MERE SIX YEARS AGO, no one had ever heard of him. He was just a balding, middle-aged guy who lived in the Dallas suburb of Irving, where he ran a company called Courtroom Sciences. The company was located in a nondescript white office building across the street from a Humperdinks restaurant. People who drove past the building had no idea what went on in there. The man didn’t advertise his business nor did he hire a public-relations specialist to drum up publicity for it. Whenever reporters from legal publications like Texas Lawyer would call him to ask questions about what was going on at Courtroom Sciences, he would say, “No comment,” and hang up.
Then, in early 1998, people began seeing him on television news reports coming out of Amarillo. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey was being sued in federal court by some angry West Texas cowmen who believed that her show about the dangers of mad cow disease had caused great damage to the American beef industry. Almost every time Oprah was photographed going in and out of the federal courthouse, this man would be right beside her. He was a big fellow, six feet four and 240 pounds, with broad shoulders. Reporters who were covering the trial—and I was one of them—thought he was Oprah’s bodyguard. Whenever he walked past us, he gave us a look that could have chilled vodka.
We finally learned who he was after Oprah won the lawsuit. On the day of the verdict, she turned her show into a victory party, and among those she brought out to thank was the guy from Courtroom Sciences. His name was Phil McGraw, he was a Ph.D. psychologist, and his company was regularly hired by law firms to help pick jurors and develop trial strategies in criminal defense and big-money civil cases. McGraw had been working with Oprah and her lawyers for more than a year, preparing her for her testimony and holding mock trials inside Courtroom Sciences. But the real reason Oprah liked McGraw, she told her viewers, was that he had given her the best advice she had ever received about dealing with life’s struggles. “It was Phil who gave myself back to me,” she said.
And just like that, a new legend of the self-help business was born. Today, if you do not know the name “Dr. Phil,” then you really have been living under a rock. After spending four years as a regular Tuesday-afternoon guest on Oprah’s talk show, telling viewers in a blustery, take-no-prisoners manner that they should stop whining and start taking responsibility for their lives, Dr. Phil, 53, now has his own daily self-help talk show, which is produced in Los Angeles and watched by approximately six million viewers nationwide. He has become one of the most talked-about celebrities in America. David Letterman cracks jokes about him almost every night. The tabloids have teams of reporters who follow him. The phrase “I’ve been Dr. Philled”—a way of saying that someone has just been confronted about his screwy behavior—is part of the national lexicon.
What’s more, Dr. Phil is threatening to become one of the best-selling authors in the history of the self-help genre: books that are filled with anecdotes, quotes, proverbs, advice, and philosophies that exhort readers either to be rich, thin, healthy, ambitious, spiritually centered, laden with good abs, or any combination thereof. All three of his books (Life Strategies, Relationship Rescue, and Self Matters) have shot to number one on various best-seller lists. Self Matters, a guide to finding one’s “authentic self,” sold more copies (1,350,000 copies in hardback alone) in 2002 than any other non-fiction book. Dr. Phil’s fourth book, The Ultimate Weight Solution: The Seven Keys to Weight Loss Freedom, is being released this month by Simon and Schuster, with an initial printing of approximately one million copies, the same number printed this summer for Hillary Clinton’s much ballyhooed autobiography.
“Not bad for a second career,” I told Dr. Phil the other day when he called from his new Beverly Hills home, which he reportedly bought for $7.5 million in cash. (After putting his home in Irving up for sale, Dr. Phil also recently moved into a penthouse condominium near downtown Dallas, where he stays when he returns to Texas to keep up with Courtroom Sciences.)
“I’m doing all right,” he said in a mock nonchalant voice.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said. “You couldn’t have possibly realized how big this was going to get.”
“Well, no, I grant you that one,” he said. “I thought I’d be spending my life in Dallas, minding my own business. And then, well . . . ” And he started chuckling. I could guess exactly why he was laughing, as the saying goes, all the way to the bank. According to reliable sources, the advance Simon and Schuster has paid him for his weight-loss book is a staggering $10 million, close to the reported advance of $10 million to $12 million that Bill Clinton is getting from Alfred A. Knopf for his White House memoir, a record for nonfiction. The literary agent who negotiated that deal for Dr. Phil just happens to live in Dallas too. Her name is Jan Miller, and she has turned Dallas into Self-Help City.
