I’m using a very broad definition of self-help for my book reviews. Basically, I’m including any book that may be applicable to personal growth work, or which sells itself as applicable to personal growth work. Whatever the accuracy, comprehensiveness, or readability of the contents, in my experience, self-help books tend to have a purpose or a direction, something that they are trying to do. It can be helpful in finding the right self-help book to know both what the book is trying to do and what you want to get out of it. A good match up can be worth more than all the well-written doorstops in the world.
The majority of self-help books I have fit into a few categories (Fixer, Awareness Raiser, Argument, Resource, and How-To):
The Fixer is, by far, the most common type. You have a problem; they have the Solution. The Fixer makes promises, sometimes extensive, about outcomes and focuses on what you have to do to get those life changing outcomes. By necessity, these solutions will be simplified, and narrowed or generalized, enough to fit in a mass production paperback. As a result, these books may be presented as a series adapting the same basic material for different circumstances (i.e. “The Fixer”, “The Fixer at Home”, “The Fixer at Work”, “The Fixer in Outer Space”, etc). It is a lovely, gift-wrapped Hammer for all your nail and nail-shaped-object needs.
The Awareness Raiser is almost the opposite of the Fixer. It may or may not have an actual solution presentation. Instead, it focuses on identifying, naming, presenting, and describing a problem (i.e. “The Problem With Fixing”). You might not have known there was a problem, or the scope of it, before reading an Awareness Raiser, but you certainly know after. That’s the point.
The Argument is like the child of the Fixer and the Awareness Raiser and, like all children, it has its own unique character. This is the self-help book equivalent of “Somebody is Wrong on the Internet”. Whatever solution it may present is secondary to convincing you that That Other Solution(s) is Wrong.
The Resource aims more towards educating, informing, and explaining information about a particular area. It may be a broad overview book (i.e. “Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Everything Related To That Thing”) or very narrow (i.e. “That Thing”), but in either case it tends to present itself as a repository of knowledge about an area. If this book had a motto, it would be “Knowledge is Power” or “Here’s a Crate of Power Tools, Good Luck”.
The How-To focuses primarily on skills development. The goal of these books is for the reader to be able to do, or at least attempt, a skill (i.e. “How to Talk to Complete Assholes”). The mere knowledge of the problem or solution isn’t enough to ensure a good outcome. The reader is expected to do something with the material… you know… like learn, or practice, or otherwise do-the-thing. The How-To is more about process than outcome, and your outcomes may vary.