How I Do It: Christmas Special with the Elf on the Shelf

Headshot of Debbie Young

ALLi blog editor Debbie Young

When I first came across the phenomenon that is The Elf on the Shelf, I had no idea that it was a self-publishing success story – all I knew was that it was a festive-themed book that came with a toy that had captured the imaginations of families all over the US, and was slowly spreading around the world. It was only when I had an approach from the Elf’s PR lady (ok, his authors’ PR!) with an invitation to review it for a parenting magazine of which I’m Books Editor that I discovered the truth. I was very pleased to be able subsequently to conduct a telephone interview with Chanda Bell, co-author with her mother Carol Aebersold, when she visited London to launch the Elf officially on the British market.

Is it a Book? Is it a Toy?

Book, box and elf photo

The product consists of a book, box and elf

The boxed book includes your very own elf[/caption]But first, the low-down on the Elf. The Elf on the Shelf is more than just a book: it’s a book that comes packaged in a display box in which the Elf himself is perching on a shelf, ready to be adopted into your own family. The principle is that the Elf is a scout for Santa, and appears at the start of the Christmas season. Each night he reports back to Santa on whether the children of the household have been bad or good, with implied consequences for their Christmas presents…

To confirm that the elf has been elsewhere overnight, he appears in a different position each morning, to greet the children on rising. Some elves are naughty, being discovered getting up to mischief; others are good. The children must never touch the elf, though, or the magic will be broken.

The Origins of The Elf on the Shelf

Open book pic

The book explains the concept in jaunty verse

The product, based on a toy elf in the authors’ household when Chanda and her sister were little, lends itself very well to the visual promotion opportunities of the internet age. Photos of them wrapped in toilet paper or diving into boxes of chocolates abound on the internet. There are also sites devoted to sharing ideas to help parents decide where to place their elf each morning. There are also follow-up products, including special outfits for a one-off appearance on the child’s birthday, and a pet reindeer. Even so, the product operates on the principle of “always leave them wanting more”, as the elf disappears after Christmas Day until the next year.

“Our family’s elf was called Fisbee,” recalls Chanda. “She was like a member of the family, and we had her from the day I was born.”

How The Elf Came to be Self-Published

The idea of turning the elf into a commercial book product came only after Chanda and her sister Christa Pitts had grown up.

“We weren’t really aiming for commercial success, though,” says Chanda. “Our intent wasn’t so much to start a business as to share our family’s tradition with other families.”

They started out on the conventional route, pitching the idea to many publishing companies, but were rejected each time.

“I don’t think they really knew what to do with it,” remembers Chanda. “So we decided to do it ourselves by starting a company.”

Learning versus Luck

What do they wish they knew then that they know now? “Everything! We knew nothing about publishing and had no business background. We could have done it cheaper, but we wanted to make it giftable and pretty to fit in with Christmas, and to be an heirloom – a gift for a whole family that would last a lifetime.”

Ironically, though commercial success has come their way, and big-time, now, profit was never their motivation.

“It’s better if you’re motivated by goodwill, and just want to share,” says Chanda. “When people tell me now that they want to start a company in order to make money, I say they might as well give up now! You need to be prepared to work for free and to do all the hard work yourself. People tend to want a secret formula, but really, you just have to be dedicated. Ultimately it’s down to you to to the marketing, not some magic trick.”

Starting Small, Growing Organically

Elf on shelf in box

These days it’s a good thing to be on the shelf

They started out small scale, taking their product to a lot of small local markets and Christmas fairs, around a dozen each year, and grew the business from there, aided by huge word-of-mouth recommendations by people who loved the product and wanted to share the fun of it with family and friends.

“We had some lucky breaks that we never dreamed of, such as celebrities being papped carrying their Elf home – Courtney Cox, Jennifer Garner, the Kardashians, and, in the UK, Colleen Rooney. We were also featured on the Today Show in the US, which is incredibly powerful. All of these things were outside our control – we were just fortunate.”

A Year-Round Operation

Clearly the hard work continues all year round, as they grow the product range and diversify. There are elves with different skin tones, available as boys or girls (longer eyelashes!), new associated products such as the pet reindeer, and now some apps, including a virtual reindeer pet care app. Their sales outlets – or elf adoption centres, as they prefer to call them – are also increasing in number, in bricks-and-mortar stores as well as online. Though obviously buying in expertise as required, the mother and daughters team remains at the helm of their business, which they are now taking around the world – pretty much as Santa does, I guess, on Christmas Night.

Inspiration for Next Christmas

Elf toyPlenty of ALLi members have already self-published their own festive books – see the list below for starters, and if you also have one, feel free to add details in the comments box.

  • All I Got for Christmas by Genie Davis and Pauline Baird Jones
  • House of Silence by Linda Gillard
  • From Here to Bethlehem by Kathryn Guare
  • Poetry for Christmas by Orna Ross
  • Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
  • The astonishing success of The Elf on the Shelf should be a Christmas inspiration to indie authors everywhere. And if you don’t have a Christmas book yet, and you are the type to celebrate Christmas, why not consider writing one, while the festive season’s still with us? After all, you can be pretty certain that there’ll be another Christmas coming around again next year…


    2 Responses to How I Do It: Christmas Special with the Elf on the Shelf

    1. Mary-Lynne Stadler December 29, 2015 at 9:05 am #

      This account of a self-publishing success is a Christmas gift in itself, setting a perfect note of optimism for 2016. Thank you, Debbie Young, and thank you to the authors of the book. And what a terrific idea. I think this is one to buy the grandchildren….!


    1. ‘Elf On The Shelf’ Is A True Self-Publishing Success Story - January 4, 2016

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