Simon & Schuster Cancels Borders Events

Some commentators have considered recent financial setbacks within Borders to represent the beginning of the end for the forty year old bookstore chain. But another apocalyptic variable was presented on Thursday night when several Simon & Schuster author events were inexplicably listed as “canceled” on the Borders website without additional explanation. To add to the mystery, there was no indication on the Simon & Schuster website that the events had ever been scheduled at Borders in the first place.

On Thursday, The New York Times‘s Julie Bosman and Michael J. De La Merced reported that “several people said they were scrutinizing future print runs and examining the schedules of author events at Borders in February and March, with the expectation that they would be canceled.” Bosman and De La Merced did not name any specific sources, but an investigation has revealed that Simon & Schuster has taken steps to cancel events as early as next week.

The latest Simon & Schuster event that could be located on the Simon & Schuster website was a January 18th event in New York for author Chris Cleave. It’s possible that this event is still on because Mr. Cleave plans to arrive from England. The earliest canceled Borders event is January 12th (the Lo Bosworth event at Columbus Circle listed below), suggesting very strongly that a blanket scrubbing of
Simon & Schuster Borders events will kick in as of next week.

What follows is a comprehensive but by no means complete listing of store events that are presently listed as canceled (including two additional cancellations related to Penguin imprints). In the next few days, I’m hoping to get representatives of Borders and Simon & Schuster on the record to determine why this decision was made, and whether any alternative plans will be made to accommodate the authors.

Manhattan — Park Avenue

2/17 — Mark Alpert (The Omega Theory, Touchstone)

Manhattan – Columbus Circle

1/12 — Lo Bosworth (The Lo-Down, Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing) — It is worth noting that Ms. Bosworth is now appearing at a Barnes & Noble on the 12th.
1/17 — Tony and Lauren Dungy (You Can Be A Friend, Little Simon Inspirations)
2/8 — Taboo (Fallin’ Up, Touchstone)

Boston — Back Bay

1/15 — Marc Cendella & Matthew Rothenberg (You’re Better Than Your Job Search, Downtown Bookworks)

San Francisco — Union Square

1/27 — Patricia Briggs (Silver Borne and River Marked, Ace) — Ace is a Penguin imprint, not Simon & Schuster. But this Borders event is not listed on Ms. Briggs’s official website. But her website indicates that she’s still signed on to hit a few Borders stores during her River Marked tour.

Bryn Mawr, PA

2/5 — Kelly Simmons (The Bird House, Washington Square Press)

Phoenix, AZ — Camelback – Borders

1/21 — Marc Cendella & Matthew Rothenberg (You’re Better Than Your Job Search, Downtown Bookworks)

San Jose, CA — Santana Row

1/20 — Lo Bosworth (The Lo-Down, Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing)

Washington DC — Friendship Heights

1/22 — Jodi Picoult (Sing You Home, Atria)

Dallas — Preston & Royals

3/3 — Mike Huckabee (A Simple Government, Sentinel) — Sentinel is a Penguin imprint. It’s also possible that there was a scheduling conflict with Huckabee’s schedule. (In light of the fact that Patricia Briggs — also a Penguin imprint — has been canceled, it is very possible that Penguin may have offered a few peremptory cancellations. Some inside sources are suggesting very strongly to me that Penguin has stopped shipping books to Borders, although I’m hoping to corroborate this with an official statement.)

* * *

Investigations into these developments are ongoing. I hope to have more information in the next few days.

1/7/11 EARLY AM UPDATE: I’ve contacted numerous authors about these developments, hoping to shed some additional light on the story. Kelly Simmons, author of The Bird House, informed me this morning that her S&S publicist did fill her in on the Borders developments, but that she had been following the story shortly after the Borders announcement.

“Showing up for an event at a bookstore that doesn’t have plenty of stock of my two novels — Standing Still and The Bird House — for me to sign — that would be a freaking nightmare,” said Simmons, who pointed out that chain bookstore appearances are more important for a top-selling author than a literary one.

Simmons also noted Borders’s recent reputation for not working well with authors. But does a Borders appearance even make that much of an impact? Simmons’s promotional efforts have been more devoted to book clubs, but she says that Barnes & Noble stores and independent bookstores “are very good about being involved in reading groups.”

Still, Simmons regrets the canceled appearance. She reports that “the Bryn Mawr/Rosemont Borders is run by smart, book-loving people, and I know hundreds of readers in the area who would have attended the book launch event, so it was a bummer.” However, Simmons had scheduled two events the following week at independent bookstores.

“It’s always sad when a brand that started out so inventive and interesting can’t survive,” concluded Simmons. “And for many readers, their local Borders is the only bookstore for many miles around. That is the greatest loss.”

1/7/11 UPDATE II: Jodi Picoult, author of the forthcoming Sing You Home, also confirmed with me that her publicist had filled her in on the Borders financial mess. Picoult, who says that she has no input into any of her bookstore appearances, doesn’t believe that the book tour is the only driving force for sales. Nevertheless, the book tour allows Picoult “to personally thank the people who are reading my books — so it is a very important part of my publishing cycle.”

