As soon as Casey Morrissey opened the box of books, they were furious.
The American Booksellers Association quickly apologized for including the nonfiction book, which it characterized as “anti-trans,” in its July mailing to its 750 member bookstores. The trade organization’s monthly “white box” includes marketing materials, advance copies of books and finished titles the ABA wants booksellers to consider stocking.
“This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s … policies, values, and everything we believe and support,” the ABA wrote on Twitter. “It is inexcusable.”
The organization also vowed to take concrete steps to remedy the harm it said it had caused.
A firestorm ensued, with some, including the book’s author, arguing that the booksellers association was essentially trying to censor “Irreversible Damage,” and others calling the ABA’s apology insufficient. Sales of the title surged as a result, its publisher said. The dispute comes days after the ABA drew ire for featuring the wrong book cover image for a young adult novel about Black teenagers.
Caught in a precarious position, the book industry has frequently been pressured to drop controversial titles in recent months. Simon & Schuster, a major publishing house, canceled publication of Republican Sen. Josh Hawley’s book about technology companies after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, and later backed out of publishing a memoir by Louisville Police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, who fired his weapon in the raid that killed Breonna Taylor. Publishing platforms focused on conservative books — including Regnery Publishing, which printed “Irreversible Damage” — picked up Hawley (Mo.) and Mattingly’s titles.
Morrissey, the Brooklyn bookseller, said they’re normally excited to choose books from ABA’s boxes and find that most are aligned with the association’s stated equity goals. From the most recent box, they said they chose “Blue-Skinned Gods,” by SJ Sindu, and “Inseparable,” by Simone de Beauvoir, among others.
“I would love to see the ABA take this moment to especially think about the Black trans community, who they have wronged twice in the past week, and how they will make their trade organization a space where they feel valued,” Morrissey wrote to The Washington Post.
Several booksellers have suggested that the ABA give free space in future mailings to books by transgender authors, Morrissey said. They added that the ABA could also donate the payment it received from Regnery to a Black-led transgender rights organization.
In her book, Shrier argues that gender dysphoria has become an “epidemic” in which teenagers are mistakenly jumping to the conclusion that they’re transgender. She contends that teens are too young to choose to medically transition, although she has said in interviews that she supports adults’ right to do so. Major medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support gender-affirming medical treatment for children and adolescents.
LGBTQ advocates have criticized “Irreversible Damage” as dangerous and full of misinformation. “I think of all the times & ways I was told my transness wasn’t real & the daily toll that still takes,” Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice, tweeted about the book in November. “We have to fight these ideas which are leading to the criminalization of trans life again.”
After the ABA apologized for mailing out her book, Shrier tweeted that the organization was promoting book-banning and belonged in a “Hall of Fame for capitulations to Woke bullies.” In a statement to The Post, she defended the ABA’s decision to send her book to booksellers.
“But ABA’s groveling, performative, hyperbolic apology, in which they call their mailing of a book a ‘serious, violent incident’ displays their contempt for an open, liberal society tolerant of a diversity of viewpoints,” Shrier wrote. “That’s a tragically misguided position for a bookselling organization to take.”
Tom Spence, Regnery’s president, said his publishing house rarely suggests its books for the ABA’s white boxes. But Regnery staff thought independent bookstores might be interested in “Irreversible Damage,” a bestseller and one of the Economist’s “books of the year” for 2020. So Spence said the publisher paid about $1,500 to send the ABA 750 copies of the book, newly in paperback, with a one-page descriptive flier. The ABA did not object to the nomination, he added.
Since the ABA’s apology, Spence said sales of “Irreversible Damage” have spiked far beyond the number of sales Regnery expected to make because of the white box. Some conservatives and free-speech advocates have used the controversy to encourage people to buy the book, which Spence defended as “temperately written.” He said criticism of the text as anti-trans was “empty rhetoric.”
“My takeaway from this is the ABA, responding to the hysterical reaction of some of its members, has taken the position that presenting booksellers of all people with books that make an argument that they disagree with — that merely presenting the book to them is an act of violence,” Spence said. “And this is the same organization that is about to sponsor Banned Books Week at the end of September with the slogan this year ‘Censorship Divides Us.’ ”
The booksellers association is not the only organization to find itself centered in the battle over “Irreversible Damage.” Mega-retailer Target promised in November to take the book off its shelves, but soon reversed itself. (The title was not listed on Target’s website Friday.)
This spring, hundreds of Amazon employees asked the company to stop selling the book, and at least two recently resigned in protest of the company’s decision to keep stocking it, NBC News reported. “Irreversible Damage” was ranked as a bestseller on Amazon on Friday. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In a letter to booksellers obtained by Publishers Weekly, American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill listed eight steps the organization planned to take to better support marginalized communities, including revising the group’s internal checks and balances and changing the submission process for its white-box program. The ABA’s board of directors followed up with its own note to booksellers, saying the distribution of “Irreversible Damage” and the cover mix-up were “evidence of systemic problems.”
The ABA did not respond to a question from The Post about how “Irreversible Damage” was chosen for this month’s mailing and how the cover switch occurred.
Luis Alberto Correa, a member of the ABA’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, said he was disappointed by the passive language the ABA used in its initial apology, but was satisfied by the follow-up messages from Hill and the ABA’s board of directors. The diversity committee is not involved in choosing books for the mailings.
Correa, an operations manager and bookseller at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., said he rejects the idea that bookstores, as private entities, need to promote books with a range of viewpoints. His goal is to make customers from marginalized communities feel comfortable at his establishment.
“I feel like I stock better books as a result,” Correa said. “And I get better, more loyal customers in the store who feel not only represented in the books I’m sharing, but also feel welcome in the space.”
Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University who reviewed “Irreversible Damage” in January, said he would characterize Shrier’s book as intentionally provocative, but not transphobic. Ferguson, who studies moral panic and the formation of cultural narratives, said “Irreversible Damage” oversimplifies a nuanced issue.
“I think the hypothesis is plausible, and there may even be some evidence to suggest that there may be an element of truth to it,” he said. “But it wasn’t as scientifically grounded of a book as I was necessarily hoping to see.”