Think Authors Profit From Book Banning?

Lots of people think that authors want to have our books challenged. We’ve all joked about the merits of stirring up a little controversy to boost sales, right? I know I have, because on the surface, yeah, it’s pretty cool to write a book that pisses someone off so badly he wants to hide it from everyone else. And that’s often the fastest way to ensure it will never be hidden. Banned books are discussed in the media, through social networks, in bookstores and libraries, in schools, at home, and soon people are flocking to stores and libraries to see what all the fuss is about. Sounds great for authors, right?

Hmmm.

When Ellen Hopkins recently blogged about the experience of being booted (i.e., censored) from the Humble Teen Book Festival, some people accused her of intentionally trying to profit from the situation. I was shocked. I mean, Ellen obviously cares about teens. She cares about sharing powerful stories in ways that save lives. Why would she try to profit from a situation that was preventing her from interacting with the very teens who so desperately need her work? Why did these people find it appropriate to personally attack an author who’s trying to do some good for teens in this world? Baffling.

Ellen, of course, handled (and continues to handle, each time her books are challenged) the whole thing with class and determination, an example to us all. But it really got me thinking about how I might react if my book was ever challenged.

I never expected I’d get to test that theory so soon.

In reading about Ellen’s struggles against censorship, I came across a story about a conference in which Judy Blume spoke about book banning. An author in the audience jokingly asked her for tips on how to get his own book challenged, and Judy replied something like:

“Your book will be challenged. And you won’t like it.”

People laughed. But you know what? Aunt Judy was absolutely right.

Book Challenges Actually, Um, Suck

When I heard about Wesley Scroggins challenging Twenty Boy Summer as part of his 29-page manifesto against sex education, separation of church and state, evolution, and groundbreaking books like Speak and Slaughterhouse Five, I wasn’t excited at the prospect of increased sales. I didn’t do my happy dance at the thought of increased media exposure. Instead, my heart sank in a way I didn’t think possible over one man’s personal agenda. He said my work — something I’d put my heart and soul and years of my life into creating — was immoral, filthy, and un-Christian (the implication being that I personally am immoral, filthy, etc.). Ouch.

I don’t deny him the right to his opinion, and if he would’ve shared it in an email to me or a public book review on Goodreads, I would’ve shrugged it off, like I must with any negative review. But Scroggins didn’t post a review or give me the dreaded one-star rating on Amazon. He didn’t even read the book. He’s simply attempting to remove it — along with the other books — from the public school library. He’s attempting to infringe on the intellectual freedoms of the student body, parent children who are not his own, and disempower teens by sweeping the discussion and validation of their very real issues under the rug.

Essentially, the message he’s sending to kids in Republic, Missouri — including his own kids, who don’t even attend the public school — is this:

We don’t care about you. We don’t want to discuss your problems because they don’t exist. If you’re the victim or rape or assault, it’s your fault. Shut up. Do not SPEAK of it. And if you’re a “good, clean, moral, Christian kid,” you obviously aren’t capable of reasoned thought, because reading these books will brainwash you into experimenting with alcohol and sex when you otherwise wouldn’t have known these vices existed.

When the dust settles and this issue is resolved, whether the books are burned in the Republic school parking lot by Scorggins and his cronies, or put front and center on every bookshelf in the state by champions of literary choice, Scroggins’ attitude still disgusts me. It infuriates me. Hate me and my work all you want, but in this country, you don’t get to do it for other people. Calling for institutionalized censorship of any kind is an outrage, and Judy was right. I don’t like it one bit.

Now on to this so-called financial profiteering. I was inspired to blog about this today after reading this post: Book Banning for Profit.

I agree with the author’s point that the teachers standing up for our books in Republic should absolutely be involved in the conversation and in sharing their important perspectives on what’s going on inside the school walls. What incenses me about the article, however, is the assertion that Wesley Scroggins “might as well have written a check to those authors.” That the controversy has resulted in “money for a beautiful webpage called ‘Speak Loudly.’ Moving up 2,000 spots on the Amazon seller list.” The author goes on to say:

“Frankly, shouldn’t some of those who have co-opted this issue for their own profit write a thank you note to Mr. Scroggins and to the teachers of Republic. I think they can do better than send 20 books. These authors and supporters of YA lit do believe in protecting our right to read, but let’s not overlook the profit to be made from being a part of this conversation.”

Profit being made? I know that the Speak Loudly web site is a labor of love for founders David Macinnis Gill and Paul Hankins, who host and maintain the site out of their own pockets. Same goes for Paul and the #speakloudly campaign he so bravely spearheaded.

And as for my personal profits from this, well…

*scratches head*
*looks in wallet*
*looks under couch cushions*
*scratches head again*

Fuzzy Math

Donating copies of challenged books is not something authors do for profit or fame. We do it to ensure that readers still have access to books that are being challenged or banned and to meet a library’s newly increased demand for books that are suddenly being debated and discussed in the local media.

