I remember when I picked up Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen.
I was eight years old at the time and our English class made a trip to the school library.
I wandered off from the group, searching through books on random shelves, and that’s when I found it.
I never ate chicken soup before, but the title stood out to me…especially the word “soul”.
I opened the book and got lost in the stories.
Next thing I knew, the teacher was looking for me.
She finally found me lying on the ground in a quiet and isolated corner, lost in this book.
“Adam, we’ve been looking for you! We need to go back now.”
Later that day, I came back with my mom and borrowed it from the library.
As the years went on, I became aware of how big the Chicken Soup for the Soul series had become.
With 500 million books in print, it’s one of the best-selling books of all time.
My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to know how “Chicken Soup for the Soul” became a global phenomenon, so I contacted Jack Canfield, co-author of the series.
Jack spared no details in sharing his story on creating, launching, and growing “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, as well as practical strategies and the mindset needed to create and market a successful book.
Tune into the interview below or on iTunes:
Adam Siddiq: What’s the story behind creating and launching the Chicken Soup for the Soul series?
Jack Canfield: I was a high school teacher way back when in Chicago, teaching in an all-black inner city high school and I quickly learned that my students mostly paid attention when I was telling a story rather than just teaching some intellectual concept. So, I started doing that. I also noticed that they weren’t very motivated, so I started collecting stories of successful African Americans who would motivate them to believe that it was possible for them to get out of the ghetto and have a successful life.
Then I started training teachers, professional courses for teachers can help expand their knowledge for others to benefit to. I just kept using stories to illustrate the points that I want to teach what I was teaching, which was self-esteem. Eventually, I moved over into doing a lot of public seminars and corporate trainings as well, and I just always was telling stories. Then, there was this period of about a month where after almost every talk I gave, someone would come up and say, “That story about the puppy you told us, the story about the girl scout who sold all the girl scout cookies, is that in a book anywhere? My daughter needs to read it, my son needs to read it, my sale team needs to read it.”
I’d say, “No, it’s not.”
So after about a month, I was coming home on a plane from Boston to LA where I was living at the time, and I just felt like there was someone knocking on my head saying, “Put these stories in a book.” So I made a list of all the stories I knew, about 70 stories, and that’s how it kind of came into being. I made a commitment that I would write 2 stories a week. So every two-and-a-half days, I would complete a story. My wife would go to bed around 10 pm, I would go to bed around midnight because I’d stay up writing, and that’s how the first book came into being.
And then, what happened also is right toward the end of that, when I had about 70 stories, I went to a health conference where I was a speaker. One of the other speakers was Mark Victor Hanson, the co-author of the series, and he said, “You want to have lunch?” And I said, “Sure,” and we start talking and he asked me what I was up to. I told him that I was doing this book and he said that he wanted to do it with me. I said that he’s coming in a little late, you know. He said, “You have to have 101 stories…101 is a spiritual number.” He’d been a student ambassador way back when in the 60’s I think. In the end, I said, “Okay, if you can find 31 stories, I’ll let you do it,” ’cause he’s a really good marketer and sales guy and so we did it and ended up at about 140 stories, which we thought was too many.
So we tripped on to something that became the lifeblood and the success of the series; we asked about 15 people to read all 140 stories and grade them on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being goosebumps, made me cry, beautiful story and 5 being are you kidding me. So we took in all those stories and their feedback and I wrote down the names of the stories along with the average of their scores. Only the top scoring stories went in the book. And then, we took the book to New York.
We were rejected by 21 publishers over 3 days.
We had 7 meetings a day and our agent gave us the book back. So Mark and I took the book and we sent it out to more people, got a lot more rejections, and everyone said they thought it was stupid, that people don’t read collections of short stories, which was true up until then because they were literally short stories and they weren’t quite so moving emotionally.
And I know one of your questions is how we came up with the title. We had no title before this point. We had to go to New York to sell this book and we had no title. Mark and I are both meditators and we agreed that we would meditate for a week for an hour a day and that we’d both just ask for a title to obtain. On my third day of meditating, I saw this green chalkboard appear and this hand came out with a chicken soup on it. I remember saying to the hand, “What the heck does chicken soup have to do with this book”, and the hand said, I mean the voice of the hand, which I said was God but who knows, said “When you were sick as a child your grandmother would give you chicken soup.”
