3 Simple Ways to Spot Bad Self-Help Books

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When it comes to self-help (or maybe you prefer the classier term “personal development”), not all books live up to the hype. There are millions of people publishing books in the self-help space each year. Add in business development (or self-help books for your business) and the numbers get even more out of control.

I’ve written a few of these books for my clients and I’m attempting to write my own now. So I’m interested in figuring out how to spot the difference between the good and the bad.

Stop Throwing Good Money Away on Bad Self-Help

I haven’t been reading self-help books for all that long. I suppose I’ve always known about the genre, though. I’m old enough to remember browsing Walden Books and seeing the shelf marked “Self-Help,” then continuing right past to the section marked “Mysticism and Philosophy” (as grad students we always laughed about how Aristotle was grouped with the “New Age” books).

Still, I’m something of a self-help junkie. So I read a lot of bad self-help books. Okay, well I don’t often finish bad self-help (unless it’s a book I’ve suggested to my book club without doing my due diligence first!). But I do end up buying a lot of bad self-help books. Or at least I did.

I’m fascinated by the genre, which means I can certainly learn a lot from a bad read. However, I can spot bad self-help books more easily now and avoid buying them in the first place. If I really want to read the book because it’s research for a project I’m working on or because I want to be part of a conversation around the book, then I’ll try to get it from the library.

I want to stop throwing good money away on bad self-help books and more importantly, I want you to stop throwing good money away on bad self-help books. So let’s look at some of the red flags.

How to Spot Bad Self-Help

There is a danger in being a self-help junkie. Mark Manson, author of Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope (a self-help book that has been on my shelf for awhile), puts the danger in terms of a paradox: “the ultimate goal of all self-improvement is to reach the point where you no longer feel the need to improve yourself.”

The danger is that you’ll become a perpetual student of self-help without ever actually putting into practice the tips you read. You can easily fall down the rabbit hole reading book after book on productivity, for example, and never becoming more productive. So if your goal is actually personal growth and improvement, you’ll want to be extremely selective about what you read.

1. Realize that the industry is market-driven, not results-driven

The best self-help books include advice that is backed by unique research. But it’s important to realize personal development books are not peer-reviewed. The methods haven’t gone through IRB approval. This means it’s up to readers to determine what’s real and what’s snake oil.

Now, this isn’t always easy to do, especially when all you have to go on is a description on Amazon specifically designed to sell you the book.

But you can do a little digging to help spot the red flags:

  • Check out the author’s background. What about their background makes them a good authority on the subject matter?
  • Consider the “worldview” on offer. Does the book’s description make you feel ashamed or confirm your worst beliefs about yourself?
  • Look for descriptions that resonate with you. Does the description focus on how great the author is or on how the book will help you, the reader?

Do remember that even if an author truly wants to help her audience, she’s also incentivized to sell books (or programs or services). Get good at spotting which claims are designed to guide you on your personal development path and which claims are designed to sell you something.

2. Be extra skeptical of books that get A LOT of hype

When a book is brand new and there’s a lot of buzz around it, I tend to stand back and hold off on buying right away. Too much hype can taint what I think about the book both in favorable and unfavorable ways.

If I read a hyped up book and think it’s bad, then I might wonder what I’m missing or what’s wrong with me. If I read a hyped up book and think it’s good, then I might wonder if I’m being unduly influenced by others’ opinions.

I tend to obsess over such thoughts, so I usually hold off on buying hyped up books. I don’t mind being a little late to the party and I can be more objective after the initial buzz dies down.

3. Avoid books that are an obvious sales pitch

Finally, many bad self-help books offer little in the way of substance because they are thinly veiled sales pitches. It takes a masterful eye to pick these books out of a crowd from an Amazon description, but it can be done.

Here’s the formula these salesy self-help books follow:

  • The After: The author brags a bit about his accomplishments and makes sure you know how unbelievably successful (usually code for “wealthy”) he is.
  • The Before: The author brags a bit about how little he had once upon a time — and I do mean “brags” because it seems that the worse off you are from the start, the more impressive it is when you get to the end of the story. “I dropped out of college. I was delivering pizzas. Then I was homeless and selling poetry on the streets with my pregnant wife.”
  • The Magic Moment: The author tells you about the moment he realizes there must be a better way and spends his last dime on the magical thing that he uses to pull him up by his bootstraps.
  • The Promise: The author shows you the “exact steps” he took to get from the before to the after and promises that you can do what he did as long as you buy the premium program. In other words, he urges you to spend your last dime on his program to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

This formula is all about the author’s ego. And it’s designed to get you just excited enough about your potential that you’ll fill the author’s bank account, but not excited enough to make the transformation on your own. I find this disingenuous.

How do you know if you’re about to buy a salesy self-help book? Here are some broad generalizations (feel free to test them for yourself): The description spends more time talking about the author’s success than what readers can hope to gain. There are more uses of the word “I” than “you” in the description. It promises quick fixes or sounds too good to be true.

Again, it pays (or rather, it saves you money) to be skeptical about any book offering you advice. Put yourself in the right frame of mind, one of self-acceptance with a plan to put good advice into action and you’ll never buy another bad self-help book.

Takeaways

  • Remember, at their cores, self-help authors have something to sell you and the industry is not peer-reviewed.
  • Hype may be unfounded and worse, it can cloud your view of what you are reading.
  • One dead giveaway of a bad self-help book: it leads with an obvious sales pitch.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out your writer type with her Writer Profile Quiz.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks.