An Uncensored Look at Publishing’s Fight for the Freedom to Read: YPG’s March BBL

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ypg censorship bbl photo“It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a ‘bad’ book is a good one, the answer to a ‘bad’ idea is a good one.”

­—The Freedom to Read Statement, originally issued in May of 1953 by the Westchester Conference of the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council, which in 1970 consolidated with the American Educational Publishers Institute to become the Association of American Publishers.

“They’d been doing shots, and Chuck had asked ‘So Nate. What was your all time best fuck?’”

Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar

 

At March’s YPG BBL: “Publishing (Un)censored,” which took place on Monday, March 23rd, 2015 from 12:30-1:30pm at the AAP New York offices, moderator Judy Platt (Director of Free Expression for the Association of American Publishers) and panelists Chris Finan (Director of the American Bookseller’s for Free Expression at ABA), Dennis Johnson (Co-Founder and Co-Publisher of Melville House), Hillary Jordan (award-winning author of Mudbound and When She Woke), and Megan Tingley (EVP of Hachette Book Group & Publisher, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) shared their experiences with—and discussed the absolute importance of—the protection of free expression with the 30 YPG members in attendance.

Chris Finan opened by sharing a history of censorship, which began in America with the understanding that publishers, booksellers, and librarians were the keepers of high moral standards. Librarians hid or threw out, and booksellers actively suppressed, a lot of what we today consider the canon of American literature. An important turning point came in the 1920s when books were “Banned in Boston,” and Boston pushed back. Expectations began to evolve, and the book industry’s role shifted from telling people what they should read to simply providing the books that they wanted to read. But change is never easy—and it’s a fight the publishing industry is going to keep fighting.

While proponents often frame censorship as a move to protect our youth, the world now is not what is used to be. Author Hillary Jordan observed that kids today are exposed to so much true obscenity, it is that much more important for them to have access to books that discuss mature topics honestly. Meanwhile, Judy Platt reported an increasing number of challenges in the upper level curriculum—parental complaints are no longer aimed only at “protecting” young readers.

For either its popularity or the age of its target audience—and likely both—there is more sensitivity around young adult literature, usually for content like sexuality, drugs, and alcohol, or in some cases fantasy and the supernatural. Discussing Gossip Girl, a product of Alloy Entertainment published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Megan Tingley echoed Jordan’s expression that while the content is indeed very racy, that doesn’t mean it’s not well-written—and more importantly, whether we like it or not, it is representative of events and activities actually happening in today’s youth circles. And yet, Little, Brown’s young readers division had never before published a book with the F word in it. In an original draft, the word was prominently displayed on the first page of the manuscript. Tingley shared that the COO actually called her to find out what was going on. The biggest pre-publication concern in-house was that librarians might disapprove, but they turned out to be the series’ biggest supporters—their mandate is to get kids reading, and these books do that.

There is not currently an age rating scale in publishing as there is for films. While Little, Brown did include a 15 and up age rating on the Gossip Girl packaging, after that it falls to parents to monitor what their kids read—publishing is not parenting, and publishers are not called to function in loco parentis. Including a maturity tag based on “content” could also problematically leave space for an audience to interpret them as something closer to a grade-based reading level, marking certain books as more sophisticated or complex and somehow inherently better for being more “adult.” Further, as Platt stated, “if you have an industry-wide system, sooner or later someone will want to mandate it. It’s a slippery slope.”

The tenets of free expression extend, of course, beyond children’s publishing and into the book industry as a whole. Dennis Johnson discussed Melville House’s experience publishing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture. Traditionally this type of document was released simultaneously as a PDF and a book (in the interest of openness and accessibility of information), but this report was released by the government only as a low-quality, hard-to-read PDF. Believing the report should be read by a wider audience, Melville House crashed the book right in the middle of the Christmas season and was met with immediate help, support, and enthusiasm from every level and across the industry. Copy editors from other houses even offered themselves to the massive project, working through the night, booksellers sent food to the Melville House office in Dumbo, their distributor pushed it ahead of other titles, and the printer rushed to get the book done in four days. “This is kind of what it’s all about,” said Johnson. “People in this business really do give a damn.”

The panelists closed by offering advice for young professionals in publishing to utilize their passion and positions to help protect free expression: write fan mail (quotes from these positive letters are often used in defense against challenges); work within the entire publishing environment to keep important books in the spotlight, using all avenues at your disposal, from formal media outlets to social media communities; actually buy books from booksellers, especially at independent bookstores, who actively work to keep overlooked books visible; and participate in Banned Books Week.

“We are doing something that is very special,” said Platt. “Books have a life once they are published. And they will go on, and they will go on.” Platt also shared that JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, speaking to the Association of American Publishers, once said that he didn’t think it was an accident that in Latin the word libre, except for the accent over the “i,” means both book and freedom.

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