Five years ago Amy Newmark and Bill Rouhana set out to reinvigorate the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand. But with an estimated 600 million books in print, how much vigor did it really need? Turns out the sky is the limit.
Amy and Bill at home in Greenwich.
Husband-and-wife team Amy Newmark and Bill Rouhana are in the business of selling succor. The Greenwich couple may not exactly be marketing hugs for the masses, but as a palliative their Chicken Soup for the Soul brand is the next best thing.
“We want to help people and make them feel good,” says Amy, who oversees the company’s publishing operations.
Given the popularity of the many titles in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, they have certainly accomplished that, and more. The books, collections of inspirational and affecting stories about everything from weathering tough times to loving one’s pet, have sold hundreds of millions of copies the world over, with no signs of flagging. Between a name that doubles as the catchiest of catchphrases and the many touching tales from everyday life, Chicken Soup for the Soul holds an emotional appeal that runs deep and is widespread. (Eighty-eight percent of Americans are said to be familiar with the brand.) So it was when Bill and Amy, along with former partner Robert Jacobs, bought the company five years ago for an undisclosed sum. Their mission was to see just how far those good feelings might carry.
“We thought that we could take it to the next level,” explains Amy. “Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, who started the business in 1993, really viewed it as a publishing enterprise more than anything else. They did some work with licensing. They would let what they felt were quality companies use the brand name on other products. But we felt that we could not only re-energize the brand from a book point of view, but also bring the company into the digital age, and do more with licensing and putting the name on high-quality products.”
For Bill, chief executive officer, Chicken Soup for the Soul was rich with possibilities. The heart of the entity, he knew, would always be the books (or whatever form they ultimately took). The uplifting message of their pages in many ways defined, and still defines, the company as a voice for “life improvement.” But from a commercial perspective, those volumes were also a valuable commodity. “The books were the key to buying the company because they provided the ongoing cash flow that helped justify the purchase,” says Bill. “The fact that there were so many opportunities to create upsides on top of that base was what made it an interesting business acquisition.”
Back then, the Chicken Soup for the Soul books produced 90 percent of the company’s profits. Now, outsourcing rules the roost at an operation that employs just a dozen people but annually rings up what Bill puts at “several hundred million dollars in sales.” Licensing agreements account for two-thirds of the Cos Cob corporation’s revenues and 75 percent of the profits. Although best known for its books, the Chicken Soup for the Soul logo can be found on puzzles, games, calendars, greeting cards, gift baskets and pet food.
And starting in May, Chicken Soup for the Soul Foods, a partnership with Daymon Worldwide, a Stamford-based branding and sourcing firm, begins rolling out the first of its “comfort food” products. Initial offerings will be limited to pasta sauces—marinara, garlic and basil, three cheeses, vodka and Tuscan—and will be available nationwide by summer. Over the ensuing months, they will be followed by flavored broths and gravies, then meal builders and soups. If all goes well, as many as 400 Chicken Soup for the Soul items, from fresh foods to desserts, will eventually be on grocery store shelves from coast to coast.
The publishing side has been anything but neglected. Among other changes, the new owners redesigned the covers of the Chicken Soup series. Likewise, they revamped the format of the titles. Rather than Chicken Soup for the Country Music Lover’s Soul, for example, as Canfield and Hansen might have had it, the newcomers went with Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music. That helped open the way for collections of stories about virtually anything, from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum (for parents of children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome). Some fifteen Chicken Soup titles are added every year.
Another big change was striking a deal with publishing giant Simon & Schuster to handle distribution and sales. Back in 2008, Chicken Soup books were available in about 9,000 stores. Today that number tops 30,000, with supermarkets, drugstore chains and mass merchants like Walmart and Kmart, among other types of outlets, added to the mix. All of the Chicken Soup books are sold as e-books as well.
The series alone, which numbers some 250 titles, is a juggernaut. More than 100 million copies have been sold in the United States and Canada. Foreign sales, though notoriously difficult to determine, are said to be close to 500 million. The books can be found in 100 countries and are translated into forty-three languages. Overall sales for what are now three book lines—the Chicken Soup trade paperbacks; dollar books, which are smaller collections of the Chicken Soup stories sold only in certain outlets; and puzzle books, produced by licensee Kappa Books, of Pennsylvania—are nearly $8 million a year.
“We did a survey about a year and a half ago, asking people who they trusted,” says Bill. “And our brand tied with people’s families for the level of trust. We were rated above their ministers, teachers, politicians and others. To me, that’s really a big responsibility. If people trust you that much, you better deliver.”
The Joint Venture
It’s no surprise that Chicken Soup for the Soul tends to be an all-consuming affair for both husband and wife. Bill and Amy are together so often—at the office, at home, virtually everywhere—that friends ask how they manage it.
It helps, says Amy, that they have the same attitude about work: “We’re both really hard workers and so we don’t resent that the other person is working all weekend. Even if we’re not talking about it, we know what the other person is doing because we’re both doing it. We understand how hard we work, how we throw ourselves into our jobs.”
Regina Pitaro, Amy’s longtime friend and managing director of Gabelli Asset Management, says she’s seen a change in both husband and wife since they took over the company. “It energizes them both,” she says. “To be at this point in life when you’ve had other successful careers and done other things and then to throw yourself with new passion into something is exciting. They’re having a blast.”
Still, sometimes enough is enough. When either Amy or Bill want to hit the mute button on Chicken Soup for the Soul, they simply invoke the arch villain from the Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort, also known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
“We have a policy that at home, either one of us can declare Voldemort,” says Amy. “That means you may not talk about Chicken Soup for the Soul. Chicken Soup for the Soul becomes He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Either one of us can say, ‘I am declaring Voldemort,’ and the other one is not allowed to talk about work.”
