'Soup' pot never stops boiling

CATCHING UP WITH. . . MARK VICTOR HANSEN AND JACK CANFIELD

Some call it spiritual junk food, but 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' has proved a winning recipe.

June 27, 1999|By JOHN RIVERA | JOHN RIVERA,SUN STAFF

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (well, California), two motivational speaker friends hit on an idea of writing a book of inspirational stories that would buoy the spirits of the downtrodden and depressed.

They worked and worked on their manuscript until they thought it was perfect. But they took it to one publisher after another, and they all rejected it because, they said, it would never sell. They ridiculed the idea, saying people don't buy books of stories.

The two friends didn't get discouraged, but persevered. They went to 33 publishers, all of whom rejected their book, until they finally came upon a man with a small book company who understood their idea and said, "Yes, I will publish your book."

From that one book was born a series, and 25 titles and more than 44 million copies later, "Chicken Soup for the Soul" is a publishing phenomenon. And the two friends, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, are living happily ever after.

"We're totally thankful. We pinch ourselves all the time," says Hansen. "We've created a vehicle here to do an immense amount of good and to make a difference and really help people out who don't usually get help."

The "Chicken Soup" books each feature 101 short stories ("It's a spiritual, mystical number and we'll leave it at that," Hansen says) that typically feature a protagonist who overcomes some life obstacle or difficulty.

After the success of the first volume (released in 1993, it's sold more than 5 million copies), the duo branched out and have released other themed collections. Among others, they've served up "Chicken Soup" for:

The Surviving Soul, the Woman's Soul, the Teenage Soul, the Christian Soul, the Mother's Soul, the Couple's Soul, the Country Soul, the Pet Lover's Soul and -- out this month just in time for Father's Day -- "Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul."

"Golfers are the best yarn tellers around. You've heard the stories in the clubhouse," Hansen says. "What's happening is women are coming in and saying, 'I want 10 of them for all my golf buddies.' And we're going, 'Holy cow! This is better than anything we've ever seen.' I think it's maybe going to be our biggest book ever."

And Hansen, 51, and Canfield, 54, are branching out into other media. They offer a daily e-mail service for the person who wants a story a day; they will begin airing a weekly television show in August; they are producing an electronic "Chicken Soup" game that poses questions to the player; they sold nearly 900,000 "Chicken Soup for the Soul" calendars last year; there are "Chicken Soup" CDs that offer "music to gladden the soul and uplift the spirit."

And there are the books, a seemingly never-ending stream of titles.

"We have 74 more books in the queue now," Hansen says.

The story of Canfield and Hansen's success reads like one of their "Chicken Soup" stories of overcoming adversity.

The two men, who both ride the circuit as motivational speakers, met more than 25 years ago at a holistic health fair and attended each other's presentations. "We were wowed with each other, became fast friends," says Hansen.

Eventually, Canfield mentioned his idea for a book to Hansen.

"He said, 'I want to put together this book of stories, all the stories that get standing ovations that you taught me how to do,' " Hansen says. "And I said, 'Cool. Why don't we do it together?'

"And he said, 'Why should I do that?' And I said, 'First of all, the stories you use are mostly mine. And second of all, I've got a lot more stories.' And he said, 'Cool, we'll do it together.' "

So they wrote the book, but got stuck on the title.

"Originally Jack wanted to call it 'Happy Little Stories,' " Hansen says. "I said, 'Look, I'm a master at titles. That title isn't going to cut it.' "

So the friends turned to the New Age movement for inspiration.

"We're both a student of a psychiatrist named Erik Erikson who teaches a principle called 'thought command,' " Hansen says. "And Erik says you go into a deep controlled reverie state, you say a mantra like 400 times. The mantra [Jack] used in his house before he went to sleep and that I used, on a pre-agreed-upon date, was 'Make a best-selling title.'

"And the title came to Jack about 4:30 in the morning -- 'Chicken Soup.' And he got goosebumps and called me up, and I said, 'For the Soul, that's the business we're in.' We just took it, modeled it, his wife got goosebumps, mine did, and then the marketplace has."

The title reflects the goal of "Chicken Soup" stories: spiritual healing.

"Chicken soup is what grandma gave you to get well or mother gave you when you were sick," Hansen says. "We think just about everybody's got a wounded soul out there and is in high pain. And what our stories do is that they access emotion in a positive and creative way. And then they flip you, they change your perspective."

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