Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Recently I read an article in Publishers Weekly about a panel held at BookExpo that discussed how a bookstore, especially an independent store, should respond to books that might offend their political or moral principles.
This issue certainly isn’t new, but it is one that Christian bookstores find themselves making decisions about regularly. The more you think about it, the more multi-faceted the question becomes.
What Customers Expect
Some customers don’t expect a Christian bookstore to make stock selections as a sort of spiritual gatekeeper. Other customers return books that offended them. Sometimes because the language went beyond the customer’s boundaries. Other times because a sexual scene might have been too explicit for a customer. Then there is the customer who found a book veered outside of his interpretation of the Bible.
In each of these instances, the publisher is likely to hear from an upset store owner, who expresses that the trust between the publisher and the bookstore has been violated.
What Owners Believe
Depending on the owner’s set of spiritual tenets and sense of mission, decisions of what to carry can often be made based on what he or she thinks others should read. Many Christian stores were founded because the owners wanted to have a ministry through books to their communities. And they take that role very seriously. That includes narrowing what’s in stock to what the owner is comfortable “endorsing.”
What Does This Mean on a Practical Level?
In the PW article, one store found its first point of controversy came when a customer was upset the store didn’t sell Bibles. The owner of this general market store didn’t view the Bible as an essential book. But once the lack of it was pointed out, he did stock it.
Another store owner on the panel mentioned that none of Bill O’Reilly’s titles would be found on their shelves; nor would the store order a requested book of his. The article implied his conservative political views were the reason. But another bookstore, including a Christian store, might not carry his books because of the multiple sexual harrassment allegations against him.
The Lifeway chain of Christian stores pulled Jen Hatmaker’s best-selling books off their shelves when the author publicly made statements in support of same-sex marriages. You can read more about the decision here.
Where to Draw the Line
I’ve noted that more Christian bookstores are carrying novels published by general market publishers in an effort to entice additional customers with a broader range of titles. Owners have assured customers that the novels reflect a morally conservative lifestyle. But that brings us back to what customers expect of their Christian bookstore.
In the PW article, some on the panel indicated they based their ordering decisions on the community they served. If they’re located in a left-leaning area, a bio about Trump, for example, might not be a welcome addition to the shelves. Is that censorship, or is that smart ordering? Do bookstores have a first amendment right to apply their own life view to book ordering?
What criteria do you think a bookstore should use in deciding what books to carry? What role do you expect a bookstore to take in overseeing what you do or don’t read?
Should bookstores censor what you read? Click to tweet.
What role do bookstores have in what you read–or don’t? Click to tweet.
I personally think that any privately owned business has the right to choose what they will/won’t carry. Personal freedom and the free market cannot thrive without…freedom.
That said, I don’t know why a bookstore would label itself as a Christian bookstore if the titles stocked were blatantly contrary to a general Christian worldview or to the owner’s vision for their company. If there is no censorship, then they might as well be a secular bookstore (Not that there is anything wrong with secular bookstores. Has anyone been to Barnes and Nobles recently?). But I think most customers would expect to have a discretionary safety net from any store that proclaims itself to be Christian. From a business standpoint, that’s a big part of your brand and it would be foolish to alienate customers by failing to meet expectations in this area.
I agree, Angela. There are plenty of one-size-fits-all brands, unique niches make life interesting. But I would expect the private businesses to somehow convey their unique visions: via advertising, words spoken by the sales staff, signs in the store. It shouldn’t be a mystery to the buyer. Nothing sends me out of a store faster than the sense that there’s a hidden agenda at work.
Interesting question, Janet, and not one which affords an easy answer.
* It seems to me that censorship can be broadly divided into three parts:
1) That censorship which is aimed at preserving and protecting a society’s core values, and is thereby subject to legislative and judicial definition; the prohibition of child pornography is a good example, as is the proscription against incitement to riot. It’s the protection of public morality against influences which would rot a society from within. The story of Sodom is not mere history; it’s a cautionary tale.
2) Community censorship, which is aimed at providing a ‘comfortable’ environment for a discrete social group. This is where the Christian bookstore’s choice of what to stock fits in.
3) Social engineering, which is censorship with an agenda. Often seen in schools, this aims to build political and social consensus through carefully parsed history and sociology. Examples include Japanese textbooks that gloss over that country’s brutally expansionist role before and during the Second World War, and American textbooks which seek to foster ecumenical harmony by ignoring the bad bits of Islam, like the subjugation of women (not to mention Islam’s radical branch).
