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In the Beginning: A Note from Our Founding Publisher

In celebration of HarperOne’s fortieth anniversary as a HarperCollins imprint in San Francisco, we thought we would pull from the archives a piece by Clayton E. Carlson, the publisher who moved us out of New York in 1977. In this brief survey of our history (written sometime in 1989), Clayton explains both our mission and our context for what we do. In many ways, his philosophy still guides us today.

Spiritually based publishing has been a constant theme within Harper’s publishing program since its founding in 1817 by the Harper brothers. Mother Harper, a tough old Methodist lady, wanted at least one of her four sons to become a Methodist preacher. To her dismay, they all went off to New York and became printers. Their first book was a pirated edition of Seneca’s Morals. The anomaly of a pirated book on the subject of morals has always struck me as symbolic of publishers.

Their second book was a Methodist catechism for children—I’m sure Mother Harper had something to do with that one—and the third was the first American edition of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.

Given the overall culture and nature of the market in the early 1800s, this flair for religion ought not be surprising. While no doubt pious, the brothers knew what kind of books would sell. They must have because, by the 1850s, they were the largest English language publisher in the world.

Through the years, while overshadowed by the Melvilles and the Twains, spiritually concerned publishing was never abandoned. I’ve been at Harper’s since 1967 and have been responsible for this type of book since 1971. In 1977, I led 13 Manhattanites cross-country to start HarperSanFrancisco (renamed HarperOne in 2007), the division of Harper that specializes in spiritual, philosophical, and psychological books. . . .

Today’s spiritual books may be a far cry from what Mother Harper envisioned. But as a general publisher that glories in the diversity of its list, we deliberately publish across the entire spectrum of spiritually based movements. We are every tradition’s friend and every uncompromising zealot’s enemy.

As publishers we believe in a free and pluralistic culture; we also believe it is our role to stir the waters of reflection about the primary questions of life. While each book has its own flavor and indeed its own answers, the questions which form the philosophical foundations of the San Francisco program are universal: the question of identity, “Who am I?”; the question of community, “How do I relate, cope, get along?; and the question of world view, “What does it all mean?”

We are open to publishing books on those basic questions, from virtually any responsible point of view. When you publish the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and America’s number one witch Starhawk, as well as books about the goddess and the Judeo-Christian God, when you publish the gnostic scriptures as well as the Book of Common Prayer, something other than absolutists’ views of truth is going on.

Because readers have certain backgrounds and concrete life experiences, they need and wish to listen to an author who, in a particular voice, speaks their psycho-spiritual language. Our goal at Harper’s is to aid and abet the universal need to come to a clear sense of what is genuinely constructive and helpful in the living of human life. Whether that voice is feminist or evangelical, Catholic or Sufi, Buddhist, Taoist or metaphysical in orientation, it is my belief that the common bond is the search.

Clayton E. Carlson is the former senior vice president and publisher of HarperSanFrancisco and currently lives in the Bay Area.

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