The Book Business Ecosystem Is Under Attack

From Publishers Weekly:

We live in unprecedented times. We read and hear that slogan incessantly. It is often wrong—but with respect to the implications in general and the active threats of today’s book banning campaigns, it is chillingly correct for publishers, authors, readers, young people, free speech, democracy, and humanity. We urgently need to connect the major threads of today’s assaults, which threaten not only constitutional rights and children’s opportunities but also democracy, humanity, and the future of our polity and civilization themselves.

Viewed historically and comparatively, today’s banners are unique. Never before in the past millennia or more have the forces of censorship and claims for minority, extralegal power—rooted in fear—systematically fought to ban texts that they have not read or perhaps can’t read, which I call the new illiteracy. . . . Never before have children and young readers been so deliberately targeted. In all previous campaigns, adult readers have been the focus of the censors’ efforts. In all previous episodes, central targets have been white male authors, from Martin Luther to Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, J.R.R. Tolkien, Phillip Roth, and J.D. Salinger, with books by the occasional woman like Harper Lee or by people of color like Alice Walker or Toni Morrison also drawing scrutiny. In contrast to today’s “anti–affirmative action,” this was equal-opportunity banning.

Now, not only do banners focus almost exclusively on the young but—with great implications for publishers, booksellers, and authors—they go after nonwhite and nonheterosexual authors and leading characters. The rare white male author under attack has a protagonist of color who is differently gendered. A white male author’s much more obscene, profane, and offensive text is not censured. Research by the American Library Association, Freedom to Read Foundation, and BookRiot confirms the almost complete racist, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and ageist obsession of the new banners.

This is not accidental. The banners—and the nationally organized dark-money-funded websites and social media campaigns that mislead uninformed, fearful right-leaning (sometimes) parents—never show awareness of this. Nor do they grasp that their unconstitutional efforts are fundamentally in opposition to everything we know about child development; children’s desire to read, be challenged, learn, grow, and mature as a result of reading and teaching; humanity; and democracy. Multiple surveys found that at least 80% of those polled support so-called divisive and uncomfortable reading and learning. Not at all surprising but critical is the fact that book banners strive to ban countless other well-established legal rights of “free society.”

For publishers, booksellers, and authors, the challenges and the stakes of the book banners’ approach are huge, if insufficiently discussed. Some authors and their publishers benefit from the public attention and sales stimulated in the short-term by being banned. This is true, for example, of award-winning and bestselling Art Spiegelman (Maus); Toni Morrison (various titles); my friend, colleague, and coauthor Ashley Hope Perez (Out of Darkness); Nikole Hannah-Jones (The 1619 Project); Isabel Quintero (Gabi: A Girl in Pieces); Nic Stone (Deep Martin); and Jerry Craft (New Kid). Some benefit from creative services like Banned Books Box, which sends two banned books with associated materials to its subscribers each month.

But a temporary boost in sales doesn’t occur for every banned author. Classroom adoptions and sales are sensitive to political pressures. Unconstitutional laws are proposed in Republican-dominated states, and even if these laws turnout to be unenforceable, authors and agents, publishers and publicists, distributors and sellers are all influenced, to one degree or another, by these assaults. This can prompt those under attack to search for security and self-protection, which can cause ripples through the entire supply chain. Library and bookstore orders can lag. Decisions about reprints and new editions, sensitive to cultural, political, and economic forces, can be deferred or delayed indefinitely.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

11 thoughts on “The Book Business Ecosystem Is Under Attack”

  1. I got a kind of whiplash reading, first, about book banning in an article that seemed to put the blame on conservatives, and then about book censorship (prior to publication) by cancel culture forces, which appear to be mostly from the left.

    What is your take on this, PG? Thanks.

  2. Or maybe we don’t want woke New York publishers brainwashing our kids (much less doing so in the classroom, while they’re still at the “ew, girls/boys, cooties!” stage.

    Having been a victim of too much exposure to sex (of multiple alignments) waaay too early to understand it, I have FEELINGS about these people screaming discrimination because their latest bit of soapbox got banned. Let the parents decide. And then when the kid grows up, let them decide. But don’t get in the way.

  3. I agree.
    There is lots of push back against some books. Get ready for more.
    The book business ecosystem is under attack? OK.
    People don’t want their kids to read some books? OK.
    Publishing has been torn apart? OK.
    What’s the problem?

  4. The headline is correct.
    Everything else has nothing to do with the reality of the headline.

    The corporate pbook ecosystem they live in relies on cheap (preferably unpaid) labor by authors, interns, freelancers. It relies on cheap dead tree pulp and cheap printing services (mostly in china) and cheap transpacific and transcontinental shipping. And it relies on a (shrinking) base of B&M shelving they can control.

