An Excerpt from the Introduction to Self-Help, Inc.

From Self-Made to Belabored

The part I really don’t understand is if you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help, that’s help.

—George Carlin (1)

Imagine a self and then invent that self, picture a life, and then create that life—the ideal of self-invention has long infused American culture with a sense of endless possibility. Nowhere is this ideal more evident than in the burgeoning literatures of self-improvement—a sector of the publishing industry that expanded dramatically in the last quarter of the twentieth century, particularly in the final decade of the century. The trade publication American Bookseller reports that self-help book sales rose by 96 percent in the five years between 1991 and 1996. (2) By 1998 self-help book sales were said to total some 581 million dollars, constituting a powerful force within the publishing industry, shoring up profits in an era of bottom-line publishing faced with otherwise declining sales, unearned author advances, and hard cover return rates soaring to 45 percent nationally. (3) Indeed, the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, is said to constitute a $2.48 billion a year industry. (4) One-third to one-half of Americans have purchased a self-help book in their lifetimes. (5) One New York City bookstore allocates a quarter mile of shelf space to the various sub-categories of self-improvement literature. (6) And perhaps most impressively, between 1972 and 2000, the number of self-help books more than doubled, increasing from 1.1 percent to 2.4 percent of the total number of books in print. (7) Advice books—specifically self-improvement books, not simply the traditional didactic youth literature with life lessons or moral imperatives—are now available for every age group from early readers to the aged. (8) Self-improvement books are available to cover any and all issues, with titles specialized to address every market segment.

The appeal of this literature is understandable: the tremendous growth in self-help publishing parallels an overall trend of stagnant wages and destabilized employment opportunities for American workers. Americans face what some social observers have called a “new insecurity” in the wake of the end of the standard job and family. (9) With social welfare programs all but dismantled, and with lifelong marriage and lifelong professions increasingly anachronistic, it is no longer sufficient to be married or employed, rather it is imperative that one remains marriageable and employable. (10) Sculpting one’s figure to remain desirable to one’s spouse and perfecting one’s leadership techniques to remain valued by one’s company are not an option, but an imperative, in this new economy. A sense of personal security is anomalous, while anxiety is the norm. To manage this anxiety, individuals have been advised not only to work longer and harder, but also to invest in themselves, manage themselves, and continuously improve themselves.

The less predictable and controllable the life course has become, the more individuals are urged to chart their own course and to “master” their destinies. In addition to actual hours spent on the job—which have increased dramatically—Americans are compelled to constantly work on themselves to remain competitive in the labor market. (11) Such additional toil includes, but is not limited to, retraining and reschooling for new types of work, maintaining one’s appearance as youthful and vigorous, and searching for one’s “true calling.” Thus it comes as no surprise that one finds a marked increase in the number of self-help titles in this period. In the place of a social safety net, Americans have been offered row upon row of self-help books to boost their spirits and keep them afloat in uncharted economic and social waters. Yet the self-help net has its own traps. This book looks at how the promise of self-help can lead workers into a new sort of enslavement: into a cycle where the self is not improved, but endless belabored.  It examines the shifts in self-improvement culture in an era of dramatic economic and social changes and offers a glimpse of how the cultures of self-improvement, though largely a force for maintaining the status quo, might be mined for progressive political opportunities.


(1) George Carlin, “People Who Oughta Be Killed: Self-Help Books,” Complaints and Grievances (Atlantic, 2001), audio CD.

(2) Tammy Tierney Allison, “‘Self-Help’ Satisfies Need for Quick Fix,” Buffalo Business First, Available online at (1998).

(3) Marjorie Coeyman, "Everybody Can Use a Little Help," Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2000, James B. Stewart, "Bestseller: The Agent from Texas That New York Can't Ignore," New Yorker, September 8, 1997, 45.

(4) Daniel McGinn, "Self Help U.S.A.," Newsweek, January 10, 2000, 42.

(5) Leonard Wood, "The Gallup Survey: Self-Help Buying Trends," Publishers Weekly 234, no. 16 (1988).

(6) Measurements of the shelf-space devoted to self-improvement titles were taken at the Barnes and Noble bookstore at Union Square in New York City in February 1997 and included the following subject categories: Addiction and Recovery; Diets and Fitness; Career Planning; Parenting; Personal Motivation; Self-Improvement; Psychology; and Human Sexuality and Relationships.

(7) In “Self-Help Books and the Quest for Self-Control in the United States, 1950-2000 (Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University, 2004), Christine Whelan observed that between 1972 and 2000, the number of self-help books listed in R.R. Bowker’s Books in Print increased from 1.1 percent to 2.4 percent of the total number of books in print. Her data in this respect support my assertion that self-help publishing has boomed during the same period when economic circumstances for the average American worker have declined. Whelan’s categories included a wide array of self-improvement books from diet and fitness guides, to popular psychology books, to children’s etiquette books. Specifically, the categories she included in her sample included: Conduct of Life; Christian Life; Psychology, Applied; Success; Self-Culture; Youth; Women—Conduct of Life; Men—Conduct of Life; Youth—Conduct of Life; Self-Help Techniques; Self-Actualization; Self-Realization; Change (Psychology); Behavior Modification; Affirmations; Self-Talk; Meditation; Stress Management; Twelve Step Programs; Character; Spiritual Life; Business Ethics; Etiquette; Interpersonal Relations; Self-Control, Self-Respect; Young Men; Young Women; Adult Children; AA; Child Rearing;Codependence; Compulsive Behavior; Courtship; Dating; Depression; Diet Etiquette-Kids; Fathers; Happiness; Hygiene-Sexual; Intimacy; Mind & Body; Mothers; Parent & Child; Personality; Reducing; Relationship; Addiction; Self-Acceptance; Self-Confidence; Self-Esteem; Self-Reliance; Self-Perception; Sex Instruction; Sex Instruction-Kids; Youth-Religious; Young Men-Religion; Young Women-Religion. Personal correspondence, May 9, 2003.

(8) See, for example, Gershen Kaufman, Lev Raphael and Pamela Espeland, Stick Up for Yourself : Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power & Positive Self-Esteem (Free Spirit Publishing, 1999) aimed at pre-teens, or the newly burgeoning category of self-help books for teenagers, including Sean Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998); Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Teens (New York: Hyperion, 2000); and Jay McGraw’s Life Strategies for Teens (New York: Fireside, 2000).

(9) Jerald Wallulis, The New Insecurity: The End of the Standard Job and Family (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

(10) Ibid.

(11) Americans now outpace even the famously industrious Japanese by two work weeks each year. Lonnie Golden and Deborah M. Figart, eds., Working Time: International Trends, Theory, and Policy Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 5. Juliet Schor was among the first to demonstrate that Americans are working longer shifts and more hours overall with a book that struck a chord and spent numerous weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books, 1991). While some sociologists have challenged her work, arguing that that television viewing and perceived time deficits, rather than work time, account for the idea that work time has increased—notably John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997)—Schor demonstrates that their research methods conflate involuntary time off (unemployment and underemployment) with actual leisure time. Schor, "Working Hours and Time Pressure: The Controversy About Trends in Time Use," in Working Time: International Trends, Theory, and Policy Perspectives, 73-86. While work time has clearly increased, the perception of increased working time may also be linked to the blurring of the distinction between work and leisure time. See Charles Sabel, “Mobius-Strip Organizations and Open Labor Markets: Some Consequences of the Reintegration of Conception and Execution in a Volatile Economy,” in Social Theory for a Changing Society, ed. Pierre Bourdieu and James S. Coleman (1991) 43.