Today's pop culture isn't just another set of cultural messages; it's a mass medium, too. Remember how the Star Trek crew had "universal translators," who could turn any alien tongue into English? Pop culture has become just such a device for fans, who are increasingly inclined to interpret everything from religion to philosophy through the lens of their favorite program. As a result, film and TV tie-ins are moving beyond novelizations and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the actors to offer lifestyle prescriptions and springboards for intellectual inquiry. Although the broad definition of contemporary tie-ins hasn't made it any easier to come up with a winning formula, the most innovative titles can yield steady backlist sales and are, frankly, more interesting books.

"The best TV programming is able to touch on something that is going on in popular culture," said Warner Books' assistant editor Sandra Bark. For example, Bark sees a reflection of the growing popularity of cooking at home in the food-loving characters of The Sopranos. That connection may help explain the success of The Sopranos Family Cookbook (Warner), an official tie-in to the HBO series that has sold more than 500,000 copies in hardcover since its publication last September. Gerry Donaghy, backlist inventory supervisor for Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., concurs: "The book is practical. Every time I watch the show, I get hungry," he said.

"Fans have become much more sophisticated. They want books that bring them further into the world of the show," said Scott Shannon, v-p and associate publisher at Pocket Books. Some new books deliberately blur the line between the characters' world and the readers'. Take wrestler John "Bradshaw" Layfield's book of advice on personal finance, Have More Money Now (Pocket, July; 35,000-copy first printing). While Bradshaw's personal interest in the stock market has landed him appearances on CNBC's MarketWatch, he's hardly Charles Schwab. Yet Pocket is betting on the strength of his appeal to WWE fans who might not otherwise buy a finance guide. The same is true for J.R.'s Cookbook (Pocket, June; 100,000-copy first printing) by WWE ring announcer J.R. Ross, which plays off his good-ole-boy TV persona with tips on Oklahoma-style barbecuing.

Shannon stressed that such oblique tie-ins reflect the varied sensibilities of the fans. "We tell our licensors that we want to appeal to their entire fan base. J.R.'s Cookbook will appeal to a different subgroup than our straight profile of wrestler Freddie Blassie." Similarly, iBooks editor Steve Roman believes that attaching the New York Times name to iBooks' Sopranos books (The New York Times on the Sopranos) might attract fans of the show who might not normally buy a tie-in book.

Publishers are also experimenting with tie-ins that link established franchises to the zeitgeist. Nervous about the world we live in? Find out how to avoid disaster the way the folks on Star Trek do with The Starfleet Survival Guide (Pocket, 2002), a Trekkie twist on the Worst Case Scenario books. Meanwhile, Basic Books mines the same cultural anxiety in a more scholarly manner with Martin Schram's Avoiding Armageddon (Apr.). Though it ties into an eponymous PBS documentary, Basic is "also playing into a larger audience concern about future threats," said Jamie Brickhouse, v-p and executive director of publicity at Basic.

It helps when the fan base engages with the underlying property in an extraordinary way. The film The Matrix, for example, has spawned "lots of fan sites that go way beyond 'I love Keanu' and get into the symbolism and philosophy of the movie," said Glenn Yeffeth, publisher of newly formed BenBella Books in Dallas. As the editor of one of the press's inaugural titles, Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix (Apr., 10,000 copies; Independent Publishers Group, dist.), Yeffeth compiled essays about the film's technological challenges and philosophical dilemmas by artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil, Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy and economist and philosopher Robin Hanson, among others.

BenBella isn't the only one betting that Matrix fans are looking for intellectual stimulation: St. Martin's Press is publishing a similar collection in hardcover. Edited by Karen Haber, Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present (May) features essays by science fiction writers Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan and others.

Can books that stray from their source material still satisfy a movie or TV show's fans? In this case, yes, because both books explore concepts introduced directly by the film. Because of the overtly philosophical nature of the movie, these Matrix books avoid the interpretive stretches of, say, The Simpsons and Philosophy (Open Court, 2001), which at one point examines Homer as one of Aristotle's character types. "Our book is by fans for fans," said Yeffeth. "It just happens that some fans of The Matrix are among the smartest people on the planet."

