Decoding 'The Secret'; Oprah Lives by It. Millions Are Reading It. the Latest Self-Help Sensation Claims We Can Change Our Lives by Thinking. but This 'New Thought' May Just Be New Marketing

Article excerpt

Byline: Jerry Adler (With Matthew Philips in New York, Mary Carmichael in Boston, Karen Springen in Chicago and Kendall Hill in Sydney)

If you're a woman trying to lose weight, you had your choice of two pieces of advice last week. One, from the American Heart Association, was to eat more vegetables and exercise an hour a day. The other was from a woman named Rhonda Byrne, a former television producer who has written what could be the fastest-selling book of its kind in the history of publishing with 1.75 million copies projected to be in print by March 2, just over three months since it came out, plus 1.5 million DVDs sold. Byrne's recommendation was to avoid looking at fat people. Based on what she calls the "law of attraction"--that thoughts, good or bad, "attract" more of whatever they're about--she writes: "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it." So if you're having trouble giving up ice cream, maybe you could just cut back on "The Sopranos" instead.

You'd think the last thing Americans need is more excuses for self-absorption and acquisitiveness. But our inexhaustible appetite for "affirmation" and "inspiration" and "motivation" has finally outstripped the combined efforts of Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil and Mitch Albom. We have actually begun importing self-help--and from Australia, of all places, that citadel of tough-minded individualism, where just a couple of years ago Byrne was a divorced mother in her 50s who had hit a rocky patch in her business and personal lives. It was in that moment of despair, when she "wept and wept and wept" (as she recounted to Oprah on the first of two broadcasts devoted to her work), that she discovered a long-neglected book dating from 1910 called "The Science of Getting Rich." In it she found how to let your thoughts and feelings get you everything you want, and determined to share it with the world. She called it "The Secret."

And it was that stroke of marketing genius that turned what might have been a blip on the Times's "Advice, How-To, Miscellaneous" best-seller list into a publishing phenomenon that Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, says "could become this decade's 'Tuesdays With Morrie'." "Nobody," she adds, "ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public." Self-help books roll off the presses with the regularity of politicians' biographies, and sell much better; Wayne Dyer all by himself has written 29 of them with sales estimated at 50 million. But Byrne had something else going for her. "It was an incredibly savvy move to call it 'The Secret'," says Donavin Bennes, a buyer who specializes in metaphysics for Borders Books. "We all want to be in on a secret. But to present it as the secret, that was brilliant."

To a tired genre full of earnest bullet points and windy exhortations, "The Secret" brings breathless pizzazz and a market-proven gimmick, an evocation of ancient wisdom and hidden conspiracies that calls to mind "The Da Vinci Code." Torchlights flicker on the 90-minute DVD and the soundtrack throbs portentously before it gets down to giving you the secret for getting your hands on that new BMW. The book is a miracle of cover art, a jacket suggestive of a medieval manuscript punctuated by a crimson seal. "It evokes the film, with the secret scrolls and all," says Judith Curr, executive vice president of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster that brought out the book in partnership with Portland, Ore.-based Beyond Words Publishing. Its very size, small enough to hide, adds to its aura. "It feels special, like it contains really important information."

What it doesn't contain, though, is a secret. That should be self-evident to anyone who has ever been in an airport bookstore. The film and book are built around 24 "teachers," mostly motivational speakers and writers (dressed up by Byrne with titles like "philosopher" or "visionary") who have been selling the same message for years. …