Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Of hits, misses, and manna for the masses.

I'd been planning to hold a quiet party with myself* at the precise moment SHAMblog finally reached the 100,000-hits plateau for the year, but then I got caught up in other matters (like sleep) and the "event" snuck by me at some point over this past weekend. This year's 100,000 unique visits surpasses the 75,000 for all of last year, with (obviously) more than two full months to go in 2007. And actually, those 100,000 hits were compiled just since mid-February, when I switched over to a more sophisticated tracking program.

All of which makes me feel pretty good...at least until I get to thinking about things like, say, my conversation with Skeptic's Michael Shermer a few weeks back. Shermer and I were comparing notes on sales figures for our respective books. Right now, total hardcover sales for SHAM loll at somewhere around 12,000 copies; that's "OK" for a nonfiction book—better than the average release from a non-celebrity author—but nothing to write home about (or retire on, which is the more pertinent concern in my case). I won't disclose Shermer's sales numbers, but suffice it to say that, while they're substantially healthier than mine, neither SHAM nor any of Shermer's books comes close to what even a middling self-help title can boast. And I don't think I need to mention what some of the top sellers are capable of—though I will mention it, just to make myself feel a little bit worse. Dr. Phil's Ultimate Weight Solution, f'rinstance, sold 2.5 million copies in its first month in hardcover, even though its core program quickly came under fire and the line of "health bars" McGraw spun off, Shape Up!, were eventually discredited and pulled from shelves, resulting last year in a $10.8 million class-action settlement. A decade or so ago, there was Marianne Williamson. The name probably doesn't ring a bell to most young people today, but as I point out in SHAM, her breakout book, A Return to Love: Reflections on a Course in Miracles, sat atop the vaunted New York Times best-seller list for almost a year. This, despite being as silly as a Dr. Seuss rhyme in spots, and recognizable as spiritual gibberish to anyone who thought for more than two seconds about what she was actually saying. Consider that this is the same Marianne Williamson whose "homeland security" program goes as follows: "Pray for angels to surround this country and every country, as a mystical shield of protection and blessing. See angels around ever airport and airplane, every nuclear facility, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc...." I kid you not.**

But see, in a way, the utter imbecility of a message like Williamson's was its great genius in a culture that prefers the simple, uplifting lie to the complex, prosaic truth. The success of Marianne Williamson (then) and Rhonda Byrne (now) shows us that many Americans would rather hope than think; they'd rather "live" an imaginary life of conjured superlatives than get the most out of their actual life of everyday ups and downs. I used to joke with my editor at Crown—the very bright and capable Jed Donahue—about the prospects for a more realistic self-help book whose title might be, Nah, You Probably Can't Do It...But What The Hell, Why Not Give It A Shot? Or, You'll Never Be All That Happy, So Just Try To Get The Most Out Of The Hum-Drum Life You Have Now! Though such absurdist book concepts were the kinds of jokes that tend to come up when people get slap-happy after hours of poring over edits, the funny part is, if indeed the average American needs a self-help book at all, such titles are something like what its message ought to be. Not some book that tells him how he can, in some inexplicable, telekinetic way, "project" his desires onto the physical world. (Or—looking at things from the Victimization side—not some book that tells him to blame everything that's ever gone wrong in his life on the fact that his Dad farted openly at dinner or his Mom dressed him in funny clothes.) Just a book that teaches people to cope with the ordinary ebb and flow that typifies adult life for the great mass of us.

So desperate are some of us for inspiration at any intellectual price that we'll create for ourselves customized versions of the loonier self-help regimens that make those regimens even less anchored in reality than they were to start with. I know someone who argues—seriously—that the "law of attraction really only applies to positive events." (This is a person who has read The Secret and is drawn to its basic liturgy, but doesn't like the idea of accepting full responsibility for one's failures in life.) In other words, this individual contends, if good things are happening to you, it's because you sent the right vibes out into the ethers...but if bad things are happening, well, that's a different story. "The universe never punishes," s/he counsels. "It only rewards." The universe, you see, is benevolent, just waiting to lavish upon you the riches that are being held in your name, like some cosmic unclaimed bank account....

Riiiiiight.

* And no, not that kind of party.
** It used to be featured on her personal website, but I couldn't find it anymore when I checked again before this post. Who knows, maybe even she began to feel silly about it. On the other hand, if you go to the site and start browsing around, there's plenty of silly stuff still there.

