Can banning be the best advertisement?

I spent some time this weekend considering banned books, the banning of books, the burning of books, and censorship generally. Good times.

I wondered to what extent banning requests were being exploited as another political or ideological tool. To find out, I headed to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (online, of course), which tracks and publishes challenges and ban requests. I needn’t have spent so much time there, though. Later in the day, the New York Times published an article answering my questions. There is a range of efforts, campaigns to shape the shelves of U.S. libraries. They include efforts to criminalize the stocking of the shelves by librarians and others who choose works that go against conservative preferences.

A rapidly increasing body of efforts take aim at public school libraries on a platform of exercising parental rights over what children can or must read. In 2020, half of the challenges to public libraries generally were brought by parents. ALA’s OIF provides details as to the basis for some of the challenges of years past. After scrolling through a list of challenges to the top 100 American Novels, I wondered if I could support some of the requests that centered around age appropriateness in cases of required reading. I personally read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my late twenties, and it was rough content. It was an amazing book, but I could see that I might want to be sure my child was ready before requiring that. It’s certainly a balancing act.

It seems, though, that the balancing act is going to get harder instead of easier. Thanks to publicity around book banning efforts, newly banned books are flying off shelves faster than hotcakes off a diner griddle on Sunday. The New York Post reported that after a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winner Maus last week, the 30-year old graphic novel series soared to the top of Amazon’s charts, breaking through the Best-selling Graphic Novels category into the Overall Best-Selling category. The book is not only back ordered due to demand, but an online fundraiser to purchase the books free for students generated over $80,000.

One of the most important books in my life was a frequent flier on the banned and challenged lists. By the time I read Go Ask Alice, it had already been banned by some middle schools and high schools. The 1971 book was purportedly the diary of a teenager who fell into drug addiction. It was raw and graphic. It endured years of challenges, appearing among the top 10 most challenged books in 2003. I read the book in 6th grade, at 11 years of age. What it did for me was to strip every bit of glamour off drug use.

By the time I finished that book, I understood drugs to be a bad trade – a trade where I would give up myself and my self control to awful people in exchange for fleeting experiences. That book single-handedly helped shape my perspective and life choices for the better. As a former two-and-a-half-pack-a-day smoker, I can tell you that I likely wouldn’t have been a dabbler in the drug world had I chosen to enter it. It probably saved my life. That’s the power of a book.

Those who try to ban books may meet with initial success. Still, they may just be advertising for the very books they hope to restrict. In the end, I believe they sow seeds that will become forbidden fruits of which many will take note and interest, and ultimately ingest. I say, “Let the feast begin!”

Is there anyone who hasn’t written a book (besides me)?

I feel like I can’t shake a stick and not hit someone who has just published a book. It begs the question, “Is there anyone out there – besides me – who hasn’t published a book?” And the obvious followup question arises: “Was it worth it?” And then the next: “Should I do it?”

When I began writing my blog, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. As I continued to write post after post, I found some posts focused on the audience, and others were more about personal expression. Balancing the content so that there is enough of both allows me to continue to connect with an audience and express myself.

That’s not the case with a book. A book is all about the people who will read it. They will spend a healthy amount of time with it, so it shouldn’t disappoint. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogging Survey, now in its 8th year, shows average blog post length to be rising year over year. Still, the per post length for 2021 is estimated to be just over 1,400 words. Blog readers may give five minutes to a post. Masterclass estimates an average book is around 90,000 words depending on genre, or six hours if you did nothing but read cover to cover without a break.

Books also present the need to engage readers’ interests through or between disruptions, to inspire them to return often enough to read through to the end. While a blog post is short enough that it may not fight for attention once a reader begins, reader distraction for longer pieces is real. It’s been attributed to an increasing loss of “reading habit” prevalent in those raised in the digital age, the prevalence of multitasking, and even a fear of missing out. Universities and their faculty are exploring ways to support “engaged and active reading” and to promote a “reading culture” to offset the trend, which has a significant impact on learning.

One thing that many people who feel they have lost the ability to concentrate mention is that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have got so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with.

“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world”, Harriet Griffey, The Guardian, October 14, 2018.

With all of the challenges presented by longer pieces, it’s ironic that more new authors than ever appear to be emerging. It’s very difficult to get any reliable statistics on newly published first time authors, but the growth of indie publishing platforms in recent years seems to indicate a growth in authorship. Statista research into 12 independent publishers indicates a median growth rate of about 77% for indie publishers from 2018 to 2020, with some doubling and tripling their sales growth during that period. The pandemic and access to self-publishing platforms is thought to have increased indie-publishing in 2021, as well.

The answer to the question “Should I do it?” is simple for me: If I have something of value to share, then I should. But whether the road to writing and publishing the average book is worth it or not is something into which I have no personal insight. Written Word Media’s 2021 survey of indie published authors found that the median number of books per author was 10. At some point you would think that if it wasn’t worth it, authors would simply lose interest or momentum before reaching those numbers.

In terms of worth or return, it doesn’t appear to be about the money. Most authors don’t make a living on book publishing alone. And the road can be extremely long. Take Nancy McCabe, whose 2020 book Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir was 30 years in the making. So what is it that sustains authors on the long journey from blank page to publication? Was it worth it, and why or why not?

If you’ve written a book, I’d love it if you’d share in the comments below whether you feel it was worth it, and why. It’s the story that statistics alone can’t tell.