With no Hollywood A-list and nary a single car chase, the film What the Bleep Do We Know? became one of the sleeper hits of 2004, as word-of-mouth and strategic marketing kept it in theaters for an entire year. The gross exceeded $10 million—not bad for a low-budget documentary in which a dozen scientists discuss the ramifications of recent discoveries in quantum physics and neuroscience. What the Bleep's success on DVD is even more impressive, with more than one million copies shipped since its March release.
Why is this relevant to the New Age market—or, as many prefer to call it these days, mind/body/spirit? Because the film's most significant expert is Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior-guru (channeled by middle-aged blonde JZ Knight), who teaches the acolytes at his "school of enlightenment"—including What the Bleep? codirectors William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente—that the world around us is an illusion and that creating a better reality is as easy as thinking it so. Whatever doubts one might have about the elderly messenger, an audience this size is nothing to sneeze at. No surprise, then, that HCI Books was eager to work closely with the filmmakers to create an all-new text that expands upon the movie's themes. The resulting book, What the Bleep Do We Know, is due out in November. "What the Bleep is the quantum leap in the New Age world," says HCI president and publisher Peter Vegso. "By marrying science and spirituality, it is the foundation of future thought."
The success of What the Bleep? is just one sign of how New Age thought has begun to lose its less-than-reputable, "woo-woo" image and acquire greater respectability among audiences. "More and more ideas from the New Age community have become accepted into the mainstream," observes Bill Pfau, advertising manager at Inner Traditions, attributing this acceptance to the baby boom generation, which grew up alongside the New Age movement from the late 1960s onward. There was also the health-care crisis of the 1990s, which became a prime motivator for embracing non-Western medical traditions. "I really don't consider a health book complete anymore unless it has a discussion of acupuncture and other alternative methods," says NAL executive editor Tracy Bernstein.
As the publisher of Red Wheel/ Weiser, Jan Johnson understands this transition well. While its Red Wheel and Conari imprints were created to publish spiritually themed self-help and inspirational books, Weiser has specialized in more esoteric occult books for more than 50 years. Yet two titles coming in November have potential to break out of that underground niche. Donald P. Dulchinos's Neurosphere: The Convergence of Evolution, the Internet, and Group Mind Johnson views as a science book, despite the work's spiritual overtones: "What he's really writing about is the evolution of consciousness and how technological developments are changing our way of defining human." And though Marilyn Ferguson's Aquarius Now: Radical Common Sense and Reclaiming Our Personal Sovereignty is classified as "New Age," it's a direct sequel to her 1980 bestseller The Aquarian Conspiracy. That book's detailed analysis of the New Age agenda was originally marketed as social science, but was subsequently adopted as a blueprint by many in the movement.
"We talk about categorization quite a bit," says Llewellyn publicity manager Alison Aten, "and we always try to determine where the book is going to sell best in the bookstore." The broadness with which the mind/body/spirit tag can be applied raises difficult questions, however, as its subject matter begins to overlap with other fields, from science and religion to self-help and psychology. Most readers would place books like Brian Weiss's Same Soul, Many Bodies: Discover the Healing Power of Future Lives Through Progression Therapy (Free Press) at the far end of the spectrum readily enough. But what about Mark Nepo's The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life (Harmony), which values present awareness more than past or future lives?
Aten sees a new category called "conscious living" emerging in independent and metaphysical bookstores to deal with books like Nepo's, describing a holistic lifestyle that integrates everything from psychology to environmental studies into a process of aligning life choices with inner values. "You can have a conscious living business book, a yoga book and so on," she elaborates. "What they have in common is the idea that all the parts of your life are related and maybe have a higher spirit or purpose to them."
This trend has gained particular traction within Llewellyn itself, gradually transforming the books that fall within its core concentration of modern paganism. "People are getting tired of Wicca 101 books," says acquisitions editor Natalie Harter. "It's not just about learning the holidays and what the tools are. It's about using them in daily life." The anthology Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future (Sept.) or Dianne Sylvan's The Body Sacred (Oct.) address ecological and feminist issues with all the seriousness of mainstream books on these subjects; the only difference is their explicit grounding in earth-based spiritual frameworks.
