Are banned books a sales opportunity or political risk for Barnes & Noble?

Mar 08, 2022

Barnes & Noble has added a page on its website and small sections to some stores featuring “Banned And Challenged Books,” or books that have faced censorship.

On its banned books page, Barnes & Noble noted that “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, as well as world-wide bestsellers like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the “Harry Potter” series, have recently been challenged and restricted.

The retailer explains that literary works are usually banned on “moral, religious or political grounds.”

“They were believed to be obscene or too controversial to be read by society,” Barnes & Noble explained. “Books that explore race, sexuality and new concepts and ideas are still often prohibited by certain communities, although they can easily be purchased in most bookstores.”

Disputes over removing books from school libraries and curriculum have a long history in the U.S. Calls for book bans from state elected officials or parents have surged in recent years, driven by conservatives and often tied to themes around the nation’s racial history and gender identity.

Barnes & Noble’s banned book list features many of these books, including “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, along with books banned recently as a result of complaints from liberal voices, including “Hop on Pop” by Dr. Seuss and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

The nearly 200 books featured also include classics, such as “1984” by George Orwell, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury.

The site includes a number of articles, including ones titled, “7 Banned Books That Should Be Required Reading” and “11 Books That Were Banned for Completely Ridiculous Reasons,” that offer insights behind the censorship.

Holly Noble, a manager at the Barnes & Noble in Erie, PA, said her store’s banned books tables have been well received.

“We have all walks of life in our country, and we have all walks of life in our store,” she told “This starts conversations as to why things have been banned in the past, and it gets people thinking about why these books are being banned now.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of Barnes & Noble’s move to market and merchandise books that are facing or have faced censorship? Do you see the appeal offsetting any political backlash?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"As a society, we simply must resist this renewed urge to ban anything that challenges our worldview."
"My kids read Maus in grade school — and somehow they’ve managed to turn out alright!"
"I applaud B&N. Books should not be banned. I can’t believe I even need to state that in 2022."

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31 Comments on "Are banned books a sales opportunity or political risk for Barnes & Noble?"

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Dave Bruno

As a society, we simply must resist this renewed urge to ban anything that challenges our worldview. I hope more companies are willing to take a politically sensitive stance and present options for people who are interested in expanding their horizons, challenging their perceptions or simply – and perhaps most importantly – looking for cultural examples of things that represent them and/or are familiar to them.

Paula Rosenblum

Sometimes, it’s good to ignore the question of political backlash and just do the right thing,

Frankly, the B&N shopper may or may not buy those books, but it’s a good window into the minds of those who ban them. I’m curious. I’d actually never heard of the book Maus, now I want to know more about it.

Katie Thomas

Agreed – it provides an option for consumers to dig into books and why they may be banned, with low risk of alienating others.

Also – Maus is gutting (it’s about the Holocaust) but fantastic, both in the literal story it tells as well as the allegory.

Paula Rosenblum

Oh God, I always have a very hard time reading about the Holocaust. Too close to home — lost whole wings of the family.

James Tenser

Same here, Paula. But I have long believed that forcing myself to remember is a necessary first step in forcing the world to remember.

David Slavick

Fight fire with fire. The printed word opens the mind to the world around us. Those who profess to know better are false prophets. Every individual has the right to choose how, when, where and what to enjoy including books written for personal consumption. Kudos to B&N for bringing this curated section forward!

Zel Bianco

Barnes & Noble should be loudly applauded for this important initiative. We can all see what can happen when what we hold so dear in a free and democratic society gets challenged. As we have all heard in the past few years, our democracy is fragile and when our freedom to read books about the history of the world is being challenged and the such books are being hidden from view, our children will suffer. Ultra conservatives need to open their eyes.

Gary Sankary

I hope that any backlash for Barnes & Noble is minimal, and I think it probably will be. Banning books in a school library is different (in my mind) from trying to ban them from a private business. I suspect that the vast majority of people who shop Barnes & Noble to buy and read books expect free access to a spectrum of ideas. I also believe that most people who are attempting to ban books they object to in libraries are more interested in political theater than actually reading and debating the ideas in books.

Jeff Sward

This is great. It’s a totally appropriate hand gesture to anybody in favor of banning books. And it’s an invitation to those curious folks who are wondering what the conversation is all about. Gotta love the irony of banning “1984”. Orwell’s vision of Big Brother was way too accurate.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
8 months 26 days ago

I could not agree with you more. When I was in school, “Where The Wild Things Are” was a great read (for what it was at my age) and now 40+ years later it sends a bad message to children? …

Nicola Kinsella

It’s a great marketing move by B&N. The controversy is good publicity for the brand. And B&N knows its target market. There will be those who will buy them just because they are banned. Others who will want to have an educated opinion on the bans – based on first hand reading of the material. And others will want to read them to gather evidence for why they should be banned. In short, this will absolutely drive sales.

Neil Saunders

We live in a free society. No book should be banned and retailers should be free to stock and sell whatever publications they wish. If you don’t like or agree with a book then don’t buy it; it really is that simple!

