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Helping ourselves

So, as we do around here, we’ve been talking lately about what book categories are thriving and which are tanking.  As Jane mentioned in her post earlier this week, categories wax and wane (and so do we).  The other day, during a staff meeting, Jane and I were fondly remembering the self-help boom of the late ‘80s to late ‘90s.  All those Women Who Love Too Much and the Men Who Find Them Annoying bestsellers, along with the mystical/empowerment titles like Women Who Run with Iron John, made for fat royalty statements back in the day.

Not so much any more.  Aside from the inspirational/health/nutrition/lifestyle books by any of the Real Housewives and the occasional Let Me Tell You How You Can Fix You book on the New York Times list, the self-help category seems sadly quiet at the moment.  We are clearly in need of help as a culture—individually and collectively, and this piece in The Hairpin points out the kinds of situations some of us could use  guidance with.

All kidding aside, though, what happened to the self-help category?  Why are those books not making the kind of splash they did 15 or 20 years ago?  Certainly, we’re not any more well-adjusted.

So,  really, what happened?   Serious question here, why do you all think that the self-help bubble went bust?

19 Responses to Helping ourselves

  1. Aimee Stwart says:

    Because it wasn’t that helpful in the end, I assume…

  2. Nathan says:

    People bought the books, read the books, did the stuff the books told them to do … and their lives didn’t improve.

    Eventually folks figure out that the books weren’t helping their selves improve, so they stopped buying them.

  3. Catherine Whitney says:

    Yes, the self-help category is broken. Just look at Amazon’s top 10 self-help titles. They list Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Prince by Machievelli. But in addition to obvious confusion about what the category entails, other factors might be the end of Oprah, the rise of blogs with self-proclaimed experts, and the enormous amount of copycatting in the category– (7 lessons, 7 tips, 7 pounds, 7 days, 7 deadly sins…).

  4. Nicole M. says:

    Did the self-help bubble go bust, or did it just move to the blogoshpere? Seems to me there’s a lot of “how to be a better you” and/or “confessions of why I’m not a better me” content on everything from mommy blogs to the more masculine, fire-in-the-belly sites. It’s an interesting question.

  5. Meredith says:

    I think maybe it has something to do with being to broad – like what “fixes” one person’s problem can fix everyone else that has the same problem. And though some of the self-help books are/were no doubt in-depth I don’t think a self-help book generated for the masses can reach people on the personal level that is needed to connect with the individual.
    Also we have become a society with a very short attention span and are so self-absorbed that we probably don’t feel like we need a book to us… We just look it up on google with our smart phones and then Tweet the answers:-)
    This cynical ramble brought to you by a long carpool line, my unruly children, and of course google:-)

  6. Bridget says:

    Interesting question. I agree with Nicole and Meredith that the internet may have a lot to do with it. I bought self-help books in the past when I felt I needed expert advice in a situation, often because I didn’t personally know anyone who was experiencing something similar. Online, there is not only lots of information to be found, but a support group atmosphere, with lots of people who are working towards similar goals or facing specific, difficult situations.

    Also, many of the people I know who are into self-improvement have turned to more spiritual activities, like meditation and yoga. I remember one time in the mid-90s when I’d gone for a run in a park and was doing some stretches afterward. A man asked me, “Are you doing that yogurt stuff?” Now yoga is offered at pretty much every gym, community center, etc.

  7. RamseyH says:

    Like others here have said, I think a great deal of it has moved online, more towards supportive communities than proscriptive guides. In part I think this has something to do with our recognition as a culture that the so-called experts handing out advice probably don’t have it any more “together” than the rest of us, and that there really isn’t one recipe for success.

    Another thought: I wonder if the self-help category is naturally limiting, in the sense that a few really good books rise to the top and become classics, while all others fade into obscurity. I can name quite a few marriage and child rearing books that have been around for 20+ years and are still popular. When you’ve got a definitive/effective text on a topic, it’s hard to break out with something really new.

  8. Meredith says:

    Hahaha – Steve:-)

    Stuart Smalley is my hero :-) thanks for the laugh this morning, I needed that! See, Stuart inadvertently helped me already!

  9. Blogs. There is more self-help on the web now than ever before. You can find it anywhere, and it isn’t necessarily in the traditional format. There’s the how-to websites and then there are people spilling their innards, for better or worse, and this kind of purging is commonly viewed as a healthy form of expression.

    In many ways the self-help genre has gone the way of style advice books: the internet. Many moons ago I had submitted a non-fiction proposal for a style book to a friend who works in publishing. I wanted her honest opinion of how it might fair with editors. Her reply was succinct: it won’t fly. Why? Because you can find this kind of advice on the web now, and plenty of it. We can now help ourselves to advice in so many disciplines that books in the genres have become redundant. We probably need to move on to more specialized areas, the mini-genre, if you will. Spinning these topics to suit a specific audience perhaps, or multi-tasking them across a specific demographic, like having your cake, your health, your style, your beauty, and eating it all in a single teaspoonful too.

  10. Jacoba Urist says:

    Hi Miriam:

    I think the self-help category kind of “grew up” or morphed into more engrossing memoir/narrative type reads. A hybrid self-help if you will…best ex. The Happiness Project. (or look at the 100 thing challenge, which is a book about simplifying but not a “how to” type advice structure per se).