* The protection of public morality, which seems to have largely fallen by the wayside, is in fact still on the books, and possession or production of obscene material is a federal offense (witness child pornography). The big problem has been in definition. Justice Potter Stewart of The Supremes chose not to describe obscenity, but said, “I know it when I see it” in Jacobellis v. Ohio, which attempted to refine the ‘Roth Test’ of 1954 – “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.” Subsequent rulings have resulted in the three-tiered ‘Miller test’ for obscenity, from 1973’s Miller v. California.
* So we’ve got definitions, at the national level (to quote the Miller decision):
“The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
* We ARE allowed to have community standards, and we ARE allowed to proscribe sexual activities and their depiction through state law. What this means is that we, as a community, have not only the right but the implicit duty to define acceptable standards, and our gatekeepers – the bookstores we hold to our hearts – also have the duty to serve our needs through their decision of what to promote, because putting something on the shelf IS de facto promotion.
* It’s not a bookstore’s duty to raise our consciousness, re-educate us, or challenge us – if we want challenging re-education, we can move to Southern California, after all. The bookstore’s job is not social engineering, but to be a mirror of ourselves…and it’s in our community interest to understand the standards we uphold.
Andrew, thanks for an in-depth description of what the various types of censorship are. That’s really helpful.
A bookstore is an ordinary retail business. If its sales income is greater than its expenses, it can survive; if not, it won’t. Its decisions on what to sell have to balance what the owner wants to stock and what the customers want to buy. As long as there’s a good match between the two, the store should succeed, but no brick-and-mortar store can stock everything. It’s perfectly fine for owners to apply their own standards to the decision on what is stocked. Who would criticize a grocer for choosing not to stock jicama or brussels sprouts because they don’t want to? Only the big online retailers can offer virtually everything that’s being published. If the local bookstore chooses not to stock something, we can always shop online.
*This isn’t a First Amendment issue unless the government decides to pass a law to order bookstores either to stock a particular book or not to stock it. Then the question would be whether something intended to protect the press from the government also applies to bookstores. The First Amendment is meant to limit the power of the government, not to force civilians to stock products they don’t consider acceptable for whatever reason.
Unfortunately, government has been stepping into the private business sector more often of late. It wouldn’t surprise me terribly to see a lawsuit filed for “discrimination” over private booksellers’ choices. Perhaps that would be more of an anti-censorship (using the term loosely) issue.
I totally agree, Angela. It just wouldn’t be a 1st Amendment suit. It would hang on the anti-discrimination laws, and the bookseller would probably lose in today’s legal climate.
I have always looked at censorship as something the government does, not something a private business does, or a person does. I checked a few dictionary definitions, however, and it seems my definition was narrower than what lexicographers have determined it to be.
Still, I will forever consider censorship as something the government does, prohibiting or allowing publication according to what the government or its rulers want. What bookstores and the buying public do, however, I can’t see as censorship. They make business decisions of what stock to carry or what to purchase and read. How is that censorship? Bookstore personnel should use any criteria they want to in deciding what books to stock. There used to be bookstores that carried only children’s books. Their criteria was obvious.
That said, according to the broader definition of censorship, I must ask: Why is every bookstore in America censoring my book?
If you find the answer to that last question, let me know! I may have need of that information myself someday.
Does anyone remember the cover Newsweek ran in 1982, displaying a painting of a bare-breasted woman to showcase an article on the revival of realism in art? As an image of a painting, it was legal, but a straight photo would have been a violation of obscenity laws (and, I think, still would be).
* It raised quite a fuss; some stores didn’t carry that issue, while others put up a temporary ‘skirt’ on the shelves. I think most let it slide, knowing that in a week there would be another issue anyway.
* The letters to the editor Newsweek published in a later edition were interesting. Some people were horrified, some thought it was ‘about time’, some thought that realism was a terrible artistic genre and should not be thus supported.
* My favourite came from a young woman who said that her nursing infant daughter absolutely loved that cover.
