Superstar Spencer Johnson: 'Who Moved Cheese?' becomes acquired taste

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Few people know that Spencer Johnson sat on his best idea for 11 years before finally writing the runaway best seller, "Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Life & in Your Work."

The 94-page book describes lessons learned about coping with change, through the tale of two humanoid creatures named Hem and Haw who follow a pair of endearing mice named Sniff and Scurry through a maze, looking for life-sustaining cheese.

But the book didn't reach "runaway success" status overnight either.

After Dr. Johnson, a physician, penned it at the behest of longtime co-author and business management consultant Kenneth Blanchard, "Cheese" languished for nearly two years before turning red hot.

"It was a very slow-building, grass-roots phenomenon, driven completely by word of mouth with absolutely no traditional advertising or marketing," says Dr. Johnson, who struck a deal with the G.P. Putnam's Sons division of Penguin Putnam, in which the author would oversee every aspect of the book's marketing.

Using a viral approach to marketing the book by asking friends and associates to review the manuscript, then introducing it to the marketplace through exposure to business audiences through Mr. Blanchard's seminars and speeches, "Cheese" sales moved very slowly at first.

SLOW TO TAKE OFF

Unlike most of Dr. Johnson's previous books, which hit the best-seller lists almost immediately, it took a year and a half for "Cheese" to sell its first million copies; five months to sell the second million between March and July 2000; and two months to sell the third million. By yearend the book had nearly topped 4 million, fueled by its popularity as a holiday gift to all age groups.

As of this month, "Cheese" has sold more than 4 million hardcover copies with a cover price of $19.95. It has spent more than 70 weeks on The New York Times' best-seller list, and sales show no sign of declining in the near future, claims Putnam.

"We know how to distribute books and tap publicity, which we did, but this book's success was not a self-fulfulling prophecy. No one saw it coming," says Dan Harvey, senior VP-publishing director at Penguin Putnam Group.

The book's unorthodox path to success began when Mr. Blanchard badgered Dr. Johnson, who had been living quietly in Hawaii for more than a decade.

PESTERED TO WRITE STORY

"I had been telling this story of `Who Moved My Cheese?' since 1987, and Blanchard kept asking me when I was going to write it. Finally, he called me up and demanded to know when I would write it," says Dr. Johnson, now based in New Hampshire; he recently took a post on the faculty at the Harvard Business School.

Dr. Johnson was convinced when Mr. Blanchard said he believed people needed the book, and he promised to write an introduction and help market the book through his seminars and speeches. Originally envisioned as a title for the business shelf, the real surprise was the powerful crossover appeal of "Cheese" to both business and general audiences.

"This book started in the business community, then filtered down into community groups, schools and it ties into the massive changes happening in the economy, connecting people's daily work lives with their personal lives," Mr. Harvey says.

Despite the lack of traditional advertising and marketing, Dr. Johnson poured his 20 years of book publishing success into honing the product itself.

"This book was built by readers," says Dr. Johnson, who put "Cheese" through extensive trials by showing early versions to hundreds of friends and associates, and seeking their input. Mr. Blanchard did the same with the manuscript.

HONES A CHECKLIST

Dr. Johnson says he also applied to "Cheese" a proprietary 64-point checklist, developed through years of publishing, to make sure it held water with readers.

"I listened to what people were saying they wanted in a book about dealing with change, and I've gotten to be very good at listening after 20 years of this," Dr. Johnson says.

As a result of the feedback, "Cheese" was rewritten nine times, and even the latest version contains a few key changes that were not in the first edition, he says, based on feedback after the book was published.

VIRAL MARKETING

The effort of soliciting input may have functioned as a viral marketing campaign, gradually building demand through word of mouth, which Dr. Johnson says is far more effective than any traditional media.

Sales are taking off faster in Japan; even minus an ad campaign, 1.2 million books were sold in the first two months "Cheese" was available in bookstores. Putnam owns the paperback rights, but the publisher says it doesn't have any plans to market the book in paperback.

Putnam credits Dr. Johnson with the book's ongoing success, including a raft of ancillary licensed products now on the market, like seminars and training sessions being offered using its principles; a CD-ROM of the book; a computer screen-saver reminding users of "Cheese" principles, and a calendar from Andrews McMeel Publishing. A "Cheese" Web site (whomovedmycheese.com) a helps sell related merchandise, including a "Change Survival Kit."

"Spencer is very wise and careful about how he spins the book into different formats; he chooses the best partners and formats available," Mr. Harvey says.

Dr. Johnson attributes the success of "Cheese" to "21st century marketing. I created a product with the input of my audience, and tested it with them every step of the way."

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