Consider the numbers here. I can’t speak for Laurie, but for me, to donate 20 paperback copies of Twenty Boy Summer out of my own pocket, I’d have to sell more than 200 paperback copies at full price at my current royalty rate to cover my purchase and shipping costs. To donate hardcovers, I’d have to sell almost 400 of those copies. And since Twenty Boy Summer is my first book and I haven’t yet earned out my initial advance, I won’t see any royalties for quite a while, despite the momentary jump in sales this controversy may have sparked. So while I’m grateful that Wesley Scroggins has brought my book and the others into the spotlight despite his attempts to bury them, thereby earning me some new readers who might never have otherwise heard about Twenty Boy Summer, that spotlight won’t last forever, and it won’t pay my bills. If it did, I certainly wouldn’t be celebrating the long-term notoriety and increased cash flow. I’d be stocking up on duct tape and canned goods because folks, if a quiet little book like mine can be challenged or banned on that level, free society as we know it is over.

Time is Money

I’m self-employed. Writing, whether its fiction or corporate freelance, is my sole source of income. My corporate rates are upwards of $100 an hour. Since Scroggins publicly voiced his opinion, I’ve spent entire work days — going into week two, actually — not working on my usual income-generating projects, but responding to emails, phone and print interview requests, Tweets, blog posts, news article commentary, and other information requests sparked by the news in Missouri. I’m happy to be involved in defending intellectual freedom and proud to be in such good company as Laurie Halse Anderson and Kurt Vonnegut, and I won’t deny that all this effort has increased visibility for my book. But to earn back my full investment on the time I’ve spent managing this issue, I’d have to sell over 5,000 full price copies of Twenty Boy Summer (and counting). When you’re not Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, that’s a lot of books, my friends.

War is Good for the Economy

Yes, book challenges are controversial and controversy increases publicity, which often increases sales. But saying that authors are eager to profit from challenges or bans is a bit like saying war is good for the economy. Whenever a book is challenged, someone — either in an official capacity or not — is advocating the challenge of basic intellectual freedoms and free choice. Someone is advocating his or her personal right to make reading decisions for other people. Someone is advocating censorship. It doesn’t matter if challenged books see a bump in sales when the sole reason for that bump is a potential loss of freedom, realized or not.

As an author of a recently challenged book, I will not trade freedom for profit. And I wouldn’t trade freedom for profit, even if the math was on my side.

10 Responses to Think Authors Profit From Book Banning?

  1. Mrs. Andersen says:

    I just read your post and the post about banned books profits. I can understand the blogger being concerned for the teachers in MO, but did any of those teachers speak out about this as it was happening? I’m a high school English teacher, and if any one tried messing with books in my district I’d be contacting everyone. Dealing with censorship and writing a book rationale was something I learned in one of my college classes (a YA Lit class actually). Maybe the blogger should have contacted those teachers and asked for quotes to include in the post… And if that was done, it should be noted.

  2. Megan Fields says:

    This made me want to give you a big hug. xo sarah. I’ll be at the next school board meeting in republic to voice my opinions. Hopefully we can keep these books from being banned. :-)

    Megan Fields
    Banned Book Literary Club

  3. Liz Burns says:

    Risha Mullins at For The Love Of YA has just posted the personal & professional cost of being the teacher at the center of a book banning controversy. http://fortheloveofya.blogspot.com/2010/10/censorship-at-its-finest-honoring-end.html

  4. [...] Edited to add: Sarah Ockler takes on the Authors Make Money From Book Banning Myth. [...]

  5. Girl_from_Shangri-la says:

    Well said.

  6. James Roy says:

    Thank you, Sarah. Nicely put. I have, from time to time, been guilty of wishing out loud that someone would ban one of my books. Maybe I’ll stop.

    You’re so right when you say that YA is about showing readers that their problems are real, and shouldn’t be swept aside. Just this morning I got an email from a reader which contained this: “I liked that you portrayed teenagers as real people rather than a bunch of whingers with no real problems.”

    That’s why we do it, folks.

  7. Kellye says:

    Thanks for this post, Sarah. I cannot imagine how much time (not to mention emotional energy) has gone into this. I hope things settle down for you soon. The Scroggins thing–all of it–makes me apoplectic. Meanwhile, I’m so glad I learned of you and your book through all of this, and I’m looking forward to reading Twenty Boy Summer. (It’s on my TBR stack.)

  8. Kaethe says:

    I know enough about publishing to know that every word you wrote is true for the vast majority of writers out there. Brava! Can’t wait to read Twenty Boy Summer.

  9. Jim Murphy says:

    Writing a thoughtful, well-crafted book is a terribly personal thing; to have the book — and by extension the author — condemned and vilified amounts to a personal attack (and is as physically painful as a street assault). The people who commit these crimes — and they are crimes in my opinion — know this and want to hurt authors and drive them into hiding. It’s important to fight back and continue to write. Be brave and your voice will be heard.

  10. Jay Asher says:

    Beautifully said. Thank you!

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