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A few myths about banned books

This image was borrowed from Melville House, where it illustrates an article referenced later in this blog post.

This image was borrowed from Melville House, where it illustrates an article referenced later in this blog post.

I just listened to an episode of the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast from from September 13 of last year entitled, “How Book Banning Works.” The podcast was inspired by Banned Books Week, and it talks quite a bit about court cases and censorship in the United States.

Unfortunately, they didn’t do their research on the fundamentals very well, and the podcast reinforces some misconceptions about what book banning really is. I’m not implying it was a bad podcast — there was a lot of good information — but they really didn’t grasp what a book banning really is and who does them. Definitions, of course, can be troublesome. There is some disagreement on what “censorship” really means, for example — or even what book banning means.

Every time I write a blog post like this one (see, for example, my tiff with Chris Kilham at Fox News over in my Tea With Gary blog), I think of Randall Munroe’s oft-referenced XKCD cartoon, “Duty Calls.” I don’t want to be that guy, but I do speak to schools about the subject of book banning and censorship, and I want to make sure that the information floating around out there is correct.

"Duty Calls" from XKCD. The mouseover text on the original cartoon reads, "What do you want me to do?  LEAVE?  Then they'll keep being wrong!"

“Duty Calls” from XKCD. The mouseover text on the original cartoon reads, “What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they’ll keep being wrong!”

Libraries are not the only place books can be banned.

In the podcast, they say that you “challenge” a book by going to a librarian and saying you don’t want the book on the shelves. If the librarian agrees to pull it, the book has been banned. This is technically correct, but it’s a massive oversimplification. The process doesn’t have to involve a librarian at all. As an example, if you went to your child’s English teacher and said, “I don’t want my child to read this book you assigned,” that’s a challenge. For that matter, you could go to your city council and demand that a certain book not be allowed in stores in that town. That’s also a challenge, and neither of those involve a library.

It’s usually not about the First Amendment.

The podcast also talked about libraries refusing to ban a book for First Amendment reasons. In most book ban/challenge situation, the First Amendment doesn’t even apply. Let’s take a look at the full and complete text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Notice the first five words? “Congress shall make no law.” The word “Congress” refers to the United States Congress. It doesn’t say that your local school board or city council or library board cannot abridge your freedom of speech. It refers only to laws passed by the U.S. Government.

The librarian (or the Supreme Court) makes the decisions.

Most schools and libraries have a policy in place for book challenges. Our local high school is typical. If a parent tells the school librarian that a book should be pulled, the librarian gives the parent a form to fill out. I love this particular form because it has a checkbox above the signature labeled, “I have read this book,” and a disclaimer that if you haven’t read the book, they aren’t interested in your opinions on it. Once the form is filled out, the librarian decides whether to pull the book.

If the librarian chooses to refuse the challenge, the parent can either live with it or appeal to the school principal. If the principal agrees with the librarian, the parent has the option to appeal to the school board. In a public library, the chain of command might go to the library board and then the county commissioners or the city council. Either way, it does not go directly from the librarian to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Removing a book from a library is not censorship.

The podcast used the word “censorship” quite a few times. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

(Listen on YouTube. It never gets old). Librarians make decisions about books constantly. Tens of thousands of new books are printed every month, and a typical library is lucky to have the budget to buy one or two percent of them. The librarians must decide whether books are appropriate for their particular library. Choosing not to include a book isn’t censorship, it’s their job.

That said, forcing a library to remove a book is a different thing. If a group of citizens descended upon the local library demanding that they pull my children’s books for having the word “poop” in the title, the librarian (or library board, or city council, or whomever) may just decide to go along. That, while it does qualify as a localized book banning, still isn’t censorship. People still have the option to buy those books at a local bookstore, or to read them in some other library, or to borrow them from a friend. There are still hundreds of thousands of copies floating around the country. The government has not prevented my work from being published or disseminated.

I pulled the main illustration for this blog post from an article on the Melville House website. That article decries the “censorship” in the book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, published by Yale University Press. The book talks about the protests spurred by cartoons containing images of the prophet Muhammad, and Yale Press chose not to include the cartoons themselves in the book. They had their reasons for omitting the cartoons, but I don’t see it as censorship. Let me draw a parallel.

Closed Captioning Handbook

No, I wouldn’t call that censorship.

When I wrote The Closed Captioning Handbook for Focal Press, the book went through a fairly comprehensive peer review process. One of those reviewers declared that he didn’t want a copy of the book in his office because it included a chapter with details on U.S. Patents relating to closed captioning. Owning a copy of the book, he felt, could create a situation where he was liable for treble damages if he inadvertently violated one of those patents, as he couldn’t claim lack of knowledge of the patent. My editor told me to remove the chapter. I wasn’t happy, as I had put a lot of work into those patent summaries. The publisher, however, is the one that writes my checks. I capitulated and removed the chapter. Censorship? Certainly not. That was good business, as removing that information increased book sales. The same is true for The Cartoons That Shook the World.

