ABA at BookExpo: “ABFE Presents: Selling Controversial Books — A Conversation”

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The ABA education session “ABFE Presents: Selling Controversial Books — A Conversation,” held on June 2 at BookExpo 2017, featured three booksellers discussing the ways they have dealt with difficult decisions regarding controversial books or authors.

The program, which was sponsored by American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), looked at how, over the years, controversial titles such as American Psycho, The Satanic Verses, and the Harry Potter series have been targets of opposition, with independent bookstores often becoming ground zero for boycotts and protests. The latest example of such a title is Dangerous, a book by rightwing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos that Simon & Schuster planned to publish this summer. The book contract was cancelled following a protest by critics who accused Yiannopoulos of being a purveyor of hate speech.

At their individual stores, booksellers are often forced to ask themselves what they should do when a customer complains about a title or how to handle an inventory selection that they find personally offensive: do they display it, stock it but not display it, special order it, or refuse to sell it altogether?

The three panelists who sought to answer these questions were Lissa Muscatine, who co-owns Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Bradley Graham; Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, with locations throughout South Florida; and Vanessa Martini, associate buyer for City Lights Books in San Francisco. The session was moderated by ABFE Director Chris Finan.

“Booksellers, when faced with questions about the sale of works that provoke protest, respond in different ways,” Finan said. “Obviously, the First Amendment does not require you to sell any particular book; on the contrary, the First Amendment protects your right to sell any book you want, and to not sell any book that you don’t want. So the approaches that booksellers take differ.”

According to Kaplan, if he invites an author into the store for an event, whether they are from the political right or the left, he makes sure that they get the respect they deserve. No matter the person, Kaplan said he will do what he can to rein in or prevent any incivility or intolerant behavior that arises. Kaplan advised booksellers to keep the situation calm; overreacting could make the issue bigger than it needs to be.

“If you have had that conversation with your customer base for so many years, that they should respect your right to present and sell whatever it is you want to sell and present, your customers will support you and it won’t become such a big deal,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan recently encountered resistance to an appearance by Jose Baez, the lawyer for Casey Anthony, whose trial acquitting her of killing her two-year-old daughter garnered international headlines. Baez had moved to Miami and was scheduled to promote his new book at the store.

“We were inundated with e-mails and phone calls [with comments] that we were baby killers and we’re this and we’re that, and it was really a little concerning — a lot concerning,” said Kaplan. “So I started doing a little research into who, in fact, was making all the hubbub about it.”

He used another Facebook account to follow the people who were posting on the store’s page and tried to track them to see who they were. According to Kaplan, it soon became clear that most of these people were just trolling Baez wherever he went; in fact, the majority of the people threatening to protest at the store weren’t even from Miami. In the end, Books & Books went ahead with the event and no protest occurred.

San Francisco’s City Lights Books, according to Martini, is widely known to be a very left-leaning and radical store, so much of its customer base knows what to expect when they come in. But there are still people who are even farther left who object to City Lights, using insults like “hack liberals” or “capitalist pigs,” said Martini.

That can be difficult to deal with, but you have to remain calm and explain, Martini said. “[Our shelves may not] necessarily reflect exactly what you want to see. What is on our shelves is there for you to consider from your own viewpoint in the context of what you are shopping or browsing for,” said Martini. “We’re here to provide a community space for radical expression and progress, but we’re also here to expand what that might mean to you personally; it is our job to provide a place for that to happen.”

Martini recommended that booksellers in management positions be able to identify who on staff might be the best at dealing with customers who get upset, and to make sure that there is someone on staff at all times who has those de-escalating skills.

It’s a way, she said, “to keep people on the floor who might have a fight-or-flight reaction or freeze reaction, and be able to identify people who are better able to control and get somebody out of the store who shouldn’t be there.”

When it comes to deciding whether to carry a particular book, all three booksellers on the panel agreed that they personally would not sell a book that only served as a purveyor of hate and did not contain any valuable ideas. For Martini, each decision of this nature is a book-by-book and bookseller-by-bookseller decision; no one can make a blanket statement about what kinds of books fall under that category. Agreeing, Muscatine said that every bookseller must gauge and then uphold their own line between what they will and will not sell.

One of the earliest such incidents at Politics and Prose concerned two authors who visited the store on the anniversary of September 11: a prominent Middle East scholar who had at one point been on a terrorist watch list, followed the night after by a member of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party who had pro-settlement beliefs.

“We were creamed by both sides,” said Muscatine. “We had these two opposing views back to back and we just never heard the end of it.” In both cases, the authors were legitimate people to host, said Muscatine, but the store’s poor logistical planning was to their detriment.

Muscatine said she is always astonished to encounter the belief some people have that every bookstore, like Politics and Prose, which is in a liberal area, should be an echo chamber for their own point of view.

“Since Brad and I acquired the store six years ago, we have worked really, really hard to encourage more conservative authors to come and speak,” said Muscatine. “Sometimes it is a hard sell because of the reputation of the store, but we do think it is very important not to just preach to the choir. In fact, arguments on the left or progressive arguments would be fortified by understanding the opposing arguments; we’re not going to do a whole lot of good just speaking to each other.”

The idea that independent bookstores have the responsibility in today’s political realm to present as many points of view as possible in a thoughtful and respectful way was brought home last year right before and after the election, as Politics and Prose staff were being threatened with violence and hate speech triggered by Pizzagate, a right-wing conspiracy theory that claimed a nearby pizza restaurant was home to a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. After the election, the store launched a series of teach-ins to reassert the principles of the store to promote civil discourse and the free exercise of First Amendment rights.

“I don’t think we’ve ever felt the mission as an independent bookstore stronger than it is now,” said Muscatine. “We can serve as an antidote to the incredible polarization and the attempts to silence and to dismiss expertise, to dismiss discussion and good, rigorous debate, which is what we need.”

During the question-and-answer period that followed the panel discussion, Christin Evans, the lead partner managing The Booksmith in San Francisco, discussed her store’s decision to launch a boycott last winter after Simon & Schuster’s conservative imprint, Threshold Editions, announced its $250,000 book deal for Yiannopoulos’ Dangerous.

After a lengthy and, Evans said, “empowering” conversation about the news among the staff, The Booksmith decided that going forward, they would not carry or special order any copies of the forthcoming memoir or anything from the Simon & Schuster imprint publishing it; cut orders with Simon & Schuster by 50 percent effective immediately; and donate all profit from Simon & Schuster titles to the ACLU.

“We had the most amazingly supportive response to the boycott,” she said.

Martini said that since City Lights doesn’t carry Threshold Editions anyway, the store chose instead to refocus its buying on voices from S&S that they wanted to carry, including the publisher’s imprints specifically dedicated to Muslim voices and voices of color.

Kaplan acknowledged the right of a bookstore to engage in a boycott against a publisher, but indicated he wouldn’t go so far as to do so personally. “The only pushback I would give is that over the years I’ve seen the big publishers take some incredibly heroic stances [on certain books],” he said.

For her part, Muscatine agreed with Kaplan, that there is no objective line between what is offensive or dangerous speech and what is not, and that attempting to suppress speech one deems offensive can be a “slippery slope.”