Wicca and Paganism Leaving the Occult Section, Heading For Religion

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 21, 2013 — 33 Comments

In my late teens and early twenties I worked at a couple different book-selling chains, and after that I was a regular visitor to, and prodigious buyer at, a number of different bookstores. Throughout those years I remember often voicing a common complaint: “Why are books about Pagan religions shelved next to crystal healing and channeled hidden masters instead of in the religion section where they belong.” I felt, as many others did, that it created a two-tiered hierarchy: “real” religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and those religions relegated to what was once known as the “occult” section. Now, my complaint has seemingly been answered, as Elysia Gallo at Llewellyn explains in her excellent run-down of the Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG) new BISAC Subject Headings List.

A partial listing of BISAC codes in the Body, Mind & Spirit category (Image: Llewellyn.)

A partial listing of BISAC codes in the Body, Mind & Spirit category (Image: Llewellyn.)

“Obviously much has changed in American society at large. These are recognized religions in the eyes of the IRS. They are religions in the eyes of the US Army Chaplain’s Handbook, and, since 2007, the Veteran’s Administration. These are religions in the eyes of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Pagans are taking an increasingly larger role in interfaith efforts, working at legitimizing our various paths or religions even if we continue to operate as decentralized, individual groups with no organizing body or imposed tenets, tithes, institutions, hierarchy, or dogma.

So here’s the news – Wicca, in the eyes of the book selling industry, is now a religion. It crossed over from OCC026000 Body, Mind & Spirit / Wicca and Witchcraft, to two separate BISAC codes. One remains in the occult section – OCC026000 is now simply Body, Mind & Spirit / Witchcraft. But Wicca itself is now REL118000, or Religion / Wicca. […] there’s more. The BISAC code that used to be OCC036020 Body, Mind & Spirit / Spirituality / Paganism & Neo-Paganism (a relatively recent addition on its own) is also now listed in Religion, as REL117000, or Religion / Paganism & Neo-Paganism.”

I have often pointed at links here at The Wild Hunt and told you to go read the whole thing. This time, let me emphasize, Elysia Gallo is the first person in the Pagan community to write about this development, and you really should take the time to give her work its due and go read her entire post before continuing on here. She has an insider’s understanding of these developments, and no one should move forward in commenting on this matter without hearing what she has to say.

This is clearly a momentous decision, one that, as Pagan scholar Chas Clifton points out, comes after the Library of Congress moved books on Wicca out of “Abnormal Psychology” and into “Other Beliefs and Movements” back in 2007.

“In 2007, the  news was that books on Wicca were re-categorized by the Library of Congress from BF (psychology, abnormal) to  BP 600, a sort of catch-all for “other beliefs and movements.” A new Dewey Decimal number was assigned as well, for libraries using that system.”

So the occult section (hence the “OCC” prefix code), which in time became known as the “New Age” section, and finally, the “Mind, Body, Spirit” section, will soon see an exodus of Wiccan and Pagan books to the religion section. For most of us who still visit brick-and-mortar stores that most likely means your local Barnes & Noble (or possibly Books-A-Million) will soon be seeing some changes. How quickly these changes will happen remains to be seen, and it may take some time as stock rotates in and out of the stores. In addition, Elysia points out some sticky problems with the new codes moving forward into this new era.

Interior of a Barnes & Noble store. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Interior of a Barnes & Noble store. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Let’s not even stop to think about what a headache it will be for me to decide whether any given book should go into the occult “Witchcraft” end of things or the religious “Wicca” end of things. Sometimes this distinction is made crystal clear by its author or its content, but much more often it’s a very blurry line. […] There is still no code anywhere for Druidry (we usually use Body, Mind & Spirit / Spirituality / Celtic) and no code for Heathenry or Asatru, which will just be lumped together with Paganism. These things might not matter much to book buyers, but they matter to the end consumer.”

Elysia also wonders if some Pagans will balk at their books being put in the religion section, but I think her most salient concern will be the effect religion-section buyers might have on the range and quality of selections. What if the buyer knows nothing about Paganism? What if they are actively hostile to Wicca and Paganism? These aren’t unheard-of scenarios. Additionally, simple economics might push Pagan titles out of stores in favor of religions with more buying power. 

“If the Religion buyer has only X amount of budgeted dollars to spend across their entire category, they will choose to spend it on mainstream religions, because hey, there are simply more of them, and more potential for greater revenue. It’s a business, folks. And yes, I can see how that could be potentially disastrous for book sales. If we were pushed out of the chain stores, we’d still have independent metaphysical shops to fall back on, but not everyone has access to one and they operate on very limited budgets, meaning we simply wouldn’t be selling enough books to survive. Amazon and ebooks would become our main lifeline if chain bookstores stopped buying our books.”