For New Page Books publicist Linda Rienecker, the blurring of categories and alternative approaches are a natural outgrowth of a wider phenomenon. "A large part of the population is seeking spiritual connections, and they have the whole world to choose from now," she says. "They're beginning to realize that there is a universal force and it doesn't matter what you call it, it's how you connect to it." Nancy Hancock, a senior editor at Touchstone/Fireside, concurs: "People are reading very broadly in personal growth. It's not just health, it's not just spirituality. It's your life, and how each of those elements relates to the rest of your life."
Taking advantage of readers' overlapping interests may be a way to work around remaining resistance to the "woo-woo," but it's not as easy as it sounds."Sometimes authors have the fantasy that their book will be in two or three different sections and they'll have three times the audience," says NAL's Bernstein. "But we know that's not the case. One time in a million a book gets shelved in two places. It goes in one spot, and if it's not the right spot, you've completely blown your chance."
"We really do try to make very clear distinctions," agrees Munro Magruder, associate publisher at New World Library. He cites New World's extensive line of animal books like Allen and Linda Anderson's Angel Dogs: Divine Messengers of Loyalty (Oct.) as evidence. "Even if there are psychic aspects to a given book," he says, "we don't want it to end up in New Age. These books are clearly going to the pets and animals section—that's where we feel there's an open and receptive audience waiting for them."
Although Shambhala Publications was created in 1969 as an offshoot of a metaphysical bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., and over the years has published such iconic New Age authors as Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber, "it's never been a label that we've been comfortable with," says publicist David Smydra. But the Boston-based imprint also publishes widely in the field of non-Western health and is aware that a book like Chakra Yoga: The Practice of Balancing Energy for Physical, Spiritual, and Mental Well-Being (Dec.) by Alan Finger, founder of Yoga Zone, can raise eyebrows. Smydra emphasizes that the concept of chakras, energy points that form a line within the human body from the base of the spine to the head's crown, has a serious historical pedigree in Indian philosophy extending back 15 centuries, and Finger himself stresses the applications of these ancient teachings to what modern science tells us about our bodies. "I don't even know what's New Age or not," he says. "What I do is practical and real."
So if mind, body and spirit have become "practical and real" enough to begin migrating out of the New Age section, how will the field continue its evolution? "The challenge remains in keeping New Age information fresh, useful and appealing," says Mandala Publishing publicist Robbie Schmidt. "In many respects, I think it's a category that's searching for the next Deepak Chopra, Don Miguel Ruiz or Eckhart Tolle," notes Magruder. "It feels like it's been years since there's been anybody of that magnitude, and I think it's getting harder to find that kind of spiritual writer."
"Everybody feels a need to create the next generation of readers for our type of material," Magruder adds. He expects the recent success of 20 Something, 20 Everything: A Quarter-Life Woman's Guide to Balance and Direction (May) to accelerate after author Christine Hassler's TodayShow appearance later this month, and has equally high hopes for The Real Meaning of Life (Sept.), a compendium of answers NYU undergraduate David Seaman got when he posted the perennial question on an online forum.
"It's not about finding the next Marianne Williamson or Deepak Chopra," counters author Barrie Dolnick. "When the next big thing is about a person, it's a very limited trajectory." Over the last year, Dolnick has developed a four-book series for New American Library offering 20-something women lighthearted introductions to esoteric fields like astrology (AstroBabe) and Kabbalah (Enlighten Up) by presenting them as tools that can be incorporated into their lifestyles. She believes success in reaching this younger crowd will be driven by diversity of subject matter, not force of personality. "People don't want to learn how to do one thing. They'll take a little bit of Buddhism, a little bit of veganism, a little bit of astrology... They're coming into the marketplace hungry for direction, but they don't want some person who claims to have all the answers. They want suggestions, not formulas."
"These are people who for the most part have grown up in an information-accelerated culture," says Jason Louv, an editor at the Disinformation Company who created Generation Hex: New Voices from Outside Reality (Sept.) to present first-person accounts from young occultists like himself whose self-consciously subcultural magic draws upon sources like William S. Burroughs and The Matrix, with more than a little skepticism toward conventional New Age icons. "Magic is excellent at deconditioning you from bullshit," he explains. "For me, spirituality isn't about looking for something to believe in, it's about disbelief and doubt, trying to see past all the stories we tell each other to explain the world, in order to get at whatever's lying underneath it all, then building back up from that." That might sound similar to the underlying message of What the Bleep? but the relentless interrogation extends to Ramtha as well: Disinfo's Beyond the Bleep, a "definitive unauthorized guide" to the movie, is already in bookstores.
For a listing of forthcoming New Age titles, click here.