Self-help is defined by dictionary.com as “the act of providing for or helping or the ability to provide for or help oneself without assistance from others.” This is undoubtably true though some would perhaps describe it as part of the pursuit of happiness, which would explain its appeal through the ages. Self-help books are by no means a recent phenomenon, though the market has gone from niche to mainstream culture and as such expanded substantially in the last decades. The name of the genre is taken from a title published in 1859, the famous Victorian bestseller Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct by Samuel Smiles, though his book was by no means the first or only self-help literature available to readers back then.
Nowadays there are practically as many different emphasis in self-help literature as there are books (depending on what you are looking for; love, money, weight loss, a connection with the almighty) but I will focus on spirituality with Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. The Power of Now was first published in 1997 by Namaste Publishing in Canada, and then two years later in the US by New World Library. Since then, 3 million copies of the book have been sold in North America alone (the book has been translated into 33 languages) and Tolle is currently one of the most influential spiritual guides in the world.
These first two covers were published by Namaste Publishing in 1997 and by New World Library in 1999:
As you can see the US publisher imitated the first edition from Namaste Publishing with only slight alterations. From the beginning the look has been simplistic, the background image is vague, the colour quite neutral. Yet there is also a feeling that accompanies it, I at least can see a sky which is partly cloudy even while the sun is also glinting there somewhere. It looks like the vague feeling a person can feel when they know that there is something missing, something he or she should know, without knowing exactly what it is. It is definitely spiritual in nature (the question is, do I think that because I have seen spiritual books before, or do I want to read these books because I feel that way?). In any way it at least manages to make me curious about the content.
In 2004, after the book had become a bestseller, a book with this cover was published, again in the US:
It is still essentially the same idea, what has changed is that the book is doing well so it contains more information to entice readers; the author is now getting some attention and thus his name is more prominent and the colours are a bit stronger, which makes the font and the cover as a whole stand out. As we will see the focus is very much on the “NOW” part, which does seem to help with sales as this customer writes. She says she “felt a strong urge to read Eckhart Tolle’s book” as the words on the book cover stood out to her (and then she went home and bought it on Amazon, as people do). But this is an interesting description, that the title manages to make people feel that they must act, that they only have this moment, and thus managing to influence buyer behaviour so easily (indeed, the book tells you the only moment you have is now).
With this new cover from UK publisher Hodder in 2001 we get an different look and yet see many similarities:
There is still a picture of a sky, with the sun shining, the colours are strong and The Power of Now prominent. It has the same elements I was drawn to before, but those are even more stronger than in the original version. This is the cover which, out of them all, really speaks to me. First of all I just love the colour blue, exactly for the same reason it is used here; it makes me feel calm. And what are you looking for when you buy a self-help book except a way to make your life easier, less chaotic, calm and serene, and therefore peaceful and happy? Looking at this cover is like peering into the sun on a warm, cloudless, sunny day, and when does that not give you the greatest feeling ever? This cover seems to promise me that it has the answers that I am looking for. I feel more relaxed and happier already just by looking at it.
Proving my point (I think!) is this cover published 10 years later in 2011:
It is pretty much the same design, perhaps even sleeker than before, but the focus is the same as for the 2001 design (which I do prefer over this one, my beloved sun is simply more obvious to spot in the earlier version). On the other hand, this cover from Hachette Australia which was published in 2009, in my opinion completely misses the mark:
Where is the passion, the inspiration? The colours are just too bland, they don’t manage to stand out. Yes the font is clear but that is all that it has going for it. It looks boring, for lack of a better word. There is no inspiration, no promise of a better tomorrow, let alone a better now. It tells me that it is possible to be too simple, in a way that will never get anyone’s attention.
Despite finding this cover uninteresting I do acknowledge that it is nevertheless a minimalistic design, which it has in common with the other designs made for The Power of Now. I believe that the reason why the earlier versions, from the late 90’s and early 00’s, are so similar to the ones published most recently might be that the idea for self-help books was always to simplify. These books are not meant to complicate your life but the opposite, they’re meant to de-clutter it. The genre design, and the modern designs fit for digital thumbnails, share a common goal; to be as minimalistic and as clear as possible.
In the end I would like to point out a cover design by this graphic designer who didn’t like the published versions:
He clearly felt that an element of mysticism was necessary and so put the emphasis on this symbol. I don’t think that the cover needs it as the point of Tolle’s book is to explain ancient messages to a modern audience using a language readers today understand. I do like the minimalistic approach nevertheless, once again it is quite modern, and so, I think, it should be.