‘Hot Potato’ controversial titles – how do you handle them?

The book trade has recently had a couple of hot to handle titles: Breaking Silence: The Kahui Case by Macsyna King with Ian Wishart, and in the past few weeks, Other People’s Wars, Nicky Hager’s book on New Zealand’s involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The outcry over the thought Macsyna King might be making any money from the book, seen as making money from her twins’ deaths, brought an avalanche of strident public opinion calling for the book to be banned.

Many booksellers decided not to carry the book, possibly because of their own feelings rather than public pressure.

Jeff Grigor at Timaru’s Chapters and Verses actually received a letter saying that the shop’s front window would be smashed if they sold the book. “Unsigned, of course,” Jeff told The Read.

“I abhor social media blackmail,” he continues, but it didn’t play any part in his decision to stock the book. “Because of all the controversy we had five or six customer orders ahead of release. In the end our sales were around eight copies.”

IMAGE: A screenshot of some of the almost 100 repetitive messages that were posted to the Booksellers NZ Facebook page telling us not to stock Breaking Silence or let our members stock it. Although they're hard to read here - if you scroll far enough down our page then the comments are clearly readable.

Similar reactions came from other independents The Read talked to about the Ian Wishart published title.

“With Macsyna King’s book, in spite of multiple emails from Ian Wishart prior to publication seeking our orders, we decided to stock the book when and if customers asked for it, and subsequently did so,” said Tom Beran (pictured right) of The Booklover in Takapuna and Dear Reader in Grey Lynn.

“We do not carry it now but will order in if required for a customer. Basically we're saying that everyone has the right to read what they wish, and we will endeavour to meet their requests when made to us,”

Furore creates higher profile
Page and Blackmore’s Tim Blackmore: “The Kahui book was definitely a hot potato. We weren't intending to stock it before all the fuss blew up. However, as is often the way, the fuss made by those who wished to ban, burn, and bury it only served to give it a higher profile.

As a result customers started to ask for it and we were happy to supply to order although we still didn't want it on the shelf. That sums up our approach I think - we don't believe booksellers should be part of the banning process, that's a job for the official censor, but we may decide not to hold stock and simply supply to customer order.”

Jo McColl at Unity Books in Auckland (pictured left) took a similar stance on Breaking Silence.

“We decided to take orders but not to stock it on our shelves. As we only got two special orders, I don’t think not stocking it has done much harm to sales!”

At University Bookshop Otago, Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb says “Our approach to these sorts of books is pretty neutral - we don't promote them as such but we will order them in for customers who want them and may keep some quietly on the shelves for people who want to buy them but don't want to order them.” In the case of Breaking Silence, the store had around 12 library and special orders and some shelf stock, though none have been bought recently Bronwyn observes.

Publisher believes publicity affected sales
Breaking Silence publisher Ian Wishart says that negative publicity did impact on sales of the book.

“That any publicity is good publicity is not true. It has been frustrating. The public’s ill informed hatred is disappointing, the book is worthwhile reading. Usually we sell between 12,000 – 25,000 of a Howling at the Moon title, but with this we haven’t moved into five digits yet.”

Ian says he was stunned when people he’d known in the media for years sent review copies back unopened. In the past week his sales of the title in the US (via Ingrams) exceeded sales for the same week in New Zealand.

War involvement not as polarising
Sentiments are different when it came to Other People’s Wars.

Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb again: “Controversial is a wide-ranging label - the Hager title is regarded by the public in a very different way to the King/Wishart title.”

Tom Beran: “With Nicky Hager’s book, we knew nothing about it before Thursday September 1, when four copies arrived from Craig Potton with accompanying letter announcing the book and offer of SOR. We had sold three by day’s end, and ordered 10 more copies on the Friday, insisting that they would be delivered on the Saturday morning to ensure weekend stock.

I understand the Craig Potton decision was not to say anything about the book until Hager had fronted media on the Thursday morning.”

“I think Nicky Hager's book was a lukewarm potato by comparison,” comments Tim Blackmore. “We were happy to have it on the shelf. I think the difference is to do with how a bookseller feels about a particular book. My response to Nicky Hager might be like someone else's to Ian Wishart - difficult to believe I know!”

At PaperPlus in Wanaka, Chris Lumsden said “Nicky Hager’s book arrived unsolicited from Craig Potton and didn’t create any controversy in town or in store with only four copies sold so far.”

As for other contentious titles in store Chris’ comment is that “From time to time we’ve sold quite a few copies of books that had public interest relative to our area such as Who Owns the High Country? by Ann Brower – also a Potton title - and Whose High Country? by Roberta McIntyre, both of which expressed opinions relative to tenure review but they didn’t really create any massive controversy or public outcry.”

When Unity Auckland received the SOR copies of Other People’s Wars, Jo McColl instantly reordered. “Nicky Hager’s got cred in this shop!” she says. The store has sold over 25 copies so far.

Jeff Grigor was happy that Other People’s Wars came with the assurance that if a bookseller wanted the publisher to uplift unsold books it would be at no cost to the bookseller. So far only a couple have sold.

Why Hager titles are released in this manner
Craig Potton publisher Robbie Burton explains that they’ve always handled Nicky Hager’s controversial books the same way, with the SOR release timed to coincide with publicity. (Hager’s previous book was The Hollow Men).

“If a title like is announced in advance, it is liable to be injuncted,” says Robbie, noting that the release timed with the publicity the book receives is the best way of avoiding legal action.

“We like to think we don’t abuse the bookseller relationship,” Robbie says. So far so successful with Other People’s Wars – Potton’s have nearly sold out of the first edition

Book ban controversies not unusual
For stories of scandals past, Jo and Jeff proved the best sources.

“Salman Rushdie was here promoting Satanic Verses after he received the fatwa, but he was allowed to come to Unity and sit at the counter to sign copies,” Jo remembers. (The minders or bodyguards stayed outside.)*

“Way back there was The Little Red Schoolbook that people tried to ban, and more recently Deborah Coddington’s The New Zealand paedophile and sex offender index.”

There was one book Unity adamantly refused to stock: the title isn’t remembered, but it had instructions on how to make bombs at home. “The most unsavoury people came in asking for it,” Jo recalls.

Jeff remembers a time when Whitcoulls banned a book from being sold in their stores. The book, considered erotic, was the photographic Madonna: Sex in 1992. Whitcoulls banned it, proclaiming themselves to be a family store which would not stock such titles, says Jeff.

It was sold shrink wrapped… though when opened up it was mild to what was in girlie magazines at the time, he reckons.

At the same time American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis was on Whitcoull’s and other booksellers shelves, a novel about a serial killer so sadistic in tone that according to Jeff, its New Zealand distributor apparently wanted it shrink wrapped.

Sex, morals and politics have long been the factors causing books to be banned – it was only fifty years ago Penguin went to court in the United Kingdom to defend their right to publish DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Recently UBS Otago noticed a subtle form of censorship in store, says Bronwyn. “Customers sometimes take things into their own hands literally: last year we had an unknown customer who, for several weeks, would reshelve a copy of Tony Blair's (controversial in some spheres) autobiography A Journey prominently in the Fantasy Fiction section, actually right under the sign...”

*It all turned out alright for Mr. Rushdie - he's even recently joined Twitter - as The Guardian reports.

Article written by Jillian Ewart for The Read