self help guide to writing self help guides

Self Help Books for Dummies – Getting published

Getting a self-help book published is also fairly easy. Because of the size of the self-help market selling your book to publishers is like shooting fish in a barrel. The smaller the niche your book fits into is the smaller the barrel, or conversely the larger the fish. It’s important to pick the right publisher for your book. If you’re an aspiring novelist it may be worth holding on to your manuscript till one of the larger publishing companies shows interest. When this happens try to structure your deal to include a guarantee that the company will also publish your novel. Don’t be afraid to strike a hard bargain with the publisher, all they see when they’re dealing with you is the dollar signs. They can often be blinded by their greed.

A publishing company executive signing a multiple book deal with a self help book writer

Self Help Books for Dummies – The Cover

The old saying holds true, you can judge a book by its cover, especially a self-help book. When it comes to designing the cover for a self-help book it’s helpful to throw any artistic taste out the window. Bright colours and lots of lines at different angles are important when it comes to making your book stand out on the shelves of the bookshop. You don’t want your book to be buried in a sea of boring book covers, you want it to stand out like a pink neon sign in a black and white movie. Self-help book covers are one place where sticking out like a sore thumb or being a sunflower in a field of lavender is a good thing. It’s also important that your name feature prominently on the front cover.
The back cover of a self-help book is just as important. Readers of self-help books like to check who has been helped by either the book or its author in the past. It’s a good idea to have some positive quotes from well-known people or something quotable from a review your book received in the press. This doesn’t have to be the real press as it’s almost unverifiable. You could just send a letter to the editor of a really small newspaper that publishes everything and use your own quote, but only do this if you get really desperate.

An artist’s impression of the ideal book cover…

Self Help Books for Dummies – Writing the book

The key to success in the self-help market is to understand that you don’t actually need to provide any merit to your readers. They get enough benefit from simply adding your book to their self-help library to impress visitors. However, there are several tools that the successful self-help writer should have in their toolbox.

1. Statistics
2. Diagrams
3. Illustrations
4. Clichés
5. Repetition
6. Repetition

The truth is 90% of self help books are never read, at least past the first chapter. Once your first chapter is finished you can pretty much write whatever you want to fill in the next nine chapters. This is both a valid lesson for the self-help writer to learn and an example of how statistics can be misused or just plain made up.


The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words holds true in the self-help market. Because any given sample of 1000 words of a self-help book are unlikely to make any sense, you as the writer have a bit of freedom when it comes to diagrams. In fact the more complicated the diagram appears the more impressive it seems.

The idea cycle – another pointless diagram.

The most important part of a diagram is to have an appropriate caption so that people know what they are looking at. A really good caption will say a lot but mean very little to the reader.


One tool that the prospective self-help writer will have to develop if they want to increase their word limit in a hurry is to be able to use pointless, long-winded illustrations. Here’s an example of an illustration that will leave the reader looking for a point or moral:

“It’s like a boat, sailing on a really choppy sea, the sailors are getting sick, throwing up all over the place. In a situation like this the last person you want to be on the boat is the ships boy who has to clean up everyone’s mess, including their own.”

Often the reader’s interpretation of a story like that one will be much more beneficial to them than anything you could come up with yourself. While there are obviously many meanings that could be taken from this illustration its ambiguity is important if people are to gain any “real” meaning from your writing.


Clichés are another important key to success. Especially when misused, they allow the real meaning of sentences to flow like water off a ducks back, where the duck is the reader. The more clichés you can pack into a paragraph the more confused the reader will get. It’s important when using clichés that you really give 110% to your writing.


It’s a sad truth that people these days rely on repetition to enforce truth. Well sad unless you’re a self-help writer with a lot of space to fill and not much to say. The importance of repetition means that you can pretty much just say the same thing over and over again in new and innovative ways for the whole book if you want.

It’s vital that you repeat yourself so that the reader will recognise the importance of your message. Unless you repeat yourself several times your message won’t be enforced. This isn’t such a bad thing. It means that you will be able to fill up the empty pages of your book very quickly.

Always remember the golden rule for self-help writing – confusing the reader is the ultimate goal. You’ll eventually be able to release a sequel to your first book further explaining the concepts of the first. You can even use “for dummies” or “idiots guide to” in the title of the new book.

