For decades I have been tracking the self-help movement without fully realizing its place in the zeitgeist, even though I’ve written often about its component parts. My first book, in 1985, described the “mainstreaming” of veteran sales and motivational trainers like Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar, both of whom were then beginning to expand their brands; they were subtly turning their antennae away from hard-core salesmanship to the much airier patter of mass-market training, with its exponentially greater target audience. Their efforts signaled the beginning of what we now call “success training” or, in its more intensive, small-group settings, “life coaching.”
During the late 1980s and 1990s I wrote separate magazine pieces about:
TONY ROBBINS. Today he’s the Eighty Million Dollar Man (per year). Back at the beginning of his career, customers were paying as little as $50 apiece to learn how to “focus” enough to be able to walk over hot coals pain free (a bit of gimmickry that the debunker James Randi tells us has nothing to do with mental preparation and everything to do with the principles of heat conduction).
TOMMY LASORDA. By the mid-1990s the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager had become a huge draw on the banquet circuit, commanding at least $30,000 an hour for imparting such philosophical gems as “Ya gotta want it!”
THE PECOS RIVER LEARNING CENTER. At Pecos River, otherwise rational corporate citizens fully expected to buttress their self-confidence and negotiating skills by falling backward off walls and sliding down the side of a mountain on a tether.
PETER LOWE. In 1998 I covered one of the barnstorming impresario’s weekend-long success-fests for the Wall Street Journal. I guesstimated the two-day take at $1.4 million, plus ancillaries. We’ll get to the ancillaries in a moment.
In reporting these and other stories, I never quite recognized all those trees as a forest. I also watched, but didn’t quite apprehend, as scholarship and complex thought fell to the wayside amid the influx of simple answers delivered via bullet points, as logic and common sense took a backseat to sheer enthusiasm and even something akin to mass hysteria.
What brought everything into focus for me was a career move of my own in mid-2000. For the ensuing sixteen months, I served as editor of the books program associated with Men’s Health magazine, the glamour property in the vast better-living empire that is Rodale. In addition to publishing such magazines as Prevention, Organic Gardening, and Runner’s World, Rodale had become the premier independent book publisher in the United States largely through its aggressive and ingenious mail-order books program. The company conceived, wrote, printed, and sold millions of self-help or other advice books each year. Thus, my experience there gave me a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of the self-help industry. Rodale’s professed mission statement, as featured on its corporate Web site at the time of my arrival, was simple: “To show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better.”
At considerable expense, Rodale undertook extensive market surveys, the results of which dictated each business unit’s editorial decisions. In the case of self-help books specifically, the surveys identified the customers’ worst fears and chronic problems, which we were then supposed to target in our editorial content. One piece of information to emerge from those market surveys stood out above all others and guided our entire approach: The most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months. In a way that finding should not have surprised me. People read what interests them; a devoted Civil War buff is going to buy every hot new book that comes out on the Civil War. Pet lovers read endlessly about pets.
But the Eighteen-Month Rule struck me as counterintuitive–and discomfiting–in a self-help setting. Here, the topic was not the Civil War or shih tzus; the topic was showing people “how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better.” Many of our books proposed to solve, or at least ameliorate, a problem. If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us–at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again. At some point, people would make the suggested changes, and those changes would “take.” I discovered that my cynicism was even built into the Rodale system, in the concept of repurposing–reusing chunks of our copyrighted material in product after product under different names, sometimes even by different authors.
Worse yet, our marketing meetings made clear that we counted on our faithful core of malcontents. (Another important lesson in self-help theology: SHAM’s answer when its methods fail? You need more of it. You always need more of it.) One of my Rodale mentors illustrated the concept by citing our then all-time best-selling book, Sex: A Man’s Guide. This individual theorized that the primary audience for Man’s Guide did not consist of accomplished Casanovas determined to polish their already enviable bedroom skills. Our buyers were more likely to be losers at love–hapless fumblers for whom our books conjured a fantasy world in which they could imagine themselves as ladies’ men, smoothly making use of the romantic approaches and sexual techniques we described. Failure and stagnation, thus, were central to our ongoing business model.
Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people. Put bluntly, he has a potent incentive to play his most loyal customers for suckers.
Yet it’s even worse than that. Much of SHAM actively fans the fires of discontent, making people feel impaired or somehow deficient as a prelude to (supposedly) curing them. One striking example comes from no less an insider than Myrna Blyth, a former Ladies’ Home Journal editor. In her 2004 book, Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America, Blyth repents for her own role in an industry that was supposed to help women grow but instead wreaked incalculable harm on the psyches of its devoted followers. What women’s magazines mostly have done, argues Blyth, is create and implant worry, guilt, insecurity, inadequacy, and narcissism that did not exist in women before the magazines came along.
PAYING THE (PIED) PIPERS
The American love affair with self-help is unmistakable in the sheer size of the SHAM fiscal empire. Granted, the movement’s total cash footprint defies down-to-the-penny measurement. There’s just too much of it out there, perpetrated to an increasing degree by independent life coaches or poor-man’s Tony Robbinses giving small-ticket motivational speeches at the local Ramada Inn. But just what we know for sure is staggering. According to Marketdata Enterprises, which has been putting a numerical face on major cultural trends since 1979, the market for self-improvement grew an astonishing 50 percent between 2000 and 2004. This substantially exceeds the already robust annual growth figures Marketdata forecast in 2000. Today, self-improvement in all its forms constitutes an $8.56 billion business, up from $5.7 billion in 2000. Marketdata now expects the industry to be perched at the $12 billion threshold by 2008.
Remember–this is only what we can document. And it does not include the broader social and political costs, which we’ll discuss separately.
Between thirty-five hundred and four thousand new self-help books appeared in 2003, depending on whose figures you use and precisely how you define the genre. The higher figure represents more than double the number of new SHAM titles that debuted in 1998, when wide-eyed social commentators were remarking at self-help mania and what it signified about the decline of premillennial Western civilization. Together with evergreens like Codependent No More, Melody Beattie’s seminal 1987 tract on overcoming self-destructive behaviors, these books accounted for about $650 million in sales, according to Simba Information, which tracks publishing trends.
Self-help was well represented on best-seller lists in 2004, anchored by a spate of musings from the Family McGraw (Dr. Phil and son Jay); Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life; Joel Osteen’s spiritually tinged Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential; Greg Behrendt’s cold shower for lovelorn women, He’s Just Not That into You; and actualization demigod Stephen R. Covey’s The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. The last is a sequel to Covey’s blockbuster work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which remains a postmodern classic, as do Tony Robbins’s various tomes about that giant who slumbers within you and the six dozen separate Chicken Soup books now in print. Stephen Covey, too, has a son, Sean, and Sean Covey has his very own best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Freshly minted guru-authors appear like clockwork each year.
They almost have to, if the demand is to be met. In fact, by 1983, so substantial were sales figures for books of this genre that the lofty New York Times Book Review, which for decades fought the good fight on behalf of books written by actual writers, threw in the towel and added another category, “Advice Books,” to its distinguished best-seller list. In an accompanying announcement, Times editors explained that without this new category even the most compelling w...
Revue de presse
“In an age of self-help, why are so many Americans helpless? Why do so many self-help gurus, from Dr. Phil on down, create followers rather than independent souls? Steve Salerno exposes the SHAM with ruthless honesty destined to make more than a few people angry.” —Dr. Michael Hurd, author of Effective Therapy and Grow Up America!