The self-help industry suffers from something of a social stigma, but our sustained interest in it tells a different story. Helen Brown examines how our reaction to the self-help genre has evolved over time.
In the introduction to her bestselling book You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, author Jen Sincero notes that she used to be “too cool” for self-help. It’s a common reaction – for every person who happily recommends Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying to a friend, there’s someone else for whom the phrase ‘self-help’ will elicit an involuntary cringe. Somewhere along the way, the idea of helping ourselves became controversial.
While the concept of personal development has been around for centuries, the term ‘self-help’ has a relatively short history. It was coined in 1859 by Scottish author and government reformer Samuel Smiles, who published a book under that very title encouraging readers to avoid materialism and focus on gaining knowledge instead. By the time of his death in 1904, Self-Help had sold more than 250,000 copies and launched a genre which remains popular today.
Traditionally, our interest in self-help peaks every January when new year’s resolutions place self-improvement at the forefront of our minds. But much-hyped new releases or celebrity endorsements can boost sales in any month of any year; for example, Oprah Winfrey is a huge self-help fan, and famously encouraged viewers of her talk show to ‘live their best lives’. This included inviting self-help authors on the show, talking about spirituality, and championing one of the self-help industry’s most controversial tropes – the art of ‘manifestation’ (a technique popular in spiritual self-help literature, which involves visualising your ideal life, acting like you already have it, and trusting that the universe will deliver).
The industry has experienced plenty of lows, too. That technique that Oprah has spoken about – otherwise known as the ‘law of attraction’ – is widely derided for its reliance on pseudoscience and criticised for its flip-side suggestion that those in negative situations may have brought their misfortune upon themselves by not thinking enough positive thoughts.
And yet, there does seem to be something about this particular moment in time that’s making us more open to self-help culture – even the spiritual or ‘woo-woo’ kind. Since its US publication in 2013, Sincero’s aforementioned book has sold over a million copies and remained on The New York Times Bestseller List for over a year.
Sales across the genre are on the up; according to the Publishers Association’s 2016 annual report, readers of fitness and self-help books pushed non-fiction sales up by 9%, while revenues from fiction fell by 7%. And while the authors of those books come from various generations, millennials in particular are buying into the self-improvement ethos; in 2016 Forbes reported that 94% of 18-33 year olds had committed to making personal improvements, compared with 84% of baby boomers and 81% of gen Xers.
A change in terminology
Publishers have been quick to respond to this renewed interest. Over the past five years, a number of major UK publishing houses have launched or relaunched dedicated imprints in the self-help space. In 2014 Hodder & Stoughton launched Yellow Kite, an imprint focused on publishing “books to help you live a good life”, in 2015 HarperCollins relaunched the Harper Thorsons imprint specialising in mind, body and spirit titles, and in 2016 Penguin launched Penguin Life (an imprint which will grow to publish 20 books a year). Most recently, in February 2017, Bloomsbury launched Green Tree, a new health and wellbeing imprint “setting the tone for self-improvement”.
Part of the millennial update lies in that branding – these days, the books we’re reading are less likely to be described as ‘self-help’ and more likely to be categorised as ‘self-improvement’ or ‘personal development’ titles.
“I think the phrase ‘self-help’ has its place, but perhaps it’s a bit of an old fashioned term these days,” explains Charlotte Croft, publisher at Green Tree. “‘Improvement’ is more positive and affirming, which fits well with our ethos.”
Kristen Meinzer, a radio producer who recently launched By The Book, a “half reality show, half self-help podcast”, in which she and comedian Jolenta Greenberg live by the rules of a different self-help book in each episode and then report on the results, sees our sceptical reaction to the genre as having a complicated history.
“One of the reasons self-help books make people cringe is that they often make promises that are outrageous or impossible to deliver on, like ‘Lose thirty pounds in thirty days!’ or ‘Make him desire you by ignoring him!’” says Meinzer. “We see people who fall for these kinds of promises as suckers, not unlike the naive villagers of yore who fell for snake oil salesman. On top of that, I think we only focus on the word ‘help’ in self-help. If we paid attention to the word ‘self’, we’d realise this genre is targeting people who want to be self-reliant. And isn’t self reliance a good thing?”
Greenberg, Meinzer’s co-host, agrees, adding: “Admitting you need ‘help’ means admitting a flaw or a weakness. Saying you want to ‘improve’ is safer and less vulnerable, you just want to get even better than you already are. It makes me sad that our society frowns so much upon admitting you need help.”
