Excerpt from SHAM by Steve Salerno, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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SHAM

How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

by Steve Salerno

SHAM by Steve Salerno
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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But the Eighteen-Month Rule struck me as counterintuitive–and discomfiting–in a self-help setting. Here, the topic was not the Civil War or shih tzus; the topic was showing people "how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better." Many of our books proposed to solve, or at least ameliorate, a problem. If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us–at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again. At some point, people would make the suggested changes, and those changes would "take." I discovered that my cynicism was even built into the Rodale system, in the concept of repurposing–reusing chunks of our copyrighted material in product after product under different names, sometimes even by different authors.

Worse yet, our marketing meetings made clear that we counted on our faithful core of malcontents. (Another important lesson in self-help theology: SHAM's answer when its methods fail? You need more of it. You always need more of it.) One of my Rodale mentors illustrated the concept by citing our then all-time best-selling book, Sex: A Man's Guide. This individual theorized that the primary audience for Man's Guide did not consist of accomplished Casanovas determined to polish their already enviable bedroom skills. Our buyers were more likely to be losers at love–hapless fumblers for whom our books conjured a fantasy world in which they could imagine themselves as ladies' men, smoothly making use of the romantic approaches and sexual techniques we described. Failure and stagnation, thus, were central to our ongoing business model.

Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people. Put bluntly, he has a potent incentive to play his most loyal customers for suckers.

Yet it's even worse than that. Much of SHAM actively fans the fires of discontent, making people feel impaired or somehow deficient as a prelude to (supposedly) curing them. One striking example comes from no less an insider than Myrna Blyth, a former Ladies' Home Journal editor. In her 2004 book, Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America, Blyth repents for her own role in an industry that was supposed to help women grow but instead wreaked incalculable harm on the psyches of its devoted followers. What women's magazines mostly have done, argues Blyth, is create and implant worry, guilt, insecurity, inadequacy, and narcissism that did not exist in women before the magazines came along.



PAYING THE (PIED) PIPERS

The American love affair with self-help is unmistakable in the sheer size of the SHAM fiscal empire. Granted, the movement's total cash footprint defies down-to-the-penny measurement. There's just too much of it out there, perpetrated to an increasing degree by independent life coaches or poor-man's Tony Robbinses giving small-ticket motivational speeches at the local Ramada Inn. But just what we know for sure is staggering. According to Marketdata Enterprises, which has been putting a numerical face on major cultural trends since 1979, the market for self-improvement grew an astonishing 50 percent between 2000 and 2004. This substantially exceeds the already robust annual growth figures Marketdata forecast in 2000. Today, self-improvement in all its forms constitutes an $8.56 billion business, up from $5.7 billion in 2000. Marketdata now expects the industry to be perched at the $12 billion threshold by 2008.

Excerpted from Sham by Steve Salerno Copyright © 2005 by Steve Salerno. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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