Marketing Lessons My Grandfather Taught Me


My grandfather, Arthur Scott Bell, was born in 1890. He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was an outstanding high school athlete. 
He won an athletic scholarship to DePauw University, later transferring to the University of Michigan to play football. He joined the Army in World War I, during which time he met my grandmother, Dorothy Fox. One of the treasure troves I have is the box of love letters he wrote to her from Fort Sheridan, Illinois. My grandmother kept them all, bound with ribbons. When my father was little he’d hear his father call his mother Dot, and he combined that with Mama, so ever after my grandmother was known as Mama Dot. Later on, my dad started calling his father Padre.
And that’s how all his grandkids knew him.
One of Padre’s favorite phrases was, “Go your best.” He said that to me a number of times—when I was off to a new school year, or starting Little League. 
During the Great Depression, Padre fed his family as a field salesman for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was a stellar salesman, rising to become one of the top ten in the entire company.
From what Padre and my dad told me about those days, I gather five lessons that apply to writers (and anyone else) trying to peddle their wares.
1. He believed in his product
Padre loved the Britannica. I have a full set from 1947, passed down to me. [NOTE: if you have one, don’t get rid of it. The entries in these volumes are often better and more authoritative than anything you can find today.]
Do you believe in your product? Are you convinced that what you’re writing is the best you can make it? Or are you going out there with something less than that––and still expecting good sales?
2. He believed in self improvement  
Padre was a life-long learner. On my shelf I have Padre’s dictionary, the Webster’s New Collegiate, 2d Edition. In the front of the dictionary, on one of the blank pages, Padre had written himself a note on a new word: psycho-cybernetics. That would place this note around 1960, when the book by Maxwell Maltz first came out. Padre was 70 years old then, but still interested in growing his vocabulary.
He was of the Dale Carnegie school of self-improvement. Another treasure I own is the hardcover copy of How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplethat Padre and Mama Dot gave my dad upon his graduation from Hollywood High School. They each inscribed it. Padre wrote:
To have a friend is to be a friend. I am sure you are getting to be an expert at it. Don’t let down!!
And from Mama Dot:
You can do more than strike while the iron is hot. You can make the iron hot by striking.
Are you growing as a writer? Are you spending some part of your week in purposeful study of the craft? Padre and Mama Dot’s generation believed anyone could succeed if they studied and worked hard enough.
3. He concentrated on the best prospects
Padre had a definite strategy when he pulled into a new town. He looked up all the lawyers and doctors. These would be the people most likely to have some disposable income during the Depression. Thus, they would be the most likely to buy.
Simple enough. But when it comes to marketing, how many writers out there are trying to cast a wide net in the hope of snagging some random fish? The difference between 100,000 robo-gathered followers, and 10,000 quality followers, is huge. Don’t try to be all things to all people, but be a value add-on for those who are most likely to want to sample your work. 
4. He made people feel good
My grandfather was a natural storyteller. He had a deep, resonant voice. I can hear it now. And when he started spinning a tale you sat mesmerized.
I remember one story he told about a football player at Michigan named Molbach. The fellows called him “Molly.” He was a fullback, a powerhouse runner who just would not be stopped in short yardage situations. Padre told about one tough game where Molly put his head down and ran so hard he kept going over the sideline and ran right into a horse––and knocked the horse down!
Padre’s storytelling made you feel good. Got you into the moment. The legend in the family was that Padre had a story for every occasion.
Does your marketing make people feel good? If someone sees you’re tweeting or Facebooking, will they generally be pleased at what you’ve posted? Or do you depend on a barrage of value-less “buy my book” type messages?
Work at making your social media a pleasure for others to read. “To have a friend is to be a friend.”
5. He could laugh at life
Padre was a man “at home in his own skin.” He’d been through plenty in his life, the Depression not least among them. But he always came out all right in the end.
He had the greatest laugh in the world. It came from deep in his chest and rumbled out in joyous reverberation.
You need to be able to laugh and not stress over outcomes and expectations. If you follow Padre’s lessons, you’ll work hard on yourself and your writing. You’ll be smart about marketing and refuse to let setbacks stop you. You simply won’t worry about the things that are outside your control.
Manage your expectations, don’t let them rule you. Concentrate on what you can do, not what is out of your  hands.
Keep working.
Keep writing.

Go your best.

27 thoughts on “Marketing Lessons My Grandfather Taught Me

  1. Nice post, Jim. Encyclopedia salesman. We had lots of those “sets” growing up. A salesman must’ve come to our door a few times. We just recently gave my family’s encyclopedias away. I used to pour over them as a kid & dream of exotic places. I did homework from them too.

    Great pics. Thanks for the pep talk. Always good to hear.

    • I loved sets like this as a kid, too, Jordan. Always felt there was so much knowledge in there just for me.

      My grandmother also had the classic My Book House set. Loved that!

  2. Good stuff, Jim. Michigan roots, eh? I knew there was something special about you. I love reading stories like this. Of course, the problem is I always feel guilty about that Saturday nap. Another lost hour!

  3. My parents had a set of the Britannica. They also had a 10 volume collection of a series called Popular Science.

    An admirable outlook from Padre. When I think about all the time, money, and hard work going into the making of books, it makes me cringe at how much technology has influenced the proliferation of poor quality products by merely making it easier to market and sell.

