The Man With the Midas Touch
Interview in Los Angeles Valley Magazine
Melvin Powers publishes books. Not just any kind of books, but special interest books. Books about bridge, chess, pets, sports and hobbies. But his Wilshire Book Company is best known for its line of self-help and inspirational books. The world headquarters for Wilshire Book Company is located in an attractive office/warehouse building in Chatsworth.
In an age of million-dollar advances and lavish book tours for superstar authors, Melvin Powers' Wilshire Book Company inauspiciously sells more than half of its books by mail. Mail order selling is Powers' first love, and it's how his multi-million dollar publishing empire began.
As a teenager in Boston, Powers subscribed to Popular Science magazine and occasionally read the classified ads in the back. An avid chess player, he noticed an ad for a chess book and sent away for it. When it arrived, he decided he should sell books by mail, too.
"I started in the mail-order business when I was 16 years old," says Powers. "It was my hobby, running classified ads in the same magazines that I was readingPopular Science and Popular Mechanics. I began selling books on chess and then, one-by-one, added new titles and new subjects."
At first, he bought books from publishers at wholesale and sold them for retail. As he got each order he sent it out with a flyer advertising the other books that he had. And he's still basically doing the same thingrunning almost the same ad. "The formula is still working after all these years," he says with a chuckle.
His first venture into publishing was a book called Hypnotism Revealed, which he wrote himself. "There's no money in having someone else publish your book," Powers explains. "I was a budding entrepreneur, so instead of getting a small percentage as a royalty from another publisher, I decided I might as well publish the book and sell it myself."
It was a good decision. Now, 40 years after moving to Southern California, where he started Wilshire Book Company, Powers publishes all of the books he sells. Wilshire Book Company, which began on Wilshire Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles (hence the name), is privately held by Powers. The company employs 21 people.
Powers' first big publishing success came in the early 1960s with Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Even though it had been published in hardcover years before, it was Powers who first asked the question, "Why isn't this book available in paperback?" He bought the paperback rights and has since sold millions of copies of the book. He published it in a trade paperback formata larger size than the mass market paperbacks that fit into racks in supermarkets and drugstoresthe format that accounts for virtually all of Wilshire Book's sales.
His biggest coup, however, was snatching up the trade paperback rights to Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Psycho-Cybernetics wasn't doing anything in hardcover," says Powers. "Zero." But I read a couple pages of the book while standing in a bookstore and said to myself, "This is a multi-million bestseller."
He was right. The Wilshire Book trade paperback edition of Psycho-Cybernetics, jumped onto the bestseller lists, and to date has sold more than 5 million copies. It's still one of the company's steady sellers. And ever since the mega-successes of Think and Grow Rich and Psycho-Cybernetics, self-help and inspirational books have been the company's primary editorial focus and biggest selling line of books.
Powers still goes to bookstores every week or two looking for his next big find. He knows that the big New York publishers, with hundreds of books on their lists, sometimes let a good one slip through the cracks without being properly promoted. But bookstores aren't the only places he finds new books to publish.
Twenty years ago, when a friend asked him to buy an Arabian horse, Powers went to a riding goods store and asked to see the horse books. He was shown a section of hardcover books.
"Where are your paperback books?" he asked.
"There aren't any," said the salesperson.
"There aren't any?" he asked, incredulously. "How come?"
"Everybody who has horses has money," said the salesperson. "They can afford to buy hardcover books."
When Powers heard that, he knew he had found another gold mine. He quickly wrote to the publishers of the hardcover books, negotiated the paperback rights, and brought out a line of 70 horse-related books as fast as he could. He sold them by mail, in bookstores, in the 17,000 riding goods stores across America and Canada, and got sales reps to sell them at the major riding goods trade shows. Mr. Midas had struck again.
Powers has also demonstrated his golden touch in the music business. When songwriter Tommy Boyce came into his office 15 years ago with a manuscript called "How to Write a Hit Song and Sell It." Powers not only published the book but decided to try his hand at songwriting. With personal coaching from Boyce, and classes in composition and lyrics at UCLA, Powers co-wrote some songs with Boyce that made it onto the country and western charts. Teresa Brewer recorded his "Willie Burgundy," and he was invited to Nashville to accept an award for his song "Who Wants a Slightly Used Woman."
He also used his songwriting experience to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for receiving the world's smallest royalty check. It was for a song called "San Antonio, Texas." "I got a check for four cents," says Powers. "Other people might have hidden it, but I got a big kick out of it. So I called the Guinness people and made it into the 1980 edition of the book." The four-cent check is still proudly displayed on his office wall. As you might expect from someone who has made millions of dollars by selling books by mail, Powers is now a renowned expert in mail-order sales. The book he wrote and published, How to Get Rich in Mail Order, is the all-time bestseller on the subject and is considered the bible of the mail-order industry. He has taught seminars on mail-order techniques at community colleges throughout the Los Angeles area. Despite his understated approach and low-key personal style, he is truly a super salesman.
