Feeling Good did not start out as a bestseller; it evolved from a set of brochures Burns developed for use by patients between sessions. He hoped to get maybe 100 copies printed to attract new patients to his young practice, where he was charging $35 an hour.
Six months after the manuscript was sent to publishers, he had heard nothing and called one of the publishers. The rejection letter was in the typewriter, she told him after polite apologies.
Burns asked what was wrong with the book. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “it was just incredibly boring.” Burns agreed that Mood Therapy, its working title, had been written in bone-dry medicalese. But he was sure that together they could craft a best-seller. Before he hung up, a $10,000 offer was his.
Monday morning, he called a more prominent publisher and, using the leverage of Friday’s offer, ended with a promise of $25,000. “I don’t think she’d looked at the book,” Burns says.
Emboldened, Burns made his final call, to Maria Guarnaschelli at HarperCollins. “Don’t accept that offer,” he recalls her saying before making a preemptive bid of $35,000 for a still unread manuscript. The advance was more than half what Burns was making in a year as a psychiatrist.
Guarnaschelli said the manuscript would turn people off; it was too academic. “Say things like this,” she advised. “ ‘When you’re depressed, you’re involved in the world’s greatest fraud, the greatest con. You’re giving yourself messages that are totally false but you don’t know it because it seems as true to you as the skin on your hands.’ Write it like that and people will understand what you are talking about. You’ll have a number one bestseller.” Burns promised her he would sell a million copies, even if he had to go door to door.
Check in hand, Burns returned to Philadelphia. For the next 10 days he was unable to write a single sentence, paralyzed by anxiety, writer’s block and depression. Finally, he applied the same advice he’d been giving to patients: Write down the negative thoughts and talk back to them. His first: “Maria expects me to write a #1 best seller and I don’t know how to do that.” His second: “She’s going to be disappointed in me.” And third: “I’m going to be a failure.”
Talking back to his negative thoughts made Burns realize that he could write a book that spoke to the reader the way he spoke to patients. “I can do that all day long,” he told himself. His depression evaporated.
After more than a year of rewriting, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy came out in 1980, then all but disappeared. The publisher consigned it to its failure list and put nothing into marketing. Burns would have to promote the book himself. A paperback edition, the occasional magazine story and interviews on “humble little” television and radio stations did little to boost sales.
Then in 1988, Burns got a call from a producer he’d met four years earlier on a Cleveland talk show. She’d just been hired by a show in New York and wanted him to appear in two days. The program was Donahue, the biggest daytime talk show of its time.
Donahue was in a melancholy mood the day Burns, a colleague and two patients arrived in New York to demonstrate the techniques they were using in Philadelphia. He let his guests run the show. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and said, “Dr. Burns, you saved my son’s life. He was going to commit suicide. We gave him your book and he turned his life around. I think everyone in the United States should read Feeling Good.”
The next day, more copies of Feeling Good were sold than in the previous eight years.
“It was like a miracle,” Burns says, 25 years later. “I just felt so grateful to that woman and the people in the audience. They changed my life. I’d wondered if anyone would ever care about [the book], if it would ever affect anybody. Then to see that something I had written had really changed the life of someone who was suffering”—Burns chokes up for a short moment before going on—“kind of brings tears to my eyes.”
Feeling Good has sold more than 5 million copies and is a fixture among the top 500 books on Amazon’s bestsellers. His companion Feeling Good Handbook sits comfortably among the top 1,000. Well-known British therapist Windy Dryden says Burns’s books have had “an enormous impact on the extent to which cognitive therapy has been accepted. I think he would be universally acknowledged as the first person to bring [it] to the masses.”
Robert L. Strauss, MBA, MA '84, is a recipient of the U.S. Department of State's Meritorious Honor Award and a three-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for excellence in travel writing. He lives in Barcelona, Spain, with his wife and daughter.