Book publishing is having an existential crisis. The industry is finding itself saddled with deals by polarizing political figures, and no idea how to handle them. Which, in turn, gives rise to some fundamental questions about the purpose of publishing.
Is the industry’s purpose to make the widest array of viewpoints available to the largest audience possible? Is it to curate only the most truthful, accurate, and high-quality books to the public? Or is it to sell as many books as possible, and to try to stay out of the spotlight while doing so? Should a publisher ever care about any part of an author’s life besides their ability to write a book?
These questions are becoming more and more urgent within the private realms of publishing, amid debates over which authors deserve the enormous platform and resources that publishers can offer — and when it’s acceptable for publishers to decide to take those resources away.
Within the media watering hole of Twitter, it can look as though these concerns are being imposed from the outside: by progressive authors calling on their publishers to abstain from signing right-wing writers; by angry YA fans and Goodreads readers; by petitions and boycotts and special interest groups. But the conversation about who deserves a publishing deal is also happening within the glass-and-steel walls of the industry itself.
Insiders describe recurring generational battles, with young and junior staffers flagging the work of certain authors as potential publicity risks, and then struggling to get older and more conservative executives to take their worries seriously. “It’s like a relationship you really want to work,” says one young staffer, “but your partner is not making it easy for you.”
This April, Simon & Schuster announced two new book deals that left its staff polarized and furious: one with former Vice President Mike Pence, and one with former Trump administration official Kellyanne Conway. More than 200 staffers at Simon & Schuster signed a petition calling on the company to cancel the deals. (As in literally cancel their contracts — though this does overlap with the idea of “cancel culture.”) More than 3,500 figures outside the company added their support, including two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.
That very public show of internal outrage from Simon & Schuster staffers was only the latest iteration of this larger generational fight, one that usually takes place behind closed doors. In 2019, Penguin Random House imprint Dutton quietly dropped its author Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the 1989 prosecution of the Exonerated Five, in the wake of a public outcry following the Ava DuVernay series When They See Us. Dutton never made so much as a public statement about its decision to part ways with Fairstein, but former Dutton employees described to Vox an internal dynamic similar to the one playing out publicly at Simon & Schuster. At Dutton, junior staffers repeatedly sounded the alarm over an author they considered a liability for the imprint, a former employee says, only to have their concerns brushed aside by senior executives invested in maintaining the status quo, right up until the status quo became untenable.
American culture is changing rapidly right now, and publishing is changing along with it. The stories of Mike Pence’s book deal and Linda Fairstein’s contract speak to the struggle in which publishing is enmeshed: determining what it stands for and what its purpose is.
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“Your decision-making is only guided by profit right now”: The fight over Mike Pence’s book deal
On April 7, Simon & Schuster announced that it had reached a two-book deal with Mike Pence and that it planned to publish his autobiography in 2023 through the company’s flagship imprint.
Within days, angry staffers began circulating a petition urging Simon & Schuster management to cancel the Pence deal, to commit to refusing to sign any other members of the Trump administration, and to end all association with Mattingly’s publisher, Post Hill Books. When they delivered the petition to CEO Jonathan Karp on April 26, they had signatures from about 14 percent of the company.
“Editors exercise subjective judgement every day at S&S—we put our trust in them,” a group of organized employees wrote in a cover email delivering the petition to management. “When S&S chose to sign Mike Pence, we broke the public’s trust in our editorial process, and blatantly contradicted previous public claims in support of Black and other lives made vulnerable by structural oppression.”
Karp wrote a letter in response maintaining that Pence’s book deal would go forward. “We come to work each day to publish, not cancel,” he wrote, “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.”
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To the Simon & Schuster staff members who signed the petition, the central issue was one of hypocrisy and normalization. No one is owed a book deal, and editors turn down prospective authors every day without anyone crying censorship. So why, they asked, was Simon & Schuster offering deals to Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence, after spending the previous summer putting out statements declaring its support for Black Lives Matter? Why, they asked, was it willing to say that Josh Hawley’s support of the Capitol rioters was a bridge too far, but not the Trump administration’s failure to protect Americans during the pandemic?