So, it isn't surprising that his newest endeavor is called "Powers Television Marketing," which sells products on TV. For many years he has been sought out as a consultant, working behind-the-scenes to help the companies that offer such items as Ginsu knives, exercise equipment, vegetable slicers, and other hard-to-resist goodies on TV. Now he's actively seeking products that his new company can sell on cable TV.
"That means traveling to housewares and food shows, trying to find a product with the potential for mass appeal," says Powers. "It might be a new kitchen gadget or small appliance, or even an automotive product or a course of instruction in a book or on tape. Believe it or not, sometimes television exposure generates so many orders that the manufacturers can't keep up."
In other words, Melvin Powers may be about to open up another gold mine. Not that he's giving up the publishing business. Far from it. Last year Wilshire Book Company published 12 new books to add to its total list of about 450. This year, if he can find another dozen good books, he'll publish them too. But he's not on any quota system, so he'll only publish the books that he cares about.
Of all the books he's published, he's proudest of How to Get Rich in Mail Order. "It's helped a lot of people leave their jobs and start a business for themselves and become financially independent," he says. He also mentions A Guide to Rational Living by Drs. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper, and of course, Psycho-Cybernetics.
"I'm happy with the books I've published because every week people tell me how their lives have been changed by them," says Powers. "It's a nice feeling."
THE DIVERSE WORLD OF MELVIN POWERS
by Michael Foley
Interview in The Dream Merchant
Few things are better than talking to a successful inventor or business person. Enthusiastic and often provocative, such folks show us the very best of America and, indeed, the best of the human being. The ability to focus on a task, manage time, and concentrate on long term goals are the very strengths that lead them to success. And that success is genuinely inspiring.
|Marcia and Melvin Powers
But once in a while, you come across someone who seems to take it all one step further, who seems to broaden the entire definition of success. It is one thing to be prosperous in one business and quite another to triumph in several areas.
But that's just what Melvin Powers has done.
A prominent book publisher for more than 40 years, Powers has also found the time to produce television infomercials, pen successful books, teach business classes, breed champion Arabian horses, and write hit songs. What's more, he approaches this active life with an attitude that stresses challenge and fun.
"Work just isn't work for me," he says, laughing. "I'm basically having a good time and feeling good about things nearly every day."
As president of the Wilshire Book Company, Powers specializes in self-help and inspirational books, helping millions of readers seek the best in life. A native of Boston, he moved to Los Angeles and has since sold thousands of books through the mail, becoming one of the country's leading mail-order experts. Powers was first to publish Dr. Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics, a volume that has sold more than five million copies.
In addition to the self-help category, the company also publishes books in a wide variety of other areas, from cooking and health to games and sports. Powers is the only publisher listed in the Writer's Market who invites writers to call him directly with book ideas.
"I've had a lot of success doing that," he explains. "Even if I am not interested in the writer's idea, I can get to know him and explain exactly what I do want. It can lead to something later on."
Success in the mail-order business eventually led Powers to share his expertise with students in the Los Angeles area. For years he has taught at community and state colleges in Southern California. At a trade show sponsored by Entrepreneur Magazine at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 1980 he developed the idea of a book detailing the mail-order business.
"Many people came up to me after I spoke and asked whether I had a book available," he says, laughing. "I realized then that there were a couple hundred enthusiastic people in that room who might have purchased a book if I had had one. That's when I decided to write one."
The result was How to Get Rich in Mail Order, a comprehensive volume that has sold more than 500,000 copies to date. Using his extensive marketing background, Powers sold the book through full-page newspaper and magazine ads, classified ads, radio and television commercials.
"People in general aren't willing to do what it takes to be successful today, so that leaves big opportunities for those who are willing to work."
"I use every means possible for selling a book," he says. "People have called to say the book actually changed their lives. That's very gratifying."
Although Powers has often approached business ventures as "hobbies," he has also been successful with those ventures, breeding champion Arabian horses, and writing popular songs with songwriter Tommy Boyce (who wrote "Last Train to Clarksville" for the Monkees). Such achievements have elicited praise from the public.
"It has nothing to do with a Midas touch," he says. "It's the willingness to work and become knowledgeable in a given field. I never look for the pie-in-the sky. I go one step at a time and do my homework. That way, when I finally start something, it usually goes well."
The type of work ethic Powers describes is a trait he sees lacking among many Americans and one that he hopes can be addressed nationally.
"We need a national campaign for pride and excellence in this country," he explains. "We need to stop bashing the Japanese and concentrate on making good products ourselves. There's no reason we can't turn this thing around."
Despite America's problems, Powers feels today's entrepreneurs have the same chances for success he had when he started.
"People in general aren't willing to do what it takes to be successful today," he maintains. "So that leaves big opportunities for those who are willing to work. I think any field today is wide open."
Powers counsels entrepreneurs to provide good value in a product or service and listen to the customers who may have legitimate complaints. He also advises business people to continue their education on an on-going basis through trade shows, trade publications, seminars, books, magazines, and other materials available free at most public and college libraries.
Powers himself often spends daily driving time listening to inspirational cassette tapes.
"Things like that can really help you," he says. "By filling your mind with positive thoughts, you won't be so discouraged if there are temporary setbacks in business. You have to listen to the winners, not the losers in life, and then think like a winner yourself."