February 1, 2023

Save the Net Books

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Should most self-help books be pamphlets?

When I first heard this question, my gut reaction was a resounding “Yes!” So many self-help/self-improvement books, business books, and even some financial advice books are full of unnecessary fluff.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People lend themselves easily to a numbered list with a two-sentence description of each. Atomic Habits focuses on four main steps. Sometimes there are graphs and charts. It could be a zine! I know how she does it: How successful women make the most of their time could fit into a fortune cookie: “Be a woman who makes at least six figures, has a flexible job, and outsources most of the housework.” Easy as pie! I know I might hurt some feelings with this next one, but Brené Brown really squeezes every bit of juice out of that vulnerability lemon.

My friends, if you haven’t caught on from your first two Brené Brown books, I think you might benefit from picking fruit from another tree in a distant orchard.

All of the above answers answer the question “Can most self-help books be pamphlets?” but it doesn’t really answer the question in the title, which is “Should most self-help books be pamphlets?” and that, dear reader, is a different question altogether.

Before I answer that question, you should know that I am an avid self-help reader and am writing this from a place of fondness. In fact, many of us who read Self Help can be described as “zealous.” It seems so rare that a person ever picks up just one or two in this genre, likes it, and then never picks it up again. We’re series self-help readers, some of us are constantly looking for someone else to tell us to pull ourselves together, tidy our home, set boundaries, take a nap and literally break up anything within a 10 mile radius. Maybe we’re looking for that one book, that one-of-a-kind, special thing that will finally tie everything in our lives together.

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Many self-help readers I know, myself included, are people who identify as pessimists or “realists,” but deep down we are covert optimists. We believe that we can get better, that our situation can get better and that the world can get better. It is this flickering flame of optimism within me that fuels my love of self-help so much that I not only read it but write it. I have a self-help newsletter almost 3 years old called Enthusiastic Encouragement & Dubious Advice and this brings me back to the question of whether or not most should be self-help pamphlets.

My answer is, well, it depends. Specifically, it depends on the audience. I believe the format should fit the people the author is trying to reach. Well, while I’m personally moving that way, I’m fully aware that a lot of self-help out there could be a money grab, and so that’s the form that makes someone the most money. I write a newsletter because it fits my content and range (I have a full-time, non-writing, non-book job). Some people write books. Some people do podcasts. Some people make YouTube videos or TikToks or Instagram reels. If the goal is to help, where are the people who want the help? Let’s go to them and meet them where they are. It turns out that many of these people are established book readers.

Yes, you can convey the main point of almost any self-help book in a pamphlet, but self-help books are about more than conveying, they’re about persuading. Convincing readers that yes, it is. This is the magic system that will fix your life. This is the lens through which your relationships make sense. This is the key to unleashing your productivity. This book will help you become your best self. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a pamphlet that I talked about at a club, or bought multiples of it as gifts, or talked about it at length on a podcast. Some topics need those tens of thousands of words, that fluff, that padding to grab a reader and inspire them to action. We know that reading a self-help book doesn’t really help unless the reading is followed by action, like behavior change. I have yet to come across a pamphlet that has convinced me to change my behavior. But a book has.

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