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

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How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

by Steve Salerno

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 288 pages
    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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From the Introduction

For decades I have been tracking the self-help movement without fully realizing its place in the zeitgeist, even though I've written often about its component parts. My first book, in 1985, described the "mainstreaming" of veteran sales and motivational trainers like Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar, both of whom were then beginning to expand their brands; they were subtly turning their antennae away from hard-core salesmanship to the much airier patter of mass-market training, with its exponentially greater target audience. Their efforts signaled the beginning of what we now call "success training" or, in its more intensive, small-group settings, "life coaching."

During the late 1980s and 1990s I wrote separate magazine pieces about:

TONY ROBBINS. Today he's the Eighty Million Dollar Man (per year). Back at the beginning of his career, customers were paying as little as $50 apiece to learn how to "focus" enough to be able to walk over hot coals pain free (a bit of gimmickry that the debunker James Randi tells us has nothing to do with mental preparation and everything to do with the principles of heat conduction).

TOMMY LASORDA. By the mid-1990s the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager had become a huge draw on the banquet circuit, commanding at least $30,000 an hour for imparting such philosophical gems as "Ya gotta want it!"

THE PECOS RIVER LEARNING CENTER. At Pecos River, otherwise rational corporate citizens fully expected to buttress their self-confidence and negotiating skills by falling backward off walls and sliding down the side of a mountain on a tether.

PETER LOWE. In 1998 I covered one of the barnstorming impresario's weekend-long success-fests for the Wall Street Journal. I guesstimated the two-day take at $1.4 million, plus ancillaries. We'll get to the ancillaries in a moment.

In reporting these and other stories, I never quite recognized all those trees as a forest. I also watched, but didn't quite apprehend, as scholarship and complex thought fell to the wayside amid the influx of simple answers delivered via bullet points, as logic and common sense took a backseat to sheer enthusiasm and even something akin to mass hysteria.

What brought everything into focus for me was a career move of my own in mid-2000. For the ensuing sixteen months, I served as editor of the books program associated with Men's Health magazine, the glamour property in the vast better-living empire that is Rodale. In addition to publishing such magazines as Prevention, Organic Gardening, and Runner's World, Rodale had become the premier independent book publisher in the United States largely through its aggressive and ingenious mail-order books program. The company conceived, wrote, printed, and sold millions of self-help or other advice books each year. Thus, my experience there gave me a bird's-eye view of the inner workings of the self-help industry. Rodale's professed mission statement, as featured on its corporate Web site at the time of my arrival, was simple: "To show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better."

At considerable expense, Rodale undertook extensive market surveys, the results of which dictated each business unit's editorial decisions. In the case of self-help books specifically, the surveys identified the customers' worst fears and chronic problems, which we were then supposed to target in our editorial content. One piece of information to emerge from those market surveys stood out above all others and guided our entire approach: The most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months. In a way that finding should not have surprised me. People read what interests them; a devoted Civil War buff is going to buy every hot new book that comes out on the Civil War. Pet lovers read endlessly about pets.

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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