“But this is not a book about sick people,” I said.
“Well people’s spirits are sick,” said the voice.
This was 1993 during the first Gulf war. We had the recession, not unlike the one we just came out of, and there was a lot of resignation, heartlessness, and fear in the culture. So I thought, chicken soup for the spirit, chicken soup for the soul and then I got goosebumps. Mark got goosebumps. My wife got goosebumps. Our agent got goosebumps. No one in New York got goosebumps.
Eventually, we went to ABA, the American Booksellers Association, and went booth to booth for 2 or 3 days and on the final day, this one new publisher employee said: “We’ll read the manuscript.” Some people wouldn’t even take it, and they read it and loved it, and they said they’d publish it. We said, “How many books do you think you’ll sell?”
“Oh, 20,000 if you’re lucky,” he said.
“Well, we want to sell a million and a half in a year and a half,” I said.
He laughed, and then a year and a half later we’d sold 1.3 million copies.
So that’s kind of the beginning story of. And you know, the book did not hit a best-seller list until about 14 months into it, maybe 12 months or something like that…and then, basically over a few weeks, it goes right up to number 1 in the New York Times list and stayed there for 3 years.
Adam Siddiq: Wow. That’s incredible. Yeah, and it’s gone on now to the point where the whole series has what, 500 million books in print?
Jack Canfield: That’s what I’m told, yeah. In something like 47 languages.
Adam Siddiq: From the beginning, did you anticipate that it’d be such a huge global phenomenal?
Jack Canfield: No. We were very dedicated and committed to making it a best-seller. We spoke to a lot of best selling authors, like Scott Peck and John Gray. We called them up and said, “What advice would you give us?” And they all gave us good advice.
I think Scott Peck’s gave us the best piece of advice. He said, “Do an interview every day for 3 years and do 5 a day the first year.” So, we did that. We also bought a book called 1001 Ways to Market Your Book by John Kremer, and maybe 900 of those 1000 applied to us so we made post its. For 2 days we just put them up on a big huge wall. We had this hallway and every day we’d take off a post-it or 2 or 3 and do what it said.
We called every PX, every military base, and asked them if they had our book. They’d say no, and we’d say, “Can we send you one?” We called pretty much every newspaper, “Will you review it if we send it to you?” We called all the churches in Southern California, “Can we come give a talk at your church and sell books at the end?” I mean we just did that non-stop, what we call the rules, 5 actions a day for pretty much 2 years, well, until it hit the best-seller list and then we did like a two or three-month book tour, just constantly speaking at churches and other groups. Whilst we were at the churches we felt very touched by the large warm welcome they gave. It was a very humbling environment to be able to speak at and made us realise how little resources they have. Companies like GoFundMe allow people to fundraise and raise money for churches and furthermore, it gives churches the opportunity to raise money for their community. Our journey visiting different establishments was a amazing and we really feel that we have made a difference to atleast one person.
We always tell people, there’s a feminine and masculine part to being an author.
The feminine part is the more introverted part where you’re birthing the book. The masculine part is where you have to go out in the world and promote it. The thing is, most writers would rather write than be promoting and most promoters aren’t really good writers. That’s the real problem out there, but you know, we just did it, and we were committed to it. We really felt we had a message that was valuable.
We did not see the worldwide phenomenon coming. What was fortunate, whether it was fate or good luck or whatever, is that, well, they print books in folios where they print like maybe 16 pages on one page. Then, they’re all folded up and cut, and often your book doesn’t come out to fitting 16-page folios. There might be 3 blank pages in the back. Our publisher had called and said, “So, we got some blank pages in the back. Do you want us to add anything?” And I just said, “More Chicken Soup. If you have a story, send it in, maybe we’ll do a sequel.” We started getting stories, and then there was a point where we were getting 500 stories sent into us each day.
