By Andrew Karre
“The bans on selling books.”
You don’t have to go far online to find this bit of conventional wisdom. For example, today my delightfully bookish Twitter feed showed me Thoughts of Upton Sinclair on the subject from 1927. And in my two decades in book publishing I have repeated variations on the theme several times. “Bans lead to advertising. Advertising leads to sales. LOL, banners. Thanks for the money.
The problem is that the actual experience of nationwide book bans is not so simple, and it is rarely positive. The current nationwide wave of book bans – where hundreds of titles are being challenged en masse in schools – is in some ways unprecedented. I suspect this 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 shrug my shoulders and say “no book selling” again.
It is true that the prohibitions can lead to sales spikes, especially when the book is already a bestseller or when it is an established classic (“The hate you give” or “Maus”). In other words, bans sell books you’ve probably heard of.
But what if the book isn’t a bestseller or a classic? What if it’s a stock that sells modestly but steadily? Evidence indicates that bans are not a golden ticket. The American Library Association (ALA) announced its ten most banned books of 2021 a few weeks ago and none went on sale. New York Times List of best sellers since. Of the titles on the banned list, I only see one that became a bestseller after being widely banned. And industry sales tracking numbers show very modest sales increases at best for most of the books on this 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 the darkness” is an award-winning work of historical fiction and one of the 50 best young adult novels of all time if you learned List of books magazine in June 2017. Or it’s “anal sex” if you watched Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes about a Texas book ban last September. [Full disclosure: I edited “Out of Darkness” at a previous job.]
A book ban is always a proxy for attacking something else – an idea or a movement – or, as is the case with these memoirs, a proxy for someone.
The title 2019 »gender queer » by Maia Kobabe (e/eir/em) is an acclaimed graphic memoir by a non-binary, asexual artist coming out to his family. Or it’s “child pornography” and “grooming” if you’ve heard of it in any of the dozens of 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 aren’t shy about lying. Whatever number of sales would make that awful first impression worthwhile, none of these books reached it. I suspect no book has ever done that.
“Queer Gender” was the most banned book of 2021 according to the ALA. It’s not the book on this list that was a New York Times Top seller, however; this was the 2020 memoir of George M. Johnson”Not all boys are blue,” who flashed on the time list for a week last February before returning to modest but solid sales.
But forget the sales. These memoirs – true stories of merely existing gay people – are where we can best understand the cost of book bans. There is a difference between banning a novel that seeks to be provocative or political and banning a personal story of marginalized identity. Banning Upton Sinclair’s”the Jungle” for to be “pro-socialist” is an affront to intellectual freedom; banishing maia kobabe’s life story for being a “pornographic preparation” comes dangerously close to calling for violence against a group of people who are already experiencing disproportionate violence.
A book ban is always a substitute for attacking something else – an idea or a movement – or, as is the case with these memoirs, a proxy for somea. The last words of “gender queer » are, “Though I struggled to be your daughter, I’m so, so happy to be your child”, and I find this phrase helpful in clarifying the issues: we can shrug our shoulders, laugh at prudish book banners and keep repeating “forbidden to sell books”, knowing that none of these sales – if they even happen – will put the book back on a shelf in a high school library where a teenager might discover a book that helps them make sense of how they feel. Book banners will be delighted with this result.
Or we can shout the prohibitions themselves. We can refuse to engage in inconsistent individual challenges and reject the ban movement in its entirety as a coordinated attempt to boost anti-LGBTQIA+ voter turnout. We can trade protest purchases for attendance at school and library board meetings. We can insist that library superintendents and directors strictly follow book dispute policies and not let them quietly remove books for no reason. process. It’s not that easy to buy”Maus” on Amazon, but ultimately I think we can remove one proxy – libraries and their young queer patrons – from the battleground of the culture war.
About this column
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and are not intended to represent his employer.
The Author: Andrew Karre is an editor at Dutton Books, a division of Penguin Random House. He has edited many award-winning and best-selling books for children and young adults, including Ashley Hope Perez’s “Out of Darkness,” an Honor Book by Michael L. Printz, and Malinda Lo’s “Last Night at the Telegraph Club.” , winner of the National Book Award.
This column was originally published by the Minnesota Reformer, which is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported network of news outlets and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact the editor Patrick Coolican for any questions: [email protected] Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.