Self-Help Books Are Trending, But Only in Secret

Self-help: the much maligned genre that has found surprise success with audiobooks Elice Moore/Unsplash

The self-help genre of books is a divisive category. Some think of these guides as the secret to unlocking personal wellness, inner peace or financial stability; books that will make you feel more confident, solve your relationship woes and lead to a life of wealth. Others see the self-help aisle and immediately conjure up a scene akin to one from Sex and The City, in which Charlotte ventures into that contentious section of the bookstore and finds herself surrounded by crying customers.

But regardless of your thoughts on the genre, it’s a class of reading material that will continue to endure. What’s curious is that while it has weathered all the ebbs and flows of the publishing industry, one of those more recently popular offshoots has seemed to give self-help a notable boost: audiobooks. Throughout the most-listened-to lists on platforms like Libby and Audible, you’ll regularly find self-help books that fail to rank near the top of lists for physical books or ebooks that are the most borrowed or bought. As global popularity for recorded books you can easily download and digest through a pair of headphones gains steam, the popularity for audiobooks seems to be keeping apace. 

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According to the Association of American Publishers, downloaded audio increased by 19.8 percent from February 2019 to February 2020, and non-fiction audiobooks increased by 10 percent from 2018 to 2014, with self-help as one of the main subcategories.

“Self-help is always high on the list and I do think it’s because people do want to learn and they are using things like commute and travel to better themselves,” says Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association.

Cobb reports that most people listen to audiobooks during a commute to work, relaxation before bed, or while doing a hobby like knitting or walking. The key to self-help’s popularity might be found within this fact. No one should be ashamed of wanting to better themselves, but it’s true that self-help carries something of a stigma. Consuming your book about breaking bad habits in work or relationships might simply be something you don’t want your fellow commuters to see you avidly reading. Similarly, it’s simply easier to throw on an audiobook you might be slightly chagrined at buying into if you tell yourself it’s just an accompaniment to your productive activity.

But at the same time, it’s curious that this same trend can’t be said to be taking place in the podcast industry. Certainly self-help podcasts exist, but not with the popularity of audiobooks. Again, it’s possible this comes down to the public perception of the genre. Being published lends them an air of authority that podcasts don’t necessarily have, which audiobook producers are careful to cultivate. For example, when choosing the narrator Cobb says, “a narrator can make or break an audiobook.” The publisher decides if the author of the book or a professional narrator voices the recording. Unlike a lifestyle or health podcast, Cobb says very different skills are needed to narrate an audiobook. One must modulate their voice and meet the expectations of the reader in order for the book to come to life, whereas podcasts are much more conversational.

Of course, audiobooks continue to be popular across genres, and different platforms for listening will show different popular trends. But what is clear is that thanks to the rise in consumers eager to listen to books read aloud, self-help might not only be getting a boost but perhaps even opening up a gateway to new “readers” put off only by the task of paying a visit to their local bookstore or library’s self-help section. Now, you can browse online and find the advice you’re seeking while off on a run, out doing errands or getting to one of the many overwhelming tasks that might have made you turn to self-help in the first place.

Self-Help Books Are Trending, But Only in Secret