Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bookshop Customers (No.2 in an occasional series): the Self-Help Reader

If you bought a washing machine that failed to clean your clothes, you would feel entirely justified in demanding a replacement or, at the very least, a repair. In today's consumer society, we expect products to work. When they don't, it is regarded as an aberration.

However, these rules don't seem to apply to self-help books. I remember selling a one or two self-help books a week to the same woman for nearly three years. She must have bought over 200 books from me on a variety of subjects. She ran with the wolves, did the dance of anger, walked along the road less travelled and discovered that she was from Venus, but after two years she didn't seem any better for it.

I had similar experiences in other bookshops. Women (for it was always women) would religiously (or irreligiously) buy one self-help book after another without displaying any discernible change. This seemed strange, given the books' grandiose claims. Normally, if you buy something that doesn't work, you don't make the same mistake again.

The typical self-help customer hasn't been to university. They are in their mid-30s or older and have lived long enough to experience a creeping disillutionment with their lot. Perhaps their kids don't understand them and the young Adonis they married is now Homer Simpson. They have no intention of walking out, so their focus is on how to make life more bearable.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. Perhaps these books were so effective that the customers simply wanted more, or maybe their angels told them. Either way, it sounds like money for old rope if you're a publisher and I'm amazed how successful self-help and MBS (Mind, Body and Spirit) books are.

And why is it nearly always women who buy these books? My wife's theory is that it's because they live with men. I'm not quite sure how to take that.


Emily said...

Interesting observation. No answers here, although I wonder if it's more socially acceptable for women to admit they need help? But I do like your wife's theory...

jafabrit said...

I think I am inclined to agree with Emily :)

JRSM said...

When these particular customers are not buying self-help books, they're buying those memoirs by women who've suddenly abandoned their husbands/kids and fucked off to Italy/Greece/the Caribbean/France for a steamy affair with a young local. (Added comedy points if said local turns out to be homosexual, as happened to Terri McMillan.)

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Actually Paul McKenna's Instant Confidence book is quite helpful, particularly the CD. Doubt I would have got through last weeks' temping assignment without it.

But most 'sort yer life out books' are cr*p it's true.

Though men who seek to improve themselves too immediately jump up several rungs of the food chain in my estimation. Mind you, judging from the Mind, Body and Spirit show my mother dragged me to last week, men tend to go for the weirder stuff such as Wicca, Alchemy, Tao and 'Gong Showers' plus numerous weird disciplines I've never even heard of, which appear to be far from 'improving' and even acting as a sort of reverse psychogy to render them undateable. Needless to say I called it a day when I reached the 'Shape Shifter' stall!

;- )

John Self said...

I think we need to distinguish between the self-help books which are based on proper therapies, such as CBT or (some) hypnotherapy - as Laura indicates - and the wishy-washy crap that floats all around them.

Will Ferguson wrote a novel called Happiness a few years ago, an amusing satire about a self-help book which actually works, so the editor who publishes it ends up in fear for his life from tobacco and drug giants who are out to get him because nobody needs their products anymore.