Books Still thriving after 25 years
Don’t tell Amy Newmark the physical book is dead (or dying).
Ten years ago, during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Newmark and her husband Bill took over the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand of self-help books, moving the company from Southern California to their hometown of Greenwich.
“We watched bookstores close and the collapse of Borders, but we made it through with flying colors, and the book business rebounded,” Newmark recalls.
Chicken Soup for the Soul is celebrating two anniversaries this year — 25 years since the book series was first launched, and 10 years since it moved to Cos Cob under the leadership of Newmark.
Since the launch in 1993, the book brand has sold more than 100 million copies and all of the more than 250 titles are still in print.
Like so many other successful brands, Chicken Soup for the Soul operates from a deceptively simple premise. Ten to 12 times a year, the company publishes books designed to get readers stirred up about the unexplored possibilities in their lives. What gives the inspirational stories extra power and believability is the fact that they are written by real people who have made positive changes in their lives.
The books are all crowd-sourced, with an average of 5,000-6,000 people contributing their stories when a new topic is announced. Newmark’s staff boils those submissions down to 500 good possibilities and she then edits the 101 finalists who make it into a book.
The latest Chicken Soup for the Soul book — “The Power of Yes” (set for publication on Aug. 14) — introduces us to people who decided to embrace change, embark on new adventures and to take new risks.
We meet a writer in her mid-30s who decided to make a list of 40 things she had never done before, and to do them before hitting 40. Another woman decides to stop making nights at hockey games with her husband a dreaded chore — she prefers taking him to the opera — by learning the ins and outs of the sport. (The woman winds up favoring hockey nights over her opera excursions.)
The book is full of practical suggestions for turning off the TV and going out into the real world to try new things. The husband of one middle-aged writer, who bristles at the suggestion of taking a yoga class, winds up becoming a yoga teacher.
“We’re lucky to be receiving original material every week,” Newmark says of readers of the website who respond to the requests for personal stories. “We were the original crowd-sourcer. And we try to put our books together at the last minute so that they can be timely.”
When the #MeToo sexual harassment controversy broke last year, Newmark decided to quickly shift gears and put together a female empowerment book that has been a strong seller since it was published earlier this year.
The editor-in-chief has lived out a change of career story that is like something out of one of her books.
“My husband and I worked together previously in finance and technology, but we were looking for something new to do. We ran into a guy who knew the founders (of Chicken Soup) and we found out they were ready to meet with someone who would carry on their legacy and carry it to the next level,” Newmark recalls.
The Newmarks worked on the deal through 2007 and finalized it the following year, just when Wall Street was about to implode. Those hard times helped rather than hindered the positive reinforcement for which the book series is beloved.
Although book sales have never sagged, Newmark knew that the brand would have to recognize the vast changes in the media landscape since the turn of the century. She added a podcast, an expanded website and lots of online videos.
“You have to go where the audience is — where the eyes (and ears) are,” she says of the multi-media additions to the book series. “We had to make it more vibrant.”
One of the most interesting recent additions to Chicken Soup for the Soul is Aplus.com which offers positive news stories from a wide variety of sources including the New York Times. There is nothing saccharine about this daily dose of solid journalism, but it’s way to start the day with a positive outlook during these unsettled times.
Newmark has made the brand a global player — she just made a deal for “The Empowered Woman” to be published in Russia. “We publish in 50 different languages in almost every country in the world,” she says.
Upcoming books will be devoted to the best advice contributors have ever received, as well as a volume about cognitive behavioral therapy in which people can act as their own therapists for some of the more manageable challenges in life. “It’s about the things you can fix with what is already in your brain,” Newmark says
Meanwhile, anyone with a good story to tell can check out the Chicken Soup for the Soul website and perhaps share that tale with tens of thousands of readers.