Publishing in Seussville: When Children’s Books Are Politicized

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson2 Comments

Oh, the book sales they’ll drive! After six Dr. Seuss books are discontinued, NPD looks at the latest US book sales data for insights.

A sales image from Seuss Enterprise’s ‘The Art of Dr. Seuss Collection’ site, with a limited-edition print, 60th anniversary edition, for ‘One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.’ Image: DrSeussArt.com

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Unit Sales  for Seuss Books Tripled in 2021 Over 2020
In her new report on the United States’ market in the early part of the second coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic year, NPD Books’ executive director Kristen McLean looks at “another exceptionally good week for US print sales” in the week ending March 6.

Volume, she reports, was up by nearly 2 million units over the previous week and by more than 4 million units over the same week of the year 2020.

At 17 million total units,” McLean reports, “the week was more like an early holiday week than the usual early spring buying period. The biggest growth came from juvenile fiction, which  contributed to 70 percent of week-over-week gains.”

And what could have been behind that big driver in juvenile fiction? Politics. Not at all one of our frequent reports on political books, this turns out to be a story about politicized books and what they’ve revealed in an unusually high-profile situation.

In case you haven’t followed this little Red Fish/Blue Fish collision of children’s books and adults’ political zeal, we’ll recap quickly for you what has happened, then look at some of the market response McLean is detecting.

The Seuss Estate: ‘Hope, Inspiration, Inclusion, Friendship’

The Spanish edition of Dr. Seuss’ ‘One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish’

As Mark Pratt reported on March 2 for the Associated Press, the company that handles the estate of Thedor Geisel, Seuss Enterprises/Seussville—an understandably aggressive licensing concern we’ve reported on several times—announced that it would cease publication of six lesser-known Dr. Seuss books because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” per the estate. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalogue represents and supports all communities and families,” the estate wrote.

You can read the estate’s short commentary here.

As described at The Art of Dr. Seuss Collection, an associated site licensed by the estate, Geisel did create some “racially stereotypical drawings [that] were hurtful then and are still hurtful today.” The author and illustrator would later, the site confirms, “edit some of his inappropriate images, depicting his characters in a more respectful manner.”

The key point here, though, is that the estate itself made the decision to stop publishing what it decided were six unacceptable titles.

Susan Brandt

This is not a “banning” and no “cancel culture” effort caused the Seuss estate to take this step. It’s a move made by Seuss Enterprises, itself, in what the company—which is led by Susan Brandt, its president—has stated is a concern for respectful, inclusive motivations.

If you have time, we can recommend Marilyn Greenwald’s commentary at the Wall Street Journal (paywall) from Friday (March 12), Dr. Seuss, Meet the Sanitized Sleuths Known as the Hardy Boys. Greenwald, a professor emerita of journalism at Ohio University, explores how deeply edited The Hardy Boys series of mysteries for young readers have become—again by an estate-controlling authority. The argument that arises is whether simply removing the books from further production isn’t a preferable course.

In the Seuss case, conservative American politicians, quickly seized on the moment.

Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, Republican of Texas, would go on to boast of raising US$125,000 in 24 hours by selling copies he signed himself of the Seuss favorite Green Eggs and Ham to fight back against what Cruz called the “cancel culture mob,” despite the fact that no such mob exists and that the estate itself had ceased publishing the selected titles. As reported by Kevin Shalvey at Business Insider, Cruz charged $60 per copy of his self-signed Green Eggs and Ham, advertising them on his campaign donation pages with a message reading, “Stand with Ted and Dr. Seuss against the cancel culture mob to claim your signed copy of Green Eggs and Ham.”

McLean in her report notes that the news of this change from the estate had coincided with the late Geisel’s (1904 to 1991) March 2 birthday.

Kristen McLean

Historically this is always a week when Dr. Seuss titles get a sales boost,” McLean says.

“To unpack how much of this growth was driven by the news cycle versus the annual  holiday, we compared Dr. Seuss sales for the same week over the last few years. Unit sales  for Seuss books tripled in 2021, compared to the same week last year.

“Our weekly bestseller list is also telling―this week there are six Dr. Seuss titles in our  overall Top 10 print bestseller list; at this time last year there were four.”

Indeed, the AP’s Pratt noted that within hours of the estate’s announcement, “Dr. Seuss books filled more than half of the top 20 slots on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo [two titles discontinued for further publication] were on the list, along with Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Green Eggs and Ham and others still being published.”

Seussian Sales Skyrocket

The Italian edition of ‘The Cat in the Hat’

At this writing today (March 16), the Amazon.com (American) site’s Amazon Charts ranking shows these Seuss books in its most-sold fiction titles:

  • The Cat in the Hat at No. 3
  • Dr. Seuss’ Beginner Book Collection at No. 5
  • Green Eggs and Ham at No. 6
  • Oh, the Places You’ll Go! at No. 7
  • One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish at No. 8
  • Fox in Socks at No. 9
  • The Foot Book at No. 12
  • What Pet Should I Get at No. 13
  • The Lorax at No. 15
  • Dr. Seuss’ ABC at No. 16
  • The Sneetches and Other Stories at No. 17
  • Horton Hears a Who! at No. 18

The titles discontinued by the Seuss estate are:

  • And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
  • If I Ran the Zoo
  • McElligot’s Pool
  • On Beyond Zebra!
  • Scrambled Eggs Super!
  • The Cat’s Quizzer

And in mercifully non-Seuss news, further information from today’s NPD report on the week ending March 6 shows what McLean describes as continued growth in adult fiction. The sector in that first week of the month “contributed 15 percent of week-over-week growth,” she says, “and is up 30 percent on a unit basis year-over-year.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on licensing is hereMore on the United States market is here, more on the NPD Group’s reports is here and more from Publishing Perspectives on political books is here. More from us on industry statistics is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

Comments

  1. Your article points out that none of the titles on today’s Amazon Charts is among the discontinued books, but fails to mention why.

    Amazon, eBay and others blocked the sale of the discontinued books, even those that were used, restricting the sale of private property on their platforms. You state “no such [cancel culture] mob exists and the estate itself had ceased publishing the selected titles,” yet fail to mention the retailers’ involvement.

    As those working in the publishing industry, we would be served to remember that it may be the sale of our books next time that the retailers block.

    1. Author

      Other news reports, like this one, do not support your assertion that Amazon blocked or is blocking sales of the remaining copies of the discontinued titles, nor that “retailers’ involvement’ is a factor in this event.

      For example, if you’ll read this March 4 report from Maria Morava and Scottie Andrew at CNN, you’ll see that available inventory of the initially available copies of those six discontinued books simply and logically sold out very quickly both at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. That report’s details are echoed in other media filings including those of Business Insider, The Hill, MarketWatch, Fox News, etc.

      At the Wall Street Journal and several other media, there are reports that eBay has worked to delist resales of copies at vastly inflated prices. But in fact, those six books still are on sale at Amazon, and at those extremely high prices. These are copies being offered by various vendors for those willing to pay collector prices. As you can see on the listings, the system refers you to the vendors in question.

      We also see the titles from the list of discontinued books still duly listed at Barnes & Noble, as well, usually with “out of stock” notations.

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