His smile is relaxed and his blue eyes are twinkling, but Dr. Spencer Johnson says he’s under pressure.
The best-selling author, whose titles include “Who Moved My Cheese?” and “The One Minute Manager,” has a new book out this month. He spent more than 20 years writing “Peaks and Valleys,” which was slated for release next fall, but the nation’s dire economic circumstances inspired publishers to rush it out sooner.
“I’ve never felt as much pressure on being a real practical service to people,” the author says. “The problems are so big right now and the pain is so acute … I hope to God I’ve done a good enough job that this can really help people — not sort of help them a little bit, but really make a huge difference.”
Johnson, 70, has an impressive track record of successful sales and uncanny timing. “Cheese” also took 20 years to write, and the little parable about facing change came out in 1998, when a new thing called the Internet revolutionized how business was done. It sold more than 10 million copies and became a must-read for workers worldwide. “The One Minute Manager” was also embraced by the business community. Based on years of the author’s personal experience, the book came out in 1982, amid national fears that American productivity was falling behind the Japanese. Today there are more than 46 million copies of Johnson’s books in print. But don’t credit him for the well-timed releases.
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“People talk erroneously about my incredible timing,” he says. “Well, it’s not my timing. I’m part of a much bigger overall picture.”
But, he says, “I knew this book would come out when we were in a valley. People pay more attention when they’re in the valley.”
Like his previous books, “Peaks and Valleys” is a short and simple parable. It tells the story of a young man trying to make sense of the ups and downs in his life. He meets a sage — who speaks a lot like Johnson does in person — who encourages him to be grateful for good times and look for light during rough patches, accepting both as part of life’s natural rhythm.
Johnson created the tale more than two decades ago, when he was in a personal valley of his own.
“I like to live the story myself,” he says. “Then I share it with friends and watch them live it. I really like to take my time and see if it really works.”
He based his past best-sellers on time-tested personal experiences, too. Each arose out of his own desire to be happier and live better.
He’d read and research, try new approaches and share them with colleagues, then base his writing on techniques they said were effective. Johnson rewrites the manuscripts again and again, he says, reflecting reader feedback.
“After the first draft, it’s not about me,” he says. “It’s based on something I think is much more powerful, and that is a variety of experiences, from people with Ph.Ds to people who didn’t graduate high school. When it comes out, it’s already been tested extensively.”
Johnson says he also regularly looks at reader reviews of his books on Amazon.com and makes many of their recommended changes.
He rewrote “Cheese” at least 10 times, he says: “Nobody knows, but with each printing, I rewrite the book based on what I’ve learned from readers.”
A medical doctor who began writing when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, Johnson pursues what he calls “universal truths” — things that hold true for human beings regardless of age, culture or circumstances.
Johnson says he’s no guru, and he knows the material he’s presenting isn’t new. The author, who rarely grants interviews and doesn’t allow his photo to appear on book jackets or in news articles, says he shouldn’t be credited for the success of his books.
“I love my books being well-known. I feel very honored about that. But the ideas are more important than the author,” he says. “It’s not me, it’s the reader that deserves the credit. It’s what they get out of it and apply to their own life.”