Book Stores Refuse To Host An Event For My Book
I’m an unwelcome author
I’ve always loved bookstores.
In the rural California town where I moved after leaving the foster homes in Los Angeles, there was no real bookstore. No Barnes & Noble or Borders (those still existed in the early 2000s).
Across the street from the boxing gym I went to, though, there was a little shop that sold knick-knacks and trinkets and candles. They had a couple of shelves. On one shelf was a row of used DVDs. On the other was a row of used books. So I’d cross the street every few weeks and browse. On one occasion, after my neighbors gave me ten bucks for raking their leaves, I bought a tattered copy of the Tom Clancy novel Patriot Games and a DVD of the 2001 Will Smith movie “Ali.” Those used DVDs were more expensive, so that was a red letter day.
Now, sometimes when I step into a real bookstore, those two modest shelves flash across my mind. I’ll remember being twelve years old, opening my frayed Velcro wallet, wondering if I’d be able to afford a book that day.
I can’t count the number of times readers have asked me “Rob, are you going to do a book tour?”
Even before I made the official announcement, people would hear about my forthcoming book and ask me if I had plans to visit their city.
Months ago, I met with my agent and publisher about the possibility of doing a book tour. Some of you may remember that I asked you to complete a form asking if you’d like me to visit your city. Hundreds of readers responded.
So I was more than a little surprised to discover that none of the major bookstores in New York City or San Francisco will host an event for my book.
All inquiries either outright declined or ignored altogether.
I scanned the websites of some of these bookstores. They are hosting events for authors with 2 thousand twitter/x followers and, in several cases, little to no online or cultural footprint beyond a perch at one of the many dying legacy media outlets.
Last week I was at a hotel in Houston. A middle-aged man randomly comes up to me and tells me he reads this Substack. Tells me his daughter is at Princeton and they speak to each other about my weekly posts all the time.
Yesterday I was at a gym in San Francisco. A woman there says, “You’re Rob Henderson, right?” Explains she’s in town for some J.P. Morgan thing and that she didn’t expect to run into a “twitter famous” person.
I have 136 thousand followers on twitter/x. I have nearly 50 thousand subscribers on this Substack. My writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and many other mainstream outlets. I broke myself in half to enlist in the military and then study at Yale and Cambridge.
But as F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “There are no second acts in American lives.” There are certain inflexible rules about social mobility.
Three different authors and one person in the publishing industry disclosed to me that it’s highly likely that my book is too polarizing or controversial for bookstores to be willing to host an event for me. Another suggested it’s because of my connection with Jordan Peterson, whose unflinching advice was instrumental in my determination to get a PhD in psychology.
If you grow up poor and aren’t willing to pledge fealty to the right causes, these places don’t want you. If you grew up poor, remake your fortunes, and then speak truthfully about the factors that fuel success (hard work, determination, sacrifice) rather than the factors elites speak about (luck, systemic forces, privilege), then these places don’t want you.
There was a recent article in The Atlantic about Skull and Bones along with other secret societies at Yale. Only a select number of Yale students are chosen each year to enter one of these secret societies, which supply networks, mentorship, and a further stamp of elite approval. What criteria determine whether a student is selected?
From the Atlantic piece:
“A history of progressive activism is an asset among secret-society hopefuls…The Bones class of 2021 had ‘people from all kinds of backgrounds,’ one member of the class told me—but no conservatives. (Unless you count centrists as conservatives, which some members do.) Like Yale’s student body overall, members of secret societies mostly range from far left to left of center. In short, Yale’s secret societies are now filled with students who, as a matter of political conviction, consider wealth and privilege indefensible—but who, as members of Yale’s most elite clubs, enjoy enormous advantages.”
If you don’t come from affluence and thereby fluently speak the language of the elite, these places don’t want you. If you don’t tick the right boxes, these places don’t want you. Sometimes you can slide through if you have one or the other. Born elite (and speak elite). Or tick the right boxes. But if you lack both, you will, at least initially, be mystified as you routinely run into brick walls. If you have both, your boarding pass will get stamped with the priority label.
I’m curious what the thought process was here for all of these bookstores.
“Okay, who is this author?”
He’s a Latino Asian guy raised in foster homes in Los Angeles who is later raised by two gay women and joins the U.S. Air Force and gets degrees from Yale and Cambridge. He shares lessons he’s learned about family, responsibility, status anxiety, and upward social mobility. He has a large online following and 50 thousand newsletter subscribers.
“Um, did you say foster homes? No thanks. And that stuff about family and responsibility. Ew. Hard pass.”
The kinds of people who work in these spaces claim to be open-minded. They claim they want to elevate and center voices from marginalized communities.
That’s what they claim.
Let me repeat a stat that doesn’t get shared enough:
Three percent of kids in the foster system graduate from college.
Compare this with 38% of Americans overall.
Compare this with 26% of Black Americans.
Compare this with 21% of Hispanic Americans.
Compare this with 11% of kids from families in the bottom income quintile.
Compare this with 44% of gay women and 52% of gay men
Again: Three percent of foster kids graduate from college. Three.
One of us somehow manages to join that minuscule group. And build a large enough platform to communicate about his experiences. And write a book about the obstacles so many young people face. A book that has been warmly endorsed by people across the political spectrum. A book that has received positive early reviews from professional reviewers. One of us manages to miraculously reach a position to communicate the difficulties of sidelined and struggling kids across the country.
But the people who run bookstores aren’t interested in hosting a conversation about it. Apparently, the people who run bookstores are more afraid of confronting my past than I am.
When I arrived at college, I ran into barriers because I was an outsider. I discovered that elite universities were vastly different and far less open-minded than what I’d been led to believe. I didn’t expect to have the same experience with bookstores.
This, I hope, is the last time I’ll be surprised by something like this.
Now, when a young person from similarly unpromising circumstances asks me about my experience with social mobility, one thing I’ll tell them is to be ready. You’ll never be fully accepted. The luxury belief class will hate you for where you came from. They’ll hate you even more if you’re honest about what it takes to climb out of it. They’ll hate you if you befriend people who are similarly honest.
The irony of my situation is palpable: as someone who has overcome formidable obstacles and achieved a platform to voice the often-unheard stories of kids with deprived and dysfunctional upbringings, I’m now excluded by places that profess inclusivity and diversity. This is the reality.
Nevertheless, the support I receive from readers across the country and around the world bolsters my resolve.
If you know of any individual or venue that would host a book event in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, shoot me an email or respond to this post.
My book comes out on February 20. I’d be thankful if you pre-ordered your copy: