No, actually, book bans don’t sell books

“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.”

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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.

But forget the sales. These memoirs — true stories of queer people merely existing — are where we can best understand the cost of book bans. There’s 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 being “pro-socialism” is an affront to intellectual freedom; banning Maia Kobabe’s life story for being “pornographic grooming” is perilously close to a call to violence against a group of people who already experience disproportionate violence. 

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 last words of “Gender Queer” are, “Though I have struggled with being your daughter, I am so, so glad that I am your child,” and I find this sentence helpful in clarifying the stakes: We can shrug, laugh at prudish book banners, and continue to repeat “bans sell books,” knowing that none of those 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 what they’re feeling. Book banners will be delighted with this outcome.

Or we can shout down the bans themselves. We can refuse to engage with incoherent individual book challenges and reject the banning movement in its entirety as a coordinated attempt to drive anti-LGBTQIA+ voter turnout. We can trade protest purchases for school and library board meeting attendance. We can insist that superintendents and library directors follow book-challenge policies strictly and not let them quietly remove books without due process. It’s not as easy buying “Maus” on Amazon, but in the end, I believe we can take one proxy — libraries and their young queer patrons — off the culture-war battlefield.

The views expressed here are the author’s and are not intended to represent his employer.

This commentary was originally published by Minnesota Reformer, a sister publication of the Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local news organizations.

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