It used to be that when you wanted advice without turning to your friends or family, your only choice was Dear Abby or Ann Landers. Not anymore.
With the death last month of Ann Landers, whose real name was Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer, neither of the two columns' longtime writers are mulling over readers' letters.
Landers' twin sister, Abigail Van Buren (née Pauline Esther Friedman), who started Dear Abby in 1956, passed her pen to her daughter Jeanne Phillips several years ago.
While their columns are still thriving, the genre they founded has expanded beyond them, and the advice field is more crowded than ever.
"I think it's a particularly American phenomenon," said Wendy Simonds, a sociologist at Georgia State University who has studied the self-help movement. "I think it sort of fits into the American character as self-building and self-improving."
The key to the popularity of the Ann Landers column was its innovation and Landers' ability to relate to her readers, says David Grossvogel, a literature professor at Cornell University who wrote a book about the columnist.
"She was able to make the people writing to her feel like they weren't writing to a stranger," said Grossvogel.
And when the columns started, there were very few ways for readers — primarily women — to get practical, optimistic advice about everyday problems.
Ann and Abby instructed readers on everything from wedding etiquette to divorce and infidelity, and the columns flourished. Today, Dear Abby and Ann Landers each run in about 1,200 newspapers, reaching potential audiences of 95 million daily.
Think Advice Is Easy? Try a Quiz
A Flood of Advice
While Abby and Ann remain the name brands in advice-giving, variations on the agony aunts' tried-and-true format have sprung up in every medium.
The Washington Post runs Carolyn Hax's Tell Me About It, which offers 20-somethings a highly opinionated, brassy take on the standard topics of life, love, and family.
The online magazine Slate.com runs Dear Prudence, which addresses topics that might make traditional Dear Abby readers blush, such as what to do when your wife is in love with your sister. The column is written by Landers' daughter, Margo Howard.
Another online magazine, Salon.com, has weighed in with its own write-in advice feature, called Since You Asked. The feature is often among the most popular on the site, its author says.
Unlike Abby and Ann, newer columnists tend to be experts with established credentials — such as Dr. Laura, who is a physiologist, and Dr. Phil, a psychologist — or associated with something that already appeals to readers or viewers.
MTV's call-in advice show Love Line relies on the music channel's cool reputation, experts suggest, and Salon.com's advice column benefits from being associated with the site's edgy, literary style. Ask Cosmo Girl! similarly relies on the magazine's reputation.
"If Britney Spears started an advice column, people would read it — not because she's an expert, but because she's Britney Spears," said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.
Who's Writing In? Who's Reading?
Readers may be looking for advice they could apply to their own lives, or simply reassurance that others are facing problems similar to their own.
"One of the things that draws people to an advice column is feeling alone and needing a connection," said Harlan Cohen, part of the younger wave of advice columnists. Cohen's daily Help Me Harlan! feature runs in 70 local, daily and college newspapers, and mainly addresses teens' and college students' problems.
"I think it's comforting to see that other people are going through hell," he said.
Cohen says most of the 100 or so letters he gets a week are from people looking for support more than advice.
"I think there are two types of writers: those who write as a sort of cathartic release, and those who really want a response," he said.
Cary Tennis, the Salon.com advice dispenser, thinks most people writing in are regular readers of the column.
"Like people on talk shows — 'longtime listener, first-time caller' — I get that a lot," he said.
They write because they are fans of the column, he says, and because they want an outsider's viewpoint of their problems.
"Who knows what that person's going to say?" Tennis said of columnists. "They're not trying to assuage your feelings; they don't have a personal stake."
Other culture watchers see a slightly darker reason for advice columns' popularity among readers.
"I think the appeal of reading them is basically schadenfreude," said Simonds, using the German word for enjoying other people's misfortune.
Thompson, the Syracuse professor, suspects most readers don't take the columns too seriously.
"A lot of people I think are reading these things for their comic qualities and then also reading it out of nostalgia," he said, referring to features like Dear Abby and Ann Landers.
Regardless, the columns' appeal seems to be well-rooted.
At the time of her death, Landers had written columns through July 27. When those run out, the column will end, as its author requested. Creators Syndicate is replacing it with Annie's Mailbox, to be written by Landers' longtime assistants.
Russell Barclay, a media studies professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, predicts it, too, will find an audience.
"Lord knows there are a lot of people looking for advice," he said.