If a teacher chooses to pull a book from his classroom rather than fight with the parents of his students, his students can still pick up a copy of that book somewhere else and read it. The author may not like it (we love having our books in classrooms), but it isn’t censorship.

Oh, boy! My book is a textbook! That’s good news, right?

Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote about this in 2011, I talked about rights reversion and what that means in an age of ebooks. Today, I’m having more of an issue with the whole way textbooks work. With two kids in college, I’m seeing my share of textbooks selling for hundreds of dollars, but the price increase on my own book was still a shock a few years back when it was picked up as a college text.

My editor was adamant when I was writing the book in 2003: keep it under 400 pages or the price of paper will make the book just too expensive. Their target price was $49.95. The final page count was 404 (snicker), and it did indeed release (in paperback) at that price. I still don’t buy the paper cost argument. My bookstore sells plenty of paperback books with far more than 400 pages for far less than $50.00, but the world of low-volume, highly specialized books is different. I get that.

Prices go up over time, so I wasn’t surprised to see the price go up to $54.95 a couple of years later. But when three colleges adopted The Closed Captioning Handbook as a textbook, I didn’t expect the immediate jump to $71.95. Now, it’s up to $74.95, and it has the dreaded word “NET” in the Ingram distribution database.

Net? What’s net?

In the retail book trade, there are a lot of publishers to deal with, and keeping track of everything would be an insurmountable task for small bookstores. That’s why we have big distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Stores like mine buy the majority of our books from a couple of sources because it’s easy and it consolidates shipping and billing.

Discounts are pretty standard in the book trade. For the most part, retailers get the same discount on every book at the big distributors. Sometimes, though, books are “short-discounted.” Publishers may not offer the standard discount to the distributor, or may have very high minimum purchase quantities. It’s common for print-on-demand books to be offered at only half the normal discount to stores, which is why many bookstores refuse to stock them.

But every now and then, that discount field in the database displays as “NET.” That means that the bookseller pays full list price for the book. If you go into a bookstore and order a copy of The Closed Captioning Handbook, that $74.95 isn’t what you pay, it’s what they pay. This isn’t going to be true for bookstores (especially campus bookstores) that order directly from the publisher, but few stores deal directly with technical and specialty publishers like Focal Press. Also, there are many textbook publishers that simply don’t want to deal with what’s called a “general bookstore.” They only offer trade terms to college bookstores.

Obviously, this is a big turnoff to readers. Stores can’t stay in business without a profit, but nobody wants to pay higher than retail. So what’s an author to do? We can beg readers to buy directly from us. We can find out what stores or websites stock our books at a reasonable price (as much as I hate sending people to Amazon, they do have my book available at a discount right now) and send people to them. We can beg our publishers to offer standard discounting to distributors.

And we can ask our readers: if you’re quoted a really high price on one of our books, please don’t give up on us. Take a few moments to check another source or two. We don’t have the luxury of setting our own prices or terms. Thank you!

11 MORE book signing tips for authors

11 More signing tips for authors

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot about book signings lately, most likely because my mini-book tour has made me think about events more. While on the road, I’ve been jotting down more ideas that aren’t in my 14 book signing tips for authors, and I’ve already done one blog post from the road about making a classic mistake at an event.

Rather than go back and add a bunch of material to the old post, I decided to do another tip post, and add some material I’ve gleaned from some other good blogs. Sandra Beckwith, for example, wrote a great set of book signing tips on the “Selling Books” blog (I love the post title, “Read this if you’re not Sarah Palin“).

  1. Hand people your book. This is an old bookseller’s technique. If people are holding a copy of the book in their hands, they are much more likely to buy it.
  2. Develop a “look.” You want to be memorable. This doesn’t mean you should wear something silly, but you need to look unique. If you wrote a cookbook, wear an apron. If you wrote a children’s book, make a T-shirt with the book’s logo. Make your own nametag. If you write mysteries set in Hawaii, wear an Aloha shirt. Don’t look like every other author out there.

    The t-shirt looks like the book cover.

  3. Don’t just sign; personalize. When I’m signing the store’s stock after the event (tip #14 from my previous list), I just write my name. But when I’m signing a book for someone, I write their name and some appropriate saying. Who Pooped signatureWith my Who Pooped in the Park? books, for example, I usually write “Watch where you step.”
    Do remember, however, that once you develop a characteristic autograph, people will come to expect it. I remember talking to Tippi Hedren (the actress from The Birds) at one of her book signings. She drew three little birds above her name, and told me that people actually complained if their book had no birds, or had only two of them.
  4. Bring a pen that dries quickly. Especially if your book is printed on glossy paper, you don’t want to close the cover and have the signature smear or transfer to the previous page. If the paper is thinner, make sure your pen doesn’t bleed through.
  5. Don’t limit yourself to only bookstores. I’m a huge advocate of bookstores (after all, I own one), but sometimes gift shops, fairs, and other venues can actually work better. My two best signings (in terms of books sold) were at a trade association’s annual conference, and in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone Park.
  6. Use props. I’ve had cookbook authors at my store bring along cookies or other treats. When signing Who Pooped in the Park? books, I often bring along sample of animal scat cast in Lucite blocks. Anything you have that grabs attention is good.
  7. Make your own sign. Some stores provide really nice signs, but that’s rare. If you can’t talk your publisher into making one, then do it yourself. If you don’t have strong graphic design skills, get a designer to help you. Most stores will have some kind of easel or stand, but you might want to carry your own fold-up easel if you can.

