When the Rev. Eric Butterworth, once a wildly popular preacher of self-improvement, died last month, his New York Times obituary quoted a 1987 Forbes story in summarizing his message: "That we alone have the power within us to solve our problems, relieve our anxieties and pain, heal our illnesses, improve our golf game or get a promotion."
It was a thought that resonated then — and now more than ever. The 1987 story noted the huge size of the self-help market. But it turns out that that market had hardly been tapped. Butterworth's successors have moved into publishing's big leagues: Our new list of the top 10 self-help stars includes authors whose books often outsell even blockbuster novelists.
While Butterworth himself may have been forgotten, his self-helping descendants like Suze Orman and Dr. Phil McGraw are everywhere, blanketing bookstores and the airwaves. Covering everything from personal finance to spiritual renewal — often all at the same time — they fill a deep-seated need.
"When a society is rich and triumphant, its people start to ask not just what can be had from life but how can I live a life that's worth living," says Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, whose own self-help book, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002), was a best seller.
Guiding people toward that goal can be quite rewarding — and not just in the spiritual sense. One mega-seller, Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is so massively popular that it gave rise to a publicly traded corporation. Last year, FranklinCovey, which is in the business of providing "integrated training and performance-enhancement solutions to organizations and individuals," recorded sales of $333 million.
Self-Help Buyers Line Up
Self-help books have been around since before the Civil War. What is new is the scale and the variety of media employed by these authors.
In 2001, 3,500 new self-help titles, amounting to 2.6 percent of all new titles, were published in the United States, according to Simba Information, a market research firm that focuses on the publishing industry. In terms of sales, self-help was even more pervasive, amounting to 5.7 percent of all consumer book sales, Simba says.
But book sales are just for starters. A successful self-help author really cleans up giving speeches. Then there are other income streams, which include training programs (Kenneth Blanchard), wellness therapies (Dr. Andrew Weil), mission formulators (Covey), calendars (Richard Carlson) and yoga lessons (Deepak Chopra), along with a variety of others.
Orman and McGraw have their own television shows. McGraw and Covey have such huge followings that even their kids' books have become best sellers.
Sean Covey wrote his own book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, not to mention the associated workbook. Just as effective are the McGraws. Dr. Phil's son, Jay McGraw, followed his dad's Life Strategies and The Life Strategies Workbook with his Life Strategies for Teens.
While the best sellers certainly help those who write them, one problem is the lack of proof that they help others, Seligman says. For example, self-help perennial Anthony Robbins' techniques are probably good, but no one ever tests them, according to Seligman. But Americans aren't waiting for the test results. Buyers of books, speeches, tapes and seminars are lining up.
For more, go to Forbes.com.