Should Most Self-Help Books Be Pamphlets?

When I first heard this question, my gut reaction was an emphatic “Yes!” So many self-help/self-improvement books, business books, even some financial advice books are full of unnecessary fluff.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People easily lends itself to a numbered list with a couple-sentence description for each. Atomic Habits is focused around four main steps. Sometimes there are graphs and charts. It could be a zine! I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time could fit in a fortune cookie: “Be a woman who makes six figures at least, has a flexible job, and outsources most domestic labor.” Easy peasy! I know I may be hurting some feelings with this next one, but Brené Brown is really squeezing every bit of juice out of that vulnerability lemon.

My friends: if you have not caught on after your first two Brené Brown books, then I think you might benefit by picking fruit from a different tree in a distant orchard.

All of the above answer the question of “Can most self-help books be pamphlets?” but it doesn’t really answer the question in the title which is “Should most self-help books be pamphlets?” and that, dear readers, is a different question entirely.

Before I answer this question, you should know that I’m an avid self-help reader and I am writing this from a place of fondness. In fact, many of us who read self-help can be described as “avid.” It seems so rare that a person ever picks up only one or two in the genre, likes it, then never touches it ever again. We are serial self-help readers, some of us constantly searching for someone else to tell us to get our shit together, clean up our home, set boundaries, take a nap, and unfuck literally anything in a 10-mile radius. Maybe we are looking for that one book, that singular, special thing that will finally make everything in our lives fall into place.

Many self-help readers I know, myself included, are folks who identify as pessimists or “realists” but deep down, we’re undercover optimists. We believe that we can be better, that our situations can be better, and that the world can be better. It is this flickering flame of optimism in me that fuels my love of self-help so much that I not only read it, but I write it. I have an almost 3 year old self-help newsletter titled Enthusiastic Encouragement & Dubious Advice and this brings me back to the question of whether or not most self-help should be pamphlets.

My response is, well, it depends. Specifically, it depends on the audience. I believe that the format should fit the folks that the writer is trying to reach. Now, while this is how I personally move I am fully aware that a lot of self-help out there might be a money-grab and so the form is whatever will make someone the most money. I write a newsletter because it fits my content and my bandwidth (I have a whole, full-time, non-writing, non-bookish day job). Some people write books. Some people make podcasts. Some people make YouTube videos or TikToks or Instagram reels. If the goal is to help, where are the people who want the help? Let’s go to them and meet them where they’re at. Turns out, many of these folks are established book readers.

Yes, you can convey the main point of almost any self-help book in a pamphlet but self-help books are about more than conveying, they’re about convincing. Convincing readers that yes, this is the one. This is the magical system that will fix your life. This is the lens through which your relationships will make sense. This is the key to unlocking your productivity. This book will help you become your best self. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a pamphlet that I talked about in a club or bought multiples of as gifts or spoke about at length on a podcast. Some subjects need these tens of thousands of words, this fluff, this padding, to grab a reader and inspire them to action. We know that reading a self-help book will not actually help anything unless that reading is followed up by action, like a change in behavior. I have not yet met a pamphlet that has convinced me to change my behavior. But a book has.

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