‘The Secret’ is Out (of Stock)
The secret to publishing a runaway best seller is out, and you won’t need to read a book or watch a DVD to get in on it.
“The Secret,” a self-help book by Rhonda Byrne, is perhaps the most controversial chart-topper since Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” By now you’ve probably heard its premise—that your own thoughts hold the key to a happy, healthy and successful life. Positive thinking attracts positive results, preaches Byrne and a team of “teachers” featured throughout the book. They call it the law of attraction. Your business didn’t fail because you missed a quota or hired the wrong personnel. You failed because you were afraid you’d fail.
Conversely, there’s Judith Curr, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books, publisher of “The Secret.” Curr has enjoyed plenty of success throughout her company’s five-year existence. In fact, Atria has been home to 103 best sellers, but “The Secret” is clearly her biggest hit.
She says she never doubted the book would be well received and adds that she, too, is a disciple of its philosophy. “I never for one second didn’t believe that this book wasn’t going to be huge,” she says. “I went on record [to my staff]. I always give a minimum [number of copies we will sell], but I never give a maximum. So I said to everybody that we were going to sell 1 million copies and, as soon as we did, I would give them chocolate. We went and bought a lot of Godiva.”
Whether there is some truth to the book’s premise is up for debate. The results Curr and Atria have had, however, are not. At the time of this story, 3.75 million copies of “The Secret” were in print. Demand was so high that many stores were quickly out of stock, and Atria placed an order for an additional 2 million copies on March 1—marking the single biggest book order in Simon & Schuster history.
In fact, Curr says the biggest challenge posed by the scope of the book’s success has been the ongoing struggle to keep it in book stores. And she couldn’t be more pleased. “They’re getting cake for 5 million copies,” she says of her staff. “You have to mark these occasions.”
So how does a self-help book turn an entire overcrowded market of self-help books upside-down? For one, “The Secret’s” genesis is a bit unconventional.
Bucking the more recent trend of spinning a successful book into other forms of media (e.g., movies, video games, etc.), “The Secret” actually got its start as a DVD. Byrne produced the documentary in April 2006, interviewing dozens of professionals about the law of attraction and the power of positive thinking. The DVD was among Amazon’s top five best sellers during the week of Christmas and by February was at the top of the site’s DVD chart.
The idea for a book actually came from a dinner conversation in Portland, Ore., between Cynthia Black, publisher of Beyond Words Publishing, and a teacher featured in the DVD. Black, who already had a co-publishing arrangement with Curr on a number of other titles, was immediately convinced “The Secret” would make for a compelling book. She found a willing partner in her colleague at Atria.
“I looked at the [DVD’s] site and thought, ‘This is fantastic. … This would make a perfect book … because it’s not just going to be replacing the experience of watching the DVD, it’s actually going to enhance the experience.’ … You really need a book to [complement] the DVD. [Publishing the book was] not just an opportunistic thing, it’s actually part of the whole ‘Secret’ experience.”
The only advertising dollars Curr spent on the campaign went toward marketing the book within the DVD itself. “It was really all a big word-of-mouth campaign—using the DVD, sending people to the Web site and talking about it all the time,” she says.
In addition to being featured in nearly every major newspaper in the U.S. over the last few months, “The Secret” has been the subject of stories in People magazine and Newsweek, and has been showcased on “Larry King Live” and, of course, by Oprah Winfrey. Byrne and her book were even the subject of a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit.
“Oprah has absolutely helped, but if it hadn’t had a presence beforehand it wouldn’t have come to her view,” Curr says. “But she absolutely has helped.”
Despite her own positive outlook for the book since its acquisition, Curr admits she never imagined “The Secret” having this kind of impact. “But Rhonda did. She said there are three things that she wanted to have happen for her book when we were planning it: ‘Oprah,’ People magazine, and the cover of Time, but we ended up on the cover of Newsweek, so we’ll give her that.”
So how did a DVD documentary become a best-selling hardcover in such an overcrowded self-help market? Brand hijacking, says Curr.
“Brand hijacking is where the public says, ‘Just move out of our way. We want this, and we’re going to buy it.’ All we did was put it in front of people,” Curr says. “The book itself and the idea itself were absolutely of the moment, and that’s why it’s selling so well. But that’s half the trick of it, in my opinion.”
As soon as she acquired the book last July, Curr made it a point to put the DVD into as many of her salespeople’s hands as possible. “I gave everyone a heads up that this was a really important acquisition,” she says. “What we did here was from the minute we bought that book, we got DVDs and encouraged everybody to watch it.”
Atria also sent a box of DVDs to each of the teachers featured in the book, which proved to be as valuable a part of their marketing campaign as anything.
“We looked at all the teachers [showcased in the book] and added up all the books they had sold collectively, which comes to about 400 million copies,” Curr says. “So we knew that there were 22 people in the book who would probably be talking an awful lot about this book.”
One of the higher-profile personalities featured in the book, Jack Canfield, began promoting it in his own electronic newsletter. Others followed. “All of the people involved with ‘The Secret’ were so happy with their experience, they became its spokespeople, formally and informally, whether it was talking to the person down the street or talking to a room full of 100 people,” Curr says.
In the end, the co-publishing agreement between Beyond Words and Atria has helped “The Secret” achieve wild success. “They do all the editorial and all the specialty stuff, and we handle all of the major publishing [responsibilities],” Curr says.
“We never would have been able to have this book without Beyond Words, but Beyond Words would never have been able to publish this book … because the biggest problem that small presses have is that they can’t fund their success. … There’s no way a small press is going to be able to order a 2 million-copy reprint, or even a 100,000-copy one, and then have the resources that you need to manage such a project.”
Curr says she’s sold publishing rights in at least two dozen foreign countries now, and adds that the audio book is finding unprecedented popularity as well with nearly 500,000 on the market already. “The audio [staffers] have told me they’ve never seen the ratio of as strong as this before. I’ve been in some beauty parlors where they’re playing the audio CD instead of the typical New Age music.”
So maybe Byrne is onto something. Maybe the first step to a successful marketing campaign is thinking positive thoughts about the book’s sales and profitability. Then again, Oprah probably helps, too.
“It just shows you that, at the end of the day, word-of-mouth is king, and you can’t keep a good book down,” Curr says. “You just have to keep it in stock.” BB