Hey, Tim Ferriss: Book banning isn’t a marketing gimmick

Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird: Those are among the titles that schools and libraries have most commonly banned over the years. An Illinois school district banned a book this year because it included a reference to gay families. And Bibles and Korans are still burned by religious groups around the world.

On Friday the bestselling author Tim Ferriss, whose book The Four-Hour Chef will be published by Amazon’s (s AMZN) New York imprint on November 20, entered into a marketing promotion with BitTorrent. A BitTorrent blog post proudly proclaims: “It’s poised to be the most banned book in U.S. history. The 4-Hour Chef is one of the first titles underneath Amazon’s new publishing imprint; boycotted by U.S. booksellers, including Barnes & Noble (s BKS).” The same “banned book” point is repeated in the materials sent to press, which include the following “points to consider”: “It’s a significant marketing partnership, particularly in light of the ban of the book by Barnes & Noble and others.” And “Similar promotions for recording artists generated downloads in the tens of millions amongst BitTorrent users, offering a significant lift in awareness and sales.”

So is Barnes & Noble banning The Four-Hour Chef because of its controversial content? Not so much. Ferriss’s book is simply one of several that Barnes & Noble will not stock in its stores because it is published by Amazon. As Barnes & Noble announced earlier this year, “Our decision is based on Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent. These exclusives have prohibited us from offering certain ebooks to our customers. Their actions have undermined the industry as a whole and have prevented millions of customers from having access to content.” Other booksellers, too — both chains like Books-A-Million and small independent stores — do not stock Amazon titles because, as Books Inc. owner Michael Tucker recently put it to the New York Times, “At a certain point you have to decide how far you want to nail your own coffin shut.” Tim Ferriss himself told me last week, “Do I blame [Barnes & Noble]? No. If I were in their shoes, would I do the same thing? Maybe.” Update: Ferriss responded to my concerns about the promotion in an email:

I view things through a different lens. I think the implications of this boycott or ban — choose the word you prefer — are larger then people realize. If this book fails due to a retail stonewall, I can tell you for a fact that more than a dozen A-list authors I know will hit pause on plans for publishing innovation for the next few years. Is The 4-Hour Chef the same as Huckleberry Finn?  Of course not, and I never implied that it was. But do I view stifling innovation and free speech (through distribution of otherwise) as a malevolent thing? Yes. Regardless of the motive (moral, economic, etc.), the outcome is the same: regress instead of progress. And regress snowballs quickly. At the end of the day, I want people to think about boycotting and banning, both historically and moving forward. The fact that you wrote a piece about precisely that — raising awareness and stimulating conversation — is a great thing. That public discourse is one of my goals. Last, I’d be remiss not to point out: booksellers use banned books as a marketing gimmick every year as a matter of course. Yes, I’m using the media to highlight what I view as a serious fork in the road for content creators. But if anyone is guilty of using “banned books” as a gimmick, it’s booksellers themselves.

Readers can still order Amazon titles from Barnes & Noble’s website and most independent bookstores will order them if readers ask. Barnes & Noble’s policy is a business decision — just the way Amazon’s marketing campaign last December, which gave shoppers a discount if they walked into bricks-and-mortar stores and scanned products with the Amazon Price Check app, was a business decision. (Neither Amazon nor Barnes & Noble responded to a request for comment for this piece.)

“Disruptive voices should be heard,” BitTorrent proclaims. (Conveniently, according to today’s issue of Fortune, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is this year’s “ultimate disruptor.”) And “we’ll be asking users to support Tim and the Amazon imprint.”

“Where books are burned, in the end people will burn”: That line, from the German nineteenth-century poet Heinrich Heine, is engraved on a plaque at Berlin’s Bebelplatz, the site where the Nazis burned thousands of books in 1933. The disruptors who do speak out for Ferriss won’t be risking personal harm. They won’t be standing up against free speech. Ferriss approached Amazon for a book deal and in four days, it will be published. That’s not exactly censorship.