conferences and conventions for mental health workers and reached many readers the same way, through personal contacts and word of mouth. With only a handful of employees and no sales staff, the young company managed to keep going by publishing books and pamphlets aimed primarily at a narrow audience of professionals in the drug and alcohol addiction field.

The company achieved its first mass-market success in the early 1980s with the book Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Woititz. HCI received Woititz's manuscript in 1982, and Vegso and Seidler decided to publish it, predicting that there was rising interest in the children of alcoholics. Their simple assumption underestimated the book's impact. Adult Children of Alcoholics came out in 1983 and slowly garnered a formidable reputation. Woititz's book climbed onto the New York Times bestseller list, and it eventually sold close to two million copies. The book is now considered the bible of the Adult Children of Alcoholics movement, bringing broad recognition to the problems of people whose parents drink. The success of Woititz's book helped propel HCI's sales from $1 million in 1985 to $17 million by 1990.

Ups and Downs in the Late 1980s

The small company's revenue took a steep upward turn with the booming sales of Adult Children of Alcoholics. However, one book could not sustain the company, and HCI saw its sales drop again as Woititz's book lost steam. HCI picked another winner in 1988 with a book by psychologist John Bradshaw called Bradshaw On: The Family. This book reached the number-one spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and it had broad impact on American culture, popularizing the terms "inner child" and "dysfunctional family." The company's fortunes whipsawed. It had branched out, offering books meant for a large reading public instead of a narrow professional audience, yet its big hits in self-help publishing did not guarantee HCI a steady income. The year 1990 was a financial high mark for the publisher, but then its revenue fell sharply. Over the fiscal year spanning 1991 and 1992, the company went into the red, losing $2 million. HCI responded by diversifying its list even more, going beyond its recovery and healing niche to put out other titles on inspiration, spirituality, relationships, and women's issues.

HCI's publishing niche became more crowded by the early 1990s as major publishers noticed the popularity and profitability of the self-help category. At the same time, government and private insurers cut back on spending on addiction recovery programs, nipping budgets for professionals who might have been buying HCI's materials. The company scrambled to put out ever more books as its market both dwindled and grew tougher. Facing serious financial trouble by 1992, HCI decided to cut back, both on its staff and its offerings. It concentrated on its back list, which included workhorses like the Woititz and Bradshaw titles, and held back on new ventures. These were darker days than the company had faced since its modest beginnings. Nevertheless, Vegso and Seidler were still willing to take some risks. In 1993, they put out a book that over 30 other publishers had passed on. This decision assured the company's fortune for the next decade and longer.

The Chicken Soup Books in the 1990s

The book that vaulted HCI to the forefront of the publishing industry, making it one of the most envied companies in the business, was a collection of short stories and anecdotes called Chicken Soup for the Soul. The tales were written and/or compiled by a pair of professional motivational speakers, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. The story of the book's publication and subsequent success reads like one of its own anecdotes of triumph over adversity through hard work and optimism.

Jack Canfield had taken a master's degree in psychology from Harvard and become an inner-city school teacher. His experiences with underprivileged youth led him to write a book for teachers on the importance of "self-concept," later popularized as the term "self-esteem," in the classroom. He eventually went into business for himself giving motivational seminars on self-esteem. Mark Victor Hansen was also a motivational speaker, with a focus on business audiences and sales conventions. The two, though working independently, were colleagues, and each had perfected many audience-grabbing anecdotes: one- or two-minute stories that plucked the heartstrings, so to speak, while delivering a motivational moral. Canfield began writing down some of his stories in the late 1980s, as audience members frequently came up to him after his speeches wondering where they could find published versions of his tales to give to their friends and family members. After a conversation with Hansen, the two decided to do a book together, compiling 101 short stories.

