Self-help Books: Friend or Foe?
Do you own a self-help book? There’s no shame in it, so be honest. Chances are pretty good that you do. You may not have bought it for yourself, and you may have hidden it behind a complete collection of Ernest Hemingway, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have one. According to an article written for Psychology Today (May 2012) by Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, roughly 33 – 50% of adults have bought at least one self-help book. According to an article by Professor Timothy D. Wilson for the Daily Mail (August 2011), one of the self-help industry’s favourite rules is the ’18-month rule’, which basically states that “the person most likely to buy a book this week is someone who bought one 18 months earlier”.
So it’s a repeat industry.
It’s also a multibillion dollar industry. Wilson says that it worth more than $10 billion per year in the US, although Whitbourne’s figure is considerably more conservative at $2.5 billion a year. According to Wilson, during a rather bleak period when overall book sales in the UK dropped by 1%, self-help book sales zipped up 25%.
No wonder that many people think that all they need to do to get rich is write a self-help book. Especially as they see helpful articles like “How to Publish a Self-Help Book Without a PhD”, and “How to Write a Self-Help Book in 30 Days”. There is even a self-help book on how to write a bestselling self-help book. In fact, there’s probably more than one.
The fact that anyone can write a self-help book has given rise to a very serious credibility problem. After all, just because someone has experienced a particular problem or achieved a particular success, doesn’t make them an expert on the matter. No matter what they think.
But, that doesn’t mean all self-help books are a crock, or that a PhD is necessary to provide valuable advice to others. So, here are four tips to choose a self-help book that is actually worth something.
1) Research the authors
Don’t make impulse purchases. Find some promising authors online (or in-store) and then research them to see if they have subject cred. Bear in mind that a string of degrees doesn’t necessarily indicate expertise. Whitbourne says you should also bear in mind that even though an author’s name may appear on the book, doesn’t mean they wrote the book themselves. Ghost authors are often used to write self-help books, and precise information can get lost or fuddled in translation.
Try to find out if the author is active in the field – if they regularly contribute to research, write papers or articles, or have a practice. Some ‘experts’ fall out of touch with what’s going on in their industries and so don’t use the latest research. You don’t want to buy a book by someone whose work in the field ended in 1982.
See if the author has published other books. Having a lot of books under their belt doesn’t necessarily indicate credibility, but if there are some academic-type books mixed in with the commercially popular books, you can be reasonably sure that they take their job seriously.
2) Recognise the difference between ‘self-help’ and ‘journey of discovery’
In August 2013, Tama Kieves wrote a blog for the Huff Post which looks at the new trend among self-help books. Kieves reckons they’re self-help books in the raw. They’re written by people who share their experiences of a journey of self-discovery, or learning, or something. She says that they’re real and relevant, which may be true, but they’re not strictly self-help. They can be considered inspirational memoirs at best.
This fits the changing audience, according to Kieves, who says that people no longer want just knowledge. Instead, they want to be moved, changed, and understood at a personal level. They want to be able to relate to the authors, or feel that the authors can relate to them. And this is great. We can learn valuable lessons from one another. But calling Eat, Pray, Love a self-help book is stretching the definition a bit. They can be considered self-improvement, which is what Wikipedia terms the modernised version of self-help.
Which brings us to tip number three.
3) Know what you’re looking for
What are you hoping to get out of the book? Do you want to be inspired by a real person’s journey through a similar experience? Or, do you want an expert giving you concrete advice and step-by-step solutions, backed up by scientific evidence and research findings?
Sometimes, your decision is driven by the problem. If you want to know how to meditate, chances are good you’re looking for instructions and not a meandering tale of someone’s journey to inner peace and self-discovery through meditation. You want to know the basic techniques, as well as how to implement them in every aspect of your life, like eating, walking, driving, and working. You want self-help rather than self-improvement.
If, on the other hand, you’re going through a difficult divorce, you might benefit more from reading a memoir-type inspirational book by someone who went through a nastier divorce and came out smiling. You need that hope, and not a guide.
4) The quality of the writing is important
It doesn’t need to be Shakespearean in quality, but you want someone who understands something about syntax, punctuation, and grammar. Someone who doesn’t lecture or condescend but who is engaging and informative. Don’t afraid to read snippets here and there while you’re standing in the store. Whitbourne recommends that you use Google to take a look at excerpts from books while online. Basically, take it for a little test run. If you find there is too much jargon or the language is too academic, or you don’t like the way the author uses semi-colons and you know that will irritate you, don’t buy it.
Read the consumer reviews online. This will give you a good idea of the book’s quality.
Whether you call them self-help or self-improvement, these books are very subjective. What works for one person may not work for another. So don’t be dispirited if a renowned international bestseller gives you no joy. The problem is not with you. You can try again. And, at the end of the day, when you finally find the book the helps you, you can write your own self-help book on how to buy self-help books.
Written by Sandy Cosser
Image credit: Richard Gillin (photoverulam), CC B-SA 2.0, via Flickr