What Does Book Publishing Stand For?

From The New Republic:

Seven years ago, when Amazon was in the midst of a contentious pricing battle with one of the country’s largest publishers, a group of famous authors banded together to make the case that publishing was a crucial industry for the nation’s cultural and intellectual life.

“Publishers provide venture capital for ideas,” the authors wrote. “They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books.… Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea. By assuming the risk, publishers expect—and receive—a financial return.” The letter was signed by a who’s who of American writers: Stephen King, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Lee Child, Ron Chernow, Ann Patchett, and Robert Caro, among many others.

This is more or less the story that publishers have told about themselves for decades. Publishers take chances, they nurture talent, they’re constantly on the hunt not just for marketable books, but for ideas. The industry is, by extension, one of the most important protectors of speech in the country. It doesn’t matter what the idea is or who it comes from, as long as it’s bold and original.

Speaking to PEN America in 2018, then, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy made the connection explicit, saying, “It is all the more important to reassert our core belief that free speech, the actual discussion and debate of ideas is … the right of every citizen in our society.… When it comes to the right of unfettered discourse we should not, we cannot, accept dissent-quashing tyranny from any side of the political spectrum.”

But even as Reidy was speaking those words, this story was already fraying. In the background was the backlash that followed Simon & Schuster’s brief, disastrous dalliance with Milo Yiannapoulos. In 2021, with staff revolts in response to Simon & Schuster’s signing of Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway to multimillion-dollar deals—and general angst about publishing former Trump administration officials—the story has collapsed altogether. Publishers have lost their grand narrative, and it’s not clear what will replace it.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the defense proffered by Simon & Schuster’s current CEO, Jonathan Karp. “As a publisher in this polarized era, we have experienced outrage from both sides of the political divide and from different constituencies and groups,” Karp wrote in an email responding to an open letter signed by about 15 percent of the publisher’s staff protesting the Pence deal. “But we come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives. We will, therefore, proceed in our publishing agreement with Vice President Mike Pence.”

It’s worth dwelling on the heart of Karp’s defense: “We come to publish, not to cancel.” Karp is using the word literally—many of his staffers and authors were calling on the publisher to cancel Pence’s book deal, which covers two books. But he is also shouting out a larger culture war driven by right-wingers who have no interest in protecting debate or speech. They are, moreover, actively attempting to limit it in many instances.

The use of “cancel” here is notable in that these types of culture-war defenses are the last refuge of those without a substantive case to be made. And, to be clear, there really isn’t one to be made in defense of either the Pence deal or the Conway one, which came to light earlier this week. In the case of Pence, Simon & Schuster has paid $4 million for two books that will likely be the usual dreck of presidential aspirants, while the author cravenly glosses over the fact that his former boss incited a riot that nearly killed him.

. . . .

What you have now is a confused situation in which all kinds of books are deemed not worthy of publication or circulation—often for very good reasons—but without much consistency or clarity. At the same time, publishers are desperately clinging to anything they can to justify continuing to do whatever they think is in their best interest financially. They are on increasingly shaky ground, however, as Karp’s “canceling” email suggests. The old lines about free speech don’t quite make sense anymore. New ones haven’t been concocted. So they are left with empty rhetoric that only shows that these publishers have long since abandoned their roots as plucky free-speech warriors championing Ulysses.

What is fascinating about this dynamic is that, morally speaking, the corporations have been outflanked by their employees. The moral vision laid out in the open letter to Simon & Schuster, for instance, is much clearer than the one provided by Karp, whether you agree with it or not. “By choosing to publish Mike Pence, Simon & Schuster is generating wealth for a central figure of a presidency that unequivocally advocated for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, antisemitism, and violence,” the letter reads. “This is not a difference of opinions; this is legitimizing bigotry.”

On one side, you have employees making the kind of value-based argument that publishers have been making for decades; on the other, you have an executive making dubious “cancel culture” arguments in service of the profit motive. This conflict only underscores the artificial nature of book publishing’s marketplace of ideas. As The Washington Post’s Ron Charles wrote earlier this week, “publishers have always made highly selective judgments about who they print and who they don’t,” a calculus that has historically heavily favored white men.

The disconnect between publishing’s rank and file and its leadership is cavernous at the moment. What you hear again and again, talking to staffers at Simon & Schuster and Norton, is the same thing you hear when talking to media professionals: They feel they are not being listened to and want more of a voice in decision-making. That may be more likely at W.W. Norton, which is employee-owned, than at Simon & Schuster, which is in the midst of a merger with Penguin Random House. In largely nonunionized publishing, winning that kind of influence will be difficult unless the wave of organizing we have seen in journalism spreads to book publishing.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

7 thoughts on “What Does Book Publishing Stand For?”

    • Not at all. The industry is choked with people who are too stupid to know how to make money, and think that because publishing was profitable in the past, it will go on being profitable no matter how incompetently the businesses are run. They therefore give most of their attention to other things, trusting that whatever else happens, they themselves will get paid.

      It’s a gigantic cargo cult, propped up by a diminishing oligopoly of paper distribution and a slowly waning backlist of big-name authors who had to sign away their rights for life to be published in the first place.

      • Not that I disagree on their delusions and efficiency (and how much money they leave on the table) but what they “stand for”, what they really believe in (lip service aside) is making money.

        Content is not really a concern but rather whether it can make them enough money to pay for the earplugs. Pence books, yes; others, no.
        The same applies to celebrity books and “literary masterpieces”.
        No secret there, right?

  1. Last I heard, the people who were trying to stamp out free speech were mostly on the Left. Either that, or the university professors, teachers’ union leaders, Big Tech moguls, and TV network bosses are all incredibly secret Republicans.

    PG, this pack of lies wasn’t worth quoting. If they can’t even identify the problem truthfully, they have no business proposing any solution.

  2. The author of this article has literally no self-awareness whatsoever. While proclaiming that certain books are not worthy of publication (one wonders if they would say the same about the equivalent pap put out by a Democrat) the author claims that it is the Right that is not interested in free speech, while proclaiming that those who wish to censor have a “clear moral vision.” (Which is something that could be said of lots of people, including many who I’m sure the author absolutely despises.)

    That having been said, the first few paragraphs quoted by PG are absolutely correct–publishing’s image has been taking a massive beating over the past several years. It’s just that the author of the piece being quoted has it exactly backwards as to why.

  3. Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea.

    Thousands of times every year, independent authors take a chance on an unknown idea and write a book, supporting themselves solely with their day job.

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