Is your bookshop hiding anything from you?

Banned and controversial books and authors

In the last few weeks, Hannah Barnes’ new book, Time to Think has been eagerly awaited. Anxious parents are concerned about schools being told to keep secrets from them, and about what their children are learning about sex and gender on TikTok. In political circles, the existence or otherwise of ‘innate gender identity’ is a hotly contested issue.  More specifically, since whistle-blowers raised the alarm about the Tavistock gender clinic in 2018, increasing numbers of feminist groups have been laying on well-attended (and furiously protested) meetings and talks about what is happening to our girls.

Transgender Trend page header

Read the article about parents’ warnings on Transgender Trend

Barnes’ book had the benefit of all the things distributors list as signs of good release-day sellers – it’s a book by a known author on a current hot topic, it’s been the subject of multiple press interviews and reviews, it’s been discussed in public meetings and events. All these things should have high street shops planning a big splash when the book arrives… and yet people seemed to be having trouble finding copies of it in high street shops. A few days after publication, a story appeared on Graham Linehan’s blog, in which a man appears to be chasing a single alleged copy around various branches of Waterstones.

Waterstones shop front

Read the article on Graham Linehan’s SubStack

A social media friend of mine told a tale of ringing round Waterstones and publishers to chase down conflicting reports of the book being out of stock with no reprinting date. I saw a tweet from Alice Sullivan challenging Waterstones on their statements quickly gather a mass of responses from women, saying they found the shops full of books promoting gender ideology, including some encouraging dubious drug purchases and practices, but precious few discussing the downsides, or advocating caution. Many recalled bookshops being reluctant to display books such as Helen Joyce’s TRANS.

I put out a query on Facebook – were people managing to find Time To Think in their local shops? Most responders told me the shops they went to didn’t have it on the shelves, but willingly ordered it or produced a copy from store when asked.

If you have had any trouble finding a copy, here’s a helping hand from the author herself… Click to find the link on Barnes’ twitter.

Publisher's ad for 'Time to Think'

Beware conspiracy theories

It all sounded very strange – but the smallest suspicion can snowball in a moment on social media. My experience of big shops handling small press books suggested to me that all the hitches I read about could simply be the natural confusion caused by computerized giants in action. In my time in the book business, I spent a fair few publication days desperately messaging distributors and shops about systems saying ‘out of stock’, or shop staff saying books ‘don’t exist’ if they weren’t visible on their screens. I did wonder about one branch of Waterstones that had put in quite a large order for Time to Think, only to have staff say there weren’t any, but (despite what I consider to be destructive returns practice) corporate bookshops do not buy books in order to throw them away.

Nevertheless, that was quite a severe communication failure, if that’s what it was, and I’ve had experience of Waterstones fighting shy of controversial books before…

Header of blog post

Click here to read about a ‘mistake’ at Waterstones

From the horse’s mouth

There has been plenty of evidence in recent years of activists of one kind or another attempting to ‘cancel’ books, events, and even people they don’t approve of, so I decided to take a tour of some shops near me, and find out if any of my local booksellers saw themselves as the gate keepers of what their customers should read.

One told me that in 3 years, one customer declared his intention to ‘cancel’ the shop after seeing a title they disapproved of – the shopkeeper seemed sublimely unconcerned, and said he hadn’t noticed any consequences. Another demonstrated his willingness to ride out controversy with some choice photos of his shelves…

That’s Bookbuster of course, the shop that aims to have books expounding, and books investigating and debunking, every idea that comes along.

I also came across the (probably apocryphal) tale of a Waterstones employee who, when re-stocking, threw Nadine Dorries novels straight in the returns bin – interestingly, that just made me laugh because – well – that’s not the kind of book I think matters but yes, perhaps employees ‘with views’ can be a problem.

At my local Waterstones I couldn’t see Time to Think on their ‘new non-fiction’ shelves, but Helen Joyce’s TRANS was where it should be in the subject category shelves so the shop clearly aren’t afraid of the topic – just maybe a week or so behind events. Other shops in the town, when asked, said they were happy to order any title in publication, regardless of what they might think of it.

However, several publishers I’ve spoken to have found shops reluctant to give the same publicity to the feminist side of the sex-and-gender debate that they do to the undoubtably more fashionable gender-ideology side. It’s unlikely they will hold to that view for long though, as they see authors such as Helen Joyce, Kathleen Stock and now Hannah Barnes and Victoria Smith, selling well in the shops that don’t hide their books.

Perhaps we need to spend more time befriending and using our local shops and libraries, and letting them know that we want to see books presenting more than one side on important matters that generate debate and controversy.

Barnes’ Time to Think is not sensationalist or one sided, it is a well-researched, sensitive investigation of the Tavistock/GIDS story which, as an alleged large-scale medical and safeguarding failure, is not one we can afford to ignore. If you haven’t already, please get down to your local shop or library, and ask for a copy. (I could wish more people had read Bad News for Labour back then, too. It would have saved a lot of ill-informed rows in the years since.)

NB (added 14th March) – make a fuss – it definitely works…

Also, don’t forget to order your favourite feminist books from your library so they know those titles are wanted, too.


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