We don’t live in Dystopia…or Utopia (somebody please ban my books!)

Banned books available right now in my store. Local author books in the background. Guess which one I’m most excited about selling?

There’s a list making the rounds of social media right now of “banned books”. Yeah, it sucks that such a list has to exist. We don’t live in Utopia. But are those books going anywhere? Will you ever have a really difficult time finding a copy of The Catcher in the Rye or The Harry Potter series? Probably not. (Even though J.K. Rowling has managed to piss off just about everyone.)

Why is this?

One simple reason. We may not live in Utopia, but we don’t live in Dystopia, either. Banned books are an effective tool employed by libraries and booksellers. There is no easier way to get your book on the bestseller list than to have it publicly banned. Human nature prompts us to immediately rush out and find out why those books were banned.

There are exceptions to this rule. When six Dr. Seuss books were withdrawn due to “hurtful and wrong” imagery, I had a hard time deciding how to feel about it. The reason for this can be found in And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street: “…a Chinaman who eats with sticks…” You might think that would be harmless, but I knew. I spent a large portion of my childhood with an image of Asian people wearing weird pointy hats and eating noodles with “sticks”. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to appreciate the beauty of Asian culture. And the fun. I’m a big anime and manga fan, and I’m listening to K-Pop right now thanks to my much less culturally insensitive daughter. Someday I hope to visit Japan, South Korea, China and anywhere else that will allow a humble American.

Yes, those Seuss books are mostly off the shelf or on sale on e-Bay for hundreds of dollars. But what happened to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind when our “woke” culture wanted to cancel it? It hit number one on the Amazon bestseller list. You can still find it on Amazon, by the way. And the N-word has not been removed. Same for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And everybody knows about the success of another “banned” book, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. For the most part, there are no bonfires of these banned books, and even if there are, you can’t burn digital copies and more copies are printed of most of them everyday, anyway.

That’s why when I get requests to feature banned books more prominently in my store, I have to admit I don’t have very many of them. They’re sold out.

A Note to Fellow Bookstore Owners: What Writers Really Need

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my many years as a writer, it’s that I don’t always want what I need. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two years as a bookstore owner, it’s that I can provide what indie writers need…even if it isn’t what they always want.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores are sometimes a distant dream for writers. We all wish to have our books on the shelves at a bookstore. We’d love to have that happen automatically. Publish a book, get it on the shelf. But except for virtual shelves, this is a sometimes unreachable dream. Even if you happen to have a “local” brick-and-mortar in your community, if you walk in a lot of times you’ll find the same thing you find in large chain bookstores, and, too often now, wildly discounted big box stores.

And these local bookstores often have restrictive guidelines and requirements for carrying local indie authors.

What writers need is a home for their books. A place they can be on the shelf. Surviving as a bookstore in today’s world of fruit and kindling beamed right to your phone can be difficult. Surviving as one voice shouting in a room full of other people can be even harder. Local bookstores and local authors need to work together to accomplish what they both need: more local authors willing to sell their books on consignment instead of expecting local bookstores to order them along with James Patterson’s latest—and more stores willing to give local authors a chance to see their books on the shelf.

I was in one of those “million books” type stores a few weeks ago (don’t judge me!). I took a peek at the Local Interest section. I was shocked to see “local” interests like the Blue Ridge Parkway…in Virginia! But the worst was a book about lobster fishermen in Maine! That’s what passes for local interest when the folks who order your books don’t live locally.

I’ve been in other small, local bookstores as well. They definitely try harder to maintain that local flavor. But once you start ordering new books, it’s an easy slide to devoting more space to Stephen King and Clive Cussler than the local authors who walk in off the street. Bestsellers are bestsellers for a reason. Name recognition. And a poetry book by local poet Michelle Garren Flye isn’t going to hold up very well when it’s sitting next to Amanda Gorman’s latest— Okay, there might be more reason than just name recognition for that…I love her!

But you get my point, right, authors and booksellers? Work together. A very famous “local” author (Nicholas Sparks) once told me “the cream rises to the top.” I think he meant that as encouragement. I’m taking it as heartfelt advice. My store is the churn. Readers do the churning. The local authors who end up on my “Bestselling Local Author” table are the cream.

We need more churns and authors willing to sell their ingredients for a percentage of the take.

What local bookstores need: a good local author section. What they want? A bookstore cat as great as Derby! (Photo by Michelle Garren Flye, local author and poet…and bookstore owner)