They're touted as lifesavers, cure-alls and revolutions by their fans; derided as hooey, junk and even evil by their critics. They're everywhere from your doctor's office to

Oprah

, making buzzwords such as

empowerment

and

togetherness

part of our daily lexicon, whether we want to feel "empowered" or "together" or not.

Welcome to the world of self-help, a once-niche publishing market that has turned into a nearly $10 billion industry, and has everyone asking what exactly is

The Secret

.

"There's no escape from it," says Steve Salerno, author of

SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

, "It's on

Oprah

, and she's brought it on the campaign trail. It's in the movies. It's on the plotlines of TV series. Everywhere you turn, you're led to believe that self-help is the key to the kingdom."

But is it such a bad thing? Ten billion dollars says that someone's reading - and buying - self-help books. Gwen Recinto, 27, is one of them, and the Marlton resident is proud of it.

"I think you're a better person for admitting that your life isn't perfect and wanting to do something about it, and opening up your mind to other people's ideas," says Recinto, who has read - and recommends - everything from

Write It Down, Make It Happen

to

Be Honest - You're Not That Into Him Either

.

It's even spawned a subgenre of books in which writers try a slew of different self-help methods and report on their findings, such as Beth Lisick's

Helping Me Help Myself

and Jennifer Niesslein's

Practically Perfect in Every Way

.

But do these books live up to their magic-bullet promises? Is nearly $10 billion of our money worth its weight in empowerment?

"There's a lot of junk out there," says Karen Salmansohn, host of the Sirius radio show

Be Happy, Dammit

and author of a book by the same title. "People want quick answers. People are lazy and busy, so there's this emphasis on speedy cures. Everyone wants the South Beach diet to lose weight. Maybe there's the South Beach diet for your neurosis."

This flush of so-called quick-fix books led Salerno to write a book about the self-help movement and see whether or not the books live up to their claims.

"Society is now run by the people who grew up during Vietnam - people who were taught to distrust orthodoxy and institutions," Salerno says. "This is also responsible for this notion that you can make your own choices in life, this notion that you're fully empowered."

Nowhere is this more obvious, he says, than in

The Secret

, which tells readers that you can change your reality by thinking about how you want it to be. Even though critics have bashed the book, 7.5 million copies are in print in English, and a movie is in the works.

"Do the people selling this have any credentials to be doing any such thing and any reason why we should be taking them seriously? You have desperate people who are searching for answers, and the self-help process itself becomes another addiction.

"Not only do I think it's irresponsible, but I think it's potentially dangerous."

Recinto doesn't think it's dangerous if the message speaks to you. In fact, she credits

Dynamic Laws of Prosperity

, which she says "has the same message as

The Secret

," with helping her push her career ahead.

"I started to see that I was focusing a lot on the negative and what I didn't have," she says. "I saw I shouldn't be complaining about this, and that once I set my mind on something, it really was attainable."

Likewise, Damian McNicholl, 48, a lawyer and novelist in Bucks County, credits

When I Say No, I Feel Guilty

by Manuel J. Smith with helping him turn his life around. It formed a major plot point in his debut novel,

A Son Called Gabriel

.

"I was very reticent to use self-help books because I think a lot of them are hooey," he says. "But this one was helpful because it was so well-explained, and the situations, the dialogues, the training program were so realistic that you knew the author really knew how to allow people who are shy to take charge of their destiny."

Even Salerno admits that some self-help books can work. "The more specific it is, the more valid it is. I don't have as much of a problem with the career-orientated books. But a lot of the romance and relationship stuff, a lot of the general putting-you-in-touch-with-yourself," he says. "It's a house of cards."

Not everyone is convinced that self-help is "hooey," and the industry shows no signs of slowing down. "I don't care if there's a stigma to self-help books, because there's a message that's positive about it," says Recinto - who is currently reading Elizabeth Gilbert's

Eat, Pray, Love

, which many consider a self-help book in memoir form.

"Sometimes you can get into a better place by opening yourself up to that and being vulnerable."