Like the makers of infant onesies and designated his-or-hers grooming products, the self-help industry has been a stalwart soldier along what others might call an anachronistic gender divide. Success-oriented books with titles palatable to a stereotypical male readership—Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People; Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—typically have squared off against what editors including Lisa Sharkey, senior v-p and director of creative development at HarperCollins, refer to as “woo woo” titles, chock-full of new agey pronouncements meant to capture a female audience.
Many self-help books still court readers of only one gender, but, Sharkey says, those readers’ concerns are shifting. They’re “identifying as people who aren’t afraid to admit they need self-help, but want it delivered by someone they can relate to—not some guru on a mountain.”
HarperOne president and publisher Judith Curr also notes the transformation of self-help publishing and its readership: “We now have a new, younger, angrier male reader looking for help outside of business books, while young women are grappling with serious issues like anxiety.” In both cases, she says, many of the books addressing these readers come from writers who share their own experiences “rather than any professional expertise, as a way to say, ‘You are not alone.’ ”
This expansion seems to have worked to the category’s benefit: print unit sales surged by 18% in 2017 compared to 2016—and so far in 2018, they’ve increased another 11%, compared to last year at this time.
“Is it crass and totally reductive to say that self-help is cool now?” asks Da Capo editorial director Renée Sedliar. Perhaps not, because, as the forthcoming season shows, there’s room in the category for books that speak to men as well as women, and also, plenty of titles are banking on a more inclusive demographic: the reading public.
Divide & Conquer
Self-help books marketed to men are becoming less prescriptive and more descriptive. John Kim, author of the forthcoming I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck (HarperOne, Jan. 2019), calls it a shift away from “telling you what kind of man you should be and toward challenging you to create a new definition of what that means.” (For more on Kim, see “The Potency of Humanizing Yourself.”)
Like Kim’s book, Stop Doing That Sh*t by success coach Gary John Bishop (HarperOne, May 2019) aims to fill a void. According to Curr, such titles show men how to be better partners for their wives, or how to “not get into a big fight by taking an entrenched position,” through the personal experiences of the authors. This approach appears to resonate: Bishop’s Unfu*k Yourself, originally self-published, has sold 182,000 print copies since HarperOne released it in 2017.
Curr disputes any potential drawback to overtly courting a particular readership. “In publishing, everyone says, ‘Women will like it, too!’ ” she says. “We don’t care; the people we want to speak to directly have to like it, and everyone else will come along for the ride.”
Other publishers are taking a similar tack. In December, New Harbinger is releasing How to Stop Feeling So Damn Depressed: The No BS Guide for Men by clinical psychologist Jonas A. Horowitz, which sports its male slant right in its subtitle. And Raise Your Game by performance coach Alan Stein Jr., with Jon Sternfeld (Center Street, Jan. 2019), which the publisher touts as a sourcebook for the secrets to high performance, draws parallels between the business and sports worlds.
At St. Martin’s, forthcoming titles include The Holy Sh!t Moment (Jan. 2019), by fitness columnist and motivational writer James Fell, and The Power of Agency, by clinical psychologists Paul Napper and Anthony Roo (May 2019). Executive editor Elizabeth Beier debates whether the readership for these books is gendered, instead calling the titles “hybrids that observe the way psychology works in people’s lives, for a great group of people.” Still, she’s found that men have become more voracious consumers of self-help and are as likely to purchase a steady stream of these books as the old-model customer, a woman she calls “an improver,” who would buy several self-help titles per year.
Male self-help readers come at the category from a slightly different angle, Beier says. “They’re thinking they can go from good to great, continuing to evolve and understand themselves.”
Sounds True editorial editor Haven Iverson says the house has been actively trying to reach more men, which means “overt targeting, with goal-oriented books”; it will publish men’s mentor and psychotherapist Robert August Masters’s Bringing Your Shadows Out of the Dark in October, for instance.
Much of Sounds True’s forthcoming list, though, skews female. Naturopath Samantha Brody’s Overcoming Overwhelm (Jan. 2019) fits into what Iverson says is a trend in women’s books on rest and anxiety. The Way of Grace (Nov.), by spiritual teacher Miranda Macpherson, takes what the publisher calls “an integrated, feminine approach” to self-help. And October’s Freedom Is an Inside Job is a self-help title from women’s rights activist Zainab Salbi. (For more on Salbi, see “Toward Freedom and Joy.”)
Authors publishing with women readers in mind include psychotherapist Marni Feuerman, who, in Ghosted and Breadcrumbed (Apr. 2019), advises women on how to break the pattern of falling for unavailable men. Women—specifically moms— are also the subject of Katherine Wintsch’s Slay Like a Mother (Sourcebooks, Mar. 2019). Wintsch is CEO of the Mom Complex, a consulting company that helps corporations develop products and services for mothers; her book focuses on the demographic in a different way, aiming to help its target readership combat self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors.
Seal Press—which, like Da Capo, is an imprint of the Perseus Book Group—has been targeting female readers for over 40 years, Sedliar says. For instance, Everything Is Negotiable (Dec.) by Meg Myers Morgan, who leads the graduate programs in public administration and nonprofit management at University of Oklahoma in Tulsa, is one of a number of success-oriented self-help books directed at women. “That framework has classically been male business territory,” Sedliar says. “We’re applying it more widely.”
Packaging imprint Morrow Gift is releasing the breezy How to Not Always Be Working by Marlee Grace (Oct.), with a look that matches the author’s minimalist, inspirational website, and Recipes for Self-Love by Alison Rachel (Apr. 2019), with maxims and illustrations that mimic those on the author’s 247,000 follower–strong Instagram feed.
