The Credibility Gap in Self Help Writing

invocationofthemusesMy girlfriend and I were talking recently about a book idea she had. I won’t go over what it is, but after describing the concept in some detail, she said “the only problem is, I don’t think I’m qualified to write it”.

“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t mind writing it for you.”

To which she replied, “Are you a licensed psychologist?”

Nikki reminded me in that moment of something that I’d forgotten: we’re not qualified to be “experts” on everything just because we’re capable of writing books about it.

One very common quality that both Nikki and I share when it comes to the books we love and value is credibility: deep, well thought-out hypotheses; solidly-researched findings; empirical evidence; and above all, expertise from people who have spent years studying in their fields.

One very common tendency in the overabundance of self-help books out there is the very absence of this type of credibility.

In the desire to sell more volumes of books, everything is dumbed down to the bare messages, with only one or two layers of actual deep research or concepts to support the claims. This isn’t new: self-help has been notoriously full of “easy answers” for decades.

What is new is that the advent of self-publishing, the ease and availability of print-on-demand services, and the entrepreneurial push to make marketing more important than substance, have now damaged the overall credibility of self-help books.

The advantage of traditional publishing is that they have editorial standards: that is, you can’t just write any bit of nonsense posing as “science” or “psychology” or “diet research”: you have to pass rigorous standards of scientific and peer-reviewed evidence because publishers know they could be held liable for spreading false information. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to get published traditionally.

By contrast, self-publishing gives everyone a voice. That’s terrific – I’m a self-published self-help and fiction author – but there’s almost no editorial standards being enforced, meaning anyone is free to print a book with any number of pseudoscientific ideas posing as psychology and medicine; conspiracy laden paranoia posing as industry exposes; and just complete BS with no basis in reality outside the personal beliefs of the author.

Credibility matters. It’s not simply about science – I hold a number of non-scientific beliefs, refer to teachings from Abraham Hicks (a channeled entity) for my higher guidance, and am open to unconventional ideas: I just don’t claim that they are “scientific” – but also the author’s command of the powers of reason and intellect. If you’ve been educated in this field of study for years and you know it better than most others, than that in and of itself should give you credibility.

All too many self-help proponents bristle at that notion: they’ll say the “letters after one’s name” do not make the person all-knowing. That’s true, but it does make them qualified. Nor is it only about the letters, but the field experience. It may not take certifications and years of experience in architecture and engineering to recognize a crooked building when you see one, but it does if you want to fix it.

Why protest? It’s simple: many of them are not themselves sufficiently trained or experienced in the subject matter they want to write about. The best they can offer are insights. No wonder they get upset. After all, if you have too many legitimate experts and you have no formal training, how many people are you going to be able to get on your side? How will you be able to sell your books?

However, degrees and training are indeed not all you need: you have to be able to assemble a compelling argument, and this is especially true if you are challenging an existing idea, because the burden of proof isn’t on the establishment to defend their position, but on you, as the challenger, to make your case beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you can lock down both factors – years of experience and training and the ability to make a reasonable case – then you bring credibility to your book. And, to my mind, the credibility gap represents a huge missing in today’s self-help world, and a golden opportunity for anyone who can fill it.

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