11 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Heck, Steve... Why do you think Snickers bars sell better than health food? Same song, different verse. :-)

Anonymous said...

Well Done Steve,

Just thought you should know that I have two of those copies sold - as one just isn't enough!

I keep one by my bedside to refer to for moments when SHAMlike things start to make sense and I need a refresher course in common sense.

The other I give out to my friends so I can do my share for the war on stupidity.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, thanks for your kind words.

And Rev...I gotta admit...when I go looking for a late-night snack, it ain't oatmeal I look for.

Not bran muffins, either... ;)

gregory said...

my favorite imaginary book title in the self-help genre - "dont buy this book, you dont need it" - and my favorite existing title that is real - "do what you love and the money will follow" ... which seem to bookend the possibilities

success in any field is a mystery, why does one painting sell for ten million, and another, perhaps even "better", end up in the dumpster someday

why does one human body be born with defects, and another near-perfect

we may not like the concept, but it seems easy to see why one culture invented the concept called karma, and another invented the one called cause and effect, and why the word "luck" exists, or "god"

about book sales, tis my guess that the word "heart" in the title, in the emotional sense, is worth a few bucks

marianne williamson's words quoted by you ... she recognizes dimensions beyond the physical, and in my opinion that is no more foolish than the department of homeland security, or invading iran, which recognizes ONLY the physical, and makes for a lot of unintended conspequences

what is you next book about?

a/good/lysstener said...

I of course agree with you in principal, Steve, but I think maybe you should back off a little bit on the name-calling yourself, which you've criticized others for very recently. I hope you don't mind my saying that. I'm just being honest. Really, as a practical matter I don't think you win points with people by accusing them of "eating a box of stupid" as you did here, and as you do quite often. Why insult people's intelligence? Wouldn't it make more sense to just appeal to their reason instead of making them feel so foolish? Just a thought.

gregory said...

does anything exist beyond what we can see, feel, or touch? can the mind apprehend all that exists?

depending upon how one answers these questions will determine how one responds to the self-help genre, or to religion, or to most of what we call life

i posit that virtually everyone senses that there is something more to life than what we can see, feel, or touch; that this is the basis for religion, for self-help, for art, for the essential beuaty of existence.... and that the desire to block the mystery is the basis of fundamentalism, either pro or con... it is an ego thing, in short, this resistance to the unknowable, the mysterious and all that is subtle

Steve Salerno said...

I'm having a major case of deja greg today, as I swear we've had this exact discussion before--but I'm going to make the point again: The mere fact that there "may be" things beyond what we can actually register/record with our senses (or with scientific instruments) is not, in my view, a reason to indulge in wild speculation about the nature of those hypothetical things--and it's certainly no reason to begin living our lives as if those hypothetical extra-sensory things do, in fact, exist! If each of us suddenly decided that we were going to live our respective lives in accordance with our own singular assumptions about a reality that cannot be seen, felt, smelled or sensed in any way...how would a society function? What stops me from deciding that I'm going to live my life according to, say, Easter Bunny Law, thereby rejecting the laws of man as well as everything else that science has given us, to date?

Steve Salerno said...

The next book will be about vanity's role in American life...however, there's a snag. I don't want to be more specific than that right now. We'll see what evolves.

gregory said...

the vanity idea has a lot of potential, thanks for sharing that...

sorry about the deja vu

.... in india, i watch ants on the floor, there could be four or five varieties, different sizes and colors in the same place, and i have determined that each variety is only aware of the others in its same group, and goes right by an ant of any other type...

same with human life, i think. knowledge is different in different states of consciousness, and my thing seems to be to find a viewpoint where i can see all the varieties at a glance, rather than only the ones like me...

there is a disadvantage in that though... i may be able to see alll religions, for example, as essentially doing the same thing, but that makes an enemy out of anybody who believes in a particular one only ... another, feminists or masculinists dislike you if you believe that gender makes no difference... oh well

off to london... enjoy

Anonymous said...
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Steve Salerno said...

I want to apologize for that last comment. I approved it inadvertently, and I'm pretty sure I got it off the blog before most people saw it, but it was stupid, inarticulate and personal in nature, and I'm sorry if anyone was hurt or offended by it.