My debut novel, POP! had been out for more than a week, and I'd yet to find a copy of it on the shelf at my local Borders. And when friends in Boston, Seattle, Houston and Chicago told me that my book wasn't available at any Borders' store in their cities either, I panicked. Why couldn't anyone find my book? A frantic phone call to my agent gave me the answer: Borders was refusing to carry POP! in any of its stores.
What my agent couldn't tell me, though, was why?
The early reviews of POP! had all been positive. My publisher, Penguin, was an industry heavyweight. Barnes & Noble was carrying it on its shelves, as were all of the independent bookstores I checked. And while this was my first foray into fiction, I'm an established TV writer with some great credits ("Sex in the City," "Veronica Mars"). It seemed like there was nothing that could account for Borders' decision, except for one thing: the book's subject.
POP! is the story of a 17-year-old girl's decision to lose her virginity, and the emotional consequence.
Could the sexual content be the reason Borders wasn't carrying POP!? That was the question blogger (and WD columnist) Jessa Crispin posted in a controversial column on bookstandard.com, which sparked a flurry of online discussions about the real reason behind Borders' decision.
It was also the question I was asking myself.
Teen sex is a difficult and delicate issue to write about, but it's also an important one. I tried to deal with this trickiest of subjects in a responsible, relatable way. And when Planned Parenthood raved about the book on its website, teenwire.com, I was pretty sure I had succeeded.
Of course, first impressions can be misleading. The back cover of POP! reads: "Marit has made up her mind. Being a virgin is getting in the way of holding on to a boyfriend she really likes... ." Someone judging the book based solely on the cover copy might dismiss it as being glib and sensationalistic, like the notorious 2005 novel Rainbow Party, another book about teen sex that Borders had refused to carry.
Fueled by Crispin's Book Standard column, dozens of websites and blogs debated whether or not Borders' decision was censorship.
Some argued that Borders had the right to sell whichever books it wanted and that this "scandal" was probably nothing more than a marketing ploy. They also maintained that this clearly wasn't a case of censorship because POP! was available on Borders' website.
But a lot of other bloggers didn't think the issue was so cut-and-dried. Most books are discovered by readers who are browsing—picking up a book that catches their eye and being intrigued enough to want to read it. Borders is the second-largest book retailer in the country. These bloggers argued that, by refusing to put POP! on its shelves, Borders was preventing a vast number of kids from hearing about it in the first place. How would potential readers know to search for POP! online if they're unaware of its existence?
Both sides had valid points but neither was able to come up with a definitive answer of whether or not my book was being censored, and Borders wasn't commenting. While I still didn't understand the reason for my book's banishment, I was painfully aware of the consequences—with more than 460 Borders stores refusing to carry it, the sales figures for POP! were depressingly low.
So I scrambled to do everything I could think of to publicize my book. I asked teen websites to review POP! I set up my own website where visitors could get a sneak peek at the first chapter. I even made a MySpace page for the main character in the book and arranged a contest where kids could win free copies. I gave readings and sent out press releases and volunteered to give writing workshops at local high schools. But even my best efforts reached only a limited number of people.
The fact was, without being able to see it on the bookstore shelf, most readers will never even hear about POP! If it isn't in the stores, it won't sell. And if nobody buys it, it's less likely that I'll be able to get another book deal.
I haven't given up, though. I'm proud of POP! and hope that, despite Borders' decision, teenagers will still discover it. In the meantime, all I can do is keep writing.