Picoult she says that Borders “has been a good friend to me as my career has progressed and I’m very sorry to hear that they are in dire straits.” While there is nothing yet listed on its events calendar, Politics & Prose will now be sponsoring the scheduled event in DC on January 22nd. The independent bookstore will be using the same offsite venue as Borders.

If Borders slides into oblivion, will this translate into more events with prominent authors at independent bookstores?

“Obviously if Borders collapses,” said Picoult, “I’ll have the opportunity to do events with some other bookstores I might not have been able to visit before because of timing and availability. That said, I certainly hope Borders comes through this latest struggle, and that I can continue to work with them in the future.”

1/7/11 UPDATE III: In an effort to get a complete story, I’ve tried to get comments from Borders and Simon & Schuster, contacting them by telephone and email. As of 10:30 AM EST, nobody has returned my calls. Another anonymous source suggests that nobody is interested in talking on the record.

1/7/11 UPDATE IV: The official word from Simon & Schuster: “No comment.”

1/7/11 UPDATE V: I have heard back from Borders spokesperson Mary Davis: “Borders stores host thousands of free enriching events each year, and that will continue. From time to time, events get canceled. Our schedule of events remains full.” I have asked Ms. Davis if it is Borders’s position that nine canceled events reflects an occasional or “time to time” cancellation. If I hear anything back, I will report it here.

1/7/11 UPDATE VI: Jodi Picoult just informed me that her DC event may still get sponsored by Borders after all. A final decision is expected in the next few weeks. Since Jodi Picoult’s books tend to sell very well (to be clear, “#1 New York Times bestseller” well), it’s quite possible that Picoult’s event is being used as a bargaining chip with Borders. Or maybe this is an effort to save face. We have only speculation to go on — since Simon & Schuster doesn’t wish to elaborate on “No comment” and Borders insists that its “schedule of events remains full.” I have emailed Barbara Meade at Politics and Prose to see if she might provide some additional input on what has become a cloudy matter.

1/7/11 UPDATE VII: I’ve heard back from Barbara Meade: “We were never contacted by Simon and Schuster. We are partnered with the 6th and I Historic Synagogue downtown, where we do some of our larger events and they contacted me to ask if we had any problem with their doing an event for Jodi Picoult that Boarders had contacted them about. I told them I didn’t have any problem with it because we didn’t
have any plans to do any event is Jodi Picoult. Our events schedule is completely filled two months into the future with ten events a week. We don’t have time for last-minute events.”

It would appear that this was more of an assumptive alternative.

1/14/11 UPDATE: On January 12, 2011, I appeared on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth to discuss the Borders situation with Sarah Weinman.

Are Bookstores Being Too Censorious With Author Events?

Jennifer Weiner is a best-selling author. And while her latest novel, Best Friends Forever, proved popular enough to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, this didn’t stop a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Framingham, Massachusetts from raising a censorious eyebrow.

Some bookstores have begun instituting informal policies which preclude authors from using four-letter words during a public reading. And even dependable draws like Weiner are being asked to hold their tongues. These developments — reflected most recently in the Weiner case — raise new questions about just how much an author is allowed to get away with in the 21st century and whether bookstore policies that are understandably intended to protect children are going too far.

The trouble for Weiner began when she playfully announced the “potty-mouthed” nature of her Best Friends Forever book tour on Twitter. Shortly after her Philadelphia reading, Weiner later tweeted that she had received a warning:


Weiner carried on with the Framingham gig without setting off any F-bombs, and applied her saucy language instead to the inscriptions. (After tweeting about the Framingham event, the organizer of a subsequent off-site event in St. Louis encouraged Weiner to be extra raunchy.)

“I can’t imagine it’s a blanket B&N policy,” said Weiner. “I kicked off the Best Friends Forever tour at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Triangle in New York City, and I said ‘cock’ like nine times and told a story about a Hitachi Magic Wand, and the manager seemed perfectly okay with it (my poor editor, who brought her parents to the reading, not so much). As much as I’d like to turn this into a ‘corporate stiffs censor freewheeling lady writer because the world hates it when a lady succeeds’ story, I honestly think it was just this one bookstore, that one afternoon, making a not-unreasonable request.”

A list of questions was sent to Mary Ellen Keating, Barnes and Noble’s senior vice president of corporate communication and public affairs. But there was no response. I was able to reach Margaret Moore, the community relations manager of the Framingham store, by phone. But she was extremely nervous, even when I assured her that I was merely determining questions of policy. I did receive a return phone call from Maddie Hjulstrom, a regional community relations manager at Barnes and Noble, who was gracious enough to talk with me.

Hjulstrom informed me that the email had been sent by Moore when Moore had “learned that Ms. Weiner’s language was colorful at her discussions.”

According to Weiner, the Framingham controversy arose out of concerns that the reading area was adjacent to the children’s section and that Weiner’s scheduled reading time — 3:00 PM — would be too early to account for the hallowed ears of tots.

“Because the event was on a Sunday afternoon,” said Weiner, “I think the bookstore managers reasonably expected that there would be kids there, and felt that they could reasonably ask me to tone down the cussing.”

