Is This Censorship at WalMart?

October 16, 2002
October 17th Update
October 24th Update

Monday morning I received a tip from someone who informed me that Susan Grant's Contact was not being sold in many WalMart stores specifically because of its hijacking theme, which was deemed to be inappropriate at this time. Having been made aware in recent weeks about two specific romances not being sold by WalMart because their covers were deemed inappropriate, I contacted WalMart's corporate headquarters and was put in touch with Karen Burk in their Corporate Communications divison.

I emailed her and asked whether it was true that Contact was not being sold because of its hijacking theme and asked whether she could send me a list of other books WalMart had declined to sell based on content. I received this response from her Tuesday:

"Wal-Mart makes decisions on what products to carry in our stores based on customer demand. As a retailer, we make these decisions every day, and the ultimate factor in what products we carry is what we think our customers want. It always comes down to that. In this instance, Wal-Mart is not carrying the book, Contact."

Not fully satisfied with this response, I discovered that many WalMarts receive their books from the distributor Anderson Merchandising. In doing research about this company, I learned that their sole client is WalMart. Additional information dribbled in from my source verifying that Dorchester Publishing had indeed been told that Andersen had declined to stock Contact to WalMart even though it is this month's lead title and the author had previously sold, and sold well, at WalMart.

Late Tuesday afternoon I put in a call to a VP at Anderson, and I expect to call her back some time Wednesday. In the meantime, author Susan Grant has posted the following message at The Romance Journal:

"After seeing all the hoopla online today, and panicking, I called my publisher this afternoon and got the info from the "top" that yes indeed, it was not picked up by Anderson Merchandising due to the buyer's feeling that hijacking was not an appropriate theme in these times of unrest. And it's unfortunate, as my VP of marketing broke the bad news to me, that Anderson accounts for a 'significant amount of sales,' and that this decision will indeed hurt me. They mean to make it up to me, but it's spilled milk at this point. So yes, indeed it is true what we read at AAR, Contact was declined for content. And...contrary to what you might find in your local store, Dorchester titles are picked up every month by Anderson, who supplies WalMart in most states. The leads (of which Contact was one - the Love Spell lead title) and often a title or two of the lower releases. I know, because my last two were 'bought' by Anderson, and it really, really boosted my sales.

The individual at Anderson who I'm told is the person to talk to is out of her office until next week. I've left a message and will follow up here next week.

Everything above this paragraph is fact...what follows is editorial content.

I've been doomed ever since I learned about the reductio ad absurdem argument in Philosophy 101 in college. This type of argument is one used to take people down the slippery slope, and that's what I tend to do when I hear things that I find alarming. So when I received the tip Monday, I immediately thought to myself, "What if WalMart decides not to sell a Spike Lee DVD because of a disturbing theme, or won't sell any more Harry Potter books because some find the magic theme subversive, anti-Christian, or somehow Satanist?" "How different is this from the time 10 years ago when the Dallas ABC affliliate refused to air NYPD Blue because it was considered too controversial?" In my mind, it's one thing to refuse to sell something that the community would consider obscene, but it's a form of censorship to refuse to sell something based on its content and the fear that some in the community might be offended. This is an issue I've addressed before, in an At the Back Fence segment.

Having posted bits and pieces of the story throughout the day Tuesday, it appears as though most of AAR's readers do not agree with me. Even my husband, generally with me on these things, doesn't find it as compelling as I do. And since the book is being offered on WalMart's website, what's the big deal?

I do tend to go overboard where censorship is concerned, and from where I sit, this is a form of censorship. From all reports to this date, this book was not judged on its merits; instead, a decision was made by a retailer's distributor to refuse the book from a major publisher because its hijacking theme was deemed inappropriate. Forget that Susan Grant is the pilot of 747's and previously a pilot in the armed services and might actually have some keen insight on the issue of hijacking. Simply remember that authors' contracts with their publishers depend upon their sales figures, and these sales figures also come into play when an author's next book comes up for distribution. As the largest discount retailer in the nation, WalMart contributes heavily to an author's overall sales. I would much rather a book not sell because it is poorly written than because you or I couldn't buy it at our local WalMart and decide for ourselves. Because of their size, decisions they make matter.

That said, I realize many of you disagree with me, and probably think I reported the story to generate controversy. Well, I'd much rather be sleeping right now than sitting at my computer typing at 1 in the morning because I'm too hyped to sleep. Perhaps I've taken this story too far down the slippery slope, but if a slope is slippery, that's often what happens.

October 17th:

Although the VP for marketing at Dorchester Publishing "can neither confirm nor deny the allegation," a posting at The Romance Journal by author Susan Grant indicated that Anderson Merchandising/WalMart requested editorial changes in Contact at some point before the book was published in its final form but that Dorchester refused. Ms Grant wrote: "...None of it really makes much sense to me: available in one place, not in another, all apparently run by the same folks who supposedly asked for editorial content changes that my publisher refused to do...." When contacted for verification, author Grant confirmed the information contained in her post to TRJ. She said that changes in "editorial content" had indeed been requested from Anderson/WalMart but the request was not fulfilled by Dorchester.

As mentioned in yesterday's update, the individual at Anderson who I'm told is the person to talk to is out of her office until next week. I've left a message and will follow up here next week.

October 24th:

It all seems to come down to a "they said, no they said" set of disputed facts. An Anderson spokeswoman, who asked not to be quoted, said that the sole reason Contact is not being carried in the 80% of WalMart stores stocked by Anderson (the remaining 20% of stores are stocked by another distributor) is because of the poor sell-thru rate of Grant's previous title - The Star Prince. The sell-thru rate of a book is determined by how many copies are sold, less the number returned.

Grant and her publisher strongly dispute the percentage quoted by the Anderson spokeswoman; indeed, although loathe to release sell-thru numbers, they state that The Star Prince's sell-thru rate is far, far greater than the number quoted by Anderson and that Grant's overall sell-thru rate is roughly double Anderson's number. Why else, they ask, would Grant have just been signed to a new, three-book deal? After all, publishers aren't particularly keen on signing lead authors whose books don't sell.

I've heard from several authors that the Contact scenario could not have played out as set forth in this article, that buyers don't see much more than cover flats when making their purchasing decisions. But because Dorchester was elevating Grant to lead author status with this book, they sent out six-chapter teasers to distributors and buyers. It was after receiving the teaser that Anderson purportedly contacted Dorchester and ultimately declined the book.

Interestingly enough, this seems to be a topic that others who cover the publishing industry have recently been discussing. We're doing further research for the next At the Back Fence column and have discovered a great deal of commentary...it's up to us to discern the facts to back up the claims we're reading about elsewhere on the 'Net. Just this morning we learned our story is featured in the new Holt Uncensored column. Once an editor and reviewer, Holt has worked in the publishing industry and/or written about it since 1969.

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