The Most Banned Book in U.S. History? Hardly

The logo for is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
The logo for is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

"Have you seen the new book?" a banner on Tim Ferriss' blog reads. "Banned by 700-plus bookstores nationwide!" His marketing partner, BitTorrent, adds that the book in question, The 4-Hour Chef, is "poised to be the most banned book in U.S. history."

What is so controversial about his new book to earn the title of "the most banned book in U.S. history"? That's actually a trick question, because Ferriss' new book, The 4-Hour Chef, has not been banned anywhere in the United States. Heck, it's not even released until tomorrow.

The 4-Hour Chef is the second highly publicized title from Amazon Publishing, the New York-based publishing arm of Amazon. Ferriss jumped ship from his Big Six publisher, Random House, in August 2011 for Amazon's publishing startup. "I don't feel like I'm giving up anything, financially or otherwise," he was quoted as saying by the New York Times. He was so certain of his decision that he didn't even give Random House a chance to make an offer on The 4-Hour Chef.

Now, over a year later and with The 4-Hour Chef due to hit shelves this week, there's just one problem: There are no shelves for it to hit.

Barnes & Noble, along with other independent bookstores, are refusing to stock Amazon Publishing titles. They'll order books from the online retail giant if customers ask, but bookstores have so far declined to be "showrooms" for Amazon. "Our decision is based on Amazon's continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent," Barnes & Noble announced earlier this year. "Their actions have undermined the industry as a whole and have prevented millions of customers from having access to content."

In Ferriss' mind, bookstores' decision not to stock Amazon Publishing books is a "free speech" issue. "Do I view stifling innovation and free speech (through distribution of otherwise) as a malevolent thing?" he wrote in an e-mail to PaidContent's Laura Hazard Owen. "Yes." How ironic, then, that it was Amazon's own decision to restrict distribution of their own imprints' e-books to the Kindle store that led to Barnes & Noble's refusal to stock Amazon titles. (Amazon has since relaxed restrictions on certain titles.)

Since his book will not be available in most physical bookstores, Ferriss has resorted to a Kickstarter-esque list of rewards to entice readers and organizations to buy multiple copies. In his eyes, the future of publishing itself rests on his shoulders. "I want to hit #1 on BookScan to send a message to the incumbent world of publishing, to those who want everything to remain in the 1900s," he wrote on his blog post. "If this book 'fails' because the old guard makes of an example of me, their message wins: Don't mess with the system that keeps us fat and happy, or we'll punish you." Among the "rewards" offered are Kindle Fires, blenders, power bars and a "ride in a Lamborghini" (complete with "videos/pictures to cherish for a lifetime").

Will Ferriss hit #1 on the New York Times or BookScan lists? Maybe -- his previous books have been monster bestsellers, and he has a dedicated online fanbase. Even without the help of physical bookstores, he's going to do well. His brand is not going to suffer.

Will the "message" that his readers send with each purchase be a "sniper shot directed at the heart of every member of the publishing oligarchy," as he puts it? Hardly. This is not a First Amendment issue or a nuclear strike on the Big Six by Amazon. This is one guy throwing a tantrum after signing a deal he didn't think through to its logical conclusion. Did he really expect stores to embrace Amazon's books? He's too smart to believe that.

Ferriss is painting himself as a victim and asking his fans to foot the bill in a manufactured "show of support." As far as marketing strategies go, it's actually kind of genius. I just wish it wasn't so grossly misleading.