Yes, Indeed, That’s Censorship Making the Scene

July 22nd, 2004 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

Yesterday, we talked about censorship. There was some disagreement about whether what happened to Whoopi Goldberg and Linda Ronstadt constituted true censorship, and while we understood the arguments being made, we also felt that an underlying message was being sent. Censorship doesn’t have to be a pile of books serving as a bonfire; sometimes a subtle message is far more effective:

To watch the dictators and political operatives and religious zealots go at it, censorship might seem like a tough business. The so-called experts create the impression you have to burn books, pass censorial laws, or openly express a ruthless disdain for humankind’s impulse to express itself to succeed at the information-suppression game.

What Matt Smith of the SF Weekly is talking about is a recent decision by John Wiley & Sons to rescind a contract offer made by its Jossey-Bass imprint because the book in question was critical of Wal-Mart (the editor who wanted to acquire the book resigned from the company in protest). On the surface, it’s just a business decision. But as we noted yesterday and above, there is a subtle message here. Actually, not so subtle. Let’s just call it a message.

(A bit of perspective on the article. Publisher’s Lunch opened with this comment:

The SF Weekly has an incendiary piece that reads more like an indictment
than a piece of journalism about the publication path of Greg LeRoy’s THE GREAT AMERICAN JOB SCAM, which includes a chapter that’s highly critical of Wal-Mart.

and we do agree somewhat; it is our belief that all things should be considered from multiple perspectives.)

It has been long known that Wal-Mart exercises considerable influence over the publishing industry (and other industries as well). Other retailers have refused to carry certain products due to so-called objectionable content, but Wal-Mart’s influence is such that they might as well they have a seat on each publisher’s executive committee. Actual business decisions are made based on what has to be done to get a book into Wal-Mart, and with good reason:

Wal-Mart has managed during recent years to leverage its sales might and gain renown as an American cultural arbiter, simply by choosing which magazines and music it will sell. This gatekeeping has narrowed the mainstream for entertainment and made it more politically conservative. The company sells more music than any other firm, is a huge magazine seller, and is moving toward first place in book sales…

We know of authors who have been forced to change really good titles to okay titles because the original title was deemed offensive to Wal-Mart. We know that certain books are not carried by the retailer because the content is considered inappropriate (we also know many Wal-Mart shoppers who buy these books elsewhere because they are, apparently, less sensitive than the retailing giant believes). We know that having your book in Wal-Mart significantly increases sales. So when publishers make decisions to appease a single (though massive) customer, that’s censorship.

(We’ve inluded two links below to stories about a publisher and author who declined the offer made by Anderson Merchandising, the distributor who services Wal-Mart, to change “inappropriate” subject matter. In this case, it was felt that a story about hijacking was not acceptable post 9/11. Interestingly, the author is a pilot for a major airline and she lost friends who were flying the planes used in the attacks.)

Wal-Mart doesn’t carry a broad list of books. Bestsellers, genre stuff, not a lot of literary fiction from what we’ve seen. So many authors are thinking, “I’m safe. This doesn’t apply to me.” We are fortunate to live in a large urban area with much shopping diversity, including a grand mix of chain and independent bookstores. Others are not so fortunate. If you read industry publications like Publisher’s Lunch or Publisher’s Weekly, you know that bookstores go out of business with alarming frequency.

One factor in this is Wal-Mart. Given its dominance and ability to keep prices very low (if you’re interested, The Los Angeles Times did a great series on this topic several months ago — we’ve included a link below, and while it appears the articles are freely available, be warned that you might have to pay for the stories or trust us that they were excellent), smaller businesses can’t compete. Once your local bookstore (or K-Mart or other) closes, Wal-Mart becomes the only game in town. This limits your exposure to a wide range of thoughts — you get the Wal-Mart mindset.

(Yes, we are fully aware of the Internet and Amazon, etc. — not everyone is online, and not everyone who is online is comfortable shopping that way)

Authors have control over this process, true, and, in this case, there was a happy ending for the author (and the editor, as both ended up at the same new publisher):

Not long ago [Steven] Piersanti [of Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.] heard from a friend who’s still an editor at Jossey-Bass, telling him about the availability of The Great American Job Scam. “He had the material sent to me. This is right down our line. This is the sort of thing we love to publish. We immediately got interested in it. I talked to the author, recommended it to our editorial committee,” Piersanti says.

There will always be publishers out there willing to take risks, damn the torpedoes and all that. Most authors don’t get rich from their work, but they do have a desire to be read broadly. If not, why publish? Sometimes this means compromising vision for commerciality. It is an artistic choice — something artists have done since food and shelter started requiring cash outlays. But we keep returning to our original thought: kowtowing to Wal-Mart’s vision of what is acceptable in published materials amounts to censorship.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

2 responses so far ↓

  • Matt Smith // Aug 9, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    Wonderful commentary on my commentary. I’m flattered.



  • Keith // Dec 3, 2004 at 11:30 am

    Yet another piece confusing private action with public action. The difference is that, in the latter case, obedience is compelled by force. It is not “censorship” when a private buyer chooses–for whatever reason–to not sell a particular book.

    If you like reductio-ad-absurdum, try this chain. It’s ok for Wal-Mart to choose not to sell a book for some reasons, but not for others? Does this mandate a government anti-censor to participate in all Wal-Mart board meetings to determine if the reason for a book’s refusal is politically correct or incorrect? Does it force Wal-Mart to carry all currently-published books, rather than a subset, because this way they are not “censoring”?

    If the government censors a book, it means that no one may sell a particular book. If Wal-Mart refuses to carry a book, it means the publisher is always free to seek other channels. If your argument is simply that Wal-Mart is the single largest channel, well, then does that transfer ownership of Wal-Mart to the public domain simply because of the size or value of the channel that they have built?