Bill tried to skirt that policy by sending his wife text messages, but she soon put an end to that. “That’s like talking,” she declared. If he had a question, she told him, he could send her an e-mail and she’d decide if she felt like answering it. “But now most weekends we declare Voldemort,” she says. “If we want to talk to each other about work, we have to e-mail each other just as if we were e-mailing a coworker.”
Away from the job, the couple do enjoy visiting their adult children and stepchildren—each has a son and daughter from their previous marriages—and they like hiking on local trails. And though they’ll ski now and then or see a play, their work is what really excites them.
Both have always been high achievers. Bill, who is from Brooklyn and holds degrees from Colby College and Georgetown University’s law school, has been an entertainment finance lawyer and merchant banker. He is best known in the business world for starting Winstar Communications, a pioneer of wireless broadband that saw spectacular growth in the late nineties before economic vicissitudes left it in bankruptcy in 2001. He’s also cofounder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit Humpty Dumpty Institute, which is active in the development of poor countries around the world and advocates for the United Nations.
Amy, for her part, grew up in Chappaqua, New York, and went to Harvard, where she majored in Portuguese-Brazilian studies. She made her mark as a Wall Street security analyst in telecommunications and also ran her own hedge fund. In 1995 she joined the management team at Winstar, where she worked for two years, helping to raise money to fund its expansion. She and Bill were married in 1999.
By 2007 they were both keeping busy with various projects, consulting and serving on boards, but were basically semi-retired. What remained of Winstar had been sold off. Amy’s youngest child, daughter Ella, was now in college. No one could have blamed the couple if they decided to spend their time on cruises, or kicking back and watching the deer and turkeys that parade around their property.
But then one of Amy’s friends had them over for a barbecue and everything changed. That’s when Bill got to talking with Robert Jacobs, the man whom the friend was dating and who worked in television syndication. Jacobs, who had been involved with some projects for Chicken Soup for the Soul, told him that Canfield and Hansen were looking to sell.
It seemed like a great deal. Here was a company that was about helping people. And though it was doing well from a business standpoint, it could do better, a lot better. Bill, who had been on the lookout for a challenge, was intrigued. “It was really a media type brand,” he says. “And so it was dealing with the same kind of business issues I’d been dealing with really for a lifetime: content. How do you deliver it? How do you create value from it? Those were all the issues I had been dealing with since I had become an entertainment finance lawyer back in the mid-1980s.”
The men became partners. Money was raised. Due diligence was performed. And in April 2008 they bought the company. Though Jacobs has since moved on, selling his share to Bill, Chicken Soup for the Soul continues to grow and evolve.
Chicken Soup: The Movie?
These days, the food products are drawing the most attention. But sometime this year, a revamped website (chickensoup.com) will make its debut. With a few clicks of the keyboard, visitors will be able to find free stories of the kind found in the books in whatever their area of interest, from welcoming a baby to the family to navigating a divorce. Readers will also be able to share their own stories.
Down the line, expect to see Chicken Soup for the Soul apparel—T-shirts, hats and bags—with inspirational messages printed on them, comparable to the popular “Life is Good” line, as opposed to corporate logos. Gift products with similar messages are another possibility. There are also a variety of apps in development. And more Chicken Soup-licensed products are starting to be sold abroad.
From the beginning, Bill and Robert Jacobs talked about developing a syndicated television talk show centered around Chicken Soup for the Soul. Those efforts continue, though as Bill points out, it all takes time. Meanwhile, Hollywood producer Jordan Kerner of The Smurfs and Inspector Gadget fame has been developing a film project along the lines of Love Actually and Valentine’s Day, with multiple story lines culled from the pages of the Chicken Soup books. “I’m pretty sure we’ll get it over the finish line,” Bill says. “But we’re still not there yet.”
Bill and Amy never envisioned themselves involved in a company like Chicken Soup. For starters, neither had ever worked in publishing. They were able to turn that negative, however, into a positive. Unaware of all they weren’t supposed to do, they were open to new approaches. Among other things, they were determined from the start to get their books into more outlets than just bookstores, targeting the big-box stores and other venues. “We had to bring the books to the people,” Amy says, “not expect people to come to the books.”
Chicken Soup for the Soul holds a place in people’s hearts. Jennifer Quasha, a Greenwich resident who has co-authored four Chicken Soup titles about pets, says the company’s books are often misunderstood by those who only know about them secondhand. “When people pick them up and actually read them, they fall in love with them because every story is a good story,” she says. “They’re perfect to have beside your bed so you can read one or two before you go to sleep. Every single one of them is going to leave you feeling better.”
Amy calls the Chicken Soup books a “portable support group.” She and Bill receive thousands of e-mails and letters from readers telling how much the books have helped them make their way in a tough world. Every day, the couple bear witness to the personal relationship that readers have with their titles. “People re-read our books,” Amy says. “They’re like music in that way. People listen to music over and over, but they won’t read a novel over and over. People will dog-ear stories that they love in our books, and they carry them around. If you look at our books in used bookstores they’re often very messed up because people have gotten a lot out of them.”
Bill and Amy have gained much from them as well. Both have found new life in a business that feeds their entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirits. “This is a fantastic business for me because I can be energized every day, because when I go to work I feel like I’m building something that has a positive impact,” says Bill. “It allows me to tap into what I enjoy, which is building a business, but it also taps into the ‘doing good’ part of what I like.
“If you’re doing something you really love, the stress is manageable, and I love this,” he continues. “We get to be creative. We get to try new things. And Amy and I get to work together, which is a really nice thing.”
For Amy, her work is also a connection, if not a tribute, to something that runs deep within all of us. “I always say, ‘Hey, I dealt with fear and greed when I worked on Wall Street,’” she says. “Now I deal with the whole range of human emotions at Chicken Soup for the Soul.”