In the long run, a tie-in's relevance may not be as important to its sales as the size of the fan base for the media property that inspired it. Open Court's The Matrix and Philosophy (2002) shipped roughly 50,000 copies, compared to 163,000 copies of The Simpsons and Philosophy. Given that The Simpsons is on TV every night, "the velocity of any kind of Simpsons book is just tremendous," explained Elise Cannon, national accounts director for Publisher's Group West. Meanwhile, the The Matrix was released in 1999, although back-to-back sequels are coming this May and November.

Unofficial tie-ins face a number of challenges. They tend to target an older readership than novelizations (except for science fiction), placing them generally outside of the audience of 15—25-year-olds who are typically the most rabid fans. In addition, since the tie-ins require a trade paperback format to accommodate illustrations, they're unlikely to get the ID distribution that helps fuel mass sales. "WalMart buys our Star Trek mass market novels, but often can't find space for the trade books," explained Shannon.

On the other hand, indirect tie-ins have a potentially longer backlist life because they're not directly tied to a specific media event. It's often easy to refresh them with minor changes, as DK has done with its modestly updated X-Men: The Ultimate Guide (Apr.), timed to coincide with this summer's X-Men sequel. Some titles, like The Science of the X-Men (iBooks, 2001) and The Physics of Star Trek (Basic, 1995), remain on the shelves in their original form because the science doesn't change from year to year. "Those books tend to do well because they're rooted in actual information rather than just milking the property," said Donaghy at Powell's Books.

Nontraditional tie-ins can also open the door to new sales venues. They "can have a cool factor that a straight novelization doesn't," said Shannon. "We can push them at stores like Spencer Gifts and Hot Topic, which market mostly branded merchandise to teens." Novelizations, meanwhile, are DOA at those kinds of outlets. Clothing stores like Urban Outfitters are another "great place to reach kids who aren't going into bookstores," added Kathleen Jayes, senior editor at Rizzoli-Universe, who handled MTV Photobooth (2002), which sold through the retail chain.

Photobooth is the first book in the new MTV Overground series that focuses on the MTV brand rather than specific programs airing on the channel. Billed as "visual books for a new generation," they delve into mainline pop culture trends for the 12—34 demographic in illustrated paperbacks that retail for under $20. The next book, Boards (Oct.), showcases trend and style-setting skateboarders. "MTV wants to be the arbiter of trends and have their imprimatur on it," said Rizzoli publicist Eva Prinz.

MTV has been a master brand-manager for some time, but now others are replicating their strategy. "The goal of WWE, like MTV, is to market their overall brand," said Shannon. Diamond Books sales and marketing v-p Ku-Yuo Liang believes cable channels are increasingly carving out their own niche in pop culture: "Books from Court TV, MTV and Food TV carry their own unmistakable message: 'we know law/ music/ food.' The medium is once again the message."

It's a short leap from channel brands to product brands sold as pop culture books. Bulfinch has sold more than 250,000 copies of 100 Years of Harley Davidson in hardcover at $60 a pop since last October. This brand tie-in found nontraditional distribution in Harley dealerships. Meanwhile, Bulfinch's forthcoming Martin Guitar Masterpieces (Oct.) will sell in music shops. The corporations that back each brand order a number of copies as well. To attract media coverage, Bulfinch plans to assemble rock stars who own Martin guitars for a promotional mini-concert. With the Harley book, the 100th anniversary was its own story. "When it comes to entertainment and pop culture, you need a specific hook to get the media's attention," said Bulfinch publisher Jill Cohen.

The goal in all of these indirect tie-ins is to tap into a pop lexicon— whether it's a media property, a corporate brand or a product—and sell books to a built-in audience. Science fiction series like Star Trek and Star Wars have long spun off multiple licenses. Now other properties are getting in on the act.

"For a long time, there was a backlash against tie-ins," said Harper Entertainment editor Diana Gill. "But people have been careful to improve the quality and make them interesting on their own terms." Diamond Books' Liang agrees and also sees an expanded consciousness about pop culture: "TV has more or less replaced magazines and radio as the de facto medium in which Americans place their trust in conducting their daily lives." So whenever books move beyond the literal parameters of an individual film or TV program to tap into a larger world view, they have a shot at occupying an even more central place in consumers' minds.