By 1991, the manuscript was completed, and the pair had found a literary agent, Jeffrey Herman. Herman took Chicken Soup for the Soul to New York, offering it to various major publishers. He also arranged meetings for the co-authors with industry wheels. However, the project was a flop. Publisher after publisher passed on the manuscript, advising the co-authors that short stories would never sell, that the book was too sentimental, that the title was dumb. Herman showed the book to progressively smaller presses but got no takers. Canfield and Hansen had come up with a detailed marketing plan for the book, which included pledges from readers to buy a certain number of copies of Chicken Soup and resell them to their friends. None of this impressed mainstream publishers. When some 33 publishers had said no to the manuscript, Herman resigned, wishing his clients the best of luck elsewhere.

The undaunted authors were still convinced they could sell the book, and they visited the American Booksellers Association meeting in Anaheim, California, flogging the manuscript to countless publishers who had set up booths. At last, the manuscript ended up in the hands of Peter Vegso of Health Communications. Vegso perused Chicken Soup while waiting for his plane back to Florida, and he was so overcome by it that he began to cry. So HCI agreed to publish Chicken Soup for the Soul, offering the authors no advance. The print run was to be 20,000 copies, and Hansen and Canfield agreed to buy half of that themselves. They would do their own marketing. By the time the book came out in 1993, the co-authors were deeply in debt. They had a lot of merchandise on their hands, and they owed fees left and right for permission to reprint the previously published works in their anthology.

Canfield and Hansen had an unusual marketing strategy that by-passed bookstores altogether. As only a small percentage of the public actually ever entered a bookstore, they decided to sell Chicken Soup in all sorts of other venues, including gas stations and nail salons. They sold their book at their motivational seminars as well as at flea markets, and they cajoled owners of many kinds of businesses to place a few books by the cash register. They did radio interviews, and also got an excerpt from the book placed in a Los Angeles parenting magazine. That magazine's editor was so impressed by the piece that he helped the pair reprint it in dozens of similar magazines across the country. Sales grew very gradually, but after 16 months on the market, Chicken Soup for the Soul made it onto the New York Times bestseller list.

The book had taken a full 16 months to reach bestseller status, but that was only the beginning. HCI's revenues had climbed and plunged with its previous hit books, but Chicken Soup for the Soul had staying power of almost unparalleled proportions. When it made it onto the New York Times list, it had sold 1.3 million copies. In mid-1995, the book had been at the top of the list for 39 weeks, and HCI put out the first of many sequels, A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Canfield and Hansen followed this up with a slew of new Chicken Soup titles, such as Chicken Soup for the Country Soul, which came with its own music CD, Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul, and on and on. Some of these popular titles had their own sequels, including four volumes devoted to the woman's soul and two for the golfer. Within five years from the publication of the first volume, the Chicken Soup series had sold some 43 million copies, and the books had been translated into 36 languages. Health Communications made 85 percent of its revenue from the Chicken Soup books. Overall sales at HCI stood at $85 million in 1997 and grew to $95 million in 1998.

On top of the enormous success of the Chicken Soup books, HCI had other strong sellers in its stable as well. In 1997, Peter Vegso bought out his partner Gary Seidler, and the company invested $1.5 million in an improved Web press. The company remained small despite its new wealth, keeping its number of employees to around 100. HCI put out another hit book in 1998, Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It. Pelzer had published the book elsewhere in 1993, but his memoir of child abuse had not sold well at all, and he had taken the rights back. Health Communications reissued the book and, promoted with a television talk show appearance, it became another mega-seller, spending more than 300 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In the late 1990s, HCI had roughly 400 titles on its back list. Its costs were low, as it did its own production and promotion, and its major franchise, the Chicken Soup series, seemed inexhaustible. The chairman of much bigger rival Time Warner Trade Publishing told the New York Times (July 3, 1998): "They are the dream not only of small publishers, but large publishers."

