The American Booksellers Association is facing withering criticism from booksellers after walking back its promotion of an anti-trans title to member bookstores. Among the promotional items included in the ABA July “white box” mailing sent to 750 bookstores, the organization included a copy of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, as well as a sell sheet.
At Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstores, book buyer Casey Morrissey was the first person in the store to open the box. Morrissey shared their reactions on Twitter, and other booksellers quickly joined in, echoing their comments.
@ABAbook I’m seething. I was excited to open our July white box, and then the first book I pulled out is “Irreversible Damage.” Do you know how that feels, as a trans bookseller and book buyer? It isn’t even a new title, so it really caught me in the gut. Do better. pic.twitter.com/VYb1ZKrv9A— Casey (@CaseyBookEater) July 14, 2021
Within hours, the ABA issued an apology statement. “An anti-trans book was included in our July mailing to members,” the ABA wrote. “This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable.” The organization apologized to trans booksellers and noted that further action will be taken within the next three weeks.
But booksellers said the statement fell short, calling out the organization’s use of the passive voice in the opening sentence. They also demanded greater transparency about how the decision to include the book was initially made, and called for demonstrable steps to restore trust with trans book workers and authors. Some called on the ABA to offer promotions for trans authors' books at no cost.
ABA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee member Luis Correa, who works as a bookseller at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., was first made aware of the issue when fellow booksellers emailed him Morrissey’s tweet. Correa identifies as a queer, Latino, and fat-bodied person, and said he thought the apology was flawed.
“I'm disappointed with the use of the passive language at the beginning of the statement and the shift in blame. They really should say that ‘we included this book,’” Correa said. The DEI Committee is comprised of ABA member booksellers and does not consult on the selections for the white boxes.
Promotional boxes have been a longstanding feature of ABA membership. Publishers pay the organization to include advance copies of books, sales sheets, book marks, and other materials. The ABA then mails the boxes to booksellers along with marketing information for the organization’s own Indie Next lists.
Regnery, the publisher of Irreversible Damage, sent the copies to booksellers to promote the book’s forthcoming paperback release. First published in hardcover in 2020, the critical reception to the book varied widely and the book has become the subject of fierce debate. Psychology Today criticized the author’s reliance on a controversial gender dysphoria theory and her rejection of basic science. Amazon declined employee requests to stop selling the book, but also turned down Regnery’s request to advertise its publication. Just yesterday, NBC News reported that Amazon is facing more internal criticism for selling the book. At the same time, conservative media praised Irreversible Damage and The Economist named it a Book of the Year in 2020. The book has sold about 35,000 hardcover copies since its release last June, according to NPD BookScan.
Regnery was blindsided by the ABA's statement, according to president and publisher Thomas Spence, who denounced the organization's characterization of the incident as "an act of violence." In an e-mail to PW, Spence wrote: "The only explanation I can think of for the ABA's statement that credits them with a rational (though dishonorable) motive is that they're trying to drum up publicity for their annual Banned Books Week promotion, coming in September (this year's slogan: 'Censorship Divides Us'). Perhaps finding books that have been 'banned,' in any meaningful sense, is so difficult that they have been forced to do the dirty work themselves."
Spence also defended Shrier's book. "In a sea of materials uncritically promoting medical 'transition' for teenage girls with little to no oversight, there is one book that responsibly investigates the question and urges caution," he wrote.
Among booksellers, however, there was little disagreement about the content of the book. “As longtime @ABAbook members with beloved staff across the gender spectrum, we're extremely disappointed and angered to see the ABA promoting dangerous, widely discredited anti-trans propaganda, and we're calling for accountability,” the Harvard Book Store wrote on Twitter.
Racism and Further Apologies
In an email late Wednesday, ABA CEO Allison Hill issued an additional statement to booksellers. She apologized, not only for the promotion of Shrier's book, but also for a racist incident last week in which the organization featured Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon on its Indie Next bestseller list, but included an incorrect cover image. Instead of using the actual cover, the ABA used a book cover by an author who Hill described as "a different Black author, a right-wing extremist."
"We traumatized and endangered members of the trans community. We erased Black authors, conflated Black authors, and put the authors in danger through a forced association. We further marginalized communities we want to support," Hill wrote. She reiterated that the organization will take steps to address both instances in the coming weeks, adding that, "[t]here is nothing that I can say that will make this right. This should not have happened. I want to apologize for both of these harms and for the pain that ABA caused. But I know only action matters. These were egregious, harmful acts that caused violence and pain. One negligent, irresponsible, and racist; the other negligent, irresponsible, and transphobic."
Separately, the ABA board of directors, all of whom are booksellers, weighed in with an email to members.
"These incidents harmed booksellers, ABA board members, and ABA staff who identify as LGBTQIA+ and/or BIPOC, as well as the wider community. They also added to a toxic culture overall," they wrote. "We are not the ABA of two years ago. These actions are antithetical to the values we are working to promote in our organization under the strong leadership of our CEO, Allison Hill, and COO, Joy Dallanegra-Sanger. This is not acceptable behavior and goes against the bylaws changes instituted last year."
"This is evidence of systemic problems, and we support the staff and will work to do what’s necessary to root out institutional failures and biases," they added. "We hold ourselves accountable, and we will be transparent as we move through this process. This cannot happen again."
DEI committee member Correa said he is cautiously optimistic that the ABA will take steps that demonstrate a commitment to doing right by booksellers, and believes that the decision to take the coming weeks to outline steps was more prudent than rushing. In the past, he said ABA has been responsive on issues that are important to trans booksellers, including adding functionality to the Indie Commerce websites that many member bookstores use so that they can remove anti-trans titles from the ordering database. Still, he is wary.
“We're dealing with a historically white, cis organization in a white supremacist society. So there are going to be a lot of missteps,” he told PW. His hope is that the mistakes will prove instructive for booksellers around the country who also need to be more aware of pervasive discrimination against trans people and other marginalized groups.
This article has been updated with comments provided by Regnery president and publisher Thomas Spence.