Georganne Bender

All I can say is, go Barnes & Noble! I own many of those banned books and had no idea that someone out there decided that they were unfit to read. Seriously, The Adventures of Captain Underpants? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Where’s Waldo?! I have nothing to say to people who ban books except, “Who died and left you king?” This is America and we can read whatever we want to read, and I applaud Barnes & Noble for giving us the opportunity.

Brian Delp
8 months 26 days ago

The Barnes & Noble consumer demographic is likely not the same audience advocating for the banning of books. I’m sure they’ve done their research to see their book lover following will respond well to this. Any political backlash will likely be good PR while also bringing visibility to these titles.

Liza Amlani

I love this move by Barnes & Noble and this strategy should get consumers talking about why books are banned in the first place. This merchandising and marketing strategy will also directly impact full price sales while aligning values on free speech with their consumers. It’s brilliant.

Political backlash is expected as the reasons why many books are censored range from religion to race to politics. Harry Potter was banned for promoting magic and many books on racial equality have been banned from schools etc. to avoid very real issues in marginalized and BIPOC communities.

Politicians use banned books to fire up their communities but the truth is that books teach people about the many realities of life.

Barnes & Noble is doing the noble thing – giving communities a voice.

Matt Lyles

Capitalizing on the banned book discussion is a great marketing strategy for Barnes & Noble. Showcasing books that are deemed “inappropriate” will certainly pique interest and drive sales of those books. And the traffic and related book sales will far outweigh any political backlash they may receive.

Kevin Graff

If someone wants to ban any of these books, or others, then they should also ban some of the nut jobs on CNN, Fox and other media channels too when they don’t agree with what they say or think. If you don’t like it, turn the channel or don’t buy the book. My kids read Maus in grade school — and somehow they’ve managed to turn out alright!

Dick Seesel

Think about it: Americans of all political leanings are hailing companies that have stood up to a country when it suppresses free speech and intellectual liberty. (I’m talking about Russia, of course.) And yet, in the height of hypocrisy, many of these same Americans want to ban books that my children read in middle school.

So, beyond the question of “sales opportunity or political risk?” lies the bigger issue. Barnes & Noble has a moral obligation to promote works of fiction or non-fiction that may not fit everyone’s worldview. If it turns into a volume driver for B&N, good for them — but making the statement is really the point.


I think B&N has the opportunity to show leadership in the books space by showcasing banned books. It’s almost their obligation as one of the few brick-and-mortar players left standing in this space.

Al McClain

Good for Barnes & Noble! Let’s publish and promote all of these titles that were objected to by the left and right so readers can see for themselves and decide what all of the fuss was about. Reading should not be a bad thing in any society. And, controversy promotes reading, so trying to ban these books just gets them more attention, contrary to the intentions of those trying to ban them.

Bob Phibbs

Smart is always risky.

8 months 26 days ago

Controversy, like sex, sells. So, the idea of putting together books under this banner is a smart marketing move. But, like B&N states, this is about banned AND challenged works. Thus, the challenge will be in keeping this an essentially neutral space for those things that may—or may not—be accepted by your never-really-neutral core customer.

As such, a bookstore’s key audience will be, typically and ironically, pro-thought and anti-repression. Also, this group has lately shown its own tendency to eschew many works: once thought of as acceptable, but with messages now apparently contained therein deemed unacceptable.

So, do you ban from this table books that current thought believes are bad for some readers? Or do you allow them a spot, because they fit the criteria (if it is a fair and true one)? Or does B&N start imposing (if they haven’t already) certain rules that restrict certain publications? A crazy conundrum, yes?

Well, conversation, while not as sure a thing for selling as controversy (or sex), may be the only consistent part of this entire process.

Rich Duprey

It’s a good marketing ploy, but realize that’s all it is, is a ploy. Barnes & Noble has had no problem banning books itself. Just last year it removed books from its shelves that denied the Holocaust took place and removed several Dr. Seuss books over “offensive imagery.” Whatever your views about those books are, B&N can’t claim any moral superiority simply because they’re displaying controversial though otherwise popular titles.

This country was predicated on free speech, on defending the speech we hate, not just what we agree with.

Also, some books like the 1619 Project weren’t “banned” because they’re controversial, but because it’s riddled with errors and outright falsehoods about U.S. history.

But books and ideas shouldn’t be banned or hidden away. Paraphrasing Justice Brandeis, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” for odious ideas and incorrect beliefs. Good for B&N supporting banned books, but it’s being very selective about what sort of books and ideas it will display.

Shawn Harris
Shawn Harris
Board Advisor, Light Line Delivery
8 months 25 days ago

I applaud B&N. Books should not be banned. I can’t believe I even need to state that in 2022. This is not ok. It’s incredible the lengths some will go to in order to maintain power.

Brad Halverson

Good for B&N. Some have suggested it’s a marketing ploy, but it might just be good business. Good business is not getting in the way of your customers on issues they see as controversial. Why pick a side/sides? Stock up, let the customer decide what is appropriate for their families to read.