By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
It was the worst of times, it became the best of times.
Joany quit her job and I didn’t have a job to quit. Both of us stayed home to care for our ailing mother. Along with allopathic treatments, we spent her and our meager savings on promising alternative therapies, not covered by insurance. Nothing helped.
To keep ourselves sane during this trying time, we started thinking of creative projects to do that would eventually pay off. One of us came up with a catchy, sexy title for a cookbook that would have decadent recipes. A day or two earlier, Joany had read a newspaper article about Mary Ellen, a woman in Minnesota who had started her company by publishing her own books that became best sellers. (This was long before self-publishing became a thing.)
The following Monday morning, after one of the worst weekends, out of sheer desperation, Joany said, “Call Mary Ellen and pitch her our book idea.” As Manpower’s Training Director, Joany’s usual advice was: “Never call anyone first thing Monday morning.” And as Manpower’s Sales Manager, why would she ask me to call to do a selling job on the publisher when, clearly, she was the salesperson?
Joany’s reasoning was that I had some writing credits and my name is Lydia. Mary Ellen’s last name is Pinkham. If your name is either Lydia or Pinkham, chances are you would know of the herbal-alcoholic women’s tonic invented by Lydia Pinkham in the 1800s and that is still sold today.
Okay, so I called Mary Ellen Enterprises on a Monday morning, not realizing that Minnesota is an hour earlier than New York. It was really early when I asked to speak to Mary Ellen. She got right on the phone. (We joked that it was the first and last time she got on the phone when we called.) I did the whole Lydia Pinkham name shpiel and told her that my sister and I had an idea for a novelty cookbook. She told me not to tell her the idea, but to send her a proposal for it.
We figured out what a proposal is and came up with pages, decorated with pictures cut out of magazines and we mailed it to Mary Ellen.
We forgot about the proposal as my mother’s health deteriorated. Weeks later, my mother passed away. While we were sitting shiva -- the time for Jewish spiritual and emotional healing after a death -- and the time for us to decide how to proceed in terms of earning a living, the phone rang. It was Mary Ellen. She said that our cookbook was not for her family-oriented publishing company, but she liked our style and wanted to meet with us. We didn’t know we had a style. She was coming to town the following week and made a breakfast appointment with us at her midtown hotel.
When we showed up at the hotel’s restaurant and went to Mary Ellen’s table, it was love at first sight between Mary Ellen and Joany. Both had a weight problem. So what that my name is Lydia and she’s Pinkham? Because I didn’t need to lose weight, I became invisible. After a long breakfast, the restaurant needed to be set up for lunch and asked us to leave. Mary Ellen suggested we continue over lunch at a different restaurant. Late afternoon, still not talked out, Mary Ellen had a meeting and dinner with her lawyer and asked that we go to her hotel room after dinner, adding “bring along some ice cream.”
Over bowls of vanilla fudge, triple chocolate and butter pecan, Mary Ellen made it clear that she wanted to work with us. She said she would fly us out to her office in Minneapolis, for us to pitch book ideas to her staff. (These days, it’s known as her team.)
Joany and I came up with a list of what we thought were viable book ideas, including a book of folk remedies. Keep in mind, this was 1981 and there was no Internet or google and, as far as we knew, there were no easy-to-read, lighthearted folk remedy books.
Our Minneapolis pitching session went well. Everyone loved everything, but Mary Ellen put each idea on the back burner. We finished going over our list of ideas and not one of them was on the front burner. It turned out that Mary Ellen had a hidden agenda. She asked if we thought we could write a baby name book. We didn’t have babies, but we did have names. So, yes, we could write it. And while you’re at it, and since you don’t have babies, would you be willing to ghost write a baby hints handbook? “Of course!” At that time of our lives, we would have said “yes” to writing a sisters’ version of The Brothers Karamazov had we been asked.
Miraculously, we left Mary Ellen Enterprises with a two-book deal and a $10,000 check. Hey, we thought this publishing business is great. Little did we know, that’s usually not how publishers work with writers.
We soon discovered that Joany was a whiz at research, having visited every library within a 50-mile radius. We also discovered that I was fairly good at coming up with a first draft. Then it was Joany’s turn to rewrite and edit. Before long, we had completed both books.
Mary Ellen rejected all of our titles for the baby name book. Instead, she came up with the title that was used. We later found out that a pair of successful Minnesota husband and wife writers were her get-even targets. The wife had written a book called, Feed Me, I’m Yours and the husband had written a baby name book. Put ‘em both together and we got to revenge-write Name Me, I’m Yours!
Exactly one year and one day after my mother died, Joany and I were authors on a first-class media tour, with a $3.95 book that, thanks to Mary Ellen’s imaginative marketing skills, smelled from baby powder. We had fun, sold a ton of books and had invitations to come back with our next venture.
With the name books flying off the shelves, Mary Ellen was able to do a deal with Random House. She sold our two books for $100,000. According to our contract, we should have received a big chunk of that, but never did. We decided not to sue her because we are not litigious and because we were so grateful that she took a chance by giving us a chance.
Also, our success with the name book got us in the door at Random House, who published our book with a new title.
During our meeting with Random House, we took the folk remedy idea off the back burner, pitched it and got an instant greenlight to write it. Who knew that decades earlier, Random House had successfully published Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis, M.D. and they felt it was time for a more modern version? That’s how Chicken Soup & Other Folk Remedies happened. We were so lucky Mary Ellen didn’t want it.
The publisher was not going to send us on a media tour, so Joany used our baby name contacts to book us on shows across the country. Those were the days when the shows paid for travel, hotel and meals, even if you weren’t a superstar. That’s when we became known as the Chicken Soup Sisters.
What are the chances of living in the book-publishing capitol of the world and going to Minnesota to get a publishing deal?
What are the chances that Mary Ellen Pinkham reads this and sues me for spilling the beans?
If you have a “What Are The Chances...? story you would like to share, I’d love to know about it. Email it to me at email@example.com. Don’t be shy!
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.