Louise Hay, dubbed "the closest thing to a living saint" by the Australian media (according to her website), was in London this week for the book fair. The 80-year-old founder of Hay House Publishers—and author of 29 books—still has a say on every title it publishes. "I have my finger on the pulse," she says, but nowadays she leaves day-to-day running of the company to c.e.o. Reid Tracy.
"Reid is brilliant, he's taken us a long way," she says. "I had the vision—planted the seed. He made it into a company." She's in the office once a month and speaks to Tracy every day, but what she really enjoys doing is finding new authors, "encouraging teachers with a good message, bringing them to the public eye. Louise Hay says: 'Listen, this person is good'—and people do [listen]."
Hay is speaking from her office in California, where it's first thing in the morning and a "glorious day". The interview is supposed to be about her life in publishing, how she created Hay House 20 years ago and is partly responsible for starting the self-help boom but her drive to spread the message gets in the way.
"Love who you are," she says. "My point is to help the world be a better place to live in, that everyone be fed, clothed, housed. It would be wonderful if everyone could have that."
Her own story is an extraordinary one. An abusive childhood, a teenage pregnancy, a career as a model and a cancer diagnosis (which she overcame through "thorough mental and physical cleansing") all came before she even thought about publishing as a career option. She founded Hay House in 1984 as a way to self-publish her first two books, Heal Your Body (which she had first published herself eight years earlier) and You Can Heal Your Life. They are both still in print today. But she never set out to be a publisher.
"Heal Your Body was so controversial I realised the big boys would not have allowed me to write it the way I wanted to, so I said no, I will print my own," she explains.
At the time, she says the idea that your mental attitude could affect your physical health was contentious. "There was almost nothing in the US like that. I was influenced by a book from 1926, Florence Shinn's The Game of Life and How to Play It. She was a very strong affirmation person, and worked with a few things on disease. I began to see the connection with words and experiences." What does she mean? She thinks for a while. Constipated people, she says, are often very tight-fisted.
Heal Your Body was originally a 12-page pamphlet for students in her "affirmation" classes; it has now sold millions of copies worldwide. "It was really a book for my students. But life took one look, and said: 'This book has got to go out round the world' I had nothing to do with it. Life took over."
Hay House, which employs 150 people and had a turnover of $70m (£35.4m) in 2006 (up 30% on 2005),"grew out of nowhere". It opened its first overseas office in 1999, in Australia, and now operates from the UK, South Africa and India as well. All its books are really self-help, says Hay, or self-improvement, but when she started out in publishing there were no self-help sections in bookshops. "I was just known as 'the crazy lady'. Now every bookshop has a self-help section, and we contributed to that.
"I never thought about going into business or about making a lot of money," she concludes. "My idea was how I can help people; help them improve the quality of their lives. That's always been my focus. All the rest have been byproducts."