ACTUALLY, IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE that Jan Miller is based in Dallas and that the latest guru in America’s self-help movement would come from here. As a resident for more than twenty years, I often tell visitors that Dallas is the country’s self-help mecca. I do not exaggerate. While other cities contain communities of writers hoping someday to make the New York Times‘s lofty best-seller list for fiction, Dallas has a community of writers who hope to make the Times‘s “Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous” list, the category that covers self-help books. I regularly come across people in Dallas who are either writing a self-help book or want to write one. Recently, I met a six-foot-tall, blond spin-cycling and yoga teacher named Laurie Seale who told me that her real goal in life was to be a self-help author. (She has already written one book about improving one’s love life, 1001 Questions to Ask Before You Jump Into Bed, which she said was being published in Germany this fall.) Not long after that, I ran across a successful 37-year-old president of a Dallas software company, Lawrence Schwartz, who told me that his side passion was writing self-help fitness books. (Fat Daddy, a book he has just written for busy fathers who have trouble staying in shape, is being published this fall by Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group.) When one of my neighbors, Tim Lavender, an executive of a company that builds luxury surgery centers, heard I was writing this story, he dropped by my house to give me his book, which was published last year by Thomas Nelson Publishers, titled Achieving Personal Greatness: Discovering the Ten Powerful Keys to Unlocking Your Potential. (“Key #5: Live Life to Make a Point, Not a Profit.”)
Who knows? Maybe my neighbor will become a famous self-help author someday. A lot of other people in Dallas have done that very thing. Mary Kay Ash inspired countless housewives with such titles as You Can Have It All, and Zig Ziglar, the folksy former aluminum-siding and cookware salesman, inspired countless salesmen with his 1974 motivational tome See You at the Top (which, he says, is still selling some 30,000 copies a year). Dallas has produced not only Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the former Air Force researcher who in 1968 set off a national fitness craze when he wrote a book about the power of “aerobics” (a word he coined), but also the buzz-cut, in-your-face Susan Powter, whose big seller, Stop the Insanity!, persuaded a generation of heavy women to eat unbuttered potatoes. In Dallas are gobs of nationally known Christian self-help authors, from Bishop T. D. Jakes, of South Dallas, to North Dallas evangelist Charles Swindoll, who write books on everything from the Christian way to raise children and run a business to the Christian way to cook better meals. And now comes the good Dr. Phil, who in his short publishing career—his first book came out in 1999—has had more than 9 million copies of his books published in thirty languages.
Although Jan Miller is hardly a household name compared with Dr. Phil, she is just as powerful a force in the American book business. Since 1985, her first year as a literary agent, Miller has brokered deals for nearly four hundred books, almost all of them devoted to the relentlessly positive message of self-renewal. Besides representing numerous Dallas authors, she also represents such self-help superstars as Dr. Stephen Covey, a Utah business-management expert and the author of the blockbuster The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Tony Robbins, the giant-size motivational guru who has made millions selling books and tapes that exhort people to believe in themselves. She represents an array of Hollywood celebrities turned self-help authors, from Maria Shriver to hairstylist José Eber and ex-supermodel Cristina Ferrare. She pushes books on fitness, beauty, parenting, finance and relationships.
Her authors collectively publish an average of thirty books a year, a total that has led some book editors to compare her to one of the country’s most prolific agents, the late Irving “Swifty” Lazar. But Lazar’s authors ranged from novelists to historians; Miller sells self-help books, and she makes her living 1,500 miles from New York’s top publishing houses. “She has a remarkable knack for finding self-help authors who can win over readers,” says Richard Snyder, the former chairman of Simon and Schuster. “She has genuinely pushed self-help into a new realm. Today, when you think about the self-help business, you cannot help but think about Dallas.”
A FEW MONTHS AGO, I WALKED into a cluttered set of offices in Dallas’ Highland Park Village just to watch Miller at work. A striking brunette who is married to the appropriately named Jeff Rich, the CEO of Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Systems, Miller was wearing a black Prada baseball cap, a white Gap shirt with the collar pulled up, a pair of casual black pants, and the kind of strappy sandals that always look like they are about to fall off. She was on the phone as I took a seat next to her desk. “I love this,” she was saying exuberantly to her caller. “I absolutely love this.”
