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Publisher Second Guesses What We Will and Won’t Carry

Vagina.

Yes, you read that right.

That word is at the heart of a controversy involving author Rachel Held Evans, Thomas Nelson Publishing, and a small army of readers who are blaming us — the Christian bookstore industry — for keeping blunt language out of Rachel’s forthcoming book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.    At her blog she writes:

The issue isn’t whether I am allowed to use the word “vagina” in the book, but whether Christian bookstores will carry it if I do.

I want to make it clear that it is not my editors at Thomas Nelson who are insisting that I take out the word “vagina.” I can stick to my guns, keep “vagina” in, and I suspect Thomas Nelson will still publish the book. The problem, as I understand it, is that Christian bookstores probably won’t carry it, and Thomas Nelson sells a lot of books to Christian bookstores.

So, as sad as it is, we have a business decision to make. Do we risk losing a bunch of potential sales in order to keep the word “vagina” in this context? Or do we decide to choose our battles and let it go? And do I risk alienating myself from the Thomas Nelson team—which has been great so far—because I refuse to cooperate with Christian retailing, their area of expertise?

I’ve struggled with this decision, which is why, in the original post I wrote this:

“They won’t let me use the word “vagina” in my book because we have to sell it to Christian bookstores, which apparently have a thing against vaginas. I make a big scene about it and say that if Christian bookstores stuck to their own ridiculous standards, they wouldn’t be able carry the freaking Bible. I tell everyone that I’m going to fight it out of principle, but I cave within a few days because I want Christian bookstores to carry the sanitized version of my book because I want to make a lot of money, because we’ve needed a new roof on our house for four years now, and because I really want a Mac so I can fit in at the mega-churches. I feel like such a fraud.”

It’s important for me to communicate that I actually have more control over this than you might think. The last thing I want to do is present myself as a victim of censorship when that’s just not the case. I chose to work with a Christian publisher and, for better or worse, Christian publishers generate much of their sales from Christian bookstores.

Well, first of all, it’s nice to think that the brick-and-mortar retail side of Christian book distribution still carries some weight. Guess we’re not dead yet.

But I also think they’ve been extremely presumptuous as to how prudish we really are.

Because the truth of the matter, is that this isn’t about you and me, the owners of independent bookstores and small chains; this is about LifeWay, because it’s LifeWay — or perhaps even more accurately, Baptists — who are going to raise the roof over this word.

As Rachel points out, the vocabulary in some books we’re already selling might surprise you:

In Ian Cron’s fantastic book, Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me, which was also published by Thomas Nelson, he writes this: “Did I mention that it’s cold? You have no idea how far a man’s testicles can recede into his body until you have jumped into the Dorset Qarry…My testicles were very, very angry.”

And in To Own a Dragon, the ever-talented Donald Miller writes, “I felt as though all the men in the world secretly met in some warehouse late at night to talk about man things, to have secret handshakes, to discuss how great it was to have a penis and what an easy thing it was to operate…”

Yes, you already stock those titles; or you did until 30 seconds ago.

I know there are people who will say, “Well that’s why we shop in Christian bookstores and buy from Christian publishers. We trust you and them to act as gatekeepers, to provide us with reading that’s safe and family-friendly.”

Really?  I can see that applying about 85% of the time, but I also have readers who want material that is reflective of their real world, but doesn’t buy into its worldview. Material that doesn’t couch meaning with silly phrases such as the one my wife heard two weeks ago in sermon on Song of Solomon: “Her lady bits.” These are readers who are progressive but decidedly not liberal. They don’t put stock in the censorship of certain words and phrases, but they are at the same time completely orthodox in their faith and ethics.

So what should Rachel do? She admits — see point #5 in the post linked above — that she is torn.  While her readers are absolutely not the same people who shop at Lifeway, they do have buying clout. Thomas Nelson is leaving a certain amount of the decision up to her, but with the caveat, ‘Allow the word and the book won’t sell.’

Again, really? Is this a deal-breaker for you as store buyer or merchandiser? Does the conservative element dictate what goes in your store? Do your personal tastes or preferences dictate what you carry? Is Thomas Nelson correct in their forecast of poor sales if the word is allowed?

And thanks to Tony Jones, whose blogged alerted me to this week’s teapot tempest.

  1. March 27, 2012 at 10:05 am

    I have no problem with the words “vagina”, “penis” or “testicles”. They are the names of body parts just like “ankle”, “clavicle”, “heart” or “forehead”. If the word fits, use it.

  1. March 27, 2012 at 5:30 am

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