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Self-help books have exploded over the past decade, with offerings from big-name celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and even the late Elizabeth Taylor.
The genre focuses on the popular psychology of virtually every aspect of the human experience, from romantic relationships to spirituality. The ultimate goal is to get readers to optimize their self-awareness, so that they can take action and be content with their lives.
It all sounds wonderful, but how can a publisher convey the purpose of a self-help book to readers? By the cover of the book of course. There is a woman looking into the distance, a heavenly cloud with the sun peering over it, and flowers of course.
Unfortunately, these don’t tell readers anything about the content of a book. To be fair, there aren’t many images that faithfully relay a 10 step plan for a better life without looking like a PowerPoint slide. The solution seems to be one of two things: an image of the author or text with the author’s name clearly displayed.
Think of Sheryl Sandberg bending over with her right hand under her chin and Rachel Hollis kneeling beside a fire hydrant, soaking wet and smiling.
Judge a book by its cover
As bibliophiles, we are constantly warned not to judge books by their covers. But let’s be honest, everyone does. Why? Because for a reader, a well-designed cover is synonymous with quality. Publishers know this, which is why they carefully design covers to attract the right readers. For example, a fantasy book might have a warrior standing in front of a magical city, as on The fall of Gondolin blanket. Talk about selling a high fantasy book.
Self-help books relay the personal philosophies of their authors, who rarely have medical or psychology degrees, asking whether they are qualified to give advice in the first place (but that’s another story. ). The standard print for a respected “expert”, such as Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, writing on the history of cancer in The emperor of all diseases or Sarah E. Hill, PhD, writing on the effects of birth control on the female brain in This is your brain on birth control, does not exist for self-help authors. Instead, the raffle is the public reputation and brand of the author.
Take Lilly Singh’s book How To Be A Bawse: A Guide To Conquering Life. As a fan of Lilly’s YouTube channel, her face is instantly recognizable to me. On the cover of her book, she gazes boldly at the camera, clad in a power suit. Her book is peppered with quotable self-help tips such as âDon’t give up before you’ve even triedâ and âWords Lie; actions can also lie. Consistency tells the truth. These are all tips that match his mark of a woman being a “bawse”. The book cover reflects this because her confident portrayal makes her look like a bawse, which makes a fan like me inclined to trust her advice.
Who writes self-help books
Since the self-help industry is largely unregulated, the âexperts,â who are primarily life coaches, successful business owners and celebrities, rely on their reputation to convince the public that their personal philosophies are healthy. The self-help industry does not have a formal peer review process, so readers should trust the author to give solid personal philosophies.
In many cases, the author’s image is recognizable and will appeal to potential readers, especially former fans. Because the authors are not certified self-help experts, they rely on their relationship with readers. It is this relationship that gives readers confidence in the author’s personal philosophies, such as my aforementioned confidence in Lilly Singh.
I have been a loyal listener to Rachel Hollis’ podcast To augment for two years now, so when her book Girl, stop apologizing: a shameless plan to embrace and achieve your goals was released in 2019, I was immediately interested because I have a connection with his work. It also helps that her podcast image is her portrayal, so I recognized her image on the cover of the book and paired her content with the branded self-help tips I’ve grown to appreciate on To augment.
Despite all the strategies involved in developing book covers, all that matters is the content. Two of the most famous self-help books of all time, How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons for Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey, both with 4 stars out of over 400,000 reviews on Goodreads, arguably have unattractive covers. And yet, it has been several * decades since they were published, and both still have a consistent readership. Why? Because the advice is solid.
Make no mistake, turning to a book when needed is an exercise in confidence. I always turn to writers whose work I admire because I trust the quality of their work, and a cover that sports a friendly face is much more appealing than an absurd illustration. Ultimately, a book’s cover is shallow compared to its content.
Editor’s Note: This post originally stated that almost two decades had passed since the publication of How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie. While the anniversary edition was published in 1998, it was originally published in 1936.