Those working in the self-help space agree that there’s something about this particular moment – perhaps political unease or lack of financial security – which is fuelling a renewed interest in the genre. “People are struggling to make sense of the world, and they want to enrich their lives in some way – whether that’s going to a book club or a poetry reading, or taking up other methods of self-care such as yoga or meditation,” explains Liz Gough, publisher at Yellow Kite. “Equally, you might watch a TED talk on neuroscience. People are looking for balance between the scientific and the spiritual.”
The kind of self-help books that we’re reading are changing, too. “Self-help books are getting a bit of an attitude,” explains Iain Campbell, publisher at John Murray (the same Hodder & Stoughton imprint that published Smiles’ Self-Help in 1859 and the UK edition of Sincero’s You Are A Badass in 2016). “Some of the most popular titles at the moment are confident, funny and sassy and they appeal to people who want to live the most amazing life they can. That shift has really transformed the category and opened it up to a new audience.”
There are also new subgenres to explore. On top of ever-popular guides to bettering our health, careers, relationships, finances and home environments, there are new categories such as ‘adulting’ (examples include Almost Adulting: All You Need to Know to Get It Together (Sort Of) by Arden Rose and How to Be a Grown Up: You’re Doing Fine and Let Me Tell You Why by Daisy Buchanan, both published this year) and guides for staying afloat in the face of digital overwhelm.
“Living in a digital era makes our jobs more demanding than ever before, blurring – erasing, even – the lines between office and home,” says Natalie Wall, a social media manager who launched her blog, A Peace of Me, to share advice about protecting mental wellbeing in the digital world. “Social media encourages scrolling mindlessly; to balance that out, you have to learn to act more mindfully. I created my blog to explore the notion of living an integrated life, bridging the gap between spirituality and success – in a way that’s easy to digest and understand, promoting the use of technology but in a much more mindful manner.”
Thanks to our digital world, there are increasingly more ways to access self-improvement content – and often for free. Gretchen Rubin, a writer who was once described as ‘the queen of the self-help memoir’ by The New York Times, helps her readers to build better habits in their daily lives via books, blog posts and now a successful podcast, Happier, which she co-hosts with her sister Elizabeth Craft. After seeing a significant growth in the size of her audience following the launch of that podcast, she created an app (betterapp.us) to allow her readers and listeners to communicate with each other directly.
“My app is based around the Four Tendencies framework, the subject of my next book,” says Rubin, who developed the idea that humans can be split into four main personality types, and suggests that understanding your type can help you reach personal or career goals. “People really want to talk about this, so that’s why I was attracted to starting the app. It gives my audience a way to share questions, and trade experiences or tips.”
Carly Jacobs, an Australian blogger who hosts Straight and Curly (tagline: “a podcast for self-improvement junkies”) with fellow writer Kelly Exeter, appreciates the flexibility and experimental approach that podcasting allows.
“We wanted to create a next-level community of self-improvement junkies exploring in-depth practices, but we also didn't want to be preachy or binary about it,” says Carly. “We're natural skeptics so we trial a lot of the stuff in a myth-busting kind of way. We're also not subscribers to a particular ethos or way of living. We review, adjust and critique existing practices to see if they're manageable for different types of people and the lives they live.”
This approach has struck a chord with listeners, providing the basis for an active Facebook group and propelling Straight and Curly past its recent significant milestone of 250,000 downloads.
So, what can we expect from the future of self-help? While there are new voices on the bestseller lists, the classics have surprising staying power; for example, this summer will see the republication of Teach Yourself To Live, an instalment from the world’s first ‘how to’ book series which originally hit the shelves in 1955.
Digital audio platforms will continue to become increasingly important – in fact, experts in the publishing industry now predict that downloads of podcasts and audiobooks will soon surpass ebook sales.
Finally, publishers anticipate that the demand for science-backed self-help will grow. “What’s happening in psychology is filtering into self-help and giving some hard, scientific fact to support ideas on habit forming, mindset, happiness and all the major themes of self-help,” says Iain Campbell of John Murray. “It’s no longer just ‘this worked for me so you should give it a try’. Readers are looking for advice that gives practical results, and authors and publishers are exploring different ways to deliver that material.”
The new self-help
In addition to the books, podcasts and blogs mentioned above, here are three other helpful resources to look up
Do What You Want
Created by former Great British Bake Off contestant Ruby Tandoh and her partner Leah Pritchard, this 150-page zine acts as a celebration of all aspects of mental wellbeing, from the provision of accessible mental health care to the power of self-belief.
With two million readers and growing, Zen Habits is a newsletter and blog where anyone who’s experiencing overwhelm can read about techniques for creating simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of their modern lives.
Images: iStock, Rex Features