Digital media embellishes indie self-help books but…

happy young woman working on typewriter while creating new story

There’s no doubt digital media (including social media) has enhanced the abilities of self-published, (or ‘indie’) self-help books to reach a greater audience.

A scour of advice to self-publishers will undoubtedly advise authors, no matter their genre, to produce content across multiple mediums such as audiobooks, illustrated editions, podcasts, potential serialisation, and YouTube videos.

It’s therefore argued there is potential to reach greater numbers of consumers and create benefits for users: enabling greater accessibility to the content in terms of multiple forms and issues of convenience.

It’s easy to find examples of this brand expansion through the use of multimedia platforms. For instance, the digital corporate arm of the bestselling Rich Dad, Poor Dad book by Robert Kiyosaki, launched a complimentary app titled the Rich Dad Poor Dad Clutch Learning app.

This app allows users to gain access to the original text in addition to watching videos, motion graphics and games. In a 2014 interview with Entrepreneur magazine, the president of the Rich Dad Company, Shane Caniglia, explained:

‘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 Rich Dad

There’s no doubt digital technologies have developed to enable those with print disabilities, the ability to access printed information the rest of us take for granted.

Software, such as that created by not-for-profit organisation Benetech to transform print into digital form, is one such example. In a 2009 interview with Exceptional Parent magazine, CEO Jim Fruchterman stated:

‘We envision students with visual impairments or learning disabilities on the bus reading textbooks and assignments with their phones. Individuals can download digital books at school or a community center [sic.] with computer access and read the content anywhere using their mobile phones.’

Jim Fruchterman, CEO of benetech

But what of the actual messages self-help books try to convey? Have they become diluted? Or are they just another version of self-help advice dispensed to the masses – previously the domain of institutions such as religion?

In a 2014 article for the Journal of Current Cultural Research, the authors contend that:

‘…a broadly therapeutic ethos now pervades all facets of culture, from education and social policy, through fashion and craft-working, to psychological and spiritual well-being [sic.] and on through TV content to publishing.’

alan apperley, stephen jacobs & mark jones

The University of Bristol sociologist, Dr Patricia Neville, explained in my 2020 interview that interestingly, around 2010 when social media took off, it coincided with a decline of academic output of studies about self-help books.

Were they now not perceived as valuable?

Perhaps people were now getting their self-help messages in brief spurts from social media.

But how effective were these messages? Were they superficial and seen as substitutes for self-help books? Whilst they may inundate news feeds, they were always fleeting: at least with a book, readers could absorb and return to passages as required.

And what of the effect on authors? Instead of remaining ‘just’ an author, if they desire success, authors must now rebrand themselves as recognisable, proficient multimedia managers of an ever-expanding brand of which they must keep abreast.

Furthermore, academic and former publisher Jane Friedman claims in a 2016 Publishers Weekly article:

‘The more books you have out there, the easier the marketing game is.’ 

Jane Friedman

So, does this encourage authors (including self-help authors) to fervently produce titles – not just when they possess valuable insights – but to maintain visibility in the marketplace?

Does this have the potential to adversely alter the quality of their efforts – making them complicit in fuelling criticisms of self-help literature as superficial and lacking depth?

Like many diverse areas in modern society, indie self-help literature is subject to a commodification that knows no bounds. Why just publish a mundane print book when you could add a movie to your repertoire? 

Whilst I’m not averse to the advantages of digital media encompassing potentially excluded audiences from self-help messages in print format, I wonder as to the possible effects on the message and authors of such works.

By commodifying the distribution of these ideas, we lose perhaps a degree of intimacy between writer and reader: an intimacy that encircles the message delivered to the reader not to masses in a homogenised, generic manner.

Whilst there’s no doubt we experience various ways of learning, which digital technology innovations increasingly accommodate, I hope we don’t delve too deep into the burrow of commodification of self-help advice: where readers lose intimate connection, not simply with the writer, but with the core messages extolled.

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