I have seen the word curated used more and more on bookstores’ websites. As a verb, it indicates that something has been thoughtfully chosen and organized. Does that mean if bookstore buyers disagree with what is published in a book, they should not carry it? Is that not a violation of their customers’ right to choose which books they buy on their own? Shouldn’t the titles they carry on their shelves provide as many different points of views as possible, no matter what the subject?
Let’s consider the following. Has there ever been a time when any independent bookstore or chain did not select the books it wanted to carry? Are we as publishers required to publish every manuscript submitted to us? Are bookstores required to stock every book available? Furthermore, has there ever been a period when a commercial publisher didn’t curate the titles that it was going to publish? The answer is no. The freedom to select books that one either agrees with or not has always been the right of every bookstore and publishing entrepreneur.
At Square One, we publish a number of health books. These titles normally balance traditional medicine with complementary self-care approaches. We believe that people should take some responsibility for their own health. We know that not every bookstore and library is going to buy all of our health titles because of our approach, but what we publish is our choice, just as it is our buyers’ choice to order these titles or to pass on them.
The argument becomes louder and much more confrontational when the questions focus on titles dealing with politics, sexual orientation, religion, and race—but our philosophy remains the same. As publishers, we select the books we want to make available. Does this mean we are somehow violating the First Amendment by virtue of our business practices? Absolutely not.
The industry finally has a growing and more diverse group of publishers and bookstores willing to provide any controversial title to their own markets. We all have the right to select, or curate. Our ability to freely select the books we wish to publish, or as bookstores to carry, is not likely to change—or is it? Decades of efforts by publishers. booksellers, and others has expanded the protections provided by the First Amendment, but now it seems that the concept of book selection may be going in a different, yet all-too-familiar direction with state governments’ eagerness to ban books in schools.
For years, publishers have gone to court to overturn the censorship laws that had existed since the 19th century. Starting in the 1920s, our industry watched as James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Ulysses was deemed obscene by a court. In the mid-1950s, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was initially rejected by scores of American publishers because of concerns about its content, and other so-called obscene works like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were eventually published in the U.S. despite serious opposition. In other words, generations of publishers fought for and won our right to be treated like grown-ups and allowed to make decisions about our reading tastes for ourselves.
Today, state governments are once again banning books and even certain words in schools and libraries. These actions prevent readers from making their own choices. There are no alternative school libraries for students to visit. Instead, there is a list of titles assembled by special interests and politicians to be banned from schools. For those teachers and school librarians who do not follow these laws, there is a fine and possible loss of employment. This is the real threat to the First Amendment, not accusing private businesses of selecting one book over another.
If publishers and bookstores keep making the wrong choices in the titles they select, they lose money and possibly their business. That is their right—just as it is to be profitable when making the right choices. What these state governments are doing is taking away our rights under the convenient camouflage of “protecting our children.”
If we decide as an industry—and as a country—to stand up for the First Amendment, then we really better know the difference between the power and responsibilities of the government compared to publishers and bookstores. Publishers and bookstores are not “banning” books by not publishing or stocking them. They are not preventing these works from existing. But when governments say certain books or words can’t be used in schools or libraries, they can impose civil or criminal penalties on anyone using them; that is quite different, and that is what is dangerous.
Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers.