Informal guides to behaviour have existed almost as long as writing itself, with some originating as far back as Ancient Roman times. Indeed, Ovid’s “Art of Love”, with tips on where to go to meet the opposite sex and how to keep them satisfied in the bedroom, is not overly different from the dating manuals of today. In the Middle Ages, conduct guides aimed at women became extremely popular, dictating how polite young ladies should behave, speak and dress. Today, self-help books are still very much in demand, with around 2,000 new titles coming out every year. Most of these works promise to improve some aspect of your life – to help you to become more successful, gain confidence, stop smoking, or find Mr or Mrs Right. Whatever your problem, you can guarantee there is a book that swears to have the solution.
Despite their popularity, self-help books have as many critics as they have die-hard advocates. Many psychologists condemn the genre for its reductivism, sensationalism and misrepresentation of expected results, citing studies which show that in reality, only fifty per cent of people are successful at self-administered treatment. Authors and advertisers have been criticised for exaggerating the potential for change and the speed at which it will happen, in order to attract those looking for a quick fix and sell more copies. Critics say that readers can sometimes make things even worse for themselves, becoming addicted to self-help books as they search for the answer to every woe imaginable. Indeed, the genre tends to send out the message that every person has the power to transform themselves almost instantaneously, perhaps encouraging those who are unable to change to feel like even bigger failures. Even Bridget Jones, fiction’s most famous self-help disciple, has her doubts about its effectiveness, commenting that “Maybe it helps if you’ve never read a self-help book in your life.”
As dubious and over-hyped as they may be, self-help books are a deeply entrenched cultural and literary phenomenon. The following list of titles have sold millions upon millions of copies around the world and made their authors rich beyond their wildest dreams. Though some readers come away from the books disillusioned and disappointed with their performance, many others have successfully used them to make real improvements in their lives. According to clinical psychologist Joseph C. Kobos, the more popular a self-help book, the more valuable and substantial it is likely to be. Just don’t expect it to work magic.
10. How to Win Friends and Influence People: 16 million + copies
First published in 1937 and updated in 1981, How to Win Friends and Influence People has been translated into 36 languages and was one of the first best-selling self-help books ever. Written by Dale Carnegie, a successful ex-salesman and lecturer, the manual contains strategies for effective communication as well as tips for making people like you and bringing them around to your way of thinking. It is still immensely popular today, particularly among business people.
9. The Secret: 20 million copies
Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret took the world by storm in 2006. After being featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, it reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for 146 weeks. The book is based on the law of attraction, claiming that if you think about something hard enough, it will come to you. Its New Age ideas have been ridiculed for their impracticality, peddling unrealistic solutions to tangible problems (for example, its weight loss advice is to “not observe” overweight people). Whether or not it is actually helpful, it has managed to gross over $300 million since its publication – demonstrating that the author, at least, knows the secret to success.
8. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: 20 million copies
Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, has been translated into 38 languages and remains one of the most popular and influential self-help and business management books today. As the title suggests, Covey presents seven habits to adopt in order to become more efficient and successful, and promotes fairness, respect and integrity in the work environment. President Bill Clinton was apparently so impressed by the book that he invited Covey to Camp David for tips on how to incorporate its teachings into his life.
7. Rich Dad, Poor Dad: 26 million copies
Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, was originally self-published in 1997 after various publishers turned it down. After being picked up by Warner Books, it became a New York Times best-seller and a household name. Based on a series of anecdotes about his “poor dad” (his educated biological father) and his “rich dad” (the high-school dropout, vastly wealthy father of his best friend), the aim of the book is to encourage the reader to rethink his or her approach to making money. It encourages financial independence, entrepreneurial projects and investments, and numbers Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Will Smith among its many fans.
6. Who Moved My Cheese? : 26 million copies
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson was first published in 1998. Since then, it has been translated into 37 languages and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for an incredible five years. The self-help and motivation book uses a story about two mice and two tiny people in a maze to demonstrate the necessity of accepting and adapting to change in one’s work and life. The text has been embraced by businesses worldwide, and managers regularly distribute copies to their staff. However, some readers dismiss the message as being overly simplistic, while others see it as a patronising means of persuading employees to acquiesce to their superiors’ demands without question.
5. Your Erroneous Zones: 35 million copies
Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer, was published in 1976. It spent 64 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and is one of the most popular books of all time. It contains tips for positive thinking, avoiding guilt and worry, revamping your self-image and taking control of your life.
4. You Can Heal Your Life: 35 million copies
Louise L. Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life was published in 1984. After being promoted on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the book’s sales skyrocketed, making Hay one of the highest-earning female authors in history. The premise of the text is that the body and mind are inextricably linked, to the extent that negative thinking is seen as the root of physical disease, and loving and forgiving yourself can cure everything from a headache to cancer. Though the book has many followers, it has also been denounced for its victim-blaming and hokey claims, particularly in the section which blames each ailment of the body on a particular mental or emotional issue. According to the author, toothache is caused by indecision, and nosebleeds by a need for recognition. Who knew?
3. Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: 50 million copies
Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus, written by John Gray and published in 1992, is the best selling relationship guide of all time. The idea behind it is that men and women are so different, it’s almost as if they come from separate planets. Gray states that most relationship problems emerge due to a failure to understand and effectively deal with these fundamental differences between the sexes. Famous lessons include “why men are like rubber bands” and “why women are like waves”. Though it contains some valuable insights, several critics have pointed out its unhealthy over-reliance on gender stereotypes.
2. Think and Grow Rich: 70 Million copies
Think and Grow Rich was written by Napoleon Hill and published in 1937. It is one of the most influential financial and self-help books in the world, and has been expanded into a best-selling series. Before compiling the text, Hill researched the lives of over 40 millionaires to discover how they became so successful. He then came up with 13 principles for achieving goals such as increased wealth and career advancement. Famous boxer Ken Norton claimed the book “changed his life” and was the inspiration for his victory over Muhammad Ali.
1. Chicken Soup for the Soul: 130 million copies
Chicken Soup for the Soul is a collection of motivational essays and true stories about ordinary people’s lives, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. After the book was rejected by numerous publishers, it was finally accepted by a small firm called HCI, and became a roaring success. Readers loved the inspirational tales and more books were released, many of them aimed at specific audiences. The series now contains over 250 titles and the company has branched out to produce comfort foods and pet food. There’s even a talk show and a movie lined up for the near future.