From Publishing Perspectives:
Less than 100 days into the United States’ Biden administration—and, for that matter, less than two weeks after Simon & Schuster announced its two-book deal with the former vice-president Mike Pence—S&S has experienced new encounters with the heat of political publishing.
Today (April 20), Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp has issued a memo to staff, announcing that “we will proceed in our publishing agreement with vice-president Mike Pence.” That memo–which we’ll return to later in this article–is “in response to a petition, circulated by some of our employees, that calls into question recent acquisition decisions and ongoing business relationships at Simon & Schuster.”
Noting that “we have experienced outrage from both sides of the political divide,” Karp is issuing his second such message to employees in five days.
The backstory here begins late last week, as S&S determined that it will not distribute a book by one of the police officers involved in the raid on the home of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
You may recall that on January 7, Simon & Schuster cancelled its contract with Sen. Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, after Hawley had helped lead objections on January 6 to certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. But when Hawley’s book was then picked up by Regnery Publishing, which is distributed by Simon & Schuster, things from S&S were quiet. Distribution contracts don’t normally allow a distributor leeway over what it will or won’t distribute for contracted publishers.
And yet the question of distributing the book on the Breonna Taylor incident has had a different outcome at this Big Five company, which Bertelsmann has agreed to acquire in a deal still pending approval from regulators. And an especially thoughtful letter from Karp to the company’s employees reflects the level of ethical and business dilemma that executives in publishing can encounter as political and social issues continue to upend national and international dialogue and policy.
The moment becomes one to consider as a potential evolutionary phase in publishing, the focus being on the book business’ responsibilities amid social and political upheaval, and the reach of those responsibilities in the supply chain—in this new case, distribution rather than publication.
On Friday (April 16), Karp wrote, “Yesterday was a difficult day for all of us at Simon & Schuster, our authors, and our colleagues and contacts in the publishing industry. As you know, we decided that we would not distribute a planned book from Post Hill Press by Louisville police officer Jonathan Mattingly, who was involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.”
Taylor, for international readers who may not be recalling the tragedy, was 26 when she was shot and killed as she slept in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13, 2020, during a bungled police raid as part of a drug investigation. Taylor, who was Black, was an emergency room technician with the University of Louisville Health program, and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker was at her apartment at the time of the raid.
Jonathan Mattingly was one of the white plainclothes police officers involved in the raid. Mattingly was shot in the leg during the raid and his attorney last October announced that he would sue the late Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend Walker. As Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter report at The New York Times, an FBI ballistics report found that police sergeant Mattingly fired at least one of the six bullets that struck Taylor, “though his was not the lethal bullet.”
. . . .
“As a publisher, we seek a broad range of views for our lists. As a distributor, we have a limited and more detached role. The distinction between publishing and distribution is frequently lost on people who do not follow the publishing business closely, but it is a reality of this important part of our overall business portfolio.”
Karp is talking case-by-case basis, and cautions that the distribution role cannot accommodate the decision made on the Mattingly book. The publisher-as-distributor, in other words, is in a bind that’s becoming increasingly visible and uncomfortable.
In what may be the best possible expression of that bind, Karp concludes, “I understand and am sorry that yesterday’s events have caused distress and disruption for you. It has been a tumultuous year, marked by tragedy and injustice. We are grateful that throughout this time you have so openly and courageously shared with us your views and opinions and experiences. We will continue to seek your help and understanding as we strive to move forward as company.”
. . . .
The open letter this spring from publishing industry professionals to the industry’s executives has called on companies to refuse to contract former members of Donald Trump’s administration. The Times article from Alter and Harris indicates that the letter has more than 630 signatures on it. That letter refers to service in the Trump White House as “a uniquely mitigating criterion for publishing houses when considering book deals” and it asserts that book publishing is sometimes given to “chasing the money and notoriety of some pretty sketchy people” with book contracts.
Karp’s answer to the petition today, in asserting that S&S will go ahead with its Pence contract, says, in part, “Our role is to find those authors and works that can shed light on our world–from first-time novelists to journalists, thought leaders, scientists, memoirists, personalities, and, yes, those who walk the halls of power.
“Regardless of where those authors sit on the ideological spectrum, or if they hold views that run counter to the belief systems held by some of us, we apply a rigorous standard to assure that in acquiring books, we will be bringing into the world works that provide new information or perspectives on events to which we otherwise might not have access.”
Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives
As PG read the OP, he wondered about the nature of the discussion the S&S CEO Jonathan Karp had with his boss at Bertelsmann.
As PG has mentioned before on TPV, Bertelsmann is a giant world-wide media company headquartered in Gütersloh, a city of about 100,000 located in North Rhine-Westphalia and effectively controlled by a group of billionaires, the Mohn family.
PG suspects the Mohn family is much more interested in short-term and long-term profits than in contemporary US cancel-culture.
PG further suspects that Mr. Karp was informed that a book by the former vice-president of the United States was likely to be a money-maker and that Bertelsmann was not interested in having one of the companies it owned involved in a political catfight in the United States over such a book. If Karp couldn’t handle his employees, Bertelsmann would replace him with someone who could.
But, as usual, PG could be completely wrong.