Self Help Books for Dummies – The Title and establishing credibility

Now that we have picked our topic, the next, equally important, step is to pick a catchy title for the book. There are several self-help brand names, and unless you have been specifically employed by those brands, it’s a good idea to steer clear of titles that end with the words “for dummies” or start with the words “an idiot’s guide to”. However, it may be a good idea to cater for the section of the market that these books ignore and launch your own “for geniuses” brand. Because lets face it, nobody really likes being called a dummy do they? And you don’t want to be a nobody now do you? Like any good title a little pun never goes astray. Catchiness is also important, but believe it or not, this doesn’t mean your title needs to be short and punchy. Think of the books you’ve seen at bookshops in the last year. Which books had the longest titles? That’s right, the self-help books. Titles need to grab attention. They need to speak to the potential reader on more than a superficial level. They need to make a connection with the average bookshop browser, a connection that says, “you really want to buy me.”

The three big rules for writing a successful title are:
1. Don’t insult your reader
2. Be as catchy as possible
3. Less is not necessarily more

So a good title for our book about getting into the fresh fruit juice industry might be – “The big squeeze – a genii’s guide to creating your very own fruit juice franchise”

Establishing Credibility
It’s important that a self-help author establishes their credentials early on in the piece. Self-help writing is one of the few times in life where having lots of letters after your name is actually an advantage. If you have no really fancy qualifications, don’t worry. There are a few really easy solutions. There are several online “universities” offering diplomas for just 12 easy payments of $39. If that is beyond your financial means or you just don’t have the four weeks to wait for them to mail your certificate there is still hope. Simply legally change your name from ‘Joe Smith’ to ‘Joe Smith (B. Fruit Juice Studies, hons, Dip Bus Man, OBE)’. It’s always nice to award yourself a couple of prestigious awards. While a knighthood may seem a little pretentious, an order of Australia or other fancy award looks impressive and nobody will really question its legitimacy. Now that you have your new identity and your credibility is established, it’s time to start writing.

Self Help Books for Dummies – The Topic

Picking a topic is fairly easy. There are four recognised sub-categories in the self-help market. These are: mind, body, soul and status. The relationship between these categories, when it comes to self-help writing, can best be explained by this diagram:
Figure 1.1 A diagrammatical representation of the 4 categories of self-improvementFigure 1.1 A diagrammatical representation of the 4 categories of self-improvement.
As you can see, each circle represents one of the categories for self-improvement. There is a natural overlap between categories. In fact, the more overlaps you can manage the more successful your book is likely to be. The ideal area of this diagram, or the self-help bull’s-eye is shown in this diagram:
Figure 1.2Figure 1.2 The coloured in area is the “self-help bull’s-eye.

Like in darts, the further you move from the bull’s-eye the lower your score will be. Another secret for picking a successful topic is being aware of current trends. The recent real-estate bubble is a prime example of a good bandwagon to jump onto. Another current issue, which appears to be under represented in the self-help market, is the boom in the fresh fruit juice industry. Franchises like Juice BoostTM are being set up all over the country.

Self Help Books for Dummies – A beginner’s guide to writing self help books – Introduction

The book bestseller lists in the last few years have been dominated by works of non-fiction. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as pieces of non-fiction, creative or otherwise, are much easier to write than a novel. Rather than relying on creativity and conventions of narrative, like plot, description and characterisation, non-fiction writers can rely on careful research, experience and the ability to string a cohesive sentence together – never suffer from writer’s block again. Writing is much easier when you don’t have to use your imagination.

While this trend has been worrying to many novelists, the news isn’t all bad. Books in the “self-help” genre have been selling particularly well. The self-help market requires very little research and a writer can achieve success with only a small amount of expertise and a lot of creativity. For those frustrated creative writers out there this piece should be seen as a guide to finding success in the dog-eat-dog world of self-help writing.

The most important thing to have in any industry is a plan. The fewer steps involved in the plan the more efficient and impressive it sounds. However, finding a balance between too much and too little is a very exact science, while a five step plan sounds impressive and well rounded, a two step plan looks like you just haven’t put enough thought into things. Here is this writer’s six step guide to writing a self-help book.

Step 1 – Picking a topic
Step 2 – Choosing a title
Step 3 – Establishing your credentials
Step 4 – Writing the book
Step 5 – Designing the Cover
Step 6 – Getting published

Promises fulfilled

I often make promises here that fall by the wayside – like a post listing all my best posts. That’s turning out to be a bigger ask than I thought… anyway, last week I mentioned I’d follow up my self help guide to taking over the world with a self help guide to self help writing. And here it comes. One post a day for five days.

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