This was confirmed by Hjulstrom, who told me that the objections had to do with the microphone’s close placement to the children’s department and the possibility that Weiner’s amplified words might drift like cigarette smoke into a 1980s restaurant’s nonsmoking section.

“We want to be respectful of young families and children,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t regulate where children are in our store. At 3:00 PM, it might be a problem.”

Had Barnes & Noble ever received any customer complaints because of an author or a poet using salty language during a reading? Hjulstrom told me that she couldn’t give me an example of the Framingham store having received a single customer complaint, but that the region, as a whole, had received a few complaints.

The Barnes & Noble “no salty language” policy is, according to Hjulstrom, “not a written policy, just common courtesy.” It is something that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

“All we can do is ask,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t enforce. We don’t kick them out of their store. We just ask them to respect the children who are in the stores.”

I asked Hjulstrom what might happen if an author used salty language, but did not receive a single customer complaint.

“I’m not comfortable going into what ifs,” replied Hjulstrom. “I just want to deal with the facts.”

But the prohibition causes one to wonder why bookstores — even with the possibility of a child lurking around a bookstore late at night — would be so offended by a monosyllabic exclamation that anyone who has ever stubbed a toe is quite familiar with. Were there efforts by Weiner and Barnes and Noble to broker a last-minute deal?

“We didn’t try to broker a compromise mostly because there wasn’t time,” explained Weiner. “The best solution would have been either to hold the event somewhere else, or after dark, and with just over twenty-four hours, on a weekend, to either reschedule or relocate, that just didn’t seem feasible. And again, once I got over my reflexive ‘the MAN is trying to SHUT ME UP’ paranoia, it didn’t seem like a crazy thing to ask. I’ve got little kids, and if I took them into a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon to pick up the latest Sandra Boynton or ‘Junie B. Jones,’ I probably wouldn’t be thrilled to find some lady standing behind a microphone talking, as I tend to, about ‘wall-to-wall cock.'”

Still, independent bookstores such as San Francisco’s The Booksmith have conducted numerous author events in its children’s section, closing the section off to make room for the audience to sit down. Booksmith co-owner Praveen Madan informed me that, while there are generally no kids around at the time of the event, his bookstore doesn’t make any concessions if an event takes place in the middle of the day.

“We take freedom of speech very seriously and even the suggestion of us laying down any kind of censoring guidelines for authors makes me cringe,” said Madan. “And the issue here is more than freedom of speech. We believe it’s important for authors to be authentic and credible, and sometimes being authentic requires saying things that might end up offending some people. I would rather shut down the bookstore and sell falafels than try to engineer an author’s talk to make the author more palatable for a certain audience. You should be clear about what business you are in. We are in the business of intellectual discourse and opening people’s minds to new ideas and possibilities. If you want to be in the business of reinforcing people’s existing belief systems, than you should run a religious institution or radio talk show, not a bookstore.”

It’s also worth observing that prohibitions on what an author can say at a reading can sometimes have unexpected side effects. As Tayari Jones observed on her blog recently, the author can feel oddly shamed when contending with a complaint.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, formerly of McNally Jackson and now working hard to open the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene this autumn, says that there was never a policy prohibiting language or controversial topics at an author event when she worked at McNally. But she did mention that she hoped to be more sensitive to such matters at Greenlight.

“We don’t intend to set any blanket policy,” said Bagnulo. “I think for the most part we will trust our customers to know whether an author is going to be inappropriate for their children or potentially offensive to their own sensibilities. As long as we make clear from the outset what the event is likely to contain, we won’t try to restrict or prohibit authors from anything they’d like to say.”

Even if the event is scheduled in the middle of the day?

“Not unless it’s an event specifically geared toward kids,” replied Bagnulo. “For example, at McNally we held a Halloween event that had kids programming earlier in the day, and some adult authors reading later that had lots of graphic blood and gore.”

Before the Framingham incident, Weiner had never received any complaints from a bookstore for her act. But censorship issues aren’t limited to the big box stores. Weiner alluded to an incident that came from an ostensible independent:

“In 2001, when Good in Bed came out, I did hear from one independent bookstore somewhere in the Midwest that an older gentleman had objected to a cover featuring the book’s poster (naked legs and cheesecake) in the window. But that’s as close to censorship as I’ve come.”

For what it’s worth, Weiner did say that she would do an event at the Framingham bookstore again: “I’d just make sure it was an evening event, or that it was held somewhere far, far away from the innocent ears of children.”

“In general, we feel that authors these days have become rather conservative and risk averse because they are trying to become bestsellers and are afraid of stirring controversy,” said Madan. “I wish more authors would pick topics that might be controversial and not worry about offending people. There are important topics being ignored and we all tend to surround ourselves with people we agree with and we like.”

“I think that indie bookstores work to create an environment of mutual respect between authors and audiences,” said Bagnulo, “where what is controversial is taken in context as part of the conversation, and there’s enough transparency of intention that people are unlikely to be offended.

“It’s not a bad idea to mention ahead of time, ‘Hey, I work blue,'” said Weiner, “but it’s never been a problem in the past, and I don’t really expect it to be a problem going forward.”