Help Yourself to Opportunity
Whether it’s through Dr. Phil’s advice on “getting real” or Dale Carnegie’s strategies on “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” we seem to be incessantly compelled to better ourselves. Besides spiritual and professional self-help books, do-it-yourself books have exploded in popularity over the years (the “For Dummies” line published by John Wiley & Sons Inc. among them). But like any other market segment, the self-help book market faces challenges—challenges that are, in fact, similar to those most publishers are facing at the moment. They also face great opportunity in a changing marketplace—opportunity that some say could be easily missed.
Community Is Key
Paul Clemens, president of Blue Dolphin Publishing—which publishes “Mary’s Message To The World,” among more than 180 other self-help, spiritual, cultural, health and healing titles—says a major revenue miscue the self-help industry makes is forgetting how dependent the audience is on having a sense of community. The authors, he says, can help develop and lead these “communities” and drive book sales significantly.
“We rely on the author to go out and make 50 percent of our sales through their seminars and workshops,” Clemens says. “It’s about making a connection and showing a true sense of caring. Our audience is sensitive and thrives on believing in people and that it’s a part of something. The best way to take advantage of this is for readers to be able to see these authors live and know them better.”
Tony Rose also believes a growth opportunity resides in making a better effort to reach out to a wider scope of readers, especially in minority communities. As president and CEO of Amber Communications Group, Rose’s mission is to take emphasis away from negative stereotypes about African Americans and focus on everything from helping African Americans achieve financial independence to dealing with life’s curve balls through self-help books.
“Self-help needs to get behind minorities because we’re largely an untapped marketplace,” Rose says. “Most publishers have no idea how loyal African Americans are as consumers, and I’m the one who benefits.”
Get Tuned In
Venues that can help self-help book authors gain exposure to their audiences vary, but TV is an eternally popular one. Turn on the TV late at night and there’s someone telling you how to “Buy and sell real estate—to make millions!” or “Change your life now!”
One author you may remember seeing in a late-night channel-flipping excursion is self-help guru Deepak Chopra. At least Karen Krieger, COO of Amber-Allen Publishing Inc., hopes so. Amber-Allen publishes Chopra’s books among other personal growth books and audio products.
“There’s no question that television is still a major source of profitability for self-help,” she says. “But only if the author can come across as sincere. With Chopra, you didn’t just buy into his books—you bought into him.”
Rose also sees TV as a part of his company’s continuing growth. “We began in 2002 by producing commercials and went on to bring in a lot of revenue on the Black Family Channel, which has a viewing audience of 16 million,” he says. Rose adds that executive-producing a half-hour television show called “Literary Living”—which airs on the Black Family Channel and profiles African-American authors and publishing figures—has translated directly into book sales.
Krieger also has a sneaking suspicion that television helped her company’s all-time best seller, “The Four Agreements,” by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book was featured on a segment of Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show and in the premiere issue of O: The Oprah Magazine.
Many self-help publishers also rely heavily on online communities to develop their audiences.
“A lot of our bookstores and distributors went under, so the way we survive is to emphasize multimedia,” says Clemens.
Krieger suggests that while multimedia may be essential, traditional sales means are by no means obsolete. “Many self-help publishers these days are still relying on bookstores as the driver of sales,” she says. “But the younger generation may be leaning more toward buying online and maybe, one day, exclusively. Because of this, every publisher must have a fresh Web site that supports the core values of the publisher,” says Krieger.
Clemens’ company isn’t waiting, however, and is pushing to build its online audience now. It is constantly trying to add spiritual groups to its e-newsletter circulation; some of these groups have memberships that reach into the millions and offer huge potential to connect more personally with these related audiences.
“Partnering allows you to go from [being] spam to being taken seriously,” he says.
David Rothenberg, CEO of Nolo, a self-help legal publisher that publishes “Patent It Yourself,” among several hundred other titles, also relies on the Internet to reach his audience. He believes offering different products that accompany a book Web site is a strong way to compete.
“Thirty years ago, the only way to get [a legal] will done was go to an attorney, and our company started to show you how to put the will together yourself. But now you can go online, and interactive software can [help you create] your will—this means we have to constantly offer more value to keep up,” says Rothenberg.
In addition to offering more value, Rothenberg suggests companies should promote their multimedia products through all possible channels.
“We’re in a privileged situation because we can move our marketing spending across different marketing lines. Why not take advantage of advertising as many products as possible …? Why can’t an ad talk about both your software and your book Web site?”
Dr. Tina B. Tessina, a counseling psychologist and author of “The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again,” published by Wiley, sees the Internet as a chance to take advantage of blogging and chat rooms.
“Yahoo Personals promoted my dating book well, since I answered questions for their readers. Blogging can be another way to get to readers and give them a little slice of what you have to offer,” says Tessina. “Chat rooms are also seen as the virtual book tour—it’s nice not to have to be constantly on the road to promote your books and still find a way to let readers know you’re there. It also allows you to better understand your audience for the next book.”
One area where Tessina feels publishers and authors are lacking—whether online or off—is communicating on the best ideas for promoting a particular book. “No one knows the self-help audience better than the author, and you still get the feeling publishers just want to do it their way and not listen to an author’s input. They’d be better off working together, if only because the author[s] may be more enthusiastic about promotion if they have some say in [the book’s] direction.”
Down The Road
Though the outlook seems fairly positive for self-help books, it’s clear there are challenges coming in the next few years. As online communities continue to grow, people are increasingly able to compare personal experiences and information to solve their own problems.
Take, for example, Yahoo Answers. Although, with queries such as “Who has better answers for Yahoo questions—guys or girls?” found within its pages, the self-help industry still has a leg up when it comes to providing reputable, credible sources.
Regardless, publishers must be ready to contend with the watered-down advice readers are willing to settle for, especially when it’s free.
But Clemens sees these interactive communities as something more than that, as longing for plain-spoken advice, instead of verbose doctors who may talk over their audiences’ heads. “Self-help has always been about making readers feel comfortable about seeking knowledge. We should never forget their needs.”
With self-help publishing being so reliant on developing a sense of community, and the need for the authors to interact with these communities personally and regularly, it would seem that online is the perfect medium in which to build these communities around their products.
Eric Butterman is a New York-based writer and creator of the seminar “Better Business Writing: From E-mails to Everything That Makes You Money.” He can be contacted at EricButterman@Yahoo.com.