Millions of jobs lost. Companies struggling to stay afloat. Economies around the world teetering on the brink of ruin. No one reads today’s headlines and feels better. But the endless litany of bad news might have a silver lining for one segment of publishing: the self-help category. Conventional industry wisdom holds that books focusing on personal improvement have done well in recessions past, and that the current downturn will be no different. The scale of this recession—and its impact on book sales—clearly offers publishers of self-help titles both challenges and opportunities.
In December, Atria Books received the latest manuscript from Spencer Johnson, M.D., author of the self-help cultural phenomenon Who Moved My Cheese? published back in 1998. The publisher realized Johnson’s new book, Peaks and Valleys: Making Good Times and Bad Times Work for You—At Work and in Life, was tailor-made for the current economy, but had planned to release the title in the fall. Atria publisher Judith Curr and editorial director Peter Borland quickly made the decision to move the title up to a March release, with an initial print run of 350,000 copies.
“People were keen to have it come out now,” says Curr. “We foreshortened the process to get it out, because it really does tell people how to deal with bad times and prepare for improvements.”
Even given the accelerated schedule, Curr says they have planned a year’s worth of publicity. That clock began with 15,000 ARCs rushed out for the holiday season, a mailing that paired one gift-wrapped copy to be passed on with an unwrapped copy. And, in a concession to the current climate, the publisher decided to match the $19.95 price of Johnson’s 1998 book. The early-publishing gamble has paid off: the book marks week three on today’s nonfiction list.
Like many who oversee books in the self-help field, Curr emphasizes that having a brand-name author helps, especially now. “People don’t want to waste money on speculative things. So many people in business have let us down that readers want to know who advice is coming from,” she says.
At Grand Central’s Springboard Press, editorial director Karen Murgolo cites the press’s breakout titles—Ben Sherwood’s The Survivors Club and Charla Krupp’s How Not to Look Old—as similar success stories featuring prominent authors. “The books and authors that do well in this category now are those who are either regulars on a national television show or have found a way to reach many people through publicity in both the traditional and online arenas,” Murgolo says.
But publicity platforms aside, people in the category agree on a shift toward books that offer a more internal focus. Atria’s Borland holds that Peaks and Valleys highlights the trend: “This is a book about changing on the inside, how you can internally change and adapt. It’s a sophisticated approach to self-improvement.”
It seems that perhaps in hard times more than ever, people just want to be happy.
Desperately Seeking Self-Empowerment
Many of the season’s books reflect the new focus on making life changes from the inside out, rather than on reacting to external forces. In a time when most people feel the larger picture is far outside their personal control, publishers hope inner change will be a smart selling point.
Books with a spiritual or religious slant to their advice are holding up better than any other trade category, according to Dutton editor-at-large Amy Hertz. One of the publisher’s March titles, Christine Ranck’s Ignite the Genius Within, seems designed to appeal to readers looking for a new approach to spiritual growth. The book’s four-color images are intended to combine with a podcast soundtrack from iAmplify to bring on a more creative state of mind.
“Difficult times are the moment to take chances with your talent and creativity, to get ahead of the game so that you can stay in the game,” says Hertz. “Given the economic crisis, how do I survive is the number one question. The answer is not going to be found in books on financial strategy or job strategy.”
With no significant sign of a change in the current job market, several publishers are betting that readers will be seeking help to reduce worry and stress, with a side of personal development. New titles typifying this trend include Alice D. Domar’s Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Worry Less and Enjoy Life More (Three Rivers), Mary Beth Sammons’s Second Acts That Change Lives (Red Wheel Weiser/Conari), BJ Gallagher’s It’s Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been (Viva Editions) and Tal Ben-Shahar’s The Pursuit of Perfect (McGraw-Hill).
Not everyone believes it’s curtains for books with a more business-oriented mindset, however. While McGraw-Hill has seen some backlist sales take a hit, the publisher has also had bumps for titles that deal with interpersonal communication, says consumer editorial publisher Judith McCarthy, citing the perennial bestseller How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes. “I attribute this to people who haven’t looked for a job in a while having to reinvigorate their networking skills,” says McCarthy.
She hopes that Lowndes’s follow-up, How to Instantly Connect with Anyone, will also be popular among job-seekers looking to improve their networking and interviewing prospects.
Apparently, even some banking executives are looking to broaden their personal horizons. Live Consciously Publishing’s Your Legacy of Love: Realize the Gift in Goodbye by Gemini Adams has already garnered attention from investment banks with its U.K. release. The author recently spoke at a bank before an audience of trust managers, bankers and lawyers interested in the book’s message: financial assets are not an individual’s sole wealth.
“Not the crowd you would typically find lining up for a self-help title,” Adams observes. “The private banking manager who organized the talk felt it would help heal some of the wounds that have been left for their clients as a result of the financial losses that many have suffered due to the downturn in the markets. They believe that their clients are in a reflective mode, seeking something more satisfying, possibly even something a little spiritual.”
Advice with a Twist
Just as brand-name authors have become increasingly important to the category, books with a strong, conversational point-of-view have also become the norm.
“Today’s self-help books have crossed over into other genres, including lifestyle, humor and gift categories,” says Susan Pi, Ten Speed’s associate publicist. “Today’s new breed of self-help titles incorporates a brash and irreverent no-holds-barred tone with a visually entertaining style that appeals to a broad audience.”
Ten Speed’s Celestial Arts published a key example a few years ago, How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness, which has sold 180,000 copies to date. The publisher believes Life’s Too F***ing Short: A Guide to Getting What You Want Out of Life Without Wasting Time, Effort, or Money by Janet Street-Porter will appeal to the same target demo.
The turn away from impersonal instruction is a fundamental shift for the category, according to Michele Matrisciani, HCI’s editorial director: “I see a change in self-help that moves from hard-core prescription to more of a hybrid of memoir and indirect prescription.” A case in point is HCI’s Blue Collar and Proud of It: The All-in-One Resource for Finding Freedom, Financial Success, and Security Outside the Cubicle by Joe Lamacchia (with Bridget Samburg), which focuses on the author’s personal story, styling itself as a blue-collar What Color Is My Parachute? Lamacchia’s story of going from poor student with ADD to owner of a successful landscaping company is a rags-to-riches how-to aimed at aspiring entrepreneurs who aren’t necessarily looking to become Wall Street barons.
But whether readers are in the mood for enlightenment, financial triage or just help that’s cheaper than therapy, Ten Speed’s Pi observes that the category innately holds broad appeal during downturns. “By its very nature, self-help addresses the deficiencies felt by many Americans during tough economic times,” she says. “The loss of the American dream for a better, richer, and fuller life creates a market for books that have the power to restore balance.”
Or at least to serve as a reminder that in an increasingly topsy-turvy world, balance may still be possible.