“There are innumerable ways in which Mike Pence’s anti-LGBTQ, racist, anti-immigrant agenda has and will continue to pose a threat to many people, including those who work for your company,” the group said in another email on May 4. “So, our question remains: Why was the distribution deal with Jonathan Mattingly and the book deals with Josh Hawley and Milo Yiannopoulos canceled, but not Pence’s deal? If a standard of truth in publishing is important, how will that possibly be executed in a project with Kellyanne Conway, who proudly coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’?”
“It’s just like, stop inserting these phony statements about morals and political and ethical commitments,” one staffer commented to Vox, rhetorically addressing Simon & Schuster management. This source argues that Simon & Schuster’s statements aren’t really based in a true moral code: “They’re bullshit. That’s branding that you’re trying to tack on. It’s inconsistent with your decision-making. Your decision-making is only guided by profit right now.”
(Vox spoke to a former Dutton employee and two current Simon & Schuster employees for this story, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.)
“Why are we giving him so much money?” said another employee to Vox, referring to reports suggesting that Pence’s advance could be worth around $3 million to $4 million. “Who’s going to buy his book? No one on either side of the aisle likes him. So why can we not give him a smaller advance? Why can’t you distribute the rest of it among your employees, or maybe give bigger advances to BIPOC authors?” (Publishing assistants are notoriously underpaid, in one of the factors leading to the monolithic whiteness of the industry, and Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color are consistently given smaller advances than white authors.)
Karp and the rest of Simon & Schuster have made no additional statements about the decision to publish either Pence or Conway, and Simon & Schuster declined to comment for this article. Some staffers have suggested to Vox that the internal discontent will soon die down, with one employee saying, “I think we’re mostly just grumbling at this point.” But an organizer of the protest said, “We are definitely not intending to let this go.”
Link to the rest at Vox
PG was somewhat hesitant to include anything from Vox on TPV, but made an exception because of the preciousness of some of the quoted publishing employees.
PG notes that no one is easier to replace than a young staffer at a New York publisher. Is this staffer giving management heartburn? Hire a clone for the same salary or less. Repeat this process a few times and the message will work its way through the workforce. Even the wokest Vassar graduate will get the picture.
To be clear, PG thinks it’s fine for anybody who works at S&S to be politically active in support of whomever and whatever on their own time. This political uproar seems to be happening on the employer’s time and Vox is certainly happy to quote people as upset S&S employees who are mad as hell and won’t take it any more.
This little political drama is taking place in a corner of a larger stage. Last year Viacom/CBS decided to sell S&S (unofficial reason – “That dog don’t hunt.”) Bertelsmann jumped into a not very large or enthusiastic group of prospective purchasers and there’s a preliminary agreement in place for Bertelsmann subsidiary, Penguin Random House to buy S&S.
Supposedly, the deal is complete except for the inevitably-slow regulatory approval.
Guess what happens when Penguin becomes the owner of S&S? A whole lot of junior and senior staff become redundant. The joint companies only need one CEO, one Chief Editor, etc., etc., etc. It’s a difficult and bloody process of deciding who you want to keep and who you don’t. One of the big reasons for an acquisition like this is to save money. Since publishers don’t have a lot of hard assets, saving money means cutting payroll expenses.
During this process, senior executives will have enough headaches making decisions about people who are easy to get along with and doing their jobs while not causing political distractions and talking to Vox.
“Professional retaliation” as mentioned in the OP is as good a reason as anything else to dump anybody who is a headache to deal with under such circumstances. Somebody at S&S who says, “It’s just like, stop inserting these phony statements about morals and political and ethical commitments,” sounds like a perfect candidate for a corporate Dear John/Dear Jane letter from the new bosses.
The Bertelsmann family, which has been wealthy for a long time and controls the Bertelsmann mothership via a combination of direct ownership and a wide collection of foundations is not PG’s leading candidate for an instant transformation into Wokeness and its related behaviors. Like many wealthy people, they would like to remain wealthy and don’t care about the US political flavor of the month.
Headquartered in Gütersloh, a city of about one hundred thousand located in Northern Germany not particularly close to anyplace a young New York publishing staffer has ever heard of, Bertelsmann likes profits without a great deal of fuss. It knows how to fire executives who don’t deliver according to its expectations and reward those who do. Although PG has no idea of who it might be, he suspects somebody in Gütersloh receives a copy of every news article that mentions Bertelsmann, including an article that appears in Vox.