They weren’t all good. Not everyone can write, as you know, but we sifted through them and I think the first couple of sequels came from that. Then, we got more strategic, like only started doing themed books, like Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul. We reached out to women writers we knew. We reached out to like baseball writers for Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul. We reached out to people that were writing in a field of, you know, aging for Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul.
Adam Siddiq: Of all the stories that you’ve read in The Chicken Soup for The Soul series, are there any few or one that’s really stuck with you the most throughout all these years?
Jack Canfield: From the point of view of writing, there’s a great story about a woman named Catherine Lanigan. She’s the author of 27 books. She was a very gifted writer in high school and then got a scholarship to some college in Ohio, I forget which one, a liberal arts school, and she got into an advanced writing course and it was a visiting professor from Harvard. When she received her first assigned paper back, she received an “F” with a note that said, “see me after class”. She was shocked. And so she went to the professor and said, “Why’d I get an F?”
“Because you can’t write,” he said.
“Well, I’m a journalism major and I’m on scholarship. If I fail, I’ll lose my scholarship,” she said.
“Well, I’d hate to see you do that. You’re a nice kid. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you a passing grade, like a C if you promise to change your major,” he said.
So she changed her major to sociology and other than writing papers for school, she never wrote again for 17 years. She was living down in Texas in a very small town and there was a murder in a nearby town. She went into a restaurant during that time and there were all these journalists there that she recognized from college who were covering this murder. So she walked up to their table and said, “I just wanted to honor you guys. I really appreciate journalists because I wanted to be one and never became one.”
“Well, that’s BS. If you’d wanted to write, you would’ve written,” they said.
“No. I was told on good authority that I can’t write,” she said.
Then, one of these guys said, “I don’t believe that. Who’s authority is that?”
“He’s a Harvard professor,” she said.
“Oh my God…professors, what do they know? You know, I write for a living. I’ve written screenplays, novels, non-fiction books, and books comprised of research. I’ll tell you what…write something and send it to me. I’ll tell you if it’s any good.”
So she got to writing, spent a year, and she wrote her first book. She sent it to him and he liked it. He managed to talk to his agent in New York. His agent loved it and asked if she could represent Catherine. So, she got her first book published, “Romancing the Stone”, which later became a movie. Her second book was “The Jewel of the Nile”, which became a movie with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. Now, she’s written 27 novels since that day in that restaurant and the point of the story is, don’t take anyone else’s opinion to tell you what you can’t do because it’s just one person’s opinion and that story to me as a writer is very inspiring because I see so many people give up on their dreams as opposed to going for them.
There’s another story I love called “Puppies For Sale”.
There’ this little boy is walking to the mall and he sees a sign that says “puppies for sale”. It’s a retail store, not a pet store. So he goes in and he asks the owner, “So I see you have puppies for sale, can you show me some” he asks.
“Sure,” says the owner.
So he whistles and out comes this big dog named Lady followed by 5 teeny tiny balls of fur (little puppies). One of the puppies is limping. The boy asks, “How much are you charging for the puppies?”
“Well I don’t know, 20 dollars, 50 dollars, depends on the dog.”
“How much for the one that’s limping?”
“Oh, you don’t want to buy that one son, he’s got a bad hip socket. He’s never gonna be able to walk or jump or play like the other puppies. So, if you want him, I’ll give him to you for free…but I don’t think you really want him.”
“No, I really want him,” said the boy, “and I think he’s worth 20 dollars, so I’ll…can I pay you 50 cents now and the rest over the course of a couple months?”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. He’s never gonna be able to run and jump with you, why would you want that dog?”
The little boy reached down and he pulled up his left pant leg. He had a big metal brace on his leg and he says, “Well, you see mister, I don’t run and jump so well myself, and I think the dog is gonna need someone who understands.”
And I just love that story because it just tugs at the heart that because it’s all about compassion.
Adam Siddiq: What does soul mean to you?
