It may be increasingly common for first-time authors who can’t place their book with a trade house to publish themselves. But it’s pretty rare for a self-published book to sell more than 1.5 million copies—or move to the small screen as an animated film to be aired on CBS in prime time on Black Friday, November 25. Yet former teachers Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, have pulled off both feats in the past seven years since completing the manuscript for The Elf on the Shelf, a picture book based on their Scandinavian family’s Yuletime tradition of moving an elf around the house.
After having the book turned down by houses in New York, Aebersold and Bell in 2005 launched Creatively Classic Activities and Books in Kennesaw, Ga., with Bell’s twin sister, former QVC host Christa Pitts, and published the book themselves. They packaged it with a toy elf, because the scout elf is so integral to the story—he reports back to Santa on who’s naughty and nice. Over the years CCA and B has expanded its product line to include plush elves, elf skirts, and an activity book. Together, books and merchandise have contributed to CCA and B’s rapid growth. As reported in Inc. magazine, revenue rose 218% between 2007 and 2010, to $9.2 million.
“We’re a bit of an anomaly doing it all ourselves,” Pitt told PW. “But we knew how much we had loved the tradition growing up. We knew if it came to other families, they’d like it, too.” Initially, said Pitt, Elf sold directly to consumers at local mistletoe markets and junior leagues before moving into “boutique-style shops”—small gift stores, toy stores, and bookstores—willing to take a chance on the package and buy it nonreturnable. Now CCA and B is positioning itself and the Elf brand for greater growth and larger distribution to take advantage of the release of the 23-minute animated film, An Elf’s Story. Produced by Big Canoe Entertainment Production (formed by Aebersold, Bell, and Pitts), Atlanta animation house Trick 3D, and Waddell and Scorsese Productions, the movie offers a “3-D experience in a 2-D format” for television and DVD viewers, according to Animation magazine. The Blu-ray edition will ship with both a 2-D and 3-D version.
“It’s an exciting moment in the company’s evolution,” said Inger Forland, director of marketing and public relations. Since she joined the company in May, it has tripled both its staff and office space and now has 30 people working full-time. CCA and B is not only moving into the entertainment industry but big box stores as well. For the first time Target will carry Elf. In addition, the company is ramping up to release its first e-book edition of Elf, which will be available for the Nook. Barnes & Noble will also stock Elf-related mugs, cookie jars, Christmas plates, and gift bags. Additional licensed merchandise will be available at Pottery Barn Kids and Christian wholesaler Roman Inc.
CCA and B has a national PR campaign underway and has already locked in a segment on The Talk and a feature in TV Guide, said Forland. Beginning November 2 in Miami, authors Aebersold and Bell launched a 16-city tour, which includes stops in Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco. “Every year we have worked diligently on a book tour,” Pitts noted. “It’s wonderful. What’s new this year for us is the concentrated focus.” The tour coupled with national advertising and the movie could help Elf hit the #1 spot on PW’s Children’s Picture Book bestseller list again this year; it was #3 on the USA Today list. That Elf is well on its way to becoming a holiday classic is evidenced by Adams Media’s decision to release a parody about an elf gone bad, Elf Off the Shelf. However, CCA and B has been concerned that the parody could cause confusion for its young fans, according to Pitts, which is why the company tried to prevent the book’s release through a lawsuit filed in late June in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction was denied.
But Elf is no longer CCA and B’s only brand. Last year the company accepted its first outside submission, Sandra Harsanyi Murphy’s A Light in the Night, which comes packaged with a light-up plush figure (available in blue or pink). The set is designed to help kids overcome their fear of the dark. Although it has yet to catch up with Elf in terms of sales, it’s already garnering attention. InTouch magazine recently ran a photo of Halle Berry’s daughter, Nahla, taking her pink A Light in the Night to preschool. A series of ads will run on national television this month and next.