How It All Began

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

How It All Began

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve just addressed it “to the editor who can appreciate my work” and it has just come back stamped “not at this address.” Just keep looking for the right address.

~Barbara Kingsolver

I have spent my whole life as a teacher — first as a high school teacher and for the last 40 years as a speaker and trainer in the human development field. I am often on the road two weeks out of every month flying from city to city to conduct one-day workshops and weeklong trainings.

I learned early on that if you want a concept or principle to be remembered, you had to illustrate it with a moving story. So I had always collected and used a lot of stories to drive home the points I was teaching in my seminars about the importance of operating from space of love, believing in yourself and your dreams, always following your heart, trusting your intuition, setting high goals, overcoming obstacles, and never ever giving up on your dreams.

In 1991, a strange thing happened. One day, out of the blue, someone asked me, “Is that story you told about the Girl Scout who sold 3,526 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies in one year in a book anywhere? My daughter needs to read it.” And the very next day someone asked, “That story about the boy and the puppy — is that in a book anywhere? I need to read it to my son.” And it continued day after day for the next month. “I need to read that story about the boy with the amputated leg who went on to become a tennis star to my staff. I need to show them that they really have no excuses not to excel in life.” “Is that story you told about the boy who was burned in the motorcycle accident in a book anywhere? I want to send it to my son in college.” Day after day I was asked the same question — “Is that story in a book anywhere?”

One evening I was flying back from Boston to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, and it suddenly struck me. It was as if God were knocking on the side of my head and saying, “Wake up! You’re supposed to put all of these stories you have been collecting into a book!” For the remainder of the flight I made a list of every story I had ever used in a speech or a workshop. By the time we landed in LA I had a list of 70 stories.

That night I made a commitment to myself to write up two of the stories on the list every week until I had them all completed. So every night from about ten o’clock until midnight I would work on a story, writing and rewriting it until I was satisfied with it. After nearly a year I had completed all 70 stories I had listed on that plane ride plus a few more I had picked up during the year.

It was about that time that I met my friend Mark Victor Hansen for breakfast. Early on in our conversation Mark asked me if I was working on anything exciting. I told him about the book, and he immediately said, “I would like to do that book with you.”

“Mark,” I said. “I’m almost completely finished with the book. Why would I do that?”

“It’s easy,” he replied. “First of all, I think you should have 101 stories, not 75. When I was a student ambassador in India, I learned that 101 is a number of completion. Second, some of your best stories you originally learned from me. And third, I am a really good marketer and promoter, and I think we would make an awesome team.”

I told Mark if he could contribute the remaining 26 stories, and if they were really great, that I would be willing to do it. I loved Mark and I knew that he was a consummate promoter and salesman. True to his word, in less than a month Mark came up with the remaining stories we needed to get to 101. Now all we had to do was sell the book to a publisher.

About a week later Mark and I met Jeff Hermann, a literary agent, at a party in Palm Springs, California. We told Jeff about our book and he got very excited about it. He asked us what the title was. Funny thing — we were so engrossed in finishing the book, we had never even bothered to come up with one. We brainstormed a few at the party, but nothing seemed to capture the essence of the book. Since Mark and I were both meditators, we agreed to spend at least a half hour every morning for the next week in meditation seeking a title.

The first two days we both drew blanks. Nothing had come to us. And then on the third morning while I was meditating, I suddenly saw the image of a huge green chalkboard like the ones in school classrooms. Then a hand appeared — I imagined it was the hand of God — and wrote the words Chicken Soup on the chalkboard. I said to the hand, “What the heck does chicken soup have to do with this book?”

The hand replied, “When you were sick as a child, your grandmother gave you chicken soup.”

“This book is not about sick people,” I replied.

“People’s spirits are sick. They are living in resignation, fear and hopelessness. This book will help them rise above it.”

My mind mulled that over. Chicken Soup for the Spirit, I thought. Hmmm. Chicken Soup for the Soul. Wham! All of a sudden I was covered in goose bumps. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories to Rekindle the Spirit! Ooh, I liked that. The goose bumps grew stronger. I was excited. I immediately opened my eyes and ran to tell my wife. She got goose bumps too. Then I called Mark and he got goose bumps as well. Mark then told me that several of his friends called them “God bumps,” and that it meant you were getting divine inspiration. That felt right to me.

We then called our agent, and he also got goose bumps. Armed with our book and our title we headed off to New York to meet with a series of publishers over several very cold and windy February days to see if we could sell our book.

Sadly, no one in those meetings in New York got goose bumps. In meeting after meeting we were told that collections of short stories didn’t sell, the stories were too “nicey-nice,” too Pollyanna, too positive, and that the title, which had evolved into Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit, was dumb.

Obviously disappointed, we returned to our hotel and prepared to fly back to Southern California. But before we did, we headed over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, and while neither of us is Catholic, we lit a candle and prayed that God would help us find a publisher.

A few weeks later our agent called us and told us that he had talked to several other publishers since our New York trip and they had all declined as well. He then said he was giving us back the book because he was convinced he couldn’t sell it.

We asked him what a publisher would need to know in order to be willing to publish the book, and he replied, “They’d need to be absolutely convinced that they could sell 20,000 copies. This would assure them that they could recover their investment in editing, producing, printing, distributing and promoting the book. If they knew they could sell 20,000 copies, they would definitely be willing to publish it.”