Jack Canfield: Well, I believe that we are a being that incarnates into a body and what do you call that consciousness, your soul, your true essence. Though that part of us did exist before we were born and after we’re born and, so it seems to contain in it the higher qualities of love, compassion, courage, perseverance, patience, etc. Unconditional love. And so, for me, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” is about chicken soup for our highest being, for our highest self, and that’s kind of how I held it.
I believe our souls come into being with a purpose.
I think we’re all born with a purpose. Some people are meant to be musicians, some people mechanics, some people are meant to solve you know, mathematical engineering problems, and if we truly acknowledge our own interest and our talents and our desires and those things that we’re drawn to, that we’re naturally drawn to, that which is going to lead to the full expression of our soul’s purpose, that’s how I hold it.
Adam Siddiq: On an interview with Oprah, I think it was Super Soul Sunday I heard you mention your definition of success as fulfilling your soul’s mission.
How can one recognize what their soul’s mission is and especially for a lot of the younger generation today who are feeling lost in what they want to do with their life and trying to find their purpose. What would you recommend for them?
Jack Canfield: Well, what I said was that success is fulfilling your soul’s purpose, but your mission flows from your purpose. So, my purpose is to inspire and empower people to live their highest vision in the context of love and joy. So, I inspire with stories like those from Chicken Soup for the Soul. I empower with seminars I do, like those on my success principles, and my book The Success Principles. Someone may want to end hunger in Santa Barbara County. Someone else may want to write a piece of music as good as Beethoven wrote. Someone else might want to put people in really beautiful homes, whether they’re an architect, a contractor, or a real estate agent.
If you follow your joy, you will discover your purpose.
I teach a guided visualization course in my longer workshops where people go up a mountain, then into a temple. A guardian angel comes down from a golden background and then there is a symbol that represents the purpose, and that’s about a 20-minute exercise with a lot of relaxation and music and an ambiance that allows you to go really deep into your subconscious mind.
In my book “The Success Principles”, the second chapter is called “Be Clear On Why You’re Here”. There’s an exercise where you ask yourself what the two qualities are that you really love expressing that most of my friends would say, “that’s you”. For example, for my wife, it’s spontaneity and authenticity. For me, it’s love and joy. Someone else it might have discipline and focus, and that’s where you get your martial artist, your ninja type guy.
And so what happens is we ask the next question, which is what are two ways you most love expressing those qualities? For some it might be acting, singing, meditating, reading, managing, writing, dancing, or whatever else.
And then if you were to describe the world with perfection according to you, what would be happening in that world? In my world, everyone’s living their highest vision. In my wife’s world, everyone’s being exactly who they are with no artificialness…no trying to be what they’re not. With someone else, it might be that everyone’s living an ecological, sustainable lifestyle. For someone else, it might be engaging in social justice.
So, when you put all that together, it’s taking the two qualities that you love to express in a certain way to help bring about the world that you just described. That’s another way to get in touch with it.
And the last way is really simple, it’s just to look at when have you experienced the most joy in your life. One of my students, when she was in college at Ohio State, was supposed to become a veterinarian because she loved animals. She loved playing with animals more than she loved medicine and she realized that after 2 years of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. So, she went inside and thought to herself, when was I happiest? And it was always when she was in leadership, whether it was being a council leader, president of her student class, sorority leader at the school, etc. And so she decided what she wanted to do was change her major into leadership, which there wasn’t any such thing at the time, but she convinced the university to let her put together series of courses in Psychology, Persuasion, Journalism, Speech, and so forth. She graduated with a leadership degree at 26 and she was teaching leadership at the Pentagon. Now she has a leadership foundation that she leads for young women, and has inspired others who want to find out more about leadership training. Today, she’s very, very successful, married to a West Point graduate, who’s a leader and runs leadership training for corporations.
I believe the joy is your feedback mechanism. It tells you if you’re on purpose or not. So if you’re experiencing joy, you’re doing those things that are helping you fulfill your purpose. That doesn’t mean every moment you’re in ecstatic bliss, there are times when I’m driving to a gig or putting my slides together for an event, but I’m not as happy as I am when I’m on stage, but I know I need to do that to be on stage.
So basically 85% of my life I’m happy all the time, and the rest is just doing things you gotta do, like changing diapers and so forth, but sometimes people love changing diapers, I’m not one of them.
