What impact have digital developments had on the self-help book market?

In a 2019 article for Books and Publishing, Australian publishers at the 2019 London Book Fair noted a substantial rise in demand for ‘uplifting or inspiring nonfiction’ and ‘self-development, self-esteem, resilience and mental health books for children and adolescents.’ This observation is not surprising given that the self-help industry in the United States alone in 2016 was worth approximately $9.9 billion a year, with self-help books constituting a sizeable share of bookstore bestsellers. But what effect have digital developments had on this lucrative market?

Well, from a publishing point of view, print publishers are increasingly using the Internet as a promotional tool, such as by posting samples of book chapters online. Before the Internet, traditional book publishers found it difficult to publicise segments of upcoming books or content, or even disseminate interviews with authors to the public. So in this way, the advent of e-publishing hastened traditional publishers to the uses and benefits of using the Internet to increase book sales. In a 2002 Yahoo! Finance report, Jessica Carter, an executive at publisher Alfred A. Knopf. stated:

‘I would say that both publishers and authors feel that putting a percentage of the book online for people to read and get a taste of it is a great promotion for the book and really helps sales.’

Jessica Carter, executive at publisher Alfred A. Knopf

Increasingly, authors of popular self-help book titles have taken their teachings online in order to not only attract a wider audience, but to also offer readers alternative ways of interacting with the text. One such example is popular self-help title Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki. In his bestselling book, the author gives advice to readers about how to think about money and his advice is now available as an app for both iPhone and Android. In a 2014 interview for Entrepreneur magazine creators explain:

‘Our goal was to take the content in Rich’s flagship book and turn it into a fun, interactive environment. We studied the different ways people learn. Some prefer visual stimulation, like video or motion graphics, and others prefer game achievements. It’s all in there. You can learn any way you prefer.’

Shane Caniglia, President of the Rich Dad Company

Sometimes, if readers either purchase the print book, e-book or audiobook of an author, they have the ability to access author-created digital programs to reinforce their learnings. Once such example is Dale Carnegie, the author of bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People  whereby he attempts to adapt his message of effective communication to online communication issues.    

From a reader’s perspective, the advent of digital technology has opened up a whole new world – importantly increasing access to self-help titles for people living with various disabilities. For instance, in a 2009 magazine article Exceptional Parent stated that, thanks to a partnership between online library Bookshare and Spanish business Code Factory, people with print disabilities were now able to access over 50,000 digital books and magazines on their mobile phones. However, whilst the assistive technologies such as braille, screen magnifiers, and screen readers all help users with visual impairments to access e-books on devices, many e-book formats and e-readers remain inaccessible to such users. So much so that in a 2019 Publishers Weekly article, it was noted that the European Union issued a decree that by 2025, certain products, systems and services (including e-books) will have to be ‘born accessible’:

‘…they will have to include for print-disabled users all the features and functionality that those of us without print disabilities enjoy. Not a special e-book edition – the same e-book.’

Decree by European Union

Although there are many other digital technologies that have impacted the self-help book market, including videos, social media, and weblogs, one of the most auspicious areas is that of the audiobook. Indeed, self-help titles in particular have helped audio book sales soar in recent years. One reason is that many listeners enjoy the feeling of ‘intimacy’ they have with the speaker, particularly if an author is reading their own work. Furthermore, the ability to listen and gain valuable insights whilst perhaps hanging the laundry or driving to a meeting, makes this medium increasingly popular by way of its versatility. Whilst not all lessons held within self-help material may be fully digested by a listener, inspirational elements will no doubt be appreciated.

Ironically, there are now self-help titles emerging that deal with our relationship with technologies in the context of what some have called ‘digital overload.’ That is, the perception that whilst we may be learning something worthwhile, our constant links to technology to deliver it may be hurting our ability to balance our lives with other meaningful endeavours. No doubt, an area into which more writings will be offered – with the ability to access it all online…

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