Wanderings – Self-help caveat emptor


It should be no surprise to any reader out there I am a fan of the printed word. Newspapers, magazines, books – pretty much anything where inked stained plates have left an imprint on paper – I am a fan. If given the option between a tablet with an e-book or a ruffled, well-worn paper book – paper wins every time. I read a lot of different types of books in both the fiction and non-fiction genres and don’t have a particular favourite type to read.

I try not to judge people for what they read – or how they read it. Books, magazines, websites – it’s better that people are reading, regardless of the content. Some people like romance novels, sci-fi thrillers, or the latest horror novel by Stephen King – others like to read two-volume biographies about Thomas D’Arcy McGee or the entire seven volume series of the Chronicles of Narnia.

While I am against censorship, especially when it is initiated by governments (except in the extremes of combating hate speech against groups or individuals) there is a genre of book that should be curtailed or at least vetted properly – self-help books.

Self-help book sales made up nearly 20 per cent of the Canadian non-fiction market in 2022. Sales have increased by an average of 15 per cent per year for almost a decade. Go into any book store (yes those still exist) or look online and the wall of self-help books will hit you in the face.

Topics cover everything from practical parenting styles to how not to care about anything – a whole range of topics. Some of the titles are not able to be printed in this column, yet publishers have opted to print them for bookshelves. I’ve even read a couple of these books from time to time. Each time I have been let down through no fault of my own.

Most of these types of books are formulaic. Select a specific problem or issue that a reader identifies with. Write 10 chapters about that problem to draw the reader in, promising the great solution they have discovered. In the last two chapters, explain a half-baked theory of how to solve XYZ problem with no practical data to prove it works. Many times the solution to the problem is never presented. Then the reader is on their way, in most cases with more questions to answer having read the book than before the book was purchased – except your wallet is now $20 (or more) lighter.

Go online and read some of the reviews of these self-help books from readers who were sucked in. Buyer reviews had more questions than answers.

The self-help book industry is a good legal racket to get into as easy money as the book writing world gets. Look at some of the titles, and the backgrounds of some of the authors. There are the ones you’d expect to be proper experts like doctors, lawyers, and business people – individuals with initials after their last name. Then there are humourists, comedians, and people who write advice columns without any background in the field they are writing about.

If I wanted learn more about on buying investment properties, should I talk to a realtor or read a book by guy whose experience comes from writing about skiing in the Colorado Rockies? I’d like to build a house myself. Should I read a book by a reputable home builder, or a celebrity? When looking for a cook book with some new recipes, should I look for what a chef has published, or an afternoon TV host? In all cases, I’d go with the experts in their respective fields.

Sometimes, even people with real credentials turn out dodgy books that aren’t worth the paper printed on. Some of the “accredited” experts aren’t helpful or actual experts either.

Real self-help books should be re-categorized to the topic published on: health books, business books, etc. Eliminate the “self-help” title altogether. Comedian George Carlin said it best: “If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?”

I even thought of writing a self-help book. Why not? I write for a living and am a fount of useless trivia knowledge.

If I were to write one of these books, I’d title it: “How not waste $20 or more on self-help books!” I’d price it at $19.

If some of these “experts” have done it, I can too. I doubt the sales would cover the printing costs.

This column was originally published in the February 21, 2024 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.