That gave Mark and me an idea. Because we were speaking to large groups several times a week—some as large as 1,000 people—we could print up a Pre-Order Form and ask people to put into writing their commitment to buy one or more copies when the book was eventually published.

For the next several months we put what we called “A Commitment to Buy Form” on every chair in every audience we spoke to. At the end of our speech or workshop we asked people to fill out the form with their name and address and write down how many books they promised to purchase. Because we were telling many of the stories in our presentations, people knew the quality of what they would be getting, so almost everyone participated. Raymond Aaron, a success coach and trainer in Canada, even committed to buy 1,700 copies — one for each of his students — when the book was published. (Much to our delight he later followed through with that commitment.) It wasn’t long before we had several Bankers Boxes full of completed forms adding up to more than 20,000 books! By that time we had also collected almost 100 rejection slips from what seemed like every major publisher in America.

By now the book had become a “divine obsession” with us. We knew from all of the positive feedback we received from the participants in our workshops that the stories were inspiring, healing, motivational and transformational, and we were committed to getting these stories out to people. No matter how many rejections we received, we were committed to never giving up.

One day a friend of ours suggested we attend the American Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim, California, which was not far from where we lived, and do something we later learned was called “walking the floor.” More than 4,000 publishers would be in attendance and we could simply go up to each publisher’s booth in the exhibit area and ask them if they would be interested in our book. So off we headed to the Anaheim convention center with two backpacks full of spiral-bound copies of our best 30 stories to see if we could find a publisher.

For two very long days we “walked the floor.” By the end our legs were sore, our feet were hurting, and our minds were numb from repeating the same sales pitch over and over. “We know this book will sell because we already have written commitments from people to buy over 20,000 copies,” we’d say, as we showed people examples of the completed commitment forms. For some reason we still weren’t gaining any traction. I don’t think they’d ever seen anything like us. No one had ever gone out and collected promises to buy before. Perhaps they didn’t trust that we had really collected 20,000 of them.

Eventually, however, late on the second day, Peter Vegso and Gary Seidler, who ran HCI, a small publisher in Florida, agreed to take one of our sample manuscripts and read it when they got home. Much to our delight, a few weeks later the phone rang and it was Peter and Gary. They were gushing about how much they loved the book! “Your book made us laugh and it made us cry. We love it and we want to publish it.” They even said they got goose bumps when they were reading it!

We asked them how many copies of the book they thought we might sell. They said, “Maybe 25,000 copies, if we’re lucky.”

“That’s not our vision,” we said. “We want to sell 150,000 copies by Christmas and a million and a half in a year and a half.”

We heard laughter on the other side of the phone line. They thought we were totally crazy.

The book was finally published in late June of 1993. All the people who had agreed to buy the book did, but then the sales seemed to stall. Mark and I visited our very wise friend Ron Scolastico and asked for his advice. He told us, “If you were to go to a tree with an axe and take five solid cuts with the axe every day, eventually even the largest tree in the forest would have to come down.”

From that conversation Mark and I created what we call our “Rule of Five.” We agreed to take five action steps every single day to promote or sell our book. Some days we would send out five books to book reviewers at newspapers. Other days we would call five network-marketing companies to see if they would purchase multiple copies to use to motivate their distributors. One day we even sent a whole box of books to the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial. A week later we received a nice letter from Judge Ito thanking us for our gift. Eventually that became a news story and landed us a lot of great publicity.

One day I spotted a little red book at the checkout counter of my supermarket. It was The Celebrity Address Book and it contained addresses and phone numbers for motion picture and television stars. I bought it and for weeks we sent out five free copies a day to celebrities in Hollywood, hoping they would like the book and promote it to their friends and fans.

One of those books ended up in the hands of the producer of the television show Touched by an Angel. She was so moved by the book that she required all of her writers, actors and even the crew to read the book. That story ended up in The Hollywood Reporter and eventually was syndicated across the country, leading to even more publicity.

As a result we ended up selling 135,000 copies by Christmas and 1.3 million in a year and a half, and eventually that first book, which had been rejected by 144 publishers, went on to sell ten million copies. Our publisher stopped laughing. He asked us to write a sequel. To his surprise we were ready. When the book was about to be printed, he had informed us that because of the way the books were formatted for printing, there were a few blank pages at the end of the book, and he had asked us if there was anything we would like to print on those pages. We submitted the following paragraph:

Share your heart with the rest of the world. If you have a story, poem or article (your own or someone else’s) that you feel belongs in a future volume of Chicken Soup for the Soul, please send it to us.

Little did we know what we would unleash. We started getting hundreds of stories a day in the mail. It seemed that everyone had a story to tell. Not all of them were usable, but there were enough good ones to help us create the first six books in the series.

Eventually, Marci Shimoff suggested we compile a book of stories just for women. That became Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul. My sister, Kimberly Kirberger, then suggested a book of stories just for teens, and the Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul series was born. Dr. Marty Becker, a veterinarian, came up with the idea to compile a book of stories for pet lovers, and with his writing partner Carol Kline another line in the series was launched. The rest, as they say, is history.

Several years after the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book was published, we learned from Peter Vegso, our first publisher, that he, too, had been in New York City in February of 1992, and had been deeply concerned about the sharp decline in his struggling company’s sales. He, too, had gone to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, lit a candle, and prayed, asking God to send him an author or a book that would turn his company around. When he shared that story with us, we all got goose bumps one more time!

~Jack Canfield

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