  11. Miriam says:

    All very thought provoking. Jim, here at DGLM, also suggested that the poor economy might have had an impact–when people are busy trying to put food on the table, they’re not that concerned with achieving spiritual enlightenment or happiness.

    Longtime publishing insider and HuffPost contributor Gary Krebs, who was visiting the office today suggested that the classic self-help titles hold up so well (and still sell so well) that they are eating into the market for new self-help.

    • Nan Goheen says:

      There is no single answer to most questions and trends are multi-determined so examing the current baby boomer life stage and how well the inter net addresses those needs may shed light on where the next wave of personal information books is likely.

      We baby boomers are ripe for a new movement since so many of our delusions have been shattered. But this time we don’t want to look like the fool or be caught reading The Secret while the economy crumbles around us.

      So many of the self help books were arrogant and professed to know the answer without needing to consider or even understand scientific inquiry or the complex economic realities of our times.

      Meanwhile brain research is exploding and its relevance to parenting and relationships stunning. There is so much more known about what really does work and as writers (like myself) with science backgrounds make this information available I predict a new explosion because these methods really do work.

    • Nan Goheen says:

      There is no single answer to most questions and trends are multi-determined so examing the current baby boomer life stage and how well the inter net addresses those needs may shed light on where the next wave of personal information books is likely.

      We baby boomers are ripe for a new movement since so many of our delusions have been shattered. But this time we don’t want to look like the fool or be caught reading The Secret while the economy crumbles around us.

      So many of the self help books were arrogant and professed to know the answer without needing to consider or even understand scientific inquiry or the complex economic realities of our times.

      Meanwhile brain research is exploding and its relevance to parenting and relationships stunning. There is so much more known about what really does work and as writers (like myself) with science backgrounds make this information available I predict a new explosion because these methods really do work.

      PS If this is a 2nd post I apologize. I may know something about brain research but posting has me stumped.

  12. ryan field says:

    A lot of people are in counseling or therapy now. They discuss it openly, where this was a discreet topic in the 80′s. People sought self-help because it was discreet. Times were different, too. TV talk shows like Oprah revolved around self-help, which helped promote the books. Now it’s reality TV and political shows. Or home improvement with good looking guys.

  13. Gill Avila says:

    I just came to an accommodation with my afflictions with the help of two psychiatrists and 16 prescriptions for anti-anxiety pills and antidepressants.

  14. Joelle says:

    I do agree that it’s probably the web that’s cut down on the success of self-help. But also, maybe it’s a generational thing. I recently bought The Happiness Project after checking it out at the library after someone recommended it to me, but it’s the only one I’ve bought in years. In fact, the three that really helped me during the big boon was THE ARTIST’S WAY, DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF, and SIMPLE ABUNDANCE and I still have them and use them, so I don’t really need much else! They still teach me new things.

  15. emily says:

    Who was the audience for Self-help in the late 80s-early 90s? What if the audience was aged between 20 to 35 — meaning they were born between 1946 to 1970 — or from the Boomer Generation.

    What life experiences would lead that audience to seek help from books?

    They:
    1. READ BOOKS !! [from childhood to college, that age group depended on books]
    2. had CASH for books — [PRICE/COST -- while the systemic economic pattern that led to our current depression was already in place, it was not obvious. So people were feeling stressed but had the OPTIMISTIC ATTITUDE that they could do something to help themselves]
    3. had TIME to read books — [LIFE STYLE -- the 40 hour work week prevailed]
    4. indoor malls, with stand alone book stores, proliferated in the 1980s — [PLACE/CONVENIENCE]
    5. discounted bestsellers became a marketing device to increase store traffic and pushed the growth of chain book stores [PROMOTION/PR/COMMUNICATION]
    6. but why did all these elements of the ‘marketing-mix’ work so well to sell a PRODUCT called self-help books?

    7. How about this: the sheer numbers within the boomer generation included a large population of women breaking new ground as they took on non-traditional roles. AND there were few mothers who presented ‘everyday’ role models and the grandmothers handed down ‘teacher and nurse’ professional roles. The need for guidance was great. [PRODUCT/CONSUMER NEED]

    Today’s market includes the seniors of the boomer generation — their problems have been solved in large part [see the TV ads aimed at senior men with ED which identifies them as being at the age of ‘doing and solving.’

    I wonder if there is a concomitant rise in sales of health books? Taking care of knees, hips, heart — etc. As a member of this aging population, I see many senior men and women at the Physical Therapist clinic who are dealing with joint-replacements after surgery, or [like me] fixing torn cartilage and learning the limits of the aging body to continue an active lifestyle.

  16. Nan Goheen says:

    The long and short of it: As a generation we are self-helped out. On self help over load and have learned that reading about change isn’t the same thing as changing.

    PS I realize you didn’t ask where the market is but…..Most Boomers are too late to use the new brain research as parents but may be interested grandparents.

    There is a need for practical grandparenting books that address both the old as the hills challenges like in-laws, over stepping boundaries and how to respectfully contribute to the developing extended family.

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