The Banned Books You Haven’t Heard About

When a book gets censored, it feels good to assume its sales will increase. But that’s not the whole story.

Book with barbed wire around it
Getty; The Atlantic

At a packed school-board meeting near Rockford, Illinois, earlier this year, a woman waved blown-up images from Maia Kobabe’s illustrated memoir Gender Queer in front of the Harlem School District board. “If my neighbor were to give this to my child, guess what? He would be in jail,” she said to scattered applause. She was among dozens of students, parents, and community members who’d shown up to weigh in on whether the district should ban eight titles, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. “I do not take the banning of books lightly …  but frankly, these particular books contain child-sexual-abuse material,” said one of the participants, echoing others who claimed that Gender Queer, which is about being nonbinary and asexual, amounted to “child abuse.”

Even though the room was evenly split, the board ultimately voted to ban Gender Queer and keep the other seven, adding even more notoriety to the most-challenged book of 2021. Gender Queer has become a national lightning rod for book banning in schools and libraries, which has reached the highest recorded level since 1990 when the American Library Association began tracking challenges. In 2021, the number of attempts to remove books jumped from 156 the previous year to 729; it’s on track to be even greater this year.

What is the fate of a book like Kobabe’s after it is debated and banned? It might seem, on the face of it, desirable: One children’s-book author on tour in Virginia told me that she hoped her book would be censored, citing widely reported accounts that bans drive sales. Many people share this assumption. Stories in the media have gleefully trotted out examples of how censorship efforts backfire and lead instead to enormous demand. It’s a narrative that mitigates fears about an American culture grown hostile to provocative books. It makes us feel a little better.

But this isn’t what actually happens when a book gets banned. At least, not most of the time.

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has a telling statistic: It estimates that a staggering 82 to 97 percent of book challenges go unreported on. That means these books, the overwhelming majority, don’t even make it beyond the school-board minutes and into the local paper. And, as it turns out, this question of how much attention a book gets—either because it’s already well known, like The Bluest Eye, or because the banning itself generates big news—is a crucial factor. It makes all the difference in whether censorship helps or hinders a book’s chances of landing in a reader’s hands.

Like many people, I was under the impression that bans tended to be good for business—after all, every bookstore in America seems to have a special display for these infamous books, including on Banned Books Week, which takes place this week. I knew from studying experimental literature that challenging, obscene, or subversive works are often the very ones that end up being canonized; as a bookseller and literary critic, I understood the power of controversy in the attention economy. But when I started digging deeper, I found the notion that bans alone drive sales to be misguided, based on data analysis and more than a dozen interviews with publishers, booksellers, authors, First Amendment watchdogs, and industry experts.

Bans increase sales only when they are accompanied by a media blitz, as confirmed in a recent NPD BookScan report. In the two weeks leading up to the Harlem County school-board meeting, Gender Queer experienced its largest volume of sales, after The New York Times profiled the book and its author, according to NPD BookScan. Just as a glowing review from the Times can boost sales, so too can an intriguing profile of the most-banned book of the year. Another recent example is Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus, which saw a 753 percent increase in sales and even sold out on Amazon after its banning by a Tennessee school board was widely reported on.

More typical, though, is what happened to the author Trung Le Nguyen. His young-adult graphic novel, The Magic Fish, was on a list compiled by a Texas state representative last year of books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” The campaign successfully removed 414 titles from a school district in Texas, including The Magic Fish. There was little recourse for Nguyen and seemingly nothing his publisher could do. He never got the media attention that accrued to Maus, so he was left with the more common realization that now fewer kids would be able to find his work. “It’s just kind of an unfortunate reality where my book’s longevity on bookshelves and exposure to audiences in publicly accessible spaces would be severely diminished,” he told me. “It feels terrible.”

The Magic Fish is an immigrant coming-out story—a combination of themes that make it a prime target in this recent wave of bans. The banning of YA books can seriously harm their sales because these books, more than adult titles, depend on circulation in schools and libraries. Without institutions like these buying the books en masse, Nguyen said, authors can have trouble securing another book deal, because “the likelihood that you’ll make back your advance is diminished quite a lot.” Nguyen also pointed out that debut authors who aren’t firmly established, as well as marginalized authors who write about their own identity, are particularly vulnerable to these consequences.

“For every challenge that hits the headlines, there’s probably five to eight challenges behind it that don’t,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Given the decline of local news over the past two decades and the fact that book sections have long been among the first to be eliminated when newspaper budgets are slashed, the percentage of unreported book challenges may worsen. Although niche outlets such as Book Riot and First Amendment advocates such as PEN America have closely tracked book bans, most titles do not make headlines, nationally or locally, and instead languish in the dark.

“Not every book is an award-winning book like Maus,” said Jeff Trexler, the interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which protects the First Amendment rights of comics creators. “There are other books where this happens—their sales don’t go up, their sales evaporate, or the author all of a sudden becomes radioactive.”

Unlike with sales spikes, quantifying how bans harm book sales is difficult—but we can gain a clearer picture by looking at how the publishing industry relies on bulk purchases by schools and libraries, exactly the slice of the market that has become a battleground for a larger culture war.

According to a 2022 report by PEN America, YA titles account for 47 percent of the books challenged, followed by picture books at 18 percent. And this educational marketplace is especially important for YA authors like Nguyen, many of whom get a significant share of their sales from wholesale deals and write for grade-school audiences who don’t typically have spending power. “When a book is endorsed by schools and libraries, that becomes a kind of livelihood that could sustain an author’s career,” said Margaret Stohl, a New York Times best-selling author whose chapter book Cats vs. Robots was recently banned by a Missouri school district for having a nonbinary character.

And schools and libraries aren't just making onetime bulk purchases. As Skip Dye, the senior vice president of library sales and digital strategy for Penguin Random House, put it, “You’re buying thousands of books a year on an ongoing basis to replace those books that have been damaged.”

Although book bans have always been political to an extent, national organizations’ current level of involvement in censorship campaigns is new. Typically, books are challenged by local community members; however, 41 percent of the bans tracked by PEN America from July 2021 to March 2022 were “tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.” In addition, reporting by The Guardian and Salon has shown connections between wealthy donors and advocacy groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, which are spearheading ban efforts in some states and providing a playbook for others.

The repercussions of these proliferating banning efforts are being felt by authors whose names we may never hear, but who are feeling the impact in a profoundly personal way. The YA author Laurie Halse Anderson told me that it was like a gut punch when her first novel, Speak, which is partially based on her own sexual assault at age 13, was challenged in 2000 shortly after being named a finalist for the National Book Award. “I was so horrified that somebody would think I would write something that would be harmful for kids,” she said.

The pain of being banned often cuts deeper than worries about dips in sales or lost future book deals. As Margaret Stohl told me, it can feel like having your entire worldview rejected. The nonbinary character in her book was inspired by her own child, and in her eyes, the censorship amounted to a sort of erasure: “They were not banning a book—they were banning an identity.”