On Banning Books
In 2019, the total number of books published in the U.S. exceeded 4 million—including both self-published and commercially published books of all types. This is the most democratic publishing environment that has ever existed. Just about anyone with a computer can publish, distribute, and promote a book on any subject.
Most of us don’t want anyone else choosing what we are allowed to read. We think all ideas should be open for discussion, but we might not feel that way about a book of child pornography.
A friend living in a rural county in Arkansas looked for a book on evolution in his local library. Not finding one, he asked the librarian, who said they had no books on evolution and directed him to books on creationism. He suggested that they order books on evolution. She refused.
When the bookstore team orders books for the church bookstore, we make selections based on whether we think the book will interest church members or whether the minister or religious education director will be using it in upcoming programs. We don’t order every book offered by the denomination bookstore. Our intention is not to ban or censor the ones we don’t order, but all bookstores and libraries carefully select what goes on their shelves. Most books never make the cut. We don’t call this banning, but that’s the outcome.
Most established publishers require a writer to be represented by an agent. Agents accept manuscripts subjectively based on their preferences and taste, what they see as trends, and on whether they guess the book will sell. If it meets their personal, highly subjective criteria, an agent may deign to represent it to publishers.
Publishers are in business, which means the bottom line is the priority. Will the book sell? Almost all manuscripts of the thousands submitted are rejected. It’s not exactly banning books, but traditionally the books available for us to read came through this model, which means that our selection is limited by the subjective tastes and preferences of agents and publishers, all slaves to the bottom line, their guess, will it sell?
How many well-written, carefully constructed books don’t make the cut? For authors of rejected manuscripts, those rejections may end their writing career and abolish their ideas to the recycling pile, or the author may then turn to self-publishing. Controversial or unconventional books sometimes find life this way. Many well-known books started out as self-published, including John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Fifty Shades of Grey, Peter Rabbit, and The Joy of Cooking.
One effective way to help a book sell, and thus enhance public interest and the finances of the author, agent, and publisher, is to have some organization campaign to ban it. The resulting publicity is a lucrative boost to the bottom line.