Help Yourself

First published: Mslexia Winter 2015

January is boom time for self-help books, especially for the lovelorn. Danuta Kean investigates how publishers find The One

New year, new start: it’s the mantra for millions as snowy December melts into grey January. So it is no surprise that January is the peak season for self-help books. A sign of how important this time of year is for publishers with books to help the lovelorn are the statistics for internet dating. According to websites and Plenty of Fish, the evening of the first Sunday after New Year is the single busiest time of year for the £2bn global industry.

Carolyn Thorne, editorial director at HarperCollins non-fiction, says the growth of electronic matchmaking means there is a gap in the market: ‘It’s definitely time for a new relationships book to be published reflecting modern day trends.’ As one of the leading publishers in the field, Thorne is constantly on the look out for authors with a fresh, authentic and insightful message. ‘A new title needs to have a clear point of difference from the competition – many areas of the self-help book market have been over-published in the past so it is important that new titles have real standout plus a defined take away message so that people can work to make change in their lives.’ But, she warns: ‘Tone of voice is important, as no-one relates to being ‘preached’ to.’

For Mslexia readers writing in this fiercely competitive market their first priority should be to establish a platform that authenticates their qualifications to tell the rest of us how to live and love, says Hay House commissioning editor and publisher Amy Kiberd. ‘We look for dynamic, inspiring authors with a strong message and an established connection to, and understanding of, their audience,’ she explains.

Hay House, like others, will look at unsolicited manuscripts. Whatever the source, it expects authors to show more than life experience. Online is a useful source for publishers looking for their ideal match because it is a way the author can test their market and prove that they have something to offer, as Kiberd explains. ‘We research authors online, paying particular attention to anyone who is gaining a good following.’

Unpublished authors must wholly engage with their market, whether speaking at seminars, hosting workshops or writing blogs or, increasingly, vlogging (producing YouTube video blogs), she adds. Like others working in this market, the publisher scouts mbs events for intereting new speakers, as well as working with a handful of literary agents with clients in this sector, such as Sheila Crowley at Curtis, Brown. She will also look at columnists in magazines – including specialist ones – and newspapers, and those with professional qualifications, such as psychotherapists.

The willingness of the author to engage with their audience is important not just in establishing credentials: it means that a self-help writer has a readymade platform from which to launch their work. Simon & Schuster senior publicist Sam Evans says: ‘Public speaking skills really help writers in this area.’

Evans worked on Hannah Fry’s book The Mathematics of Love, which came about after a successful TED Talk – S&S publishes book tie-ins to the video lecture series. The publicity for the book pivoted on an extract published in The Observer’s science and technology section, which resulted in Fry being booked to speak across a range of broadcast outlets including Breakfast TV and Woman’s Hour, as well as festivals.

By placing the extract in a specialist part of a newspaper, it meant rival media outlets could present themselves as breaking it to a wider audience. For self-published authors, the value of newspaper and magazine extracts to your publicity campaign should not be underestimated. Features editors are open to all comers – even the mighty Daily Mail, which can make a self-help book shoot up the bestseller lists, will happily consider extracts from self-published work, as long as it is professionally presented and it is relevant to its readership.

The power of the Mail in the mbs market is shown by the success of Bel Mooney, an advice columnist on the paper. Her latest book, Bel Mooney’s Lifelines, was published in autumn. Mooney is in a perfect place to research what people look for from a self-help book. ‘It comes as no surprise that most letters I receive are about love and relationships, mainly women of different ages looking for love or recovering from divorce, but some men too,’ she says. In choosing from past columns to feature in Lifelines, she followed a simple rule: ‘I wanted this to be a useful bedside book that people could pick up and open on any page and find something uplifting and helpful.’

Awareness of your market marks out the best self-help writers. It was top of psychosexual and relationship counselor Cate Campbell’s mind when planning The Relate Guide To Sex and Intimacy, part of a series of books published by Vermillion under the counseling organisation’s banner. ‘I thought about what my clients need to know and what helps them, trying to get across points simply but usefully and to make it as relevant as possible to as many people as possible,’ she says.

One issue that Campbell says authors must address when writing about relationships are cultural barriers and differences. ‘With sex it is particularly important to be inclusive about people’s sexualities,’ she explains. ‘There wasn’t enough space to look specifically at trans gender, gay sex, asexuality and other sexualities, but we did make an effort to write something that wouldn’t exclude anyone.’

Her concern for readers reflects how more than in any other book market, authors must consider the impact of their words upon readers. Isobel Losada agrees. The author of The Battersea Road to Enlightenment, is on a mission to help readers find what works to make them happier rather than offer her own ‘rulebook’. ‘Most mind body spirit books are prescriptive,’ she says. ‘Namely they say, “If you do X it will help you”. My books don’t do that, but they sometimes say “I learnt X and Y, and Y turned out to be useful.”’

In that way in the mbs market the relationship between writer and reader is possibly more intimate than usual. It is a joy, says Bel Mooney, to hear from a reader that your advice helped change their life for the better. It is also a responsibility, which is also why not everyone can be a self-help author. As with love, publishers are looking for The One and not just the next one in line.

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