“She’s talking to a man in Atlanta who wants to write a book about how to inspire children through the game of chess,” an assistant whispered to me.
“Tim on line two,” said another assistant to Miller. Tim Sanders, a Yahoo executive and motivational author in California, was calling to update Miller on his newest book idea, “The L Factor: The Amazing Power of Being Likeable.” “Tim, this is going to be great, just great,” Miller said after she hung up with the man in Atlanta. “You know we could sell this tomorrow.”
“Tony’s office,” said Miller’s first assistant. Tony Robbins was having a staffer call to see if Miller had received the latest chapters of the new book he was writing, “Emotional Fitness: Harnessing the Primal Forces of Your Life.” “Tell him I’ve got them and I love them,” gushed Miller.
The lights on the phone continued to blink. A female author was phoning to ask what Miller thought of her idea of having lunch individually with two hundred millionaires, asking them the secrets to their success, and then writing a book teaching non-millionaires how they can become millionaires too. Another caller, a 25-year-old Harvard graduate, wanted to discuss his idea for a book that teaches students how to land lucrative scholarships for college.
Then a third assistant came through the door and said, “Dominick’s holding.”
Quickly, Miller waved me and everyone out of her office so that she could concentrate. “Dominick” was Dominick Anfuso, the powerful editorial director of The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster that is publishing Dr. Phil’s The Ultimate Weight Solution. Anfuso wanted Miller’s opinion on the book’s cover photo. Should it depict Dr. Phil with a big grin and his fist clenched? Or should it show him with a calmer, all-knowing expression and his arms folded? As I watched Miller through a plate-glass window talking intently into the telephone, I kept thinking, “Ten million dollars? Dr. Phil is getting ten million dollars for a weight-loss book?”
“Anyone who doesn’t understand why Dr. Phil is important is simply out of touch with mainstream America,” Miller said after she hung up the phone. “He’s part of our culture, and he’s going to be part of our culture for a long, long time. And I’m not going to be satisfied until everyone in this country has his books, because that’s just how important he is.”
YOU COULD VERY WELL BE THE type of person who is embarrassed by America’s self-help movement. You might find it comical that there are people who truly believe their lives will change if they attend a Tony Robbins “peak performance” seminar or listen to positive-thinking tapes. You might shake your head in bewilderment when you walk through the self-help sections of bookstores and see rows and rows of books with such titles as How to Make Love All the Time.
If so, as Miller says, you are out of touch—way out of touch. Americans have been fascinated with self-help at least as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. In our constant pursuit of happiness, we have always looked for someone to tell us how to achieve the good life. We determinedly move from one self-help trend to another, whether it’s walking down the road less traveled, journeying toward the light, or sipping chicken soup for the soul. We improve our relationships by pronouncing that we are either from Mars or Venus; we discover inner peace by finding our inner child; and we continually remind ourselves not to sweat the small stuff. At my neighborhood Borders bookstore in the heart of North Dallas, as many books are purchased from the self-help shelves as are purchased from the store’s vast fiction department. “We get a stack of new self-help books every day, and we’ve got customers waiting for them,” says Farris Rookstool III, a national events coordinator for the chain based at the store. “The other night, a publisher arranged for an appearance for an author who had just come out with a book that taught women how to live like queens and get their men to do things for them. It was titled Mama Gena’s Owner’s and Operator’s Guide to Men, and to be honest with you, I had never heard of it. Yet women were pouring into the store to meet the author and buy her book.”
In the world of American letters, these books are never going to be known as “literature.” Almost all self-help books are dismissed by critics as drab, predictable, and often flat-out silly with their fortune cookie-like answers to life. But publishers love them. A best-seller can bring in a huge amount of money for a publishing house because it will sell year after year after year.
