The Sunday Times Magazine: Shelf Help

01_018_SELFHELP_GL_1202257kIn front of me is a collection of books that is supposed to change my life. They promise to make me richer, thinner and a huge success. So lap up this feature, it’s probably the last you’ll see of me — I’m off to become a billionaire hip-hop star with a 22in waist.

Self -help books claim they can overhaul our lives, they can teach us The Secret, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Positive Thinking or How to Lose a Stone in Under 30 Days and Keep It Off. They can show us the Games People Play, teach us to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, that Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and French Women Don’t Get Fat. They offer Chicken Soup for the Soul and tips from The Little Book of Calm. And they can help solve any flaw — even the ones we never knew we had.

And many of us put faith in these claims, particularly around the new year. Last year, £23.5m-worth of self-help books were sold in the UK. The self-help market experienced 15% growth in 2014, the biggest increase in any adult genre that year, according to a report by Neilsen BookScan, which collates sales figures from more than 35,500 bookshops. The figure was stark in comparison with the 1% increase across the adult non-fiction market.

“Self-help has long been the biggest category in publishing worldwide, but right now it’s boom time,” says Carole Tonkinson, publisher of Bluebird, Pan Macmillan’s lifestyle imprint. She puts this down to unprecedented need and new discoveries. “People are under more stress than ever and they need new ways to cope, whether that is mindfulness, healthier diets or even colouring books,” she explains. “We’re also living in a time of unprecedented scientific discovery. For the first time in a long while, there are genuinely new things to say.”

The concept of “self-healing” can be traced right back to Aristotle, but the term itself dates back to 1859, when the Scottish reformer Samuel Smiles penned a bestseller called Self-Help, which promoted the idea that changing individual behaviour could be more effective than changing the law.


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