"But Aren’t Book Bans Kind of Helpful?"

Popularity and sales are two different things.

Dear Milo,

I obviously don’t think book bans are a good thing but aren’t they also kind of helpful? There are so many books that most aren’t noticed. People talk about a book more because of book bans and then people buy the book more to support it.

I’m not asking this to be disrespectful. I don’t agree with book bans but I’m curious if there’s a silver lining.


Ban Curious

New York

Dear Ban Curious,

This is a reasonable question. But the short answer is no, book bans don’t help marginalized writers. The positive examples you’ve mentioned are understandable assumptions we all make, but it turns out they’re myths.

First, book bans aren’t really extra publicity. Or maybe, at best, they’re neutral extra publicity. As in, publicity that doesn’t do anything. People are talking about the book, people are angry about the book ban, but it’s not improving sales, nor is it reversing the ban. A handful of writers see a minor or momentary bump in their sales, but that’s it. And that’s a best-case scenario. From what I’ve heard, even the rare, minor bump in sales isn’t enough to counteract the dip in revenue the ban itself causes.

This is partly because a post of outrage on social media doesn’t equal a book purchase. That’s a whole thing we’re not getting into today because I don’t have the strength, but the main takeaway is any sort of social media activity—likes, follows, posts, tweets, good reviews, bad reviews, anger, happiness, whatever—reflects almost nothing to how a book will perform in the market. Some rare exceptions aside, it turns out social media praise (or criticism) means next to nothing. Popularity and sales are two different things.

According to Andrew Karre in 2022:

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.

We also have a habit of interpreting a sudden jump in sales with an “all’s well that ends well” attitude, not thinking about how the short-term doesn’t automatically correlate to the long-term. According to Scottie Andrew in late 2023:

“When books get banned, even when authors do see a spike in sales, it is much more devastating for careers in the long run,” [Kyle Lukoff, author of “Call Me Max”] said. “If your book is kept out of libraries and schools in entire states — that does translate to a long-term consistent drop in sales.”
Phil Bildner, a children’s book author and advocate for fellow writers, said that “having a book banned is not a badge of honor.”
“I still don’t think most people grasp just how financially devastating this book banning era is to queer authors and authors from marginalized communities,” said Bildner, who runs the Author Village, a group that represents authors and illustrators for school visits. “And I know most people don’t grasp the emotional toll it’s having on the authors in the crosshairs.”

Book sales for a banned book also take a hit because, depending on the book and the situation, it may no longer be carried at a given book fair, children’s or otherwise. It may no longer be available at a given public library. Since purchases by libraries help sales, less libraries carrying the book equals less purchases of that book. (And as a ripple effect, people stop going to libraries if the library doesn’t have anything they want to read. So if a trans person can’t find any trans books at the library, especially if the library is unable to stock them, then the trans person will likely stop going to that library.)

Per Danika Ellis in early 2023:

Some schools, particularly in Florida, haven’t been able to acquire new books at all this school year, while others have seen their numbers drop significantly: in a Texas school district, libraries ordered 6,000 fewer books than they did last year, while a Pennsylvania school librarian reported ordering just 100 titles this year instead of their usual 600. OverDrive, which supplies ebooks and audiobooks to roughly half of the schools [sic] districts in the U.S., has [stated] they’ve “lost millions of dollars in sales in 2022” from school libraries.
A school librarian in Florida stated that student interest in the library has dropped dramatically since recent laws restricted her ability to stock new books: “Students checked out nearly 3,000 titles between August and December 2021, but just 1,800 between August and December 2022.”
The article included photos of several handwritten lists of books that students have requested their libraries bring in. Normally, librarians would order these right away to keep students’ interests, as long they are a good fit for the collection. Now, librarians are holding onto these long lists in the hopes they can order them in the future — in the meantime, though, many students have gotten tired of waiting and stopped going to the library at all.
A Florida school librarian shared that she had a manga-loving student who checked out over 300 books the previous year, and came in daily to see if he was still the #1 user of the school library. When new restrictions brought in on a state level meant that the librarian could no longer order new manga, this student quickly ran out of material, and “after a few weeks, he stopped coming to the library.”

