When the Man or Woman “Behind the Book” Stifles Sales

Scales of Purchase created by AMB at The Misfortune of Knowing BlogIn an effort to discourage letters from young fans, the curmudgeonly children’s book author E.B. White wrote in 1961:

When I was a child, I liked books, but an author to me was a mythical being. I never dreamed of getting in touch with one, and no teacher ever suggested that I do so. The book was the thing, not the man behind the book. (emphasis added).

 It’s much easier for 21st Century readers to know the men or women “behind the book[s]” than it was for White’s mid-20th Century fans. Through social media, we can interact more easily with our favorite authors and consume news about their lives in addition to consuming their books. Whether rightly or wrongly, factors external to the book like authors’ reputations — their perceived personality and even their politics — often outweigh factors intrinsic to the book when we choose what books to purchase. We want to support authors we like as people.

 Last week, I wrote about Paula Deen, whose admitted past usage of a racial epithet has tarnished her reputation. As a result, Food Network cancelled her show and Ballantine Books dropped her cookbook, presumably on the assumption that consumers would no longer want to affiliate themselves with someone they perceive to be racist. It doesn’t seem to matter that her past behavior and the allegations about her treatment of restaurant employees are unrelated to her shows and books.

 Now, author Orson Scott Card is under scrutiny for his current anti-gay views. I haven’t read his sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game, but I presume that its content is unrelated to the author’s narrow view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Even so, many have called for a boycott of the upcoming movie based on Card’s book (starring Harrison Ford and a bunch of other actors I don’t recognize).

 Both of these examples, Deen and Card, highlight the power of the “citizen-consumer”: people who buy goods that promote certain ideals and/or use their purchasing decisions to support their ideological allies. It’s not hard to see why someone would want to put their dollars in the pockets of people with similar views or deny income to ideological opponents who promote causes contrary to their interests (for example, Chick Fil-A has donated millions to groups opposing marriage equality). A controversial view may turn away some consumers while attracting others. Either way, public figures, including authors, need to be careful about discussing their private views, and they need to know their audience.

 Some may feel it’s unfair to “punish” a public figure for his or her private views. As Card has responded to the boycott of his book and its derivatives:

‘Ender’s Game’ is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984. With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

 It’s ridiculous for Card to imply that “show[ing] tolerance” means putting money in his pockets by buying his books and watching a movie from which he’ll receive royalties. A reader who believes in marriage equality has no more an obligation to “show tolerance” by buying Card’s book than a reader who opposes marriage equality has an obligation to buy a book from a gay-friendly author: in a free society, everyone gets to choose how to express his or her views, including consumers.

 In addition, Card’s premise is faulty: If marriage equality will happen “sooner or later” then, by definition, it’s not “moot.” The United States Supreme Court did not explicitly interpret the Constitution as protecting gay marriage in United States v. Windsor (2013) or in Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013). The Windsor decision contains important language about marriage equality, but it only directly applies to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (federal benefits). Perry, in turn, didn’t decide anything at all about marriage equality by punting the issue on standing grounds (which had the practical effect of reinstating a lower court’s order blocking California’s Proposition 8, thereby permitting gay marriage in the state).

Same-sex marriage remains a state-by-state battle, and the majority of states continue to treat same-sex couples differently from other couples. In my state, it will take either a marriage equality bill to pass (there’s one introduced by my state representative) or a court decision (the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a case two days ago) to make the issue “moot” where I live. Plus, even after marriage equality exists in all 50 states, anti-gay discrimination will likely persist in other areas of life. This battle isn’t over.

 At any rate, though I strongly disagree with Card’s view on marriage equality, I respect his right to hold these beliefs and I also respect the rights of consumers to boycott his work — or to buy more of it — as a result of his views (and it remains to be seen which side the market will go).  Both expressing anti-gay views and protesting such views are aspects of personal expression, and neither implicates the First Amendment because everyone involved is a private actor. A boycott orchestrated by a public library or a public school would be a different matter.

UPDATE (7/14/13): I took a quick look at the website of the organization of which Card is a board member (according to a CNN article) and found that it uses the same boycotting tactic that those opposing Card are using. The organization encourages its members to “dump Starbucks” and “dump General Mills” for their pro-gay marriage stances. While I don’t know what role, if any, Card plays in this organization’s decision making (or even if he still sits on the board), I think he’s being a wee bit hypocritical when he insists that “tolerance” dictates that we support him by buying his books and watching this movie.

Here’s a screen shot from the National Organization for Marriage’s website:

National Organization for Marriage


    1. Yeah, it’s hard to separate an author’s reputation/beliefs from his work. It’s definitely a factor that could outweigh other factors when deciding whether to read a book.

