How Britons became suckers for self-help

Britain is awash with personal improvement books, from the worthy to the whacky. Is it that people in a stalled economy are desperate for advice, or are we just suckers for the promise of a quick fix?

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Something has happened to the British psyche. Where once our collective upper lip stiffened with disgust at anything so naff as 'self-help', today we devour books that promise to make us more successful, a better partner or just nicer.

From Rhonda Byrne's The Secret (Simon & Schuster), published in 2006 - which guaranteed to deliver you everything so long as you wanted it badly enough - to current bestsellers, such as Jacqui Marson's The Curse of Lovely (Platkus), personal development bookshelves are groaning under the strain of titles telling us what to do with our lives.

Stumped as to how to navigate office politics, confused about how to raise your children - or just wanting to 'think' in a better way? You'll be able to find an 'expert' who will explain how to live your life so you don't have to bother working it out for yourself.

Have we Brits undergone a lobotomy, or do some of these books actually perform a valuable service?

'If you look in any bookshop, the space devoted to self-help and personal development is much bigger than it once was,' confirms Joel Rickett, publisher for Viking and Portfolio at Penguin Books. 'The big titles are now getting space at the front of the store.'

In fact, if you look at authors like Malcolm Gladwell, a big self-help launch is every bit as much of a publishing event as the latest book by a chick-lit superstar or celebrity chef.

Part of the reason Brits traditionally looked down their noses at self-help was that the area was seen as full of shysters and snake-oil salesmen. But this too has changed.

'Self-help has opened the door to a much more upmarket audience,' says Tim Whiting, a publisher at Little, Brown. 'I oversee Abacus, which publishes Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point and Tim Harford's Adapt: Why success always starts with failure. What you're seeing here is a kind of merging of intelligent non-fiction with self-help. With books like these, readers get to the end and feel they've learned something useful.'

Rebecca Alexander, an executive coach, takes a similar view: 'Self-help books have really upped their game. You do still get some that are superficial, but many of the better titles are a sophisticated blend of neuroscience, philosophy and psychology.'

How to Win Friends and Influence People has sold more than 15 million copiesOf course, self-help books are hardly new. Dale Carnegie is often credited with giving birth to the industry with How to Win Friends and Influence People (Vermilion).

Since publication in 1936, it has sold more than 15 million copies and, astonishingly, is currently Amazon UK's 126th bestselling book. However, Samuel Smiles, a classic Scottish autodidact, wrote Self-Help in 1859; the book sold 20,000 copies in its first year and, as the 2002 edition's introduction notes, it 'elevated him to celebrity status: almost overnight he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru'.

Go back further and there are strong elements of self-help in books such as Sun Tzu's Art of War, Machiavelli's The Prince, the writings of Cicero and even the Bible.

But the fact that self-help has been around, in some guise, for thousands of years doesn't explain the recent rise to prominence of these books. Part of it has been a gradual change in the British character. 'These days, UK scepticism and irony seems less all-encompassing than they once were,' says Rickett. 'People are more open to talking about their emotions.'

The relaxation of our stiff upper lips is undoubtedly one reason. But another is the long recession - and this has manifested itself on two fronts.

On the personal side of things, with costs rising and incomes flatlining people are less inclined to throw money around. 'If you can't afford all sorts of expensive things and recreational activities any more,' says Alexander, 'you can still change from the inside.'

Perhaps you can no longer holiday in Dubai, but you can become a better parent, or boost your chances of finding happiness.

Rickett notes: 'We're seeing a lot of people focusing less on success in a career sense and looking more at quality of life and relationships.'

Work is a second, related front where the recession may explain the popularity of self-help. Here, many people have been stuck in their jobs since the recession started. Companies aren't recruiting, so ambitious staff can't leave, and the promotion pipeline is blocked by those above them who are also stuck.

'It's the "don't move, improve" syndrome,' says Alexander. 'A lot of books in business personal development tell you how to fall back in love with your job.'

Yet for all this, there is something quite British about the desire to seek help in a book.

'When people have problems, they often find themselves in a (self-reinforcing) triangle of shame, secrecy and isolation,' says Marson, a psychologist as well as being the author of The Curse of Lovely. 'Even high-functioning people often have things about them they don't think are normal - and in the UK we tend not to talk about it. So reading a book can make you realise you're not alone.'

How big is the self-help biz? It's hard to tell, because no one seems quite sure where it starts and ends.

At one extreme, self-help blurs seamlessly into a certain type of biography (such as misery-lit and tales of celebrity redemption) and at the other it happily rubs shoulders with titles that are normally filed under business, management and careers.

It is a tent big enough to accommodate books on MBAs and 1970s wibble such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Whiting answers the size question with: 'Well, that depends on how you categorise it. All we can really say is that it's extraordinarily big and diverse.'

For this reason, perhaps, Whiting and Rickett hold differing views on the sector's growth. Whiting says self-help publishing grew most strongly in the early to mid 2000s and has been fairly flat since, while Rickett says the audience for these books is much bigger than it was six years ago.

The category's filigree edges mean that, depending on the measures you use, both can be right at the same time.

In fact, even in the US, where this kind of thing is so much better established, hard data is difficult to come by. The figure most commonly bandied about, from a Marketdata Enterprises report dating from March 2012 is that the total 'self-improvement' market is worth $11bn - although this includes books, coaching, seminars, stress management and much else besides. Robust growth is forecast through to next year.