You know you get the mom with 15 kids or the nurse in the pediatric ward that loves to take care of kids. Just your joy, you know, we’ve heard that phrase, follow your bliss, kind of thing. That’s what I’d tell them.
Adam Siddiq: Yeah. Joseph Campbell.
Jack Canfield: Yeah. And I have a chapter in “The Success Principles” called “Just Lean Into It”. Sometimes you need to try things out. I taught high school for a couple years. I worked at a General Electric plant one summer. I was a water instructor in a camp and taught kids swimming. I’ve done many different jobs before I landed into what I really love to do. I mean, I went to college to become a lawyer, which I’m really glad I didn’t, and I took an elective class my senior year in Psychology which I didn’t even know much about, and that’s when I fell in love with it. So, my degree’s in Chinese History if you can believe it.
Adam Siddiq: That’s incredible. Well, to me it’s very transparent that, from the beginning of me reading the Chicken Soup stories and everything, and from what I know about, you have such a profound wisdom. So that makes sense that you were in Chinese History.
I just have two last questions for you. First of all, I’m just curious, so what’s been your latest focus these days and how can people find out about that?
Jack Canfield: Well basically I have 2 focuses at the moment. I’m writing 2 books, finishing up one called “Living The Success Principles”, where I interviewed or just asked people to write stories, about 70 people who studied my work “The Success Principles” and “The Secret”. So, different things that I’ve been involved with, including a book I wrote called “The Aladdin Factor”, which is about how to ask for and get a lot in life. So they’re all stories of people applying those principles to their life and the miracles that have happened as a result of it. It’s a really cool book.
Also, I’ve just starting to write a book called “Choose Love Not Fear”, and basically I think every decision comes down to that. We can make a choice that’s based on love, love of others, love of myself, love of the planet, love for all living beings. Or we can choose out of fear…fear of missing out, fear of loss, fear of the North Koreans, fear of Iran and the nuclear stuff, and you can see right now, you know we’re in political situation that’s very dominated by fear and so you just make worse decisions from a place of fear compared to the ones that come from love and compassion and caring.
My writing’s slow because I’m spending 80% of my time doing trainings. So, I’m training trainers mostly. I’m training people to teach the work that I’ve developed over the last 30 years on success and how to be more successful. And we define success again as fulfilling your soul’s purpose. So, it’s not just monetary success, but success in relationships, success in your community, success in your health, success in terms of you know, finding recreation in your life, and how to have a balanced, fulfilled, meaningful life that doesn’t harm others, that doesn’t harm the environment, and that ultimately, when you serve yourself totally that way, when you’re in touch with your purpose and your inner guidance, then you automatically are of service to those people around you.
So, that’s what I’m doing. We’ve now got a live training program, and we have an online training program. The online training program trained over 2,000 people in 91 countries who are now teaching this in their schools, in workshops, in businesses, in churches, and so forth. And then we have 500 graduates that from the live program, 100 from each year the last five years that are doing that. I mean literally after the earthquake in Nepal, I had people going into villages where they were decimated just like we’ve seen now down in St. Thomas in Puerto Rico and Florida and Houston, and so forth, teaching the success principles. So giving people hope and strategies and assisting them to rebuild rather than going into the scare, and resignation, and fear.
Adam Siddiq: What you’ve been able to do as an author is definitely nothing short of phenomenal. I mean absolutely extraordinary. I’m just curious, what advice would you give first-time authors who are people inspired by you. Maybe they just wrote their novel or non-fiction book and they really want to help spread this story or message. What would you recommend they do with their mindset, their strategy, and anything else?
Jack Canfield: Well, it’s a combination. Everything’s a combination of mindset, skillset, and action. And so, you have to have your mind on straight. You have to believe it’s possible to achieve whatever your goal is. Your goal may be that you want to transform parenting in America, it might be that you want to educate educators to be more humane, it might be that you want to entertain people with your humorous autobiography.