These bans also hurt writers whose works haven’t even been banned, as libraries and other entities are shying away from purchasing books that might later be banned. According to the same article (yeah, sorry, I’m basically quoting the entire thing by this point):

Even when not facing formal restrictions of their ability to order books, school librarians in districts that have experiences [sic] book bans and challenges are less likely to order in books that might be challenged later. LGBTQ books, books addressing racism, and sex education books are the most likely to be left off their order sheets. Librarians also mentioned being reluctant to order in graphic novels and manga, since they’re being challenged the most often — even though this format is precisely what students are most excited to read.
According to a study of 6,000 school libraries, school districts that had a book challenge last year were 55% less likely to stock new LGBTQ books the following year, showing that self-censorship and “quiet censorship” is just as important to consider as the formal laws and restrictions that have been put in place. As an article at EdWeek put it, “Each new book challenged in a district reduced the probability that the district would buy a new book about LGBTQ characters by 4 percent.”

Add in the auto-banning of certain material within given countries, and things get even worse. Plenty of LGBTQ+ subject matter is edited out of a given book before it can be sold in countries that ban LGBTQ+ subject matter at large. And if the book itself is inherently LGBTQ+, the book may be banned from that country in its entirety. (Again, these are the auto-bans marginalized authors already face, new book bans in the United States aside, which puts a given book on a lower rung of sales from the start when compared to its mainstream peers. This is partially why LGBTQ+ authors in the United States generally have a harder time getting published than cishet authors, even when there weren’t any book bans happening in the United States.)

Also, since revenue from book sales tends to be not great on the best of days—banned or not, marginalized or mainstream—most writer income comes from outside of an author’s book sales. An example of this is an author being invited to provide paid talks at universities, classrooms, public libraries, and other venues. Likewise, an author may be able to teach writing classes and other related endeavors. But when a book is banned at universities, classrooms, and libraries, those opportunities to (hopefully) make a livable wage off one’s book dry up. This is particularly troublesome for YA, MG, and children’s authors since their readerships are heavily reliant on classroom spaces where most book bans occur, but it’s also a reality for any author.

Again from Scottie Andrew:

Because publishing alone isn’t a guaranteed windfall, many authors who write for young people rely on school visits and other paid appearances at literary conferences or libraries to make a steady income, [Tasslyn] Magnusson said. This school year, some of those offers have been rescinded or were never proposed: [Samira] Ahmed said her number of school visits have dwindled to just three this year; [Phil] Bildner said several queer authors he knows are also down to three or four visits a year when they typically did 20 to 30. 
“These opportunities are now virtually nonexistent,” Bildner said of paid visits, particularly for LGBTQ authors.

There’s also the problem of, despite a bump in sales, who specifically is buying said book and who isn’t. Basically, those buying the book usually aren’t the ones who need it, while those who need it are the ones still unable to obtain it. 

According to Sarah Prager in 2022:

While [Maia] Kobabe acknowledges that "Gender Queer" being banned and challenged has led to a flurry of publicity that it would not have otherwise received, Kobabe worries about who is gaining access to the book through the increase in sales. Those who listen to NPR to hear an interview, read articles about book banning or have their own income to buy books are the ones increasing the sales, according to Kobabe, but the young people who don’t have money to buy books or who need the access at the library to read it there instead of bringing a book back to an unaccepting home will not be the ones contributing to the sales numbers. 
“The part that really hurts is the fact that the people who might need this book the most are the people who are going to have less access,” Kobabe said. “So it’s just another case of the most marginalized readers being further marginalized.”
Kobabe added, “I would rather have the book not be banned and have it just quietly existing on library shelves where queer and questioning teens could discover it in a peaceful, quiet way and could safely read it on a shelf.”

There’s also all the extras that come along with a book ban, including, but not limited to: the mental toll on the author, the time and money required to ensure their safety both online and at public events, self-censorship, and the risk of a banned writer not receiving contracts for future books that could equally be banned. Making things worse, there’s a ripple effect where budding writers of a given identity (especially when writing about a given thing) are less able to get their foot in the door with publishers because they’re automatically flagged as “potentially controversial.” (I’ve experienced this multiple times in my publishing journey. Yeah, it’s frustrating.)

Kelly Jensen has a comprehensive guide to fighting book bans. Beyond that, I wish I could end this on a positive note or with a specific, guaranteed call to action, but the fact is that this all sucks and the folks who are invested are already doing everything they can to stop and reverse book bans. All I can do is encourage readers to support and purchase (and give out) books however you can, vote for politicians who are against book bans, encourage folks of all walks to get on the bandwagon of fighting book bans (see the guide linked above), and encourage writers to keep on writing. They want the silence. Don’t give them the silence.



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Until next time, foxies! Be queer, write books!