In keeping with the self-help world's embrace of the middle classes, the authors have also professionalised.

Rickett notes: 'We are seeing more academics and psychologists. People who write personal development books these days tend to be real specialists. You see fewer people coming up with cynical ideas.'

Here, he points to books such as The Chimp Paradox (Vermilion), which was written by Dr Steve Peters, a psychiatrist who worked with the British cycling team and who lectures at the University of Sheffield.


45,000 - Estimated self-help titles in print

$11bn - Value of the US self-help market

Over 25m - Sales of Stephen Covey's 1989 classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Forbes 2012)

£35 - Cost of a place on Alain de Botton's 'How to Have Better Conversations' Class at the School for Life

£35m - Net worth of Paul McKenna


Other changes mirror the book market as a whole. Readers now expect far more of their authors. No longer are they allowed to hide away JD Salinger-like and scribble. Literary festivals where writers give talks and press the flesh with fans are now almost as common as music festivals, and vital to commercial success.

Self-help has always leaned this way, perhaps because many of its authors are also motivational speakers. It's not surprising to learn that many of self-help's biggest names - such as Brene Brown (Daring Greatly, Portfolio Penguin) and Susan Cain (Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking, Viking) have huge followings at talks organiser TED.

In fact, many of TED's most popular talks cover self-help, and where once the author became a speaker, now the speaker becomes an author. 'The speakers' circuit does make a difference,' says Whiting. 'I'm sure a lot of professionals see writing these books as extensions of their careers.'

It's not just TED either. In 2008, the popular philosopher Alain de Botton and others founded the School of Life, which describes itself as a 'cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life'.

Among the products and services it offers are books with titles such as John-Paul Flintoff's How to Change the World (Macmillan) and de Botton's own How to Think More About Sex (Macmillan).

With their minimalist modern covers and hip positioning, these self-help books could happily grace an Islington coffee table. Not only that, but they're part of a larger offering aimed squarely at people who, a decade ago, would probably have run a mile from self-help.

The genre has also embraced the online world with an enthusiasm that is quite at odds with much traditional publishing.

Says Rickett: 'We're seeing a lot more people who have built up real followings online becoming authors.'

Strangely, perhaps, Whiting notes that people seem to prefer their self-help books as physical entities rather than virtual e-books. He puts this down to the fact that they are often read in a non-linear fashion - people dip in and out of them.

As for the customers, Marson thinks that, at the relationship and emotions end of the market, about 95% of buyers are female. But at the business end, they tend to be more male.

'Anecdotally,' says Whiting, 'business books skew male, and relationship books are more likely to be bought by women, but we don't really know.'

One thing that is known, however, is that a big self-help title can keep producing the goods for ever. Says Rickett: 'Some of our perennial bestsellers are on this list. Books like (Josh Kaufman's) The Personal MBA (Portfolio) just sit there and sell and sell and sell.'

Whiting takes a similar view. 'It can be very good for your backlist,' he says. 'We published a book called Fierce Conversations (by Susan Scott, Platkus) that sells more copies every year. It just keeps going.'

But for all this, isn't there something a bit rum about these titles - that the only person whose life is really changed is the author, who sits collecting royalties and laughing at the suckers who've bought the book?

In one episode of the edgy US cartoon Family Guy, Brian the dog writes a self-help book. As he finishes, he says: 'Done. Three hours, 27 minutes and I've got myself one big steamin' pile of book.' He calls it Wish It. Want It. Do It. The first chapter is full of blank pages for readers to write down all their dreams. 'Brilliant!' says child prodigy character Stewie Griffin. 'Let them do the work.'

Although this is a pretty good joke, such cynicism is surprisingly hard to maintain. This may be partly because reality so often trumps anything you can make up - Brian's title is blown away by the handles of real self-help tomes such as Adrian Webster's Polar Bear Pirates and their Quest to Reach Fat City (Bantam).

And there is something disarmingly earnest, even virtuous, about the good self-help books. So, strangely, a lot of jokey self-help manuals start out with the premise 'this is all bullshit, you dupes' and then by page 30 starts admitting the joke has a point. Eventually, they become 'flattire', celebrating the topic they're meant to be ripping into.

Besides, self-help is very good at having it both ways. In the preamble to noughties bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? (Vermilion), it is noted that while the book's fans find it life-changing, its critics consider it obvious, childish and insulting to the intelligence. The author, Spencer Johnson, shrugs and says: 'You're both right. It's how you apply it.'

The biggest question, though, is do they work? 'The good ones do,' says Whiting. 'If people felt they weren't getting something from them, they wouldn't buy them.' And this, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. They work - or at least they work enough - that people keep buying them, because you can't fool all the people all the time.

Adds Alexander: 'Self-help books are a bit like diet books. They do work, but six months down the line it's up to you to keep the momentum.'

Amusingly, she reckons that human nature means the self-help market helps itself by creating its own demand. 'The most likely buyer of a self-help book is someone who bought one 18 months earlier.' mt

Rhymer Rigby is the author of The Careerist - Over 100 ways to get ahead at work (Kogan Page, £14.99) - which, now he thinks about it, is a self-help book of sorts

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