Damon J. Gray
It is an interesting conundrum, to be sure. There is the perceived need (or perhaps, desire) to balance the need to conduct a profitable business with the desire to maintain one’s convictions, or to advance ministry goals.One cannot effectively execute a ministry if one is operating in the red month after month. It seems to me that a store owner or a publisher can choose to operate in any way they choose to operate. If they want to carry only a specific theological viewpoint, they can do so just as I can opt to not carry chocolate chip mint ice-cream in my soda parlor if I decide I don’t like that flavor. As a customer, I can choose to not spend my money with specific brands for vendors, and I can do this on the basis of political convictions, theological convictions, or simply because I don’t like their logo. It really does not matter. These are personal decisions, and each of us needs to decide to what degree we can accept differing (even offensive) viewpoints and operating procedures of those whom we serve and those whom we allow to serve us. As a personal example, I have sat at the feet of teachers with whom I hold deeply divergent theological points of view, and I have benefited greatly from their instruction and expertise. Indeed, I have publicly endorsed their ministry! What they were teaching me had nothing at all to do with the point of theological disagreement, and I would be a fool to not learn from them in their arena of expertise. Far too frequently and easily, in the Christian arena, we get our nose out of joint over some differentiating issue, and we defiantly take our “ball” and go home. This attitude and behavior is both immature and destructive.
Spot on, Damon. Jesus gave us marching orders: make disciples of all nations, teaching all to obey his commands. His fundamental command is this: love God and love one another. Whatever choices we are making as Christians, these questions should be uppermost: Will what I’m saying/writing/doing help people come to Jesus as their savior or will it drive them away from him? Am I acting/speaking/writing out of obedient love, even if what I’m doing upsets someone?
Damon J. Gray
Yes, Carol! One of my seminary professors frequently lamented the church’s “majoring in minors while minoring in majors.” 😉
It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint for a bookstore owner to choose their stock wisely. And it seems they are well within their rights to do so. But I do wonder how long it will be before a bookstore is sued by someone whose book was refused based on its ideology. What this topic mainly makes me think of, however, is that we all need to be supporting our local bookstores!
Katie, I’m no lawyer, but I doubt a bookstore could be blamed for refusing to carry a work. It’s a business choice, and nothing can mandate what goes on the shelves.
* Where I’m concerned is with the question of a bookstore that refuses to order an item based on personal beliefs, particularly if the do special-order other titles from that publisher’s catalogue. That could be seen as bias against an individual customer, and could be yoked to the precedent of Christian photographers, bakers, and orchard-owners who refused to accept same-sex marriage orders or bookings and were found in violation of civil-rights statutes. I think that speaks to the danger of offering secular-market material; because when you buy product from one producer, you may have to be willing to special-order anything from their catalogue.
* This is speculation, but it does seem to me a real threat. Are there any lawyers out there who could write something that’s more informed?
Damon J. Gray
There is something that wells up within me (common sense) at the absurdity of what you’re proposing, but then I look at the landscape of what has happened and what continues to happen, and I see that such a lawsuit against a book vendor on the basis you have described is not absurd at all. It could totally happen!
I never thought a T-shirt designer could get in trouble for refusing a design, either, but here we are! I think you’re right about offering secular material.
If the ‘compelled to order if a customer of that publisher’ hypothesis is correct, a bookstore can even get in trouble with a Christian publisher.
* For example, Jen Hatmaker is published by Thomas Nelson, and refusing to order her books for an individual customer when the shelves contain a lot of Nelson imprints could drop the store owner into trouble.
* But like I said, I’m not a lawyer; I’m extrapolating from common knowledge and recent events. I would LOVE it if someone would pop up with a comment that goes, “Dude, you’re a panicky nitwit, this CAN’T happen for this reason…”
‘possession or production of obscene material is’ NOT a federal offense. Obscenity law is left for each state to decide for itself. But, possession or production can only be criminalised if intent to sell or distribute can be proven. Simple production or possession is protected speech.
