Simon & Schuster and Political Books

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.

16 thoughts on “Simon & Schuster and Political Books”

  1. The money explanation sounds about right in light of something the OP glosses over:

    https://www.yahoo.com/gma/officer-shot-during-breonna-taylor-222349160.html

    “Mattingly says Taylor’s boyfriend, 27-year-old Kenneth Walker, shot him in the leg when police barged into the apartment. An FBI ballistics report confirmed Mattingly was shot by Walker.

    Walker, a licensed gun owner, told investigators he fired because he didn’t know who entered the residence. Walker initially was charged with attempted murder of a police officer following the incident, but those charges have since been dropped.”

    Timing is at issue here so having as much info as possible would (normally) make sense since the police were in the wrong place but bullets flew both ways and it matters who shot first but the narrative circulating is one-sided.

    The officer can be excused for trying to salvage some of his reputation by getting his story out but any such book isn’t going to sell like Pence’s “heck yes I’m running in ’24” revenue raising book.

    So yes, it’s easy to see why S&S might be feeling heat: they got caught pandering with a low volume book while money grubbing with the big release book.

    Just proof that they’re only moralists when the cost is trivial.
    Money (and only money) talks in Manhattan publishing and pandering only goes so far.

  2. a recent post from Toni at Baen that is relevant to the discussion:


    To Whom It May Concern:

    What is it we do at Baen Books? We publish books at the heart of science fiction and fantasy.

    Science fiction has traditionally been a unique kind of intellectual pleasure, a process of glorious intercommunication and inspiration, with ideas flowing from scientist and engineer to writer and artist, to reader and viewer, back and forth, in a delightful mélange of shared thoughts, wild speculation, cautionary tales, reality checks, and the sheer fun of playing with boundaries and ideas. It is not for everyone. But those who enjoy it, take great pleasure in the dialogue.

    When the modern form of SF began, with Hugo Gernsback and the other pulp magazines of the early 20th century, the publishers fostered that interaction through letter columns in the magazines and by encouraging science fiction readers to organize in clubs and meet in conventions. Baen Books continued that tradition with Baen’s Bar, a kind of virtual convention and on-line conversation that has been around in some form for over 20 years.

    The moderators are volunteers. The readers, editors, and writers post and interact on the Bar at their own desire. Some conversations have been gone over so many times, they’ve been retired as simply too boring to contemplate again. Sometimes the rhetoric can get heated. We do not endorse the publication of unlawful speech. We have received no complaints about the content of the Bar from its users.

    That said, it has come to our attention that allegations about the Bar have been made elsewhere. We take these allegations seriously, and consequently have put the Bar on hiatus while we investigate. But we will not commit censorship of lawful speech.

    It is not Baen Books’ policy to police the opinions of its readers, its authors, its artists, its editors, or indeed anyone else. This applies to posts at the Bar, or on social media, on their own websites, or indeed anywhere else. On the Bar, the publisher does not select what is allowed to be posted, and does not hijack an individual’s messages for their own purposes. Similarly, the posts do not represent the publisher’s opinion, except in a deep belief that free speech is worthy in and of itself.

    Most sincerely,
    Toni Weisskopf
    Publisher

    • Sad that it’s come to that.
      One less island of rationality.
      As if discussions of alternate history, medically plausible zombies, interstellar kingdoms, or building super battlestations out of asteroids are political.
      Chalk one up for the ignorant mob.
      May they burn in the bad place.

        • We take these allegations seriously, and consequently have put the Bar on hiatus while we investigate. But we will not commit censorship of lawful speech.

          Not caving to the mob would be announcing an examination of the content and then taking any appropriate action, if any.

          Caving to the mob was shutting it down with no basis other than an allegation.

          Not caving was Walmart refusing to act in concert with other companies complaining about legislation. They stood up and said so.

          Not caving was FedEx refusing to halt shipments of some goods because a high school kid demanded it. They stood up and said so.

          Not caving was Augusta National holding a tournament despite demands to halt it. They stood up and said so.

          And Baen? They caved.

          • They also put the Bar back up once they were done.

            And the reason they “caved” was because the twerps were threatening them in ways that couldn’t be made against Wal-Mart or FedEx.

          • If you are going to comment on Baen you really need to keep up to date.

            Baen’s Bar has been back up since 9 April 2021 – see Toni Weisskopf’ posting at https://baensbar.net/index.php?t=msg&th=174011&goto=1835740&#msg_1835740.

            Maybe you need to invent a neologism (uncaved?) or give a little benefit of the doubt when someone chooses to investigate what appears to be serious allegations.

            The reopening has, of course, attracted the normal denigration from the usual suspects: http://file770.com/baens-bar-returns/#comments

            • Problem is the allegations weren’t factual and they *knew* it.
              When you’re in the right and know it but still give the whiners credence, what other word fits?

            • If you are going to comment on Baen you really need to keep up to date.

              No. They caved when they shut it down. Subsequent actions don’t change that.

          • They only took the Bar down for a while. It’s back up with some changes so that complaints to their ISP about the Bar can’t shut down their business web site. Different domain name and on different servers. As far as I know they didn’t remove any content.

            Greg

        • Yes it was.
          In other times such a gripe would have gone straight to the circular file.
          The bar is a “curated” community, not a free fire zone.
          They *knew* they had done no wrong but still “paused” to mollify the mob.

          • To be clear: the crime isn’t that BAEN took down the bar, even temporarily, but that they *had* to, essentially at gunpoint.

            Many news and specialty sites have responded by shutting down comments entirely, neutering the value of the place. Mob wins each.

            When even moderated, thoughful and literate sites are targetted for not conforming to the mob we are inching towards Pogrom territory.

            Worse lies ahead.

            • Baen knew that _they_ hadn’t done anything wrong, but they couldn’t be 100% sure that no poster on the bar had done anything wrong.

              Int he past there would nto have been any accusations like this, or if there were, you could have been sure that the ISPs and hosting companies would have recognized the difference between Baen’s actions and posts of commenters.

              so if you consider Baen recognizing that ISPs and hosting companies are acting differently now ‘caving to the mob’ then yes, Baen caved, and they would have been stupid not to.

              But as far as I am concerned caving would have been either shutting down the bar permanently, or changing the rules on what’s allowed to be posted to eliminate the posting of things the mob objected to.

              They didn’t do that. Instead they cleaned some things up that needed to be cleaned anyway, made it so that if something does happen with the bar it won’t take down their business website that makes them money, and reiterated that they welcome all points of view, specifically including those that the mob opposes.

              not caving to the mob doesn’t require you to be stupid and leave yourself especially vulnerable to the mob, taking precautions against the mob is just being smart. You take precautions and setup your defenses and then stand up against the mob.

              • But as far as I am concerned caving would have been either shutting down the bar permanently, or changing the rules on what’s allowed to be posted to eliminate the posting of things the mob objected to.

                Or changing the rules on caving?

    • by the way, Baen uses S&S to print and distribute their books. It will be very interesting to watch to see if S&S does anything against Baen and their authors.

      • Unlike the cop, BAEN makes S&S significant money.
        So have no fear, they’ll do nothing to BAEN no matter how the mob rages.

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