Is it pure coincidence that Dallas produces so many self-help authors? Or is Dallas the perfect environment for self-help authors to flourish? Longtime Dallas boosters love to tell the story of the city’s founder, John Neely Bryan, who built his cabin in a spot where there was no great river, no lake, no forest, no fertile land, no minerals, no ocean—nothing. Yet by staying focused on his priorities and refusing to quit despite unexpected setbacks—these are all phrases, incidentally, that you will find in almost every self-help book—he and his successors built a city. Since then, one overachieving entrepreneur after another has come to Dallas to make a fortune, where there is little else to do except make a fortune. In interviews, speeches, and in their books, the most successful of these entrepreneurs talk about the joy of beating back their fears and taking chances and believing in their dreams. Social critic Wendy Kaminer, the author of I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, a 1992 study of the self-help movement in America, went so far as to call Dallas’ Ross Perot the first self-help candidate in politics. “As a self-made billionaire, he embodied expertise,” Kaminer wrote. “Perot was the positive-thinking personal-development guru as presidential candidate; no wonder he started a movement.”
On the other hand, it could well be that Dallas produces so many self-help authors because of Jan Miller, who looks like the kind of woman who has spent her life studying all the diet, beauty, personality, and positive-thinking advice that her authors dispense in their books. Authors like Maria Shriver who called me to talk about her used words like “ebullient,” “deeply loyal,” and “willing to go the extra mile” to describe her. “She does what a good self-help book is supposed to do,” said Stedman Graham, Oprah’s boyfriend and the author of You Can Make It Happen. “She inspires you to bring out the best in yourself.”
RAISED IN DENVER AND EDUCATED at the University of Colorado, where she majored in history, Miller moved to Dallas in the late seventies to work for the Zale Corporation, which owns the jewelry chain. She wasn’t interested at all in the book business; she hadn’t taken a single English class in college. But she had a natural eye for the self-help business. “Jan and I used to lie out every weekend at my condominium pool, lathered with Hawaiian Tropic number four,” says Miller’s close friend Iris Krasnow, who was then writing fashion stories for the Dallas Times Herald. “One day we were talking about how so many young Dallas women we saw were like doughnuts, beautiful to the eye but with a hole in the center. And Jan, just out of the blue, began telling me that I needed to write a book teaching women how to be strong and whole and spiritually and emotionally alive. She said it should be titled ‘Women Come of Age.'”
In 1979 Miller heard that Arnold Schwarzenegger was touring the country to promote his new book on bodybuilding. Miller was aware of the growing fascination with fitness, and she also knew that Schwarzenegger had developed a huge audience that didn’t visit bookstores. She persuaded his publisher, Simon and Schuster, to have him sign books at the chain of sporting goods stores that Zale then owned. At one Dallas store he sold three thousand books but only a couple hundred at one of Dallas’ traditional bookstores. A Simon and Schuster executive told Miller that she ought to get into the book business. She had a feel, he said, for knowing what people wanted.
But it wasn’t until 1984, when she was running her own small marketing-and-public-relations company, that she decided to make the move. She had been hired to publicize the Dallas appearance of a little-known 24-year-old motivational speaker from California named Tony Robbins who, as part of his weekend workshops, had his audiences walk across beds of hot coals to demonstrate the power of concentration. Miller sensed that Robbins was about to become a star. She called a friend at Simon and Schuster, who connected her to Bob Asahina, one of the company’s more respected editors who was known for his work with intellectual writers like Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind. “I picked up the phone,” Asahina recalls, “and this young woman started talking to me a mile a minute, saying she had just met the most amazing man and that he walked on fire and that he was going to become more and more famous and change lots of people’s lives. I finally had to say, ‘Please, please—will you take a breath and tell me who you are?'”
Miller and Robbins flew to New York to meet the Simon and Schuster staff. Instead of presenting the publisher with the usual written proposal detailing everything that would be in the book—”I’m not sure I knew at that point what a proposal was,” Miller said—she simply had Robbins do his high-energy shtick about how people can reprogram their brains to achieve success. By the end of the meeting, she had persuaded Simon and Schuster to purchase Robbins’ completely unwritten book for around $200,000. “Jan might not have known much about the book business at that time,” says Asahina, “but I realized she was picking up on trends that we weren’t necessarily seeing. And she had a knack for picking books that could be sold. She talked about huge marketing plans involving infomercials, audiotapes, sold-out speeches in convention centers—all stuff that was brand-new back then.”
