BY JESSICA STRAWSER
Richard Nelson Bolles was one of the earliest examples of indie-author success. Before his hit book What Color is Your Parachute? spent a whopping 288 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, Bolles distributed photocopies of the book by hand to friends and family. With the passing of 90-year-old Bolles last Friday, March 31, 2017, we remember him through this profile from the May 2002 Writer’s Digest.
For Richard Nelson Bolles, losing his job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. When he was laid off from his position as an ordained Episcopal minister in 1968, he had no idea that the coming years would yield a bestselling book on finding a job. And it all began with a few innocent photocopies of a book he called What Color Is Your Parachute?
When he lost his position at a San Francisco cathedral, Bolles went on to land a job with United Ministries in Higher Education. He was to oversee campus ministers of all denominations in nine Western states. Much to his horror, one by one these ministers began to lose their jobs as well. They turned to him for guidance. He simply replied that he would research their options.
Already traveling around the country to fulfill his job duties, Bolles stayed an extra day in each location to interview career counselors and other professionals about their advice to unemployed ministers. The questions he asked more than 30 years ago still haunt many job seekers to this day.
Once he had compiled enough useful ideas, Bolles sat down and typed them. On Dec. 1, 1970, he photocopied what he had written, titled it What Color Is Your Parachute? and distributed copies to the ministers who had sought his help, charging only the cost of crudely assembling the book. He thought his work was done. It was just beginning.
Almost magically, Bolles began receiving orders for more copies. “[People would] see it on somebody’s desk. It had a rather bright salmon-colored cover, and it was 8.5 × 11. It was hard to miss,” Bolles says. “I just wrote it for the campus ministers, and when I got an order from anybody else I was very surprised.” He began selling the book for $6.95, making about a dollar on each sale.
Bolles made no marketing attempts. But, inexplicably, orders were escalating. “I started to notice something very peculiar, which was, although this was very obviously a book written just for one target audience—namely campus ministers—the people that started ordering [the book] baffled me. I started getting orders from the Pentagon, from General Electric, from UCLA …” he says.
Bolles decided to visit a few of his surprise customers to investigate. He asked them why they were buying his book, and found that they were modifying his ideas for their own job searches. He sold 2,000 copies of the book that first year.
By 1972, Bolles says it was obvious he couldn’t keep up with the demand. Again, without any promotional attempts, he received a letter from Phil Wood, the owner of Ten Speed Press, who had happened upon a copy of the book and wanted to publish it commercially.
Bolles revised the book for a more general audience, and Ten Speed released it in November 1972. “For a year or so it just dilly-dallied, and then all of a sudden it took off like a rocket,” he says. Within two years, it was the No. 1 paperback best seller in the Northwest.
The book started appearing on notable lists across the country as well, including those by Publishers Weekly and The New York Times. In its history, What Color Is Your Parachute? has spent 288 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, being bumped from the list only when the advice category was changed to list only the top five books, rather than 10.
It has regularly sold at least 20,000 copies a month for the past 25 years. “It just turned into a phenomenon. I don’t know why! People love my irreverent sense of humor, and there is nothing I won’t make fun of.” In 1995, the Library of Congress even listed it as one of the top 25 books that have shaped people’s lives.
“When I handed [my book] to [Phil], I said, ‘My instinct just tells me this is going to be a bestseller,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what every author says,’” Bolles recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘If it is, I want to revise it every year.” And, since 1974, Bolles has been doing just that, making it his mission to keep the book as up-to-date as he can.
Over the years, he says revising the book has become easier and more fun. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time researching anymore when a book gets to be this popular.” Readers write to Bolles with their ideas and tips, and he adds them. “I’m sort of a switchboard now for a whole community of people who share with me their job hunting ideas. In other words, the research comes to me.”
The 2002 edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? is the most major revision since the original. Rather than revising about 20 percent of the content, as usual, Bolles decided to rewrite the entire book. “I thought, you know, the only way you can stay fresh is if you challenge yourself.”
He decided to ask himself, “What if I were just starting out today? How would I write this book?” He asked his friends to make him lists of their favorite parts of the book, and he made sure not to omit those sections. The rewrite took him about three and a half months, says Bolles, who has also published six other books with Ten Speed and is working on a new book about faith.
As to why What Color Is Your Parachute? reached so many people the way it did, Bolles has been asking his readers that question for 30 years. His conclusion? “People tend to pick [the book] up when they’re at some point in their [lives] when they’ve put a lot of energy into trying to fix the things they want to fix about their [lives], particularly in the work world, and they’re just at this stopping point. And the book, when they read it, gets them going and the rest is all that energy they’ve been investing for months or years.”
The different ways his book has managed to impact so many lives, beyond the job hunting tips, are probably more than Bolles will ever know. But his readers have taught him that his book relates more to his original mission in life than he might have guessed.
As he says, “It’s a book of hope masquerading as a job hunting manual.”
Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, and author of the novel Almost Missed You. This article originally appeared in the May 2002 Writer’s Digest.