  1. I agree with Jae. I am at a loss why it matters what these famous people think and like Jae alluded, we just really don’t know. “I don’t accept that because a person believes traditional marriage should be kept traditional automatically equals they are anti-gay.” Why does it even matter because the product they support is independent of their views. They just get paid to promote. I really have issue though with the companies that abandoned Deen. They will not get my money. They drew this line and made the association of their company to intolerance themselves. They were intolerant of something that happened 30 years ago and I bet if the people running these companies were honest, I bet some of them may have made a slip like that at that time too.

    1. Hi Donna! Thanks for weighing in on this issue. I don’t question the right of Food Network and Ballantine Books (and others) to withdraw their support of Deen, but I am conflicted about whether I agree with them. If Deen continues to hold racist views, then that’s a big problem for me, but I do believe there’s a point at which we need to forgive and forget the past. It depends on how much the person has changed and how long ago it was. To my knowledge, Deen’s admitted use of the racial epithet was decades ago, and the allegations of more recent racist and sexist behavior remains unresolved at this time.

      Regarding Card, I do believe his position is inherently anti-gay. As I said in my response to Jae: I don’t know much about Card, but the CNN article (it’s one of the links in the post) quotes him as railing against, “dictator judges” and saying “Married people attempting to raise children with the hope that they, in turn, will be reproductively successful, have every reason to oppose the normalization of homosexual unions.” If Card truly believed that the purpose of legal recognition of marriage is reproduction, then he’d be similarly opposed to unions between people above reproductive age and unions involving individuals with low fertility (such as women who have had tubal ligations). I doubt that’s his position. So, then, what it is that makes gay unions “less worthy” than unions between men and women? There isn’t a rational basis for discriminating between those types of relationships. It’s based entirely on anti-gay bias.

      1. You make a good argument, but I still choose to ignore these folks and their opinions. I believe people should make their own life choices and not be judged by others. I also think it is better to keep these opinions such as a racist view to oneself. If that is how they feel, I do not agree, but I am also not one to make them feel differently. It is hard to judge Deen’s current case, because not much truth is yet to be known. I really hope she is not a racist. I really admired her climb to prominence in her field.

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  3. I think boycotts based on a person’s personal beliefs when those beliefs have nothing to do with a certain product they’re producing are a little ridiculous. One might well say, then all those in support of traditional marriage should certainly boycott Amazon for contributions to same-sex marriage proponents or Oreos (I know some groups have, I think it’s stupid). What a private citizen wants to do with his/her money should be their business. If it is the company’s mission or the company directly who is speaking out vocally, I think then a boycott of a person’s own free will and choice should be justified. But unless one feels that Ender’s Game engenders principles they wholeheartedly disagree with, to me it sounds like nothing more than societal bullying of a person with a differing opinion. That sounds anything but tolerant or if tolerance has truly come to mean, “I accept you only if you agree with me.”

    I don’t accept that because a person believes traditional marriage should be kept traditional automatically equals they are anti-gay. (I personally believe we should take government completely out of marriage and let people do as they will. I think if that had been the battle cry, it’s a battle that would have been won long ago). You can disagree with a person’s beliefs and not be anti- their beliefs. For example, I don’t think people should eat at McDonald’s, but I don’t automatically hate people who eat there nor am I wanting to enforce rules to stop people from eating there. I know it isn’t exactly the same, but unless Orson Scott Card has been running around with signs that say “God hates (you know the word)” or something of the like, I really can’t see it justified to call him anti-gay.

    I also didn’t read his ‘tolerance’ statement the same way. I read it as “I wonder how sue-happy certain couples will become towards those churches or businesses who won’t offer same-sex wedding services because of religious beliefs.” But I don’t know Mr. Card and can’t say what he does and doesn’t believe.

    1. Hi Jae! I can understand your position on it. However, my opinion is that being tolerant of another person’s views is not the equivalent of supporting their work with our money. Tolerance only requires that we accept that Mr. Card has a right to hold those views, and private individuals are free to buy his work or not.

      I do think his position is inherently anti-gay. I don’t know much about Card, but the CNN article (it’s one of the links in the post) quotes him as railing against, “dictator judges” and saying “Married people attempting to raise children with the hope that they, in turn, will be reproductively successful, have every reason to oppose the normalization of homosexual unions.” If Card truly believed that the purpose of legal recognition of marriage is reproduction, then he’d be similarly opposed to unions between people above reproductive age and unions involving individuals with low fertility (such as women who have had tubal ligations). I doubt that’s his position. So, then, what it is that makes gay unions “less worthy” than unions between men and women? There isn’t a rational basis for discriminating between those types of relationships. It’s based entirely on anti-gay bias.

      As for churches that don’t offer same-sex weddings, I’m not sure what legal basis any couple would have to force a church to marry them (I doubt the right to marry would trump the right to religious freedom, which also doesn’t encompass forcing a religious view of marriage on others as opponents of marriage equality often contend). Even under our public accommodation laws, there is usually an exception for religious entities and strictly private clubs. I think Mr. Card’s “tolerance” statement is entirely about him and his ability to make a profit. I think he was trying to be clever by accusing his critics of being hypocritically intolerant.