Child pornography is treated as a separate category, with much wider restrictions and harsher penalties
Kristen Joy Wilks
Oh, wow. This is an interesting question. Back when I was a teenage reader, I promised not to read or watch anything that contained swearing, God’s name taken in vain, or sexual scenes. I remember even being upset when book characters kissed before they were engaged. This causes all sorts of problems with my family. It was my conservative Christian parents not my public school friends who were most upset with me about this. I remember being very angry with our Christian library that they would have a book with a Christian world view that contained a single swear word thus making me unable to read it. So if you’d asked me this question back then, I would have said that all books sold at Christian book stores should not contain something that Christians should not do. Well, eventually my family got so tired of me walking out of movies that they begged me to change my ways. Eventually, I did. Then when I went to Bible college, I was shocked to find books in the library written by people who didn’t believe that the Bible was true. It took me a bit to realize that one cannot write a good research paper without being able to research the views of the other side. Now I do most of my book shopping at a wonderful Indy bookstore that is secular but will order anything that I want. Yes, this means averting your eyes once in awhile when they have the “Ladies of the Night” Calendar on sale, but I love shopping here, even though the books do not always match my view. I’m not sure what book store owners should do. Perhaps have right leaning books on the right of the shelf and left leaning books on the left of the shelf and middle books in the middle when it comes to politics??? But as I grow older, I have become more willing to listen to people who do not agree with me about everything. God has been very patient with me. I’m attempting to do the same. We shall see if I succeed. It might be good to imagine a secular book store not carrying our books because they strongly disagree with the message, before we make our decision. I know that my little bookstore ordered in my title, even though it was Christian. That meant the world to me. Then again, a Christian book store is Christian. But to make that only be books written by Christians just like me…that makes me feel like I’m back in high school again, staring into the angry faces of my conservative parents as I walk out of another movie because they took the Lord’s name in vain once. Not sure where the balance is, but I think its in the middle not on one of the extremes.
I love your solution for political books being shelved based on whether they lean left, right, or in the middle. Of course, as with all censorship, it’s a judgment call as to where they should be placed.
Seems to me a bookstore owner faces very difficult decisions these days. A Christian bookstore owner would have to spend a lot of time prayerfully considering their personal mission statement for their store. That would include primary goals for the business and who their target audience is. I strongly believe a bookstore should have the right to refuse to carry books that conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs. If that refusal results in lost sales or angry customers, they should be prepared to defend their decision and stand by it–speaking the truth when complaints arise, but doing so in love. Censorship isn’t always a bad thing.
I wonder if we would think the same way if a general market store chose not to carry a book because it was too Christian for them.
Doesn’t that happen already, Janet?
Damon J. Gray
Stephanie, what happens to the store owner when those convictions are so narrowly defined that they have severely limited their buying audience. We have some bookstores that are specifically targeting one single Christian denomination, and they carry books ONLY by that denomination’s press. I suppose in certain environments (particularly with today’s online marketing options) that can work, but it seems terribly limiting and fiscally dangerous, does it not?
It’s also missing many opportunities to deepen and strengthen their customers’ faith and to share the good news with people beyond their narrow confines who desperately need it. Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” not a particular denomination.
Thought-provoking article, Janet. I definitely believe that bookstore owners have the right to decide what books they will or won’t sell based on whatever preferences they like. As a Christian book shopper, I’d expect that a Christian bookstore would have only clean and Christian reads in the store, but I wouldn’t expect all of their books to agree with my doctrinal perspective.
“I’ve noted that more Christian bookstores are carrying novels published by general market publishers in an effort to entice additional customers with a broader range of titles. Owners have assured customers that the novels reflect a morally conservative lifestyle.”
I smiled at these sentences, Janet. Christian publishers are ignoring a VAST market: individuals who want conservative fiction, but who don’t necessarily look for “Christian” fiction. I hope I live long enough to see Christian publishers tire of “preaching to the choir,” and courageously taking up the mantle of evangelistic acquisitions.
The tricky thing for publishers is figuring out what readers would consider too Christian–or not Christian enough. I often recall how the novel that broke through to the general market–and consequently opened that market to clearly Christian books–was Left Behind. A very Christian book and series. Who would have thought it possible?
Ah. But with God, anything is possible, right? And generally I agree that it’s difficult to find the perfect balance between “too much” and “not enough.” But in my experience, substantial money is made (and a brand is built) on the fringes. By being first or best, or, ideally, both. “Both” is what Left Behind was. It crossed over because it depicted so many DIFFERENT people from so many different walks of life, and eschatology was all the rage in churches in the mid-90s. (Remember that the first book was published in ’95). America was a vastly different marketplace twenty years ago, and a more Christian one in terms of church attendance. Our economy was enjoying a decade of the greatest expansion in history; people were wildly optimistic about the future; we’d just come through the Gulf War. Left Behind was perfect for its time, and an acquisitions editor had the keen talent to spot that.
I’m curious, Janet. do you think the CBA publishers are eagerly looking for the next evangelistic blockbuster, or are they content to service the status quo?