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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Shelf improvement
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

M Scott Peck
M Scott Peck: Word-of-mouth hit
When M Scott Peck, who has just died, wrote The Road Less Travelled, he wanted to help people in therapy. But perhaps those he helped most were in the book trade.

Before Chicken Soup for the Soul, before Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway and long before current best-seller He's Just Not That Into You, there was a self-help book that set the standard.

Written by the psychiatrist M Scott Peck and published in 1978, The Road Less Travelled begins with the words: "Life is difficult" and goes on to say that solving problems is painful, but avoidance simply results in greater pain. Described as "spiritual psychology", it linked emotional wellbeing with spiritual growth.

A New York psychiatrist, he used patients' cases in the book
Grew up in secular household, but attended Quaker school and became Zen Buddhist at 18
He preached self-restraint, but drank, chain-smoked and was a serial adulterer
He suffered from Parkinson's disease, and died aged 69
After a slow start, The Road went on to sell more than 10m copies and spent more than eight years in the New York Times bestsellers list - a record for a non-fiction book. By the time it was published in the UK in 1983, it was a runaway word-of-mouth success; a success which gave authors and publishers alike the confidence to produce more tips to improve our lives.

In his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, Peck wrote that The Road was a book whose time had come, being published in an era when psychotherapy - and talking about feelings - had become mainstream. "Had The Road been published 20 years previously, I doubt it would have been even slightly successful."

Book cover
Co-dependence, self-discipline, spiritual growth - the pearls of wisdom devotees take from this book

Susan Jeffers, the author of the definitive 80s self-help manual Feel the Fear, says not only did she find the book personally helpful, its popularity opened doors. "Judging from the under-linings in my copy of The Road Less Travelled, it obviously had a large influence on me. I read it way back in 1978, nine years before my book was published."

Self-help is now a powerful business, says Steve Bowman, of publishing trade researchers Book Marketing Ltd. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, it wasn't even a genre in its own right. Self-help sections have only been in bookshops for a decade."

Lucrative genre

Indeed self-help - also known as mind body spirit - has become a multi-million pound market. Figures show that Britons spent 20m on personal development titles in 2004, a figure which rises to 90m when health and spirituality are included in this amorphous genre.

Am assured, receptive, responsive woman of substance. My sense of self comes not from other people but from... from... myself? That can't be right
Bridget Jones on self-help books
Such is demand that the Waterstones chain runs an annual "New Year New You" promotion. A spokeswoman puts this down not only to the stresses of modern life, but the popularity of change-your-life TV programmes. "Subsequent books that tie in with this always sell very well. Gillian McKeith's You Are What You Eat has been top of our health charts for over a year."

And a pilot scheme for Welsh GPs to prescribe self-help manuals to depressed patients (for such is the shortage of therapists) has been adopted around the UK.

Kes Nielsen, books manager of Amazon, describes The Road as "the granddaddy of the genre".

"Self-help books before then were quite businessy and practical; Dale Carnegie was big. The Road was the first self-help book that wasn't about how to get on in business."

When Mr Nielsen entered the book trade a decade ago, The Road - and others like it - were still hugely popular.

"It remains a lucrative word-of-mouth seller, but the market has moved on. Today, if anything, it's bigger but it's less to do with spirituality and is more prosaic. Big sellers are books about what you can buy or wear to feel better."

Losing my religion

Whereas 10 years ago all but a fraction of sales were to women, today men buy about one-third of the self-help books sold. And there is a whole sub-genre of books aimed at them, particularly guides to picking up women.

Is anybody out there?
"Over time books like The Road, which are recommended from generation to generation, are the ones that prove really lucrative. It must have earned back its advance a good few hundred times over.

"By comparison, current best-sellers like How to Walk in High Heels aren't going to go past this Christmas. And the Lay Guide - once women become wise to its pick-up lines, it will die alone in a single bed," he says.

But interest in spirituality has not waned; those who might once have bought The Road now buy non-fiction books about mediums - Ghost Hunting with Derek Acorah is an Amazon top-seller - and novels by authors such as Dan Brown, Philip Pullman, JK Rowling and Paulo Coelho.

"People have this need to improve their lives, to try to understand the mysteries of the world. People want to feel there's something more to life than there is on the surface, and this is reflected by their reading across the board, whether its The Road or Harry Potter."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As a bookseller at an independent bookstore, I don't feel that I owe Scott Peck that much. Customers looking for self-help buy cheaply-bound, badly-written books that have been marketed with huge campaigns. And people who read Paulo Coehlo or Dan Brown for "spiritual" sustenance are taking the road MORE travelled - self-help is the simple way out of life's simple problems. Grapple with a major novel or biography or history next time you need to meditate on life's complexities.
Sophie, Canada

Although the sheer scale of the modern self-improvement business is impressive, about 130 years ago Samuel Smiles was publishing titles like 'Self-help', 'Thrift' and 'Character' which were extremely popular in their day.
George Wilson, Edinburgh

For a man who has spent his days searching for truth for the good of all people I think it is particularly crass to be talking about book sales. If you truly believe those he helped most were in the book business then you either haven't read any of his work, or you didn't understand it.
Dale Kenny, Aberdeen, Scotland

Er, Dale, this is an author who once complained that he wished The Road had been a success in hardback as well as paperback so that he could have made more money. And who gave up psychiatry to give lectures for $15,000 a throw.
Isabella, Sheffield

Greatest book I've read. I've bought copies for friends and family and recommended it over again. Most of all I've shared the ideas with all my loved ones. I find it hilariously funny that M Scott Peck had his excesses. Life indeed is difficult!
Niyi Oginni, Abuja, Nigeria

My life lierally changed the day I picked this book up. It has incredible powers.
Avriola Limongelli, Palermo, Italy

Great read and absolutely helps with the journey of life putting life into perspective with something beyond.
Maureen, New York

His books raise political, religious and spiritual ideas which challenge the traditional view of the world. When I read them I was convinced Alastair Campbell must have been influenced by them because they sound so 'New Labour'.
Brian Jenner, Bournemouth

I picked The Road up from my mum's bookshelf as a young teenager and just didn't get it. 15 years on and I look at my bookshelf, where it proudly sits next to the likes of Susan Jeffers and many others. These books have provided generation after generation a way to improve ourselves and our lives through the interactions that we have every day.
Helen, Sheffield

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