So my teenage (and twenty-something) dreams have come true, but the victory could turn out to be Pyrrhic in nature. Pagan religions take another step towards being normalized, but at the potential cost of us seeing even fewer Pagan books in physical book stories. The destabilizing effects of Amazon and the growing ebook market (currently around 22% of the book market) mean that the future of Pagan publishing is only going to become more uncertain. Still, even with the circumstances, this is an important moment in our history, one that could have far-reaching ramifications.


Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • I don’t think the potential cost of fewer Pagan books in physical book stories is much to worry about. I mean, who goes to physical book stores any more? 😉

    • I never thought there would come a day when I wouldn’t visit bookstores, but it has come to pass. : ( I don’t think I have bought an actual book in a bookstore in at least 3 years, probably longer.

      • I will never NOT visit bookstores… There’s a sacredness to them that is only surpassed by libraries.

        • I work in a library, so I imagine that contributes a good deal to my not-buying-in-a-bookstore habit- that and I’ve been reading free ebooks like mad. Years ago my little city/town had a fantastic bookstore and also a paperback exchange but Borders pushed them out and now all there is is a cruddy Books A Million. The only thing I go there for is the occasional cup of coffee.

        • cernowain greenman

          Most metaphysical stores focus on making money through Tarot and other kind of readings, plus spiritual counseling and paid classes. They can’t make $ from selling books anymore.

          • Elysia

            I would rephrase that – they can, but the profit margins are much, much lower. (As they are for the publisher itself.) There is a lot more money to be made selling jewelry and other sidelines that can be heavily marked up, but it’s the books that keep people coming back, make it a needed destination, give it the legitimacy without which it would just be a New Age gift shop. I for one have never been in a metaphysical store that didn’t carry books…

    • Personally, I would love to go to an actual bookstore; unfortunately, though, there aren’t any in my area. I miss spending a few hours browsing through the shelves at an actual store, even if I didn’t buy anything.

    • Derek_anny

      I do. I don’t browse there, but it’s where I do my buying. I find a book I want, write down the isbn, and take it to the local independent. Even when I’m in a giant chain, I only take isbns.

    • Ursyl

      I do. Much as I like my e-books and even Amazon, sometimes there’s nothing like holding the physical book in my own hot little hands to look through and decide if I want it.

      And it feels wrong to me to get help finding something there, then only taking the information to get it from elsewhere. Last time I bought a book at B&N, the guy even gave me a gift receipt so I had longer to figure out if that was the correct book. Being as it was, and that I will be using recipes from it, seems somehow dishonest to then return it to buy a copy from iBooks. Others’ mileage may vary, and I’m okay with that.

    • Elysia

      For everyone who loves bookstores and wants to support them, but also likes ebooks – you CAN buy ebooks from your local indie bookstore, which is really the best of both worlds – supporting local economy, while having a virtual book delivered wirelessly. Here’s how: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/how-to-buy-ebooks-at-your-favorite-bookstore_b63671

  • cernowain greenman

    This is really awesome! I consider it a milestone for Wiccans as we become recognized as a religion by society at large.

  • I don’t think this is going to change anything in my local Barnes and Nobel store. The religion section consists of: three full bookshelves on Christianity, one full bookshelf for the Holy Bible, one for Christian Life, one for Judacia, one for a pastiche of “Eastern Religions”, and half of one for Philosophy. The other half is Christian theology. Sure, the “New Age” section covers three full bookshelves (including the one with tarot decks), but it is filled with the most ridiculous garbage that finding anything meaningful is impossible.

    • I think this is more symbolic than anything. Even if they have one little book on Paganism there, then it’s like we feel justified for some reason. I, myself, have felt justified and don’t need this for me to feel my beliefs are legitimate. However, I won’t assume we all feel like this and if this does positive things for the community as a whole, then I’m all behind it.

      • Well said. Also, when it comes to finding something meaningful amongst the garbage, that’s what’s done in everyday life, anyway…

    • Elysia

      I haven’t been able to talk to anyone at B&N yet, but it is possible that they *will* change the shelving. After all, four B&N execs were on the subject codes committee – so I have to assume they know what’s going on.

