NEW YORK — In the past three decades, Pam Lontos has spent thousands of dollars on the more than 200 self-help books on her bookshelf. She says the books by authors like Zig Ziglar help her stay motivated and enthusiastic about her life and job.
"I'm interested in the books about self-achievement, about setting goals," the 57-year-old owner of a public relations agency in Orlando, Fla., said. "If you start to apply the principles they talk about, you change the way you do things and do more positive things. It becomes a habit."
Lontos is one of the millions of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 who have helped fuel the growth of the self-help industry. Although the genre has been around for years, boomers' desire to improve themselves as they get older and advance in their careers and families has substantially increased demand in the category — in recent years, the numbers of books, tapes, videos and materials offering advice on everything from alcoholism and dysfunctional marriages to how to succeed in business has exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry.
Meanwhile, gurus including Ziglar and Anthony Robbins tour the country making millions offering self-help seminars, publications and other services.
The self-help business has also gotten a boost from prominent boomer-age media figures Oprah Winfrey, 49, and Dr. Phil McGraw, 53, whose talk shows and publications focus on the notion that self-help works and that people have power over their lives.
"Baby boomers have very busy lives, usually two-career marriages with people running around taking their children to art, karate and all over the place," said Victor Goldman, a psychotherapist and marriage counselor in Port Jefferson, N.Y., who has recommended self-help titles to his patients. "Having a book that offers you one or two tips a day, for example, on dealing with the stress or anxiety can be a big help."
The concept appeals to many boomers because the generation was one of the first to broadly embrace the idea of self-empowerment and spirituality — while shrugging off taboos that might have previously made discussing personal problems socially unacceptable.
"A lot of the 1960s was about being your own person, having independence and pursuing your own dream. That means you can also help yourself," said Lontos. "My parents' generation was more about conformity. People are also much more open now. They embrace their problems."
That attitude has translated into lucrative business opportunities for media heavyweights like Winfrey, whose net worth is estimated at $1 billion, and bookstores and publishers.
At Borders Books, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., self-help books account for about 7 percent to 10 percent of sales. Five years ago, said spokeswoman Jenie Carlen, self-help titles might have been confined to the "self-help" section. Today, those titles are more likely to be found in other parts of the store. For example, a book by Dr. Phil, as McGraw is known, would likely be displayed on the front table that customers see upon entering the store — prime real estate in a book store. Carlen said the increased media attention McGraw and others have brought to the self-help area have also attracted readers.
"The primary motivator in self-help for the last five years has really been the media and what the media is covering, and certainly they're keyed into prime demographics, which are the baby boomers," she said.
Borders has also created separate sections for self-help fitness titles, including an area for yoga books and materials.
With most self-help titles ranging between $10 and $25, there are profits to be made.
Peter Vegso, president of Health Communications Inc., estimates more than 80 million books have been sold in his company's popular "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books.
The series, which debuted in 1993, has become a major brand in self-help publishing with titles ranging from the original "Chicken Soup for the Soul" title to "Chicken Soup for the Teen-age Soul" and the upcoming "Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul."
Vegso describes his typical customer as a woman in her late 30s to mid-50s who is eager for ways to improve the quality of her frequently hectic life.
"This is a growing area, and we see lots of opportunity," Vegso said. "I just think the woman of today is much more apt to seek out that kind of information and more apt to talk among themselves about what they find helpful in this book or that book."