Blog Post

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.

25 Responses to “Hey, Tim Ferriss: Book banning isn’t a marketing gimmick”

  1. I don’t like Amazon’s business practices either, which means I don’t purchase anything from them, period. Which means I won’t purchase Tim’s book. If everyone who disagrees with Amazons policies would stop buying from them, would it make a difference?

  2. Beyond the publishing industry’s infighting, let’s focus on the stated aim of the book, which is to determine, for the health and economic benefit of all, the future of food production in the United States. That’s a grand, noble and immeasurably important ambition. If those banning the book don’t think so, I’d argue that Tim’s entitled to a bit of spin. After all, as marketing hooks go, there are far greater evils than a straightforward truth.

    The bigger picture is a better planet. Those inclined to do so can bat around definitions all day long, but meanwhile Tim Ferriss is out there fighting the good fight. Don’t knock it.

    Read More:

  3. Did you know that they “banned” selling the Big Mac at Burger King? Not completely the same, but if you publish with a quasi-publishing house that’s also a store, the competing stores don’t have to automatically sell the same goods. Sorry, but this is a non-story.

  4. Like the French collaborators who later claimed to part of the Nazi resistance, or like those in America who claimed to be “fighting” the KKK from the 1990’s forward, people like Laura Hazard Owen only come out for liberty when it is utterly safe and socially acceptable to do so.

    Newsflash, Miss Owen. You’re not displaying great courage in coming out against the censorship of Huckleberry Finn. Today, in 2012, the greatest world threat against liberty – and freedom of speech – is political Islam. Here in America, a man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has been jailed for insulting the pedophile prophet Mohammed (those pretending it was about a probation violation are lying to themselves.)

    But the ever-obedient Miss Owen doesn’t want to talk about that.

  5. As long as share holders don’t demand that Amazon is profitable they will continue to cause the destruction of the book trade per Bezos’s comments in the New York Times. Some times getting into a new things has it’s risks. Ferris did not have business representation and shot himself in the foot. The small book shops across the country made him a success and he abandoned them to their fate. Now they have done the same to him.

  6. The Doctor

    He should’ve signed with one of the Amazon Seattle Imprints. They are the ones looking toward the future and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of the books they publish. And they’re doing it without bookstores.

    In five years when B&N is gone and there are only a handful of independent bookstores left in the country, no one will remember this at all.

  7. somewhatboxes

    “I think the implications of this boycott or ban — choose the word you prefer — are larger then people realize.”
    Did he really use “then” where he should have used “than”…? I don’t mean to nitpick, but he’s an author, it seems like fair game.

  8. Ferris displays a complete lack of perspective. If the market for book distribution were a monopoly, the word “ban” would make sense. But book distribution is not a monopoly – it’s a highly competitive market, and the B&N decision is a simple competitive calculation.

  9. Actual Author

    I’ve published with the big 6 houses in NYC for years. Only this year did Barnes and Noble start carrying my books; and very few numbers at that. This guy doesn’t know the publishing business from his ass. He’s right, though. Without B&N it’ll be a bit harder to sell more books…at B&N. Welcome to the club, buddy.

    • Doesn’t know the publishing business from his ass? Are you a best-selling author? Judging from your “very few numbers” tidbit I’d guess you probably aren’t and in the publishing business I’d also guess that your numbers are fairly important.

    • Hey Nate – thanks for the comment. If I understand you correctly you’re saying that all publicity is good publicity. I thought about this too but I decided to write the post for a couple reasons:
      –If people ignored everything they found offensive or distasteful, then any remaining media coverage of a given issue is likely supportive. This story has already been written straight from the press release (, so another perspective is useful.
      –It’s not really my job as a journalist to either help or hinder Ferriss’s sales. I’m sure this post could lead to some people buying his book and some people not wanting to (and I doubt it’d change a lot of minds on either side). Regardless, it’s worth writing about because it exposes a major rift in the publishing industry right now, and it’s my job to report on that. So I did.

  10. Andrew Shaffer

    “Stifling free speech (through distribution of otherwise) [is] a malevolent thing,” says Ferriss. Funny thing coming from someone whose ebook is available exclusively for the Kindle.

    If he wants to see his print books in Barnes & Noble (and other bookstores), all he has to do is convince Amazon to allow other retailers to sell the ebook edition as well.

  11. Richard Hartzell

    Yeah, if you’re an author it’s tough having Amazon as your sole sales outlet.

    But what’s the deal with BitTorrent? I assume BitTorrent users will have to pay for Ferris’s ebook — that’s got to be a shock to the system for most of them.

  12. Nothing is more irritating than faux victim-hood.

    The bookstores have made a fairly obvious, predictable, and mundane business decision. If Ferris believes he can be successful anyways than great, but why be such a crybaby about it.

    • Peter, where is Tim claiming to be a victim?

      He said “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.”

      He’s not being a crybaby… he’s making logical statements. You’re just name-calling.

      • Scott Pictures

        “it’s poised to be the most banned book in us history”
        That’s the statement Tim made about his book. That statement is either true or false.

        Do you think Tim did research to see what the most banned book in history is?

        Or is his headline just an emotional and attention grabbing headline, that he’s using just to sell books?

        Why not lead with a headline about the value the book offers? He doesn’t because Tim knows emotion is the best tactic to use when you’re selling B.S.