Robbins’ book, Unlimited Power, was published in 1986, sold more than 100,000 copies in three months, and went to the top of the New York Times‘s advice-and-how-to best-seller list. Soon Miller was trolling the waters for other people who she felt had interesting things to say that could be turned into self-help books. She flew to Provo, Utah, to meet Stephen Covey, a management professor at Brigham Young University who had written his dissertation on the habits of effective managers. She sold a reworked version of the dissertation to Simon and Schuster. The sale was small—just about $100,000—but The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People too hit the best-seller lists. (To date, that single book has sold, according to Covey’s organization, some 13 million copies.)
Miller realized she didn’t have to travel far at all to find authors. She ran across a Southern Methodist University economics professor, Ravi Batra, who wanted to prepare Americans for what he guaranteed was an upcoming stock market crash. That book, The Great Depression of 1990, became a New York Times best-seller. When Asahina mentioned to Miller that he would like to find a female version of Tony Robbins, she showed up in New York with the spiky-haired, bleached-blond owner of an exercise studio in Dallas named Susan Powter. In her rapid-fire, aggressive speaking style, Powter told the editors her personal story about shrinking from 260 pounds to a size 4, and then she began ranting about how women were being misled by the diet industry and American institutions in general. To Asahina, Powter seemed an unlikely self-help star. But because he trusted Miller, he gave Powter a contract for a book. When it was published in 1993, Stop the Insanity! became an instant success. By the mid-nineties, Miller’s agency was bringing in about $12 million a year in revenues. Her authors had produced more than twenty advice and how-to best-sellers, and at one point, four of the five top books on the Times’s list had been written by Miller authors.
She had some misses along the way. She went to Hawaii to hear John Gray, who was doing relationship seminars and wanted her to represent him. She didn’t get his message, which was her loss. Gray’s book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus turned out to be one of the bigger self-help sellers of the past decade. Powter’s follow-up books didn’t sell. Yet for every author who faltered, at least two or three more arrived. Miller would meet people at cocktail parties or lunches and tell them they ought to be writing books. She even reached into her personal circle of friends for authors. Iris Krasnow, who used to sit by the pool with her, began writing self-help books for women on such topics as motherhood and marriage. In the shopping center where Miller works, she came across a personal trainer and gym owner (Larry North), a yoga instructor (Glenda Twining), and a psychologist (Dr. David Zelman), all of whom ended up writing self-help books that her agency sold to publishers. After reading a Texas Monthly story I wrote about Jinger Heath, the chairman of a Dallas cosmetics company, Miller called her up, introduced herself, took Heath to New York, told publishers that Heath had the ability to motivate millions of bored housewives, and got her a contract in the high six figures to write a self-help book called Positively You!
Just knowing that Miller was in Dallas inspired other Dallasites to fulfill their dreams of writing self-help books. While going through a divorce, a former Dallas model and advertising executive named Susan Jones Knape decided women needed a book on how to make their lives more manageable financially. She wrote the book in her spare time, arrived at Miller’s office in a glamorous new purple suit she had bought on sale at Stanley Korshak, and handed one of Miller’s staff the manuscript, which was wrapped in a neat package with a bow. McGraw-Hill will be publishing her book, The Money Rules: Fifty Ways Savvy Women Can Make More, Save More, and Have More!, in December.
THE ONE DALLAS WRITER MILLER most desperately wanted to represent was Dr. Phil. Like everyone else who saw Dr. Phil on his first Oprah appearances, she was mesmerized by his big Texas accent and his clear disdain for what he called “touchy-feely psychology.” When one guest on the show said she didn’t want to have sex with her husband because she was afraid their daughter might barge in, Dr. Phil interrupted and snorted, “Put a cowbell on her!” Miller did not have to be told that he was the perfect antidote to that irritating self-help trend in which people were encouraged to believe that they were victims of their “dysfunctional families” and that the path to happiness was through finding their “inner child.”
Although McGraw had been interested in what he likes to call “human functioning” since the early seventies, when he began studying psychology at Midwestern State University, in Wichita Falls (he later received a master’s and a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of North Texas, in Denton), he told me he had never thought about writing a self-help book until Oprah brought up the idea. “I don’t think I had ever read one of those damn things,” he said.
