Self-Help Books, Explained

Self-help books are different from fiction and general nonfiction. We read fiction for entertainment and non-fiction to expand our knowledge. Self-help books, by contrast, are read with an underlying goal to improve ourselves in one of the six main areas of personal life: emotional, physical, social, practical, mental, or spiritual.

Everyone can benefit from a little extra help sometimes. Whether you’re anxious about a new job, getting over a past relationship, or trying to be healthier, it can feel much less intimidating to have some guidance and inspiration along the way. Self-help and self-improvement books can offer the support and tips you need to start making changes in your life.


People have been offering their advice to others and prescribing different ways of living for millenia. Some historians suggest that the Bible is one of the earliest examples of self-help literature, whereas others go back even further, citing the codes of conduct set by ancient Egyptians. Both of these ancient texts provide guidance about several aspects of human life, from social protocols to dietary advice to family values.

In more recent history, most scholars agree that Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book Self-Help set the stage for modern self-improvement literature. Smiles’ book was marketed for a wide audience, covering all kinds of issues plaguing “the everyman.” Mostly, it instructed the poor and those at the bottom of the social ladder helped the poor to improve themselves via grit and perseverance. And it quickly became a best-seller. However, it wouldn’t be until the 1900s that more specialized self-help books would enter the market.

The next most influential book in the self-improvement genre was Laugh and Live, written by Douglas Fairbanks in 1917. This light-hearted and optimistic book suggested that readers should take life less seriously. But also, that they should understand their weaknesses and problem areas and then resolve to become a positive, self-confident and self-reliant person. Fairbanks briefly touched upon several problems that folks in the 1910s were experiencing, but he failed to offer truly in-depth advice for difficult situations. But future self-help authors would soon offer specialized books for improving specific areas of one’s life.

Today, you can find self-help literature about any issue you’re interested in. There are books for aspiring entrepreneurs, people trying to lose weight, grieving individuals, teenagers with mental illnesses, parents, and everyone in between. Although some books in the self-improvement genre are still targeted towards a general audience (such as Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), many authors have honed in on specific problems or events people may experience.

Common Elements of Self-Help Books

The best self-help books are heavily researched but written in a friendly, conversational tone. Authors of successful self-improvement books can appropriately balance facts and clear data with humor, personal anecdotes, and relevant stories. Depending on the specific topic at hand, testimonials from other experts or people who have recovered from different issues can be highly impactful for readers as well.

Most self-help books will include exercises or worksheets for the reader to complete after each section or chapter. These exercises can range from personal reflection to practical tips for daily living to actual physical exercises (if it’s a weight-loss or fitness guide).

To get the most value out of a self-improvement book, be wary of titles authored by celebrities or gurus. These tend to offer lots of personal anecdotes (which may or may not be true) and vague advice, but no actionable advice or cited research. Instead, look for authors who are experts in their fields and focus on a few specific topics. For example, a self-help book about healthy eating written by a licensed nutritionist will be more reliable than a healthy living guide from a celebrity with no real credentials.

Types of Self-Help Books

The self-improvement genre differs from most literary genres because it doesn’t have specific sub-genres. The main way to differentiate types of self-help books is by separating them according to their format and subject matter.

Self-help books are usually written in one of the five most common formats:

      • Step-by-step books follow a practical how-to guideline to help you achieve an end goal, such as launching a business or building a website.
      • Progression books tend to be more anecdotal in nature, with the author explaining how they made small, incremental changes until achieving a goal or milestone. For example, a progression book may be about someone who grew up religious and slowly adjusted their mindset based on their own research or experiences.
      • Recovery literature focuses on helping people who are healing from traumatic or difficult situations. There are recovery books about addiction, mental illness, grief, abuse, physical injuries, and several other subjects.
      • Exercise books don’t always have to refer to physical exercise! Exercise books are structured more like workbooks, giving readers specific tasks to complete to overcome a problem or improve their quality of life. For instance, a book of exercises for people with social anxiety may help them slowly build their skills until they can effectively manage their symptoms.
      • Component-based books tackle complex, multifaceted issues by approaching them from different perspectives. For instance, a self-help book for teachers would be too broad to cover effectively. However, a self-improvement book for teachers that’s divided into sections for instructing specific age groups or discussing certain subjects can offer more nuanced advice for each “component” of teaching.

Self-Help Topics

The self-help genre is constantly expanding and evolving. Most people have the intrinsic desire to improve themselves, and those who have managed to make changes in their lives are often eager to share their advice with others. Whether you want to learn more practical skills, such as learning a computer programming language, or get in touch with your spirituality, there’s probably a self-help book out there for you! And hint: if you want free self-help books on Kindle see the self-help category on JustKindleBooks’ free books page.

With that being said, here are some of the most common self-help topics you can usually find at your local library or bookstore:

      • Abuse
      • Anger management
      • Assertiveness
      • Alcohol/Addiction
      • Anxieties/Phobias
      • Art therapy/Relaxation
      • Career
      • Communication/Social skills
      • Creativity
      • Death/Grief
      • Depression
      • Dreams
      • Eating disorders
      • Emotions
      • Handwriting analysis
      • Happiness
      • Hypnosis
      • Inner child
      • Finance
      • Journaling/Writing
      • Meditation
      • Memory improvement
      • Mid-Life
      • Motivational
      • Neuro-linguistic programming
      • New Age
      • Parenting
      • Personal transformation
      • Religion
      • Relationships
      • Self-esteem
      • Sex
      • Spirituality
      • Stress management
      • Success
      • Sexual assault
      • Speech anxiety
      • Stress
      • Suicide prevention
      • Test-taking/Preparation
      • Time management

If you’d like a little extra help in any area of your life, our site can help! Explore our other pages and resources to find the guides and tools you need to start living your best life today.