“What these two titles have in common,” senior editor Emma Brodie says, “is that they focus on empowering women specifically to take care of themselves and resist patriarchal messaging and consumerism.”
Speaking Their Language
Longtime book editor Sarah Knight started her self-help writing career with a Marie Kondo parody, 2015’s The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, which blossomed into the No F*cks Given series: three titles, 239,000 print copies. In January 2019, Little, Brown will release the series’s fourth volume, Calm the F*ck Down. She says that though her books tend to appeal more to women,“I hear from a lot more male readers than I expected to; maybe the profanity in the title allows them to feel like it’s not so woo woo.”
Knight calls herself an antiguru, and she’s part of a cohort of authors who speak to a millennial readership that doesn’t necessarily want to hear from a traditional expert.
HarperOne, for instance, is releasing Lose Well (Oct.) by comedian Chris Gethard. “Yes, people are taking advice from comedians, because all comedy is self-help of some kind,” Curr says. Gethard has a recurring role on Comedy Central’s Broad City and hosts the podcast Beautiful/Anonymous.
Also in October, Hay House is publishing bearded fitness bro Drew Canole’s self-help debut, You Be You; his 119,000-strong Instagram feed features hunky pictures of him posing with his girlfriend and his goldendoodle. Kidding: Childlike Solutions to Bullsh*t Adult Problems (Running Press, Oct.) is by Laura Jane Williams, a magazine writer and former dating columnist in the U.K.
Conventionally credentialed experts are also embracing the language of millennials, including clinical psychologist Lara E. Fielding, author of Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up (New Harbinger, Jan. 2019), and licensed professional counselor Faith G. Harper, whose Unfuck Your Adulting (Microcosm, Nov.) tells readers, among other advice, “Don’t be a dick.”
So coveted is this demographic as a potential self-help readership that, Iverson says, Sounds True has hired a millennial-focused acquisitions editor, who’s currently buying up books from Instagram personalities including astrology-focused Alexandra Roxo. “There’s a whole wave of self-help teachers who are into superfeminine be-a-goddess stuff and who are reaching millennials,” Iverson says.
The biggest self-help title of 2018 so far isn’t a self-help book at all—at least, not according to its BISAC code. Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face, categorized as Christian life/women’s issues, has sold 707,000 print copies since Nelson released it in February. In March 2019, HarperCollins Leadership will publish her follow-up, Girl, Stop Apologizing, under the self-help/motivational and inspirational category.
“Women have connected deeply with Rachel,” says HarperCollins Christian v-p and publisher Jeff James, “because she speaks to their common challenges that transcend any specific faith, culture, or life stage.”
Other historically Christian authors are being positioned in the secular self-help space. Zondervan chose the self-help/motivational and inspirational BISAC as the primary category for Do It Scared (May 2019) by finance blogger Ruth Soukup; previous Soukup titles—Living Well, Spending Less and Unstuffed—were tagged Christian life/personal growth.
Valorie Burton, a life coach with several books, including Successful Women Think Differently and Successful Women Speak Differently, in the Christian life/women’s issues category, has a new title, It’s About Time, pubbing in May from W Publishing, with the secular self-help/personal growth/happiness BISAC. Daisy Blackwell Hutton, v-p and publisher at W, a Thomas Nelson imprint, explains that the new book has “practical wisdom that can reach across faith-based and secular markets.”
Categories being what they are—slippery and imprecise—publishers try to label their books as best matches their content. At Morrow Gift, Brodie sees How to Not Always Be Working and Recipes for Self-Love fitting into a “self-care” category—the BISAC that doesn’t yet exist, but she thinks it could emerge in coming seasons.
HarperOne’s Curr, meanwhile, foretells an inspirational category that merges self-help and poetry. TarcherPerigee, which is publishing Instagram poet Tyler Knott Gregson’s Miracle in the Mundane in May, as self-help/motivational and inspirational, may want to take note.
Given the plethora of existing labels, there’s an art to choosing the right primary category. The Empathy Effect (Dec.) by Helen Riess, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, could be positioned as self-help; its stated goal is to help readers transform “the way we live, love, work, and connect across differences.” Sounds True is categorizing it as psychology/emotions, Iverson says, because the marketing department is banking on it having greater impact there.
Similarly, family therapist Kati Morton’s Are U OK? (Da Capo, Dec.) has psychology/mental health as its primary BISAC, but, Sedliar says, “This is a true crossover” that would be equally at home in self-help. Morton—who, with her hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers, has broad mainstream reach—“answers the most commonly asked questions about mental health, hence psychology; and the book also includes tips, suggestions and concrete info on when to get help and where to find it; hence the self-help component.”
At Morrow, psychotherapist Amy Morin’s 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do (Jan. 2019) falls under self-help/personal growth/happiness. Though the book’s tactics are grounded in psychology, “they are really aimed at having a message break through instantly, without too much overthinking,” Sharkey says. “This is the new self-help.”
Lela Nargi is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, N.Y.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the title of I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck.
Below, more on the subject of self-help books.
Toward Freedom and Joy: PW Talks with Zainab Salbi
In 'Freedom Is an Inside Job,’ Salbi shares how her activist mindset evolved into one that also embraces self-care.
The Potency of Humanizing Yourself: PW Talks with John Kim
Kim, aka the Angry Therapist, gets personal in his new book, 'I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck.'
It’s Never Too Early for Self-Improvement: Self-Help Books 2018–2019
As Free Spirit Publishing marks its 35th anniversary this year, its mission remains constant, even as its target audience has expanded.
Mass Appeal: Self-Help Books 2018–2019
A selection of forthcoming books from self-help stalwarts—Gretchen Ruben, Jen Sincero—and high-profile newcomers—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Queer Eye’s Fab Five—offer advice and inspiration.