      Thanks for your comment!

      1. I think I mostly agree with your tolerance definition. I guess one must decide whether one believes an artist is using their position to promote an agenda or that they have beliefs we may not like, but that don’t enter into their work. For example, one could say, “I won’t vote for Obama because he’s a smoker and I don’t support smoking.” But one could also throw their ‘support’ behind him despite not agreeing with him on every issue or despite the fact that he smokes. I’m only saying I hope people realize a difference between supporting an artist’s work which may have nothing to do with the issue at hand, vs. bullying an artist into their viewpoint via boycotts.

        But as you said, people must and should be left to live according to their conscience. I just tend to raise an eyebrow when the boycott has to do with the person’s personal beliefs that aren’t being pushed through their product and, other than media sensationalizing, probably wouldn’t come up publicly otherwise. *shrug*

        Thanks for always discussing with me, even if we don’t always agree 100% 🙂

        1. Thanks for adding your thoughts on this issue, Jae. I appreciate the discussion. By the way, you might be interested to know that the organization in which Card is involved as a board member (the National Organization for Marriage) engages in the same boycotting tactics that those opposing Card are engaging in. I visited that organization’s website earlier today and saw that they have “dump Starbucks” and “dump General Mills” campaigns. I don’t know if Card has any role in the decision-making of this organization (I don’t even know if he currently sits on that board), but it should hardly come as a surprise to him that these tactics are used on both sides of the issue. In my opinion, his “tolerance” statement is entirely hypocritical and self-interested.

          1. Hmmm, if that’s the case then I agree. I guess he’s only experiencing karma if he’s engaging in the same sorts of activities. Too bad. Oh well, let karma do what karma does. Thanks for letting me know about it. I prefer to be informed.

  4. There is no question that our choices are edited by Big $. However, there is also something oppressive about expecting niceness, conformity and political correctness from authors.

    1. True, but thanks to the Internet and self-publishing, our choices aren’t as limited by large corporations as they used to be. It may feel oppressive to be “nice” all the time, but I don’t think the standard is so demanding. Ideally, an author would understand his or her audience well enough to know whether they are offending their readers. No author needs to appeal to even 50% of the population. A much smaller percentage will do, and there are many authors who offend me (and won’t get my business) but have no trouble attracting readers with similar views and making quite a profit. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Terrific post. Might it be that it’s often the large corporate entities who are making the decision for us, the “citizen-consumer” rather than the other way around? That’s what I question. They so quickly cut ties with their high profile and profitable clients, like Deen and now, perhaps Card, before it is known what the full impact would be. They may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While I can understand not going forward at this time with the funding of a movie of Card’s book, it may very well be that, as you pointed out, many consumers would ultimately be in support of it. Let the dust settle. I think we get caught up in the sensationalism of the moment. Articles that say things like, “many are boycotting” this or that. I ask, how many? What are the statistics for and against. I’d want to see those stats again in 3 months when those boycotters have either forgotten or just moved on to another controversial platform. I agree that it would be wise for these high profile types to keep their controversial personal/political/social views to themselves, but its unlikely to happen as long as they have a platform and people are still listening.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, large corporations are often making decisions for us based on what they think will make them the biggest profit. When it comes to books, though, consumers have more choice than ever before with indie options and the Internet. As far as I know, Card’s movie is ready for the theaters, but a substantial boycott could certainly cut into his royalties. I don’t know if this is one that will disappear in a few months (although it did for Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A). I can understand why people, particularly if they are gay or have loved ones who are, wouldn’t forget Card’s “traditional marriage” advocacy so quickly. In his case, it’s not just about his personal view that legal recognition of marriage should be between a man and a woman. He’s been particularly vocal on the issue and, according to CNN, sat (sits?) on the board of The National Organization for Marriage, which I recently found on its website encourages its members and sympathizers to boycott companies with opposing views on marriage equality (Starbucks and General Mills, for example). Boycotts are used by both sides of every issue, and it’s just a wee bit hypocritical of Card to act like a victim here.

  6. I think you’ve summed things up pretty well in the end paragraph. For someone to be able to refuse purchasing something based on their beliefs is a fantastic liberty. Flipping that coin, it’s an infringement for a public entity to make a decision for them (e.g. through their tax dollars).

    1. Yeah, a public entity would be completely different, and I hope our courts maintain our speech protective First Amendment in the context of book censorship (I wasn’t pleased with the 11th Circuit’s decision in ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd.in 2009). Thanks for the comment!

  7. I am considering avoiding reading V.S. Naipal for this reason, although otherwise he would be an obvious choice for an author representing Trinidad and Tobago. I’m sad to learn about Orson Scott Card though, I rather wanted to see that movie…

    1. Yeah, it’s tough when we learn this type of information about authors. If I can’t pass on the books or movies, then depending on how repulsive I find the author to be, I’m likely to wait until I can borrow it from the library. Thanks for stopping by!

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