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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Remember–this is only what we can document. And it does not include the broader social and political costs, which we'll discuss separately.

Between thirty-five hundred and four thousand new self-help books appeared in 2003, depending on whose figures you use and precisely how you define the genre. The higher figure represents more than double the number of new SHAM titles that debuted in 1998, when wide-eyed social commentators were remarking at self-help mania and what it signified about the decline of premillennial Western civilization. Together with evergreens like Codependent No More, Melody Beattie's seminal 1987 tract on overcoming self-destructive behaviors, these books accounted for about $650 million in sales, according to Simba Information, which tracks publishing trends.

Self-help was well represented on best-seller lists in 2004, anchored by a spate of musings from the Family McGraw (Dr. Phil and son Jay); Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life; Joel Osteen's spiritually tinged Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential; Greg Behrendt's cold shower for lovelorn women, He's Just Not That into You; and actualization demigod Stephen R. Covey's The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. The last is a sequel to Covey's blockbuster work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which remains a postmodern classic, as do Tony Robbins's various tomes about that giant who slumbers within you and the six dozen separate Chicken Soup books now in print. Stephen Covey, too, has a son, Sean, and Sean Covey has his very own best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Freshly minted guru-authors appear like clockwork each year.

They almost have to, if the demand is to be met. In fact, by 1983, so substantial were sales figures for books of this genre that the lofty New York Times Book Review, which for decades fought the good fight on behalf of books written by actual writers, threw in the towel and added another category, "Advice Books," to its distinguished best-seller list. In an accompanying announcement, Times editors explained that without this new category even the most compelling works of authentic nonfiction–memoirs, exposés, biographies, think pieces, and the like–might never appear on their own best-seller list. They were being swept aside by this massive wave of self-improvement. Ten years later, a study quoted in American Health magazine said that self-help addicts–and addict, evidence suggests, is the right word–continue to buy books "long after their shelves are stocked." Publishers Weekly put it this way in October 2004: "Self-help books are a Teflon category for many booksellers. No matter the economy or current events, the demand is constant."

Another cultural signpost: A fair percentage of these book-buying transactions take place at the five thousand New Age bookstores now spread throughout the United States. (Industry sources thought the New Age trend had peaked a few years ago, when the number of stores hit four thousand.) Thus it should come as no surprise that the fastest-growing self-help sectors are also the softest and least utilitarian. Sales of inspirational, spiritual, and relationship-oriented programs and materials constitute a third of overall SHAM dollar volume and are tracking upward. The more brass-tacks stuff–business and financial materials, tactical training–constitute 21 percent and are tracking down. Americans seem to think it's more important to get along than to get ahead.

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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