The Popularity of Self-Help Books that profit from our Self-helplessness


Self-help, self-improvement and How To are interchangeable terms for one of the most profitable genres out there. This genre generates more than $1 billion a year. This genre has been around for nearly ever it seems. According to Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, the Egyptians started this madness with their Sebyat or Teaching genre, about 5000 years ago.

Let’s not waste time. We will only look at the more recent history of this genre, and also examine the effectiveness of these kinds of books. We can then postulate a theory about the popularity of this genre.

1859 to 1937

1859: Self-Help by Samuel Smiles

Self-Help seems to be the father of the modern flood of books. Mr Smiles opened with “Heaven helps those who help themselves”.Smiles mainly made use of biographies to illustrate points: it worked for so-and-so, and should work for you as well!


1902: As a Man Thinketh by James Allan

Mr Allan used  “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”, a quotation from Proverbs 4:23 in the Bible. This was in line with Allan’s philosophy that “a man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”  Check this:

Some quotes:

  • “Men do not attract what they want, but what they are.”
  • “Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves, they therefore remain bound.”
  • “Every action and feeling is preceded by a thought.”

1936:  How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie


With more than 15 million copies in print, it is clear why this book is also considered to be one of the first modern self-help books.

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  • Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Arouse in the other person an eager want.

These are indicative of the approaches that Carnegie uses throughout his book.

1937: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Think and Grow Rich has sold more than 70 million copies. It is today, 80 years after its publication, still a bestseller.

Hill did research on a group of successful people to determine what it is that made them

  1. Desire 2. Faith 3. Autosuggestion 4. Specialized Knowledge 5. Imagination 6. Organized Planning 7. Decision 8. Persistence 9. Power of the Master Mind 10. The Mystery of Sex Transmutation 11. The Subconscious Mind 12. The Brain 13. The Sixth Sense….

1950’s – Today

It is literally impossible to list these books. There are just too many. Some of the most popular ones are:

Why is this genre so popular?

We are all aware of our shortcomings. Daily we are bombarded with images on TV, messages via radio, books, newspapers, the Internet and those whom we interact with, on what is wrong with us, and how we should change.

It seems to me that current popular philosophy teaches that we gain value by what we do. (As opposed to, for example the biblical teaching that we are valuable because of who we are.) This creates a frenzied attempt at modifying behavior.

And being given 3,12 or 16 steps or rules on how to change this or that is easier to implement, than to implement character change.

Interestingly enough, Stephen Covey points this out in his book. According to him older self-help books focused on developing your character whereas later books focus on developing personality. Perhaps you can compare this with focusing on the foundation of a building versus the paint job.

People realize that they are not measuring up and desperately want to.


This genre has come in for lots of criticism. G.K. Chesterton reacted to Mr Smiles, and others with this:  “They are books showing men how to succeed in everything,” he wrote; “they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. […] At least, let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect.”

Another critic Dwight MacDonald, likened the authors of these books to frogs.  “Their books are not born, they are spawned.

Referring to Jessica Lamb-Shapiro again, about 80% of people who buy self-help books are repeat offenders. I mean repeat buyers. Does this not clearly imply that these books fail? Or, perhaps, they have just moved on to something else that needs help?

If you look at the vast amount of money spent on these books, you can also come to two opposite conclusions. It works, otherwise people wouldn’t spend so much money on it. Or, the fact that people must keep on spending and keep on creating new ways to help themselves is a clear indicator that books like these do not work.

What do you say? Is self-help just an exploitation of our innate feelings of inadequacy, or is it something real? Share with us the books you have been helped through, or tell us why you  think that this is just an escape mechanism for people who do not want to take hard decisions, evaluate their lives and all that.


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