How Banning Books Can Actually Increase Their Sales

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As book bans and challenges mount across the country, the extra media coverage — especially during Banned Book Week — is giving some authors a boost in sales, even as their works are removed from some shelves.

According to the nonprofit organization PEN America, a record number of books have been banned from schools and libraries, with a total of 2,532 cases of individual books banned nationwide between June 2021 and June 2022.

While some work to restrict access to certain titles, their bans and challenges can have the opposite effect: drawing national attention to these books and in turn increasing the number of Americans buying them.

For example, last year’s most challenged book — “Gender Queer” by Maia Kolbabe — saw a 130 percent increase in U.S. print sales in May, according to a report by NPD BookScan. The publication tracker noted that 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 beyond the gender binary.

Notably, Republicans in North and South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have called the book “pornographic” and “probably illegal.”

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Art Spiegelman’s “Maus I” and “Maus II” books saw a similar surge in sales and coverage after a Tennessee school board banned them in January. NPD found that sales jumped 50 percent within 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 of his book “Antiracist Baby” increase 5,000 percent in March after Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) criticized it during the Supreme Court hearing before Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Sometimes even the publishing house itself can pull a book, increase demand. After Dr. Suess Enterprises announced in March 2021 that it would no longer publish six of its books due to “hurtful and wrong” depictions, selling more than 10 million more youthful fiction titles that month than the previous month.

According to NPD, “the news had a significant effect on sales volume for Dr. Seuss titles, as consumers reacted to a perceived ‘cancel’ from Dr. Seuss in general.”

dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing certain books, such as “Mulberry Street,” which portrayed a racial stereotype of an Asian man with slanting lines covering the eyes.

An increase in sales tended to correlate with the books making the most headlines, NPD found. Sales data for a longer list of banned titles, in addition to those that featured prominently in the headlines, were more of a mixed bag.

“Within this sample, only half showed a sales increase, suggesting that it’s the news cycle driving sales rather than broader consumer outcry,” said Kristen McLean, book industry analyst for NPD.

McLean explained that the immediacy of a news story about a banned book prompts consumers to react and it is likely that many consumers are unaware of other widely banned books.

The American Library Association estimates that between 82 and 97 percent of requests to remove books from libraries or schools go unreported and receive no media coverage.

Banned Book Week, now running through September 24, also hopes to raise awareness of banned books and the impact of book censorship and intellectual freedom. The Week of Honor was established in 1982 as a direct response to an increase in book challenges in schools, bookstores and libraries.

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