Other Ventures in the 2000s

HCI planned to survive beyond Chicken Soup, though by 2000 the series did not seem to be at all lagging. The company varied its offerings, putting out its first work of fiction in 1999. Health Communications also stepped up the number of books it published annually, increasing from 35 in the late 1990s to around 50. The company also worked tirelessly to sell the Chicken Soup books internationally, where the translations were very popular in countries such as Mexico and Japan. It expanded its physical plant and updated its marketing and distribution plans for better use of the Web.

HCI developed a new imprint in 2000, called Simcha Press. This division specialized in books on spiritual growth and personal enrichment geared towards Jewish readers. The company also diversified into an imprint for its teen books, HCI Teens. Its Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul had grown into a series within a series, with editions for the Christian teen, the pre-teen, and several sequels to the original teenage soul book. HCI also issued a similar book series, Taste Berries for Teens, under its HCI Teens imprint. The Taste Berries books were also anthologies of inspirational morsels, authored by Bettie and Jennifer Youngs.

In 2002, Health Communications agreed to take over distribution of trade books produced by the renowned addiction recovery center the Hazelden Foundation. HCI had not distributed other publishers' books before, but the tie with Hazelden was natural, considering HCI's background in materials for rehabilitation professionals. The next year, the company spent a billion dollars on a new binding machine that would for the first time give the publisher the ability to produce its own hardcover books. In 2003, HCI also launched a Spanish-language imprint called HCI Espanol. HCI had put out a Spanish version of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Sopa de Pollo Para el Alma, as early as 1995, and this volume became one of the best-selling Spanish-language books in the United States. HCI saw potential in the Spanish-language market, not only for the Chicken Soup books but for many other self-help titles on its back list and for new books to come.

Ten years after the first Chicken Soup book came off of HCI's press, the series had sold an estimated 80 million copies in English, and an untold number of copies in 35 different languages. Canfield and Hansen and various other collaborators had put out some 70 Chicken Soup titles, extending the brand into books of cartoons and photographs as well as many variations and follow-ups of earlier titles. However, Health Communications was not entirely defined by the popular non-fiction series. By 2005, its back list had grown to more than 500 separate titles, and it worked with some 150 different authors. It began calling itself the "Life Issues Publisher," meaning it put out diet, women's issues, and business books as well as more traditionally defined self-help tomes. The company had come through a boom-and-bust cycle in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when popular titles had quickly boosted sales and then left HCI struggling. The company handled the much bigger boom of the Chicken Soup books with what seemed to be wisdom and foresight gained from experience. The series had brought HCI unexpected revenue, but the company continued to branch out with new and different books, so that it had other authors to rely on in case the Chicken Soup empire should falter.

Principal Subsidiaries: Reading, Etc.; U.S. Journal Training, Inc.

Principal Competitors: Free Spirit Publishing; Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.; Random House, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Carvajal, Doreen, "Breaking the Publishing Mold," New York Times, July 3, 1998, p. D1.
  • Farmanfarian, Roxanne, and Katayoon Zandvakili, "Marketing Blitz for New 'Chicken Soup' Titles," Publishers Weekly, August 4, 1997, p. 24.
  • Ferguson, Andrew, "A River of Chicken Soup," Time, June 8, 1998, p. 62.
  • Hughes, Dennis, "Holistic Writing for Publication," Share Guide, March-April 2003, p. 16.
  • Milliot, Jim, "Health Communications Sales Neared $100 Million in '98," Publishers Weekly, February 8, 1999, p. 96.
  • ------, "HCI Makes Distribution Deal with Hazelden," Publishers Weekly, December 2, 2002, p. 10.
  • Miracle, Barbara, "Health Makes Wealth," Florida Trend, November 1998, p. 106.
  • Ospina, Carmen, "HCI Launches Spanish-Language Imprint," School Library Journal, June 2003, p. SS10.
  • "Quietly Reaching the Top of the List," Florida Trend, August 1986, p. 104.
  • "Spoon Feeding," People Weekly, July 24, 1995, p. 156.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.72. St. James Press, 2005.