    Sign for book events

    The sign makes it pretty obvious what’s going on at my table.

  8. Bring giveaways and promote them. I still have a couple of boxes of my first book, which is old, out-of-print, and not so useful (a 15-year-old Internet book). I took five of them along to a Closed Captioning Handbook book signing at a trade show. I sent a Tweet with the event’s Twitter hash tag that said, “the first person to mention this Tweet to me gets a free book.” I did the same thing on Facebook. It was interesting to see how many professional people were sitting in business meetings and educational sessions checking their Twitter feeds!
    You can also use drawings as a way to collect names. Have people drop their names or business cards in a fishbowl or basket, and then draw one every hour and give away something.
  9. Make sure your business cards have the book title on them. I actually have different cards depending on whether the event focuses on my technical books or my children’s books. The cards have the book cover right on them.
    Also make sure you get an easy-to-remember username on Facebook and Twitter (e.g., “” or ““), and print that on the cards.
  10. Take a camera. If you have a friend or family member along, have them take pictures. If not, ask someone at the store to do it for you. Then use the pictures on your blog, Facebook page, website, and newsletter. If someone else takes a good picture of you, give them a card and ask them to email it to you or post it on one of your social networking sites.
  11. NEVER complain or blame the store if you don’t have good sales. Smile about it. Make a joke. Tell them you’ve done worse. Offer to try again sometime. But nobody likes a complainer. If you gripe about it, you’re not likely to get invited back.


book signing book banner

Book signing in Las Vegas on July 29

Closed Captioning HandbookI will be signing copies of The Closed Captioning Handbook at the National Court Reporters Association convention in Las Vegas later this month. If you will be in the area, but aren’t attending the convention, get in touch with me and I’ll make sure you can still get a signed copy of the book.

I will bring copies of some of my Who Pooped in the Park? books as well, for those who won’t be able to attend my Who Pooped? signing the following day in the visitors center at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Just for fun, I’m also going to bring along a few copies of The Court Reporter’s Guide to Cyberspace, which I wrote with Richard A. Sherman way back in 1996. Most of the information in it is out-of-date, but it is a fun and entertaining romp through the history of … well … court reporters in cyberspace. We’ll have some contests or drawings and give those away.

Who Pooped? Red Rock Canyon   Court Reporters Guide to Cyberspace

When: Friday, July 29 from 1:00 to 4:00pm
Where: Near the NCRA Store booth

Book contracts, textbooks, and going out-of-print

Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote The Closed Captioning Handbook, I had no agent, so I negotiated the contract myself. It looked pretty straightforward, and it looked like I was covered in the event of the book going out of print; rights would simply revert to me. I was wrong.

The Closed Captioning Handbook was not intended to be a college textbook, but it became one. When several schools were using it as a required text in closed captioning courses, my publisher (Focal Press, then an imprint of Elsevier and now owned by Routledge) raised the price of the 400-page book to $71.95. It seemed like a high price to me, but with a son in college, I’ve seen much worse textbook prices.

Then, last November, I got an email from a college asking if they could buy books directly from me. I contacted the publisher, and was told the same thing the school had been told: The Closed Captioning Handbook is out of print.

I immediately began planning. I would do some updates (the book was written in 2004), reformat the book for print-on-demand (POD), and release it for a lower price. At the same time, I’d put out ebook versions that were even more affordable for poor college students without affecting my royalty income. Alas, this was not to be.

The college had been told: “Our inventory department has been unable to locate stock. It’s an ‘out of stock’ book that we no longer carry.” (I have a copy of this email). When I talked to Focal Press, however, I was told that the book would probably be reissued as POD. This bypasses the rights reversion and leaves control in the hands of the publisher. In the meantime, a semester came and went and students had no textbooks.

I told the college several times that I thought I’d have rights back imminently, but was unable to come through for them. In the past, I’ve said I didn’t need an agent. I’ve written 23 books without using one (20 of those through traditional publishers), and the contract problems are beginning to appear. Would it have been worth giving up 15% of my income on this book to have an agent? Seven years ago, I said no. Today, I think my answer would be different.

[Update 12 July 2011: It appears that the book is back in print, and I’ll be doing a book signing later this month.]

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