    All three are under attack by economics, demographics, and above all inflation.

    The days of cheap labor here and everywhere are done. The last boomers are retiring. Millenials are faced with supporting themselves in a high inflation era. Time to grow up for the latterm

    The days of cheap paper are gone and never returning. Paper is the second most energy (and water) intensive industry to chemicals but chemicals are feedstock for high margin products. Paper is feedstock for…books. Not high margin. And very price sensitive to boot.

    The days of hardcovers printed in China and delivered to LA for under $2 a copy are over. Zero Covid means intermitent weeks long lockdowns in coastal china. High oil prices (in a country that imports 85% of its energy) means triage for energy use. And China ran out of dirt cheap labor circa 2008.

    Fretting over “censorship” and cancel culture is worrying about a burnt lightbulb while the house is on fire. The contents of a “world saving” book don’t really matter when nobody can afford to print it or even less, buy it.

    I doubt the print industry has noticed but the ongoing stock market sell off isn’t stopping any time soon. Double digit inflation is on the horizon (already here for food and energy) and it’ll take 3-5 years *at best* to contain it.

    So yes, the book business ecosystem is under attack…
    …along with everything else. But other business have options…

  5. I definitely, however, call BS on one part of the OP:

    Viewed historically and comparatively, today’s banners are unique. Never before in the past millennia or more have the forces of censorship and claims for minority, extralegal power—rooted in fear—systematically fought to ban texts that they have not read or perhaps can’t read, which I call the new illiteracy. . . . Never before have children and young readers been so deliberately targeted. In all previous campaigns, adult readers have been the focus of the censors’ efforts. In all previous episodes, central targets have been white male authors, from Martin Luther to Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, J.R.R. Tolkien, Phillip Roth, and J.D. Salinger, with books by the occasional woman like Harper Lee or by people of color like Alice Walker or Toni Morrison also drawing scrutiny. In contrast to today’s “anti–affirmative action,” this was equal-opportunity banning.

    Prof Graff spent too [expletive deleted] long in the ivory tower. I fought those battles in the 1970s on the Left Coast, in a suburb/exurb of Fruit-and-Nut-Country, in the schools. I fought them again, just about two decades ago, in the schools surrounding a Big Ten campus (headquarters of the National Council of Teachers of English, in fact). And repeatedly both in between and since. Each time, they involved keeping Bad Stuff away from impressionable young minds, having nothing whatsoever to do with adults.

    And “ban[ning] texts that they have not read or perhaps can’t read” extends all the way back to the 1930s, when prospective Justice Felix Frankfurter was confronted by an anti-Semitic (if closeted as such) Senator regarding a book alleged to be “pro-Communist” that was nothing of the sort (and, in fact, used Marxist philosophy as a Gedankenexperiment to demonstrate that Marxism and Communism are about power distribution, not economics — which had been Frankfurter’s point in a lecture on the book).

    It’s not that the description of what’s happening is incorrect (however incomplete, because it neglects the increasing-since-the-1940s use of outsider “talking points”). It’s that it isn’t in any sense new, and the “Never before in the past millenia” is not just an unfortunate rhetorical flourish but a counterfactual of precisely the kind that those advocating censorship without having read the underlying works engage in.

    I’m changing your grade to a C– for this one, Professor. You’re outside your field of experience and expertise, so you should do the homework before you pontificate. After then, perhaps there is reason to disagree, at least on some of the finer points and on “solutions.” (Although if your original piece was misedited in its appearance at the OP — which is far from outside the realm of possibility — perhaps on appeal we can raise it to a C+.)

    • You’re a generous grader.
      On polemics like this I prefer pass-fail.
      Preferably under “zero defects” rules.

          • <sarcasm> You mean flapping hard enough won’t result in sustained flight? Really? </sarcasm>

            I’m sure there are many fine engineers who went to OSU; I just haven’t met any of them. Of the three OSU engineers I have (knowingly) met, two are hard-core creationists and the other was on a lifelong quest to prove that perpetual motion machines could indeed work (when he wasn’t too busy being a political appointee to a science-based defense post in the Bush I administration… relating to flight…).

  6. Ummm…since when did one’s skin color matter when it came to reading a book? When did content matter when it came to reading a book?

    Sorry, but to little old me, who started reading voraciously in my young tween years (about 45 years ago), those particular items didn’t matter to me. Because I have more than the two brain cells that the OP has, I was able to differentiate between what I like and had no problems being exposed to, and what I didn’t like being exposed to.

    And because I had that kind of awareness, I was able to pass that on to both of my children when they were younger and were into reading (not so much as adults now. so…), and not once did I prevent them from reading from whatever they wanted to read.

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