    The days of the door to door selling, delivering, etc, of leather bound books of information were still around back in 1991 when I purchased a 5 volume set of books for middle school and high school level children, an investment for my kids. Then next thing I knew, there was information to access across the internet via the 2400 baud modem and an online subscription to AOL.

    Thanks for the memories. 🙂

  4. Great post! I, too, have great memories of browsing the Britannica. For me it opened up the entire world for exploration, and when I realized that, it was a breath-taking moment. The internet of its day.
    Also great prescription for marketing for authors – you may hate the whole idea, but if you do it Padre’s way, you’ll grow to like it!

  5. Padre’s wisdom is evergreen, these five lessons are a great framework for building a writing career (or any other sort of endeavor, really). I strongly agree with all of them. Put out your best, work hard at improving yourself, connect with people, make others feel good, and manage your expectations. This last is especially important to help keep things in prospective and maintain a positive attitude. Oh, and I have a 1985 edition of the Britannica my wife and I bought when I was in college back then and it’s staying in our library. Thanks for another wonderful post!

  6. Great post, JSB. In addition to writing, I am also raising money for a nonprofit. The advice is spot-on for both. I used to love to read the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now I get sucked into Wikipedia. It’s amazing how much time a person can spend on “research.”

  7. It’s wonderful when we learn lessons from our elders. My mother gave me the principles of leadership. I’m using them now as President of FMWA.

  8. In one of my favorite books, a character has made it her life’s goal to read the encyclopedia from cover to cover. She finishes it on her death bed.

    When I was a kid we had one of the kid’s sets you collected with supermarket coupons. The whole set was only about a foot thick, so my reading it from cover to cover several times wasn’t quite as impressive, but it part of the reason I am tough to beat at Jeopardy.

    I love Padre’s lessons and the sunny optimism mixed in with the clear-eyed realism.

    I’m doing the “best prospects” thing right now. I’d rather self-pub than end up with a bad agent or some half-assed e-press. I’ve read too many horror stories. Any agent or publisher I do business with will add value to the project or I’ll go under my own speed and brand. Stay positive. Don’t panic. But don’t be afraid to change course when either rocks or open dead water is all you can see.


    • Didn’t Ursula Undress (pun intended) in Dr. No do that? Read through the Encyclopedia? I’m not sure that’s what impressed James Bond about her, but there you are.

    • Very good, and yes, I had to go to the hivemind of the Internet to verify it:

      Honeychile Ryder is the sole child of a marine biologist. Brought up by her father, while travelling from topical island to tropical island, Honey indulged in swimming, walking and plenty of play-time. The young Honey Ryder is physically fit and beautiful enough to attract any man, let alone secret agent 007.

      After the death of her father, Honey quickly learned to fend for herself and is reluctant, at first, to be told what to do by James Bond. Much of her learning and worldly knowledge comes from a set of encyclopedias she had read as a child – as a result Honey is sincerely literal in thinking and frequently exhibits an optimistic and cheerful personality.

      Bond: “I suppose you went to school somewhere?”

      Honey: “I didn’t need to, we had an encyclopedia. I started at A when I was eight, now I’ve reached T. I bet I know a lot more things than you do!”

  9. What a great post. Padre was quite a guy. That football – horse story is classic. I used to sell Cutco when I was in college. Often I would show up at a doorstep right behind the encyclopedia, vacuum, or pots and pan man. I “believed” in my product, too, even though I was a clueless kid. 50 years later, I still have my Cutco samples and they are the sharpest knives in the drawer.

    What does this have to do with stories? The entire demonstration was one silly story after the other. It was the story that sold the product. And a good story-teller didn’t hurt, either.

  10. Great post, Mr. Bell. My family couldn’t afford the Britannica, but we did have a 30 volume set of The Book of Knowledge. Half my childhood was occupied with that treasure. My grandfather was a meat cutter his whole life. He died when I was eleven. But I still use two of his butcher knives, and they are better than anything else I have.

    Grandpa’s best advice to me was, “Davey, never let ’em show you how they make sausage!” So far I haven’t.

  11. What a wonderful story!! I remember my grandfather as being strong, self-reliant, and able to handle himself in dangerous situations (rattlesnake wrapped around a mailbox, anyone?) I didn’t get a chance to know any of my other grandparents. I would’ve loved to hear their stories. Doing genealogy research helps me feel closer but I wish they could tell me about their lives.

  12. Well your Padre and Mama Dot would be proud of you. In years of reading your column here I can’t remember any occasion when you could have been accused of “phoning it in.”

    The care and craft you put into your posts every week is evident and I almost always find something of value.

    Thanks for the Sunday coffee breaks.

  13. The wisdom of our elders is a great tool. Likewise it is our responsibility as the elders of both this and future generations to encapsulate those same nuggets of received wisdom within the blanket of our own experience so they can be passed from us through the roiling mist of time on waves of story to fortify and propel our children’s children and their’s beyond to endure what trials the future may bring.

    That those whose lives are yet to be
    may through my ancient wizened eyes see,
    the path ahead
    already tread
    by those who’ve gone before

  14. Ah, wise words from Padre. Amazing how smart our grandparents were, and how much we can learn from them. Makes me think about my grandma, and all the wisdom she shared without even realizing it. Thanks, James!

  15. This is a nice post, Jim. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot from your grandfather. He sounds like a great man and by the looks of it, very passionate when it comes to marketing and sales. Those lessons are indeed very applicable to marketing and following them will give you the makings of a great salesman.

    Denise Magill

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