      On the other hand, moving to REL might actually get more of our books in indie bookstores (of the non-metaphysical variety) who have a good collection. In the past they might have never looked for New Age stuff (I’m thinking of Garrison Keillor’s little bookstore in St. Paul – had a good religion section, but nothing on Paganism and no metaphysical section), but by getting a REL BISAC maybe they will stock a couple of the more serious ones.

  • Stef

    If those remaining big-box retailers reduce their stock of Wiccan titles because “they won’t sell,” that makes some really good opportunities for small-scale metaphysically oriented bookstores, eh? People love a good local Pagan bookstore where they can get not only books, but advice about books.

    • Good point…

    • Jason Hatter

      Except when they don’t, and they go out of business because the local business isn’t enough to support them…

    • Those bookstores will probably have to be online, not bricks and mortar. Still, I like how you think.

  • {WICCA} – A name Gerald Gardner gave in a book of fiction.. It became excepted as a description for those that practice Witchcraft, black magic, ect. To this day no one is clear on how he arrived on the name . In his diary that was found a description was written that we believe was accurate _ THE WHITE INCANTATIONS OF THE CELTIC CREED ACCORDING TO THE APOSTATE. ( WICCA ) Information was released by Interpol Intelligence Agency . Gerald Gardner died alone & brooke & never knew the craz he set off with his fictionale novel. It wasint till just 6 yr’s back due to the out cry of all those suffering from gardner fever that now disribed themselves as ( wiccan’s ) That the U.S. Congress agreed to except it as a recognized religious form. And To the supprise of many there was no argument over it’s speedy Approval . Just in time for the ultimate seperation of church & state, that this administration is about to set in place by banning all religious articles & symbols from all our county, state. & governmental buildings and even our currency !!! as well as all forms of prayer from class rooms, state & government events & meetings . And now that wicca is an excepted religionTHEIR INCLUDED !! .

    Did you also know that 26 states still have laws on the books in regard to “Witch Craft & Acts of Heresy” that was written in the 18th century & can still be applied today .

    )) WAKE UP PEOPLE ((

    • What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

    • Cinaed

      That was really hard to read through, J Daniel. Seriously, “wasint”?

    • You know your religion has arrived when people plagiarize the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” and alter it to slander you rather than the Jews.

    • Ok I’m awake, well after my coffee I’ll be more awake but I’m awake enough… Now what?

    • Charles Cosimano

      No, they can’t be applied. No court would allow it.

  • Rachel Chapman

    I wonder if this will be the same in England. In truth I never really thought about it as the religious books always seem to be grouped in with, or right next to the spiritual and mind/body/spirit books.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I was thinking the same thing.

  • ken

    I worked in book retail at the store level for 17 years and never heard of these codes. Does anyone know, at the corporate, buying level, how much they are used? We used to track our sales of different categories and it if they move pagan over to religion and the sales plummet, they will move them back. Why are they in that ‘new age…mind/body/spirit’ section in the first place? Because there’s way more reader over lap between Druid/ Wicca etc and western esotercism and crystals than with any of those books and mainstream christian readership. If I send the Pagan readers to religion, they aren’t buying those christian books, maybe I’ll cross sell a little eastern religion. Neither are the christians going to buy those books, oh and I can hear the complaints in my mind already. My assumption on the store level in Borders was it had more to do with marketing than anything else.

    • harmonyfb

      If I send the Pagan readers to religion, they aren’t buying those christian books

      No, but they’ll buy the Pagan books. After all, ‘Religion’ does not equal “Christianity” (and right-wing Christians shouldn’t be permitted to force bookstores to pretend it does. Their complaints should be met with education as to what the term ‘religion’ means.)

      I’ve complained for 20+ years that books on my religion (distinct from works on ghost-hunting, vampires, and lost continents of Mu) weren’t shelved with the other religion books. I’d be thrilled to walk in a B&N and see books on Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, etc. shelved where they should be – in ‘Religion’.

  • Wiccan books are already being reduced in Barnes & Noble- there are barely any, even in the “New Age” section. Too bad the only metaphysical shop in town closed a few years ago- guess I have to resort to Amazon.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    Hopefully, Druidry, Asatru, Reconstructionist Traditions, and more, will follow suit!

  • Dragonet

    What so wrong with the Occult label? Occultists paved the way for neo-paganism, and and those such as wicca have their roots in the occult. As far as Ive ever read, few actual witches were ever burned at the stake, but more than a few occultists were.

    • There isn’t anything wrong with the occult label, accept for the shame that people feel at the idea of being labeled occultists. Frankly I don’t see this change as a good thing, so much as a segregation of occultism that has been occurring for some time now in the Pagan community.