You know, my wife’s writing an episodic memoir. She’s not a writer, I mean, every day she’s in like, “I don’t think I can do this,” but she’s doing it, and her commitment is to make a difference in the empowerment of women. Her father committed suicide when she was 8, and she lived in the shadow of her mother who was a famous actress in Southern California. She lived in the shadow of her first husband who was one of the best skiers at Mammoth Mountain. And then she marries me, so it’s tough, and now she’s stepping out of her shadows to be the sunlight.
You gotta be willing to trust that your book is going to make a difference.
I say that in a sense that maybe you’re only gonna reach 20,000 people, you’re not gonna be a New York Times best-seller, but if you change the lives of 20,000 people, uplift 20,000 people, or maybe you change 20,000 doctor’s in the way they look at medicine, and that then changes all of their patients’ lives on how they get medical care. That’s a huge thing.
Now, I developed a course called Best Seller Blueprint, people can go online and find that. It’s an online course where we teach people how to be best sellers, and we’ve interviewed Tim Ferriss, John Gray, myself, and lots of best selling authors. We also give people a look at how to write the book so it has a hook. You know, if you write a non-fiction book, your chapter titles need to be hooks that are gonna hook the media to go “ooh, we want to interview you about that.”
So there’s a lot to know about how you write the book so it has PR value when you start promoting it. The basic thing is, write a good book. People often put a book out too fast. That’s why I go back to what I said earlier, that we had 40 people read our book. Unfortunately, most books before that are sold, are read by the author and their spouse and then an acquisition editor at the publishing house, and that’s it. There’s not a lot of feedback about what’s clear, what’s not clear, what’s useful, what’s not useful.
I always tell people, if you’re writing a novel, one of my favorite quotes is by a guy named Bryce Courtenay. He said, “A novel should always have a bucket of tears and barrel of laughs.” So, you gotta move people.
So learn to write. Study writing.
My wife’s read like 10 books on how to write. Learn how to do dialogue and how to write a sex scene, and you know all that kinds of stuff so it works. Make a study of it and then make a study of marketing and PR. I mentioned John Kremer’s book, 1001 Ways To Market Your Book. That’s a great thing. You know, don’t think it’ll just sell itself, that’s a big mistake especially in today’s world. There’s so much more noise on the internet. There’s so much noise in print.
I think something like 600,000 books a year are published. I think it was 60 or 600, and maybe only 60 books make the New York Times best-seller list. Now, you can become an Amazon best-seller for a day in a category if you understand the Amazon strategy, which involves getting a lot of people to buy your book on the same day, which punches up its rank. We teach that stuff in the Best Seller Bootcamp.
I studied sales. I studied marketing. I asked people, “How do you sell your book?” That’s how we learned not to do radio and TV, and instead to do blogs and vlogs and put stuff online, make friends, and get them to post for you. Today, a lot of people do book signings, and they’re hard because you may get 20 or 30 people. If you can do a virtual book signing online, you can get 1,000 people to show up if you know what you’re doing, you know search engine optimization, make good use of a backlink analysis tool and internet marketing, and all that.
So that’s all worth studying, but again, write a really good book, get good feedback, come up with a good title, make sure it has a good cover because we know now that when people walk into a store, like the front of Barnes and Noble, they’re skimming, and they might have less than a second for a book cover to jump out at them.
There’s research like black, white, yellow, and red jump out at you over other things. If the title is too small, people can’t read it. Can they see the title across the room? Is it big enough? Is it contrasted enough? I mean there’s a science to all of this. The color orange, not good. The color experts say if you don’t want people to hang out near the water pump, paint the wall orange. So I’ve seen book covers that are orange, and they just don’t do well.
So you need to learn these things because you can take a really good product and if you don’t market it and package it correctly, you don’t sell as many. I had one of my kids write a book called “Long Pass Stopping” I got divorced from my first wife after 5 years and she got the kids and when we got the divorce. One of my sons got into drugs and wrote this book, and it’s a great book, a really good read. He was just too shy and unwilling to go out and promote it, so he may have sold 15,000 copies, but it’s a book that could’ve sold 500,000 copies if he’d been willing to go do that.