A previous poster asked about The Secret, and if it inspired the current inspirational book phase. I can say that no, it did not. It's just the latest, most awful movie/book in a long succession of awful books that make us hate people's query letters because they think they can write them because honestly, they look pretty easy to write. Well, they're not, so stop it.
As to why The Secret is such a success, the short answer is of course that people are stupid. That's all I was going to write, but then I realized that blogs are meant for long, rambling monologues where the poster insults the readers' political/spiritual/moral beliefs, and that writing about something other than my mystery virus would distract me from the headache that is caused by my mystery virus. Don't start a publishing company.
Self-help and inspirational books have existed since the beginning of contemporary publishing, whenever that was (sometime this century). It exists as a genre because there's a great demand for it, for the most part by bored people who want to improve themselves or their lives, and I support the idea of buying a book about carpentry and building a birdhouse. Sure it'll fall apart next week, but you'll feel better about the crappy Dilbert job you have and feel like you accomplished something, even if the thing was just glued together and your area doesn't have many birds.
Then there's "inspirational" books, a term I take to mean, "at least vaguely-Christian watered-down spirituality, sometimes in the form of old man wisdom." On a certain level I admire a person who can find total happiness in life with a $7.95 paperback on the bargain rack at CVS. It's a lot cheaper than my synagogue membership and this person probably has way more free time than I do. I'm busy trying to figure out if I can put the chili on the hot plate on Saturday morning because the chili is so watery that it might cook the water, which is a violation of one of the 39 labors forbidden by G-d to perform on the Sabbath (as opposed to solid food, which cannot be re-cooked), and this person is at the movies or the theater or riding a bike. Who knows.
On the other hand, most people who turn to the bargain rack at CVS for meaning in their lives are probably in pretty dire straits in terms of finding that meaning. Allow me to sum them all up in one sentence:
If you have a more positive attitude, your crappy life will not seem so crappy, because you have a positive attitude about it.
This does not, however, actually change the quality of your life, as these books lead you to believe. It may, but it depends what you're up against. Cancer, not so much. These sorts of books have a double-edged sword that can cut you, to take the metaphor way too far. If you believe that you will recover from an illness by positive thinking and then you don't, you might come to the very logical conclusion that it's your fault that you're ill because you didn't think hard enough about how much better you were going to get.
You may have guessed at this point that I'm speaking from experience. When I was newly diagnosed with Crohn's Disease a lot of this mind-body shit was shoved down my throat to the point where I actually believed it, and when my surgical procedure did arguably more harm than good and the complication nearly killed me, I thought it was my fault. It wasn't a hyperactive N-protein in my immune system causing inflammation to my lower intestines that was the problem. It was my bad attitude.
When I realized that was complete bullshit, I felt much better - about my life, at least. I didn't actually feel better health-wise, further proving my point.
The problem with The Secret and the reason that it's caused so much controversy is that it takes this basic concept to the extreme of wish fulfillment. There's apparently a segment in the original video on which the book was based in which a woman wishes for a gold necklace around her next, and because she wishes hard enough, the necklace appears. At this point I can't help but think of Patrick Swayze's slimy motivational speaker in Donnie Darko, who turns out to be a kiddie porn addict. At one point in the movie, the gym teacher (who is a devotee) makes the class watch one of the videos and says that all of human experience can be put into the categories of either fear or love, to which Donnie angrily replies:
Donnie Darko: "I just don't get this. You can't just lump things into two categories. Things aren't that simple."
Gym Teacher: "The lifeline is divided that way."
Donnie Darko: "Well, life isn't that simple. Who cares of Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love."
Gym Teacher: "Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions."
Donnie Darko: "...Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that have to be taken into account here - like, the whole spectrum of human emotions! You can't just lump everything into these two categories and just deny everything else!"
Needless to say, when the gym teacher threatens him with a failing grade, he replies with something that involves shoving a card up where the sun doesn't shine and earns himself a visit to the principal's office.
The Secret isn't just stupid; it's dangerous. Telling people that they will just get things by wishing for them is only moral if you happen to inhabit a Disney movie, and not one of those ones where the parent of the protagonist dies. The idea does work in some circumstances; if you happen to be standing in the middle of the road on a misty day and wish to be hit by a car, you might get your wish, and then Rod Sterling might step out of the bushes and talk to the camera about how stupid you were.
One of the many professors and doctors trotted out on the video was recently interviewed about the infamous "necklace scene" - to which he replied that it wasn't meant to be "taken so literally" and had clearly no idea the lengths to which Rhonda Byrne was willing to take things to sell more copies of her video. She even wound up on Oprah with her new book. Oprah's a fairly intelligent woman (she's very good at making people feel better about themselves, which is a talent), but she has a tendency to fall for literary shysters.
It's one thing to be a semi-talented writer and speaker who knows how to lump extremely conventional wisdom together into a book and have it be a bestseller. It's another thing to tell people that wishes come true.
For everyone's information, we get submissions like The Secret all the time from people who think they have figured out the secrets of the universe or how to do real magic or the date that Christ is coming back and the exact set of things we have to do to bring him along. We call these people "crazy" and trash their query letters. Sure, a couple of them might be written well enough to sell a bajillion copies to, but we like to sleep at night.