Story at a glance
- More books are being targeted and banned in classrooms and libraries across the country.
- When certain books are banned, many receive heightened media attention.
- That media coverage has translated to a sharp increase in banned book sales, but 82 to 97 percent of book bans still go unreported.
As book bans and challenges mount across the country, the extra media attention — especially during Banned Book Week — gives some authors a boost in sales, even if their works are removed from some shelves.
A record number of books have been banned from schools and libraries, according to the nonprofit PEN America, with a total of 2,532 instances of individual books being banned across the country between June 2021 and June 2022.
While some are working to restrict access to certain titles, their bans and challenges may be having the opposite effect: bringing national attention to these books and in turn increasing the number of Americans who are buying them.
For instance, the most challenged book last year — “Gender Queer” by Maia Kolbabe — saw a 130 percent increase in US print sales in May, according to a report by NPD BookScan. The publishing tracker noted this came after dozens of schools pulled the book from their libraries and the media covered the controversy surrounding it.
“Gender Queer” follows Kolbabe’s exploration of sexuality and identity outside the gender binary.
Notably, Republicans in North and South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have called the book “pornographic” and “likely illegal.”
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The books “Maus I” and “Maus II” by Art Spiegelman saw a similar bump in sales and coverage after a Tennessee school board banned them in January. NPD found sales jumped 50 percent within a matter of days, while sales for the combined titles have reached 1.2 million units since NPD began tracking books in 2004.
Author Ibram X. Kendi also saw sales for his book, “Antiracist Baby,” increase 5,000 percent in March after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) criticized it during the Supreme Court hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Sometimes even the publisher themselves pulling a book can increase demand. After Dr. Suess Enterprises announced in March 2021 it would no longer publish six of its books due to “hurtful and wrong” portrayals, over 10 million more juvenile fiction titles were sold that month than the previous month.
According to NPD, “the news had a significant effect on the sales volume for Dr. Seuss titles, as consumers reacted to a perceived ‘cancellation’ of Dr. Seuss in general.”
Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing certain books like “Mulberry Street,” which featured a racial stereotype of an Asian man with slanted lines for eyes.
A bump in sales usually correlated to those books most covered in the news, NPD found. Sales data for a longer list of banned titles, beyond those prominently featured in headlines, was more of a mixed bag.
“Within this sample, only half exhibited a sales increase, suggesting it is the news cycle that is driving sales rather than a wider consumer protest,” said Kristen McLean, books industry analyst for NPD.
McLean explained that the immediacy of a news story regarding a banned book drives consumers to react and that it’s likely many consumers don’t know about other widely banned books.
The American Library Association estimates that between 82 to 97 percent of requests to remove books from libraries or schools go unreported and don’t receive any media attention.
Banned Book Week, happening now until Sept. 24, also hopes to bring more attention to banned books and the impacts of book censorship and intellectual freedom. The honorary week was established back in 1982 as a direct response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.