The absence of the brand of camaraderie found in British pubs may account in part for the popularity of self-help books among Americans, says Tim McNeill, publisher at Buddhist house Wisdom Publications. "The British aren't in therapy like we are... they just go out for a pint and spill their guts." Instead of baring their souls to their mates at the corner pub, Americans—more likely to be religious than our brethren across the pond—have a strong yearning for both spiritual sustenance and practical help with the problems of life, and often look for books that combine the two.
Little more than 30 years ago, the term "self-help" rankled many a religion publisher, especially the evangelical Christian variety. Self-help, with its perceived overemphasis on "self," stood in stark contrast to the answer for everything: God's help. Today, the notion that faith and self-help can go hand-in-hand is virtually unquestioned. "Religion publishing at its core is about self-help," asserts Nelson Books publisher Jonathan Merkh. "People turn to religion to better their lives in many ways."
To Llewellyn publisher Carl Weschcke, there's also little difference between the New Age category ("though I prefer the term body-mind-spirit," he says) and self-help. "Improving yourself is the essence of everything we do," he says. "You cannot separate your higher self from the self you deal with every day. It's all spiritual self-help."
And while the religion self-help category has been around for years, it's relatively new for Jewish publishers. "Before Jewish Lights came on the scene, self-help books for modern, liberal Jews seeking wisdom for inspiration and transformation from a Jewish perspective were very few," says Jewish Lights publisher Stuart Matlins, who founded the company 15 years ago to fill that gap. Today the company focuses on three areas: 12-step books from a Jewish perspective (Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky); resources for specific life issues (Mourning & Mitzvah by Anne Brener); and Jewish wisdom for improving personal relationships (Norman J. Cohen's Hineini in Our Lives).
The Seismic Shift
In the Christian market, the category underwent a decided overhaul in the late 1990s. After enjoying their heyday in the 1980s and early '90s, classic self-help books began suffering a decline, according to Lyn Cryderman, Zondervan v-p and publisher for books. "Many of these titles were simplistic and promised more than they could deliver. Consumers realize that most of life's problems cannot be solved in seven steps," he says. "They want help with life's challenges, but they prefer to put their trust in authors who provide more than answers." He cited as an example Mike Yaconelli's Messy Spirituality—a book whose title alone offers a fairly clear idea of just how the category has changed.
The step-by-step, didactic approach that once was the hallmark of self-help books has been replaced by a narrative style of writing that combines practical teaching, biblical wisdom and personal stories, Cryderman points out. Zondervan's Grace Disguised, a book on grief by Gerald Sittser, and Nelson's un-self-help book, Blue Like Jazz (2003) by Donald Miller, exemplify that style.
"Blue Like Jazz is not a typical self-help book—postmoderns would bristle at that description—but it helps Christians feel better about their faith and how to communicate that faith, by seeing a transparent journey of faith in someone else," says Merkh.
Still, Nelson's backlist of classic self-help books, as well as some current offerings and spinoffs (the 10-year-old Anger Workbook, for instance), continue to sell, though the publisher is releasing fewer titles by such perennial favorites—and experts—as counselors like Stephen Arterburn and Frank Minirth. "There was a glut of books like that on the market a while back," Merkh says. "We're now doing fewer but stronger titles."
Integrating Faith and Life
One of the most successful authors in both the CBA and the general market is T.D. Jakes, whose He-Motionshas sold so well in hardback—300,000 copies since its release in July 2004—that Putnam has postponed its scheduled paperback release for a full year. To Joel Fotinos, director of religious publishing, Jakes—whose January release, 10 Commandments of Working in a Hostile Environment, has sold more than 100,000 units—is the kind of author most likely to be successful among today's self-help readers.
"When you bring together an author with a great platform and a powerful message, you tend to take his lead. Bishop Jakes knows who his audience is and what they need, and we publish into that," Fotinos says. Jakes's titles also tend to address specific needs, another essential for success. "It's hard to reach an audience today with a topic that is too broad. There's just no audience for generic self-help," Fotinos says.
For Simon & Schuster's Touchstone/Fireside books, one title stands out as representative of the ideal blend of subtle religion and overt self-help: Hal Urban's Life's Greatest Lessons, a book whose history includes a self-published edition and a brief stint with Thomas Nelson. Today, the 2003 book—a "celebration of life" that focuses on the good of humankind and the healing power of love—continues to sell at a time when industrywide backlist sales are down, says Chris Lloreda, v-p and deputy publisher of trade paperbacks.
Following a dramatic drop in sales after 9/11, booksellers curtailed the number of such titles they carried because they perceived that interest in self-help had waned, according to Matlins.
"Life did not suddenly get easier for people," Matlins says. "We have not found any reduction of interest on the part of our readers. Our sales of self-help books through Amazon and bn.com have increased dramatically as sales through bookstores have declined, reflecting reduced availability of self-help titles in bookstores."
Robert M. Hamma is editorial director of Ave Maria Press and its Sorin imprint, which was founded specifically to reach the general reading public with self-help books that integrate traditional Catholic values with a practical approach to such issues as family relationships and personal growth. "Those values are not presented in any kind of denominational way, but as spiritual values from a Christian perspective as well as [from] other faith traditions," he adds. Examples are two September releases, Sacred Necessities by Hallmark Channel morning show host Terry Hershey and Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times by Robert Wicks.
Likewise, Wisdom publishes a number of titles of interest to a more mainstream readership. "We look at our market as concentric circles, with self-identifying Buddhists at the center, expanding out from there to Buddhist sympathizers, and then to spiritual seekers and the body-mind-spirit crowd. The company's bestselling title is Bhanta Guaratana's Mindfulness in Plain English (2002)—another book whose title makes clear that its audience is the more mainstream self-help readers. Likewise, a 2004 release, Mindfulness Yoga by Frank Boccio, helps those who use yoga for exercise figure out what to do with their minds while they're "working out."
At Llewellyn, Weschcke likes to stir things up a bit for his readers. "A lot of New Age books are so comfortable," he says. "But what we're trying to do is challenge the reader to change, whether it's through religion or meditation or affirmations or alternative health approaches." And while Llewellyn publishes its fair share of experts, the company is seeing more manuscripts and proposals from people whose personal experiences offer case histories of the successful application of techniques that have bettered their lives.
Only in America
About 25% of Wisdom's titles are considered Buddhist self-help, and it's those titles that European houses aren't overly excited about.Among the exceptions are signature books like the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness(1998).
The lack of interest in self-help abroad applies especially to religion self-help books, Lloreda says. General self-help does better outside America than does religion self-help; Urban's "quintessentially American" title is a rare exception, posting strong foreign sales. Sorin's Hamma echoes Lloreda's assessment of the category: "Outside the U.S., there's just not as much of a desire to integrate faith with self-help."
The interest in self-help among Jewish readers is "absolutely American," Matlins says, although he has seen a rising interest in Israel among "40-somethings" whose life situations have prompted a spiritual search. "As is well-known, religion is out of fashion in Western Europe and among secular Israelis, the vast majority of the population in Israel," he added. "The uniqueness of American society is strongly reflected in the relationship faith plays in our lives."
"We want results, and we want them now," says Weschcke of Americans. Achieving those results requires people to accept personal responsibility for improving their lives, which he says all good self-help books encourage readers to do.