Initially, he didn’t want an agent: He had negotiated the sales of his first two books through a lawyer. (Full disclosure: The second of the two books,Relationship Rescue, I helped edit.) But in 2001 he went with Miller because he needed someone to watch over his rapidly burgeoning book empire. “I had every agent in the country pounding on my door, most of them from New York,” he said. “When I asked publishers which agent they liked the most—which one they worked with who was not a snake—Jan was on everybody’s shortlist.”
Miller restructured her agency to focus on Dr. Phil—one staffer, Shannon Miser-Marven, works almost exclusively on Dr. Phil’s books—and the partnership has already caused a huge amount of New York buzz. Although Miller and Dr. Phil would not comment on the particulars of their book deals, one source close to the negotiations said that when Miller discussed Dr. Phil’s upcoming weight-loss book with Simon and Schuster, she made it clear that he was going to take nothing less than $10 million. (The biggest advances Miller had previously received for her top clients, Covey and Robbins, reportedly were in the $5 million range.) The Simon and Schuster editors swallowed and offered $8 million. Absolutely not, Miller said. Ten million or nothing. Simon and Schuster finally agreed.
When I asked Dominick Anfuso, of Simon and Schuster, if readers will really care about one more weight-loss book, he seemed startled that I would even ask the question. “Do you really not understand the effect Phil has on people?” he asked. “Whenever Phil devotes one of his talk shows to weight loss, the ratings take off. People are desperate for real answers—for permanent answers—and Phil’s going to provide them.”
What those answers are remains to be seen. (Simon and Schuster is keeping the book under tight wraps until this month’s release.) But even if critics complain that Dr. Phil is saying nothing more than has been said in other weight-loss books, the truth of the matter is that he has such a huge audience that his book will undoubtedly become an instant best-seller. Still the classic Dallas overachiever—he works seven days a week, often late into the night, on both his talk show and trial-strategy business—Dr. Phil already knows what his fifth book will be, the subject of which he would not tell me. And he has ideas for a sixth and a seventh. “Listen,” he said, “people go to school to read and write and add, but they are never given any education on how to manage and resolve their emotions, how to pick a partner for life, or how to deal with other people. And when you realize what a small percentage of the population ever goes to therapy, then you realize there is a huge need out there. People are hungry to make something of their lives. They want some direction—and frankly, I can’t think of any better use of my time than providing some of that direction.”
AND WHAT HAPPENS IF MCGRAW finally tires of providing that direction and returns to his old life? Jan Miller, of course, will be waiting with another new author to take his place. In fact, she already has one in development: McGraw’s older son, Jay, a 24-year-old SMU law student who has already published a couple of books with Simon and Schuster teaching teens how they can make their lives better. She has as many personal-development experts as there are brands of toothpaste, all of them churning out their books: the literature of possibility. Every day that I walked into her office this summer, the phones were always ringing and her six staffers were too busy to go out to lunch. I watched one of them, agent Michael Broussard, place a call to Jennifer Lopez’s trainer to talk about a fitness book, then take another call from a representative for Paula Abdul, the more encouraging of the hosts on the Fox network talent show American Idol, to discuss a book idea tentatively titled “The Positive No.” When he was finished with the call, he walked into Miller’s office to give her an update.
“I think they’re going to say yes on the “No” book,” he said.
“Yes!” said a delighted Miller. As Broussard walked out, in walked another would-be author from Dallas, Laurel Barrett, a pretty former real estate broker who had spent the past two years traveling around the globe, interviewing various people who she believed were making a difference in the world, from a couple who funded an orphanage in India to the retired chairman of Home Depot, who was giving away much of his money to charity. She told Miller that she and an associate wanted to do a book about these people titled “Heroes for Humanity: Empower! Inspire!”
Although Miller was not sure the book would sell, she smiled brightly and said, “I cannot tell you how impressed I am with your commitment. Let’s see what we can do.” Barrett walked out of the office beaming.
When I asked Miller if the day would come when she would get tired of her work, she grinned. “I’m not sure I could ever leave,” she said. “It’s too much fun making the deals. It’s just so rewarding to help others make their dreams come true.”
I was going to tell Miller that such a statement would be perfect for a self-help book and that maybe she ought to write one herself. But she had already picked up the phone to take another call.