At a crowded school assembly near Rockford, Illinois earlier this year, a woman waved enlarged images from Maia Kobabe’s illustrated memoir Gender Queer before the Harlem School District Board of Directors. “If my neighbor gave this to my kid, you know what? He would be in jail,” she said to scattered applause. She was among dozens of students, parents and community members who turned up to weigh whether the district should ban eight titles, including Toni Morrison’s The bluest eye. “I don’t take the banning of books lightly… but frankly, these particular books contain material about child sexual abuse,” said one of the participants, echoing others who claimed so Gender Queerwhich is about being non-binary and asexual amounted to “child abuse”.
Although the space was divided evenly, the board ultimately voted to ban Gender Queer and keeping the other seven, bringing even more notoriety to the most challenged book of 2021. Gender Queer has become a national lightning rod for the banning of books in schools and libraries, the highest since 1990 when the American Library Association began tracking challenges. In 2021, attempts to remove books rose to 729 from 156 the previous year; It’s on track to get even bigger this year.
What is the fate of a book like Kobabe’s after it has been debated and banned? At first glance it might seem desirable: a children’s author who was touring in Virginia told me so hoped Her book would be censored, citing widespread reports boosting sales. Many people share this assumption. Stories in the media have happily dished up examples of how censorship efforts backfire and lead to huge demand instead. It’s a narrative that allays fears of an American culture hostile to provocative books. It makes us feel a little better.
But that doesn’t actually happen when a book is banned. At least not most of the time.
The ALA’s Bureau of Freedom of Thought has a telling statistic: It estimates that a staggering 82 to 97 percent of book challenges go unreported. That said, these books, the vast majority, don’t even make it past school board protocol and into the local paper. And as it turns out, that question is how much attention a book gets — whether because it’s already known how The bluest eye, or because the ban itself makes big news – is a crucial factor. It makes a big difference whether censorship improves or hinders a book’s chances of getting into the hands of a reader.
Like many, I was under the impression that bans tend to be good for business—after all, every bookstore in America seems to have a special exhibit for these notorious books, including Banned Books Week, which is happening this week. I knew from studying experimental literature that provocative, obscene, or subversive works are often the very ones that end up being canonized; As a bookseller and literary critic, I understood the power of controversy in the attention economy. But as I started digging deeper, I found the notion that prohibitions alone causing sales to be misdirected based on data analysis and more than a dozen interviews with publishers, booksellers, authors, First Amendment watchdogs and industry experts.
Bans only increase sales when accompanied by media hype, a recent NPD BookScan report confirms. In the two weeks leading up to the Harlem County School Board meeting Gender Queer experienced its largest volume of sales after The New York Times profiled the book and its author, according to NPD BookScan. As well as a glowing review from the Times can boost sales, as can an intriguing profile of the year’s most banned book. Another recent example is when Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize Mousewhich saw a 753 percent increase in sales and even sold out on Amazon after a Tennessee school board reported on its ban.
More typical, however, is what happened to author Trung Le Nguyen. His graphic novel for young adults, The magic fish, was on a list compiled last year by a Texas state official of books that “may cause students discomfort, guilt, anxiety, or other forms of psychological distress because of their race or gender.” The campaign successfully removed 414 titles from a Texas school district, including The magic fish. Nguyen had little recourse and apparently there was nothing his publisher could do. He never got the media attention he deserved Mouse, so he was left with the more general realization that fewer children would now be able to find his job. “It’s just an unfortunate reality that my book’s longevity on bookshelves and exposure to audiences in public spaces would be severely limited,” he told me. “It feels awful.”
The magic fish is a coming-out story of immigrants — a combination of themes that make it a prime target in this latest wave of bans. The ban on YA books can seriously affect their sales because these books, more than adult titles, depend on distribution in schools and libraries. Without institutions like this buying the books en masse, authors might have trouble getting another book deal, Nguyen said, because “the likelihood of you getting your advance back is pretty much reduced.” Nguyen also pointed out that debut authors who are not firmly established, as well as marginalized authors writing about their own identities, are particularly vulnerable to these consequences.
“For every challenge that makes headlines, there are probably five to eight challenges behind it that don’t,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the ALA’s Office of Freedom of Thought. Given the decline in local news over the past two decades and the fact that book sections have long been among the first to be eliminated when newspaper budgets are cut, the percentage of unreported book challenges could worsen. Although niche markets such as Book Riot and First Amendment advocates like PEN America have followed book bans closely, most titles failing to make headlines, either nationally or locally, and instead languishing in obscurity.
“Not every book is like an award-winning book Mousesaid Jeff Trexler, the interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which protects comic book creators’ First Amendment rights. “There are other books where that happens — their sales don’t go up, their sales go down, or the author suddenly becomes radioactive.”
Unlike peak sales, it’s difficult to quantify how bans affect book sales — but we can get a clearer picture by looking at how the publishing industry relies on bulk buying from schools and libraries, the very part of the market that’s growing has become a battlefield for a larger Kulturkampf.
According to a 2022 PEN America report, YA titles make up 47 percent of contested books, followed by picture books at 18 percent. And this educational marketplace is especially important for YA authors like Nguyen, many of whom derive a significant portion of their sales from wholesale stores and write for an elementary school audience that typically lacks purchasing power. “When a book is recommended by schools and libraries, it becomes a kind of livelihood that could sustain an author’s career,” said Margaret Stohl, ret New York Times bestselling author whose chapter book Cats vs Robots was recently banned by a Missouri school district for having a non-binary character.
And schools and libraries don’t just make one-off bulk purchases. As Skip Dye, senior vice president of library sales and digital strategy at Penguin Random House, put it, “They keep buying thousands of books a year to replace the damaged books.”
Although book bans have always been political to some extent, the current involvement of national organizations in censorship campaigns is new. Typically, books are challenged by members of the local community; However, 41 percent of the bans pursued by PEN America from July 2021 to March 2022 “were associated with orders from state officials or elected lawmakers to examine or remove books in schools.” In addition, reporting through The guard and salon has revealed links between wealthy donors and advocacy groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, which are spearheading ban efforts in some states and providing a playbook for others.
The effects of this spreading ban effort are being felt by authors whose names we may never hear, but who are feeling the effects in deeply personal ways. YA author Laurie Halse Anderson told me it was a gut punch as her first novel Speak, based in part on her own sexual assault at age 13, was challenged in 2000 shortly after being nominated as a National Book Award finalist. “I was so horrified that anyone would think I was writing something that would be harmful to children,” she said.
The pain of getting banned often hurts deeper than worries about falling sales or lost future book deals. As Margaret Stohl told me, it can feel like rejecting your entire worldview. The non-binary character in her book was inspired by her own child, and she saw the censorship as a kind of obliteration: “They didn’t ban a book — they banned an identity.”