The year 2023 will be remembered as yet another year of surging efforts to ban books across the United States. But it will also be remembered as the year when some of the most vulnerable members of the book community—indie booksellers—took a stand against one of the most high-profile state book banning laws in the nation: HB 900, Texas’s controversial book rating bill. For their courageous decision to serve as plaintiffs in a high-stakes legal showdown over HB 900, Publishers Weekly is proud to recognize Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, and Charley Rejsek, CEO of BookPeople in Austin, as our 2023 People of the Year.

“HB 900 isn’t just an attack on books, it’s an attack on the people represented in those books, and my staff come from many of those communities,” Rejsek says. “For them, the fight against HB 900 is personal. And we are all fighting this law together.”

Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 12, this first-of-its-kind law requires booksellers and library vendors to review and rate books for sexual content under a vaguely articulated standard as a condition of doing business with Texas public schools. And that’s not only for new books. The law requires booksellers to go back and rate every book previously sold to Texas schools—an impossible undertaking, booksellers say.

If the law stands, as of Apr. 1, 2024, books rated “sexually explicit” (those with material that would be deemed “patently offensive” by unspecified “community standards”) would be banned entirely from Texas schools, while books rated “sexually relevant” (those with any representation of sexual conduct) would only be accessible to students with written parental permission. Furthermore, the law would give the state the unchecked power to change the rating on any book, for any reason. And booksellers that refuse to accept the state’s designated ratings would be barred from doing business with Texas public schools.

In July, Koehler and Rejsek joined with the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in a federal lawsuit claiming HB 900 is unconstitutional. And after two hearings held in August, federal judge Alan D. Albright agreed and ordered key provisions of the law blocked, the most high-profile victory yet in a legal counteroffensive on book bans now unfolding in several states.

Both Rejsek and Koehler are quick to acknowledge that they haven’t gone into this fight alone and are grateful for the full support and resources of their fellow plaintiffs, as well as the support of their staffs. “It takes a degree of bravery to stand up as a bookseller,” says David Horowitz, executive director of First Amendment defender the Media Coalition, who helped organize the suit. “You don’t know how your customers or your community will react. In this regard Charley and Valerie were brave.”

And humble, adds Cathy Berner, a children’s and young adult specialist and events coordinator for Blue Willow Bookshop. Berner was with Koehler when she received word of her PW honor. “Valerie’s first reaction was, ‘I didn’t do anything,’ ” Berner says. “She’s an incredibly humble person so that reaction is completely natural. But she has done something. By founding Blue Willow, Valerie has created a place in the community that connects readers and books and celebrates the diversity of Houston. That sentiment informs how the shop operates in every way. It’s truly an honor to work with her.”

This law, and similar ones around the country, aren’t just an affront to us in Texas, but to everyone in the nation who values the freedom to read. It’s our obligation to stand up and fight for one another.

Indeed, without booksellers like Koehler and Rejsek, it’s hard to say where HB 900 would be today. It was Rejsek and her colleague, Meghan Goel, BookPeople’s children’s book buyer, who first organized a meeting with booksellers during the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s SpringCon in San Antonio (held, fittingly, at the Mercer Hotel, across the street from the Alamo and the site where Teddy Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders) to discuss what could be done to fight the law. From there, Rejsek and Goel created an email list and posted an HB 900 Community Information Page to track progress of the bill and to rally opponents of the legislation to contact legislators.

Rejsek, who describes herself as a “farm girl from Brazoria County, Tex.,” previously spent 19 years in various roles at Barnes & Noble before starting work at BookPeople in 2019, first as general manager and then as CEO. Just prior to joining BookPeople, she spent two years as a sales and events manager at the Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit digital news agency—an experience that left her with some insight into the Texas legislative machine.

“I’m fortunate that my store is just a mile from the State capitol, so I could go and talk to legislators directly,” Rejsek says. “But it did not pay off. When my time came to talk to the Senate Education Committee, when the initial bill was under discussion, I waited all day, then was given two minutes to talk before I was cut off. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Though Rejsek began her bookselling career in Houston in 1998—just two years after Koehler opened Blue Willow in 1996—the two have never met in person. The pair credit the Media Coalition for bringing the them together in the lawsuit.

“Our job is to sell, not rate, books,” Koheler says, pointing out that HB 900 is not only fatally flawed constitutionally but is also untenable. “The hours, the payroll that it would require for us to review and rate every book we sell, and then do it retroactively for the all the books we’ve ever sold is just absurd. It could break us.”

Koehler, a prominent member of the independent bookseller community who served for seven years on the board of the ABA, notes that sales to schools for Blue Willow are important, as they are for many indie booksellers across the state. “Schools account for approximately 20% of our annual sales,” she stresses. “I run hundreds of events a year, including numerous author visits to schools and three book festivals for children and teens, including Bookworm Festival, Tweens Read, and Teen BookCon.”

Currently, Judge Albright’s decision blocking HB 900 is on hold while the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals weighs in, meaning that, despite being found unconstitutional, the law is technically in effect. And while the appeal was expedited and argued on November 29, the case could drag out. But both Rejsek and Koehler, as well a host of librarians, publishers, and freedom-to-read advocates, see the legal fate of HB 900 as a bellwether for the rest of the country, especially as book bans and legislation attacking the freedom to read continue to rise.

According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the number of unique titles challenged in 2023 jumped 20% over 2022. And in a September report, PEN America reported a 33% increase in book bans in schools over the previous year.

“If this doesn’t go well for us in Texas, it could have dire consequences for everyone,” Koehler says. In fact, sources have told PW that a number of states have drafted similar bills and are waiting on the outcome of the case in Texas. But both Rejsek and Koehler, as well as their fellow plaintiffs, say they are in this fight for the long haul.

“BookPeople’s motto is ‘a community bound by books,’ and that resonates everywhere,” Rejsek says. “This law, and similar ones around the country, aren’t just an affront to us in Texas, but to everyone in the nation who values the freedom to read. It’s our obligation to stand up and fight for one another.”

Read more from our People of The Year feature:

PW Notables 2023: John Chrastka
John Chrastka, founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, the nation’s only political action committee dedicated to supporting libraries, stepped up for the library community in 2023.

PW Notables 2023: Mitchell Kaplan
An influential fixture in publishing since he founded the bookstore chain Books & Books in Miami in 1982, Kaplan has spent much of his year working as an activist, fighting against Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s Stop WOKE Act.

PW Notables 2023: Jonathan Karp
Jonathan Karp took over as CEO of Simon & Schuster in May 2020 under the most challenging conditions. He has risen to the occasion—and then some.

PW Notables 2023: Monique Patterson
The romance publishing veteran, who was tapped to helm the Tor Publishing Group’s new romance imprint, Bramble, in February, has made a top-tier publishing career out of finding and putting out romance novels across an impressive span of subgenres.

PW Notables 2023: Karen Torres
Over her 36-year career, Karen Torres, longtime head of field sales and account marketing at Hachette Book Group, played a pivotal role in conceptualizing and executing sales and marketing campaigns for hundreds of blockbuster bestsellers.