No, actually, book bans don’t sell books

From AZ Mirror:

“Bans sell books.”

You don’t have to go far online to find that bit of conventional wisdom. For example, today my delightfully bookish Twitter feed showed me Upton Sinclair’s thoughts on the matter from 1927. And in my two decades in book publishing, I’ve repeated variations on the theme many times. “Bans lead to publicity. Publicity leads to sales. LOL, banners. Thanks for the money.”

The problem is that the actual experience of book bans at national scale is not so simple, and it’s rarely positive. The present national wave of book banning — where hundreds of titles are challenged en masse in schools — is by some measures unprecedented. I suspect it has given many of us who work in the book industry a crash course in the realities of book bans. I know I’ll never again shrug and say “bans sell books.”

It is true that bans can lead to spikes in sales, especially when the book is already a bestseller or when it’s an established classic (“The Hate U Give” or “Maus”). In other words, bans sell books you’ve probably already heard of.

But what happens when the book is not a bestseller or a classic? What happens if it’s a modest-but-steady-selling title? The evidence says bans are no golden ticket. The American Library Association (ALA) announced its ten most banned books of 2021 a few weeks ago and none has been on the New York Times Best Seller List since. Of the titles on the banned list, I see only one that became a bestseller after it was widely banned. And industry sales tracking numbers show very modest sales lifts at best for most of the books on that list.

But sales aren’t the only things that can happen after bans. For many of these titles, the bans are how people first hear about the book. Ashley Hope Pérez’s 2015 novel “Out of Darkness” is an award-winning work of historical fiction and one of the fifty best young adult novels of all time if you happen to have picked up Booklist magazine in June of 2017. Or it’s about “anal sex” if you watched Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes about a Texas ban of the book last September. [Full disclosure: I edited “Out of Darkness” at a previous job.]

A book ban is always proxy for attacking something else — an idea or a movement — or, as is the case with these memoirs, a proxy for someone.

The 2019 title “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe (e/eir/em) is an acclaimed graphic memoir of a nonbinary and asexual artist coming out to eir family. Or it’s “child pornography” and “grooming” if you heard about it from one of the dozens news stories about the bans that repeated the banners’ objections to the book. For most banned books, a viral ban introduces the book, and book banners don’t hesitate to lie. Whatever number of sales would make this awful first impression worthwhile, neither of these books has hit it. I suspect no book ever has.

“Gender Queer” was the most banned book in 2021 according to the ALA. It’s not the book on that list that was a New York Times Best Seller, though; that was George M. Johnson’s 2020 memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which flashed onto the Times’s list for a week last February before settling back to modest but solid sales.

Link to the rest at AZ Mirror

PG likely doesn’t qualify as a free speech absolutist, but does lean in that direction.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

(Minor digression: John Ray , who was the first to record this saying in English Proverbs, 1670, remarked “This is a woman’s Proverb.”)

If an author has a right to create and publish a book, another person or groups of people, have the right to criticize that book on any basis, valid or invalid, by saying, writing, etc., that they don’t like the book and think it’s a bad idea for those of a certain age or those of any age to read that book. Or that they think the book is terribly boring. Or that the book costs too much. They also have the right to advocate that their taxes or anyone’s taxes shouldn’t be used to purchase the book.

In PG’s observation, actions and movements to silence or ban speech some people find objectionable are not limited to the left or right or any particular religion, political party or other group of like-minded individuals.

8 thoughts on “No, actually, book bans don’t sell books”

  1. Bookbans sell books that people want to buy just like books that people want to buy sell.

    Bookbans don’t sell books that people don’t want to buy just like books that people don’t won’t to buy don’t sell.

  2. The problem is that the actual experience of book bans at national scale is not so simple, and it’s rarely positive.

    What is meant by”book bans at a national scale.” Does that mean the book is banned in the US and cannot be purchased, or does it mean it has been removed from libraries in multiple states? It does sound wonderfully ominous if one is competing for attention in the intersectional ecosystem.

    • 90% of the time it means that a book has been taken off school curricula in multiple states. Actual removals of books from libraries is…rather rare.

  3. The overwhelming majority of so-called banned books are not those that are un-gettable for adults (there are VERY few books that are not widely available for adults).
    What is in question is the sexualized content of many of these books, particularly for the middle school students. And, as so many of them are not just available, but on various REQUIRED reading lists.
    I’d be willing to allow an occasional book dealing with gang life or violence, provided that the Woke Karens would back off on the depressing content of the MANY dystopian novels assigned in schools. I often thought that the increasing amount of teen depression is directly linked to the downbeat content.
    How about ONE book in which the male characters are not ALL overshadowed by Truly Awesome, Perfect-in-every-way Grrls?
    How about ONE book that deserves to be on the lists – 1984 (with some context for the background of Orwell in the Spanish Civil War?)?
    How about books that challenge censorship in a creative way – such as The Day They Came to Arrest the Book –
    It shows the passion about “that awful N-word”, and yet provides some nuanced context for many of the characters’ choices.
    Y’all want to talk about censored books? The Gulag Archipalego is not only one of the most censored books, but provides some context to why Communism/Socialism is NOT the Arc of History, but a dead-end pathway.
    But, yeah, parents SHOULD be concerned about what content their minor children are reading. Not sayin’ that some parents wouldn’t approve of these books, even buy them for THEIR kids. But, they haven’t the right to override the choices of the kids’ families.
    And, to be quite fair and honest, MOST people’s first thought about anal sex, ‘rimming’, or other sexual acts associated with the anus is not “Oh, how WONDERFUL and sexually freeing!” but, “Yuck!”
    No, they do NOT want an unrelated person discussing such acts with their kids. Even if they are using that act to show dehumanization.
    I mean, you COULD also assign American Psycho to show that concept. ALSO not appropriate.

  4. Let’s have some books by Charles Bukowski, Hunter S Thompson, and William Burroughs.

    Think of the weird little kids who yearn to see characters like themselves in the books assigned.

    • Better yet, the more enduring Burroughs: Edgar Rice. Say, PRINCESS OF MARS. Equal time for Tharks. And egg-laying Princesses. Maybe a version with Frazetta illustrations. 😉

      A few exploding heads would be welcome. 😀

      • I occasionally search and see if there’s any Folio Society-style editions of the John Carter books with the Frazetta illustrations. In the Kindle age I’m much more willing to get “collectible” editions of books I know I’ll re-read. But I’d be just as thrilled if publishers put out editions younger kids could see and buy at any given Wal-Mart or Target.

        • There was a time elementary school books for class reading were anthologies with regular fiction; excepts from classics and the odd modern short story. I once saw a graded reader with Heinlein’s GREEN HILLS OF EARTH. Not something to be found in any school today, I don’t think.
          No ideology or religion involved.

          Walmart all I’ve seen is comic bundles and graphic novels, the more mundane ones. (Not anything serious.)

          People will be reading ERB into the next century but nobody in tradpub will even bother with a illustrated collectible editions. Licensing the Frazettas won’t be cheap. The closest you’ll come to a collectible Burroughs with Frazetta illustrations will be at ABE BOOKS. Scan the cover and images and roll your own ebook with Gutenberg or feedbook texts.

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