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Book Publishing Is Not a Good Champion of Free Speech

The uproar over Milo Yiannopolous’s book exposes the tensions between the industry’s purported ideals and the profit motive.

Drew Angerer/Getty

While outrage greeted the announcement in December that Threshold Editions, a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster, had agreed to publish a book by Milo Yiannopolous, an alt-right troll who has peddled misogyny and racism to moderate fame, things quieted down soon after. Ultimately, a book published by a hate-monger couldn’t compete with the inauguration of one.

But if the public largely moved on, the book community—most notably authors and agents—had not. On Wednesday, the author Roxane Gay announced that she had pulled her forthcoming book, How to Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster over Yiannopolous’s $250,000 deal. This was presumably the type of controversy Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy had attempted to avoid earlier this week in a rather odd letter to authors and Simon & Schuster employees. There is no evidence that publishing Yiannopolous has disrupted Simon & Schuster’s bottom line—through, say, a reader boycott—but it has interfered with the company’s ability to do business.

Conversations I’ve had with Simon & Schuster employees suggest that the Yiannopolous deal has not only become a source of internal friction, but also a potential stumbling block with authors, agents, and booksellers. Unfortunately for Simon & Schuster, Reidy’s letter does little to assuage any of the many substantive criticisms of the Yiannopolous deal. Instead, it reveals the contradiction at the heart of corporate publishing, which is as devoted to making money as it is to preserving its traditional role to entertain and enlighten.

While Reidy’s letter follows the corporate boilerplate for responding to controversy, it also divulges more information about the decision to publish Yiannopolous’s book. At best, the letter uses Threshold Editions as a shield to protect the publishing conglomerate’s other imprints; at worst, as GQ’s Kevin Nguyen and others pointed out on Twitter, it’s disingenuous.

Here’s the new bit, per BuzzFeed’s Jarry Lee:

When Threshold Editions met with Mr. Yiannopoulos, he said that he was interested in writing a book that would be a substantive examination of the issues of political correctness and free speech, issues that are already much-discussed and argued and fought over in both mainstream and alternative media and on campuses and in schools across the country. Threshold Editions, like all our imprints, is editorially independent. Its acquisitions are made without the involvement or knowledge of our other publishers. In considering this project, the imprint believed that an articulate discussion of these issues, coming from an unconventional source like Mr. Yiannopoulos could become an incisive commentary on today’s social discourse that would sit well within its scope and mission, which is to publish works for a conservative audience.

This is largely in keeping with the proposal described by conservative publisher Adam Bellow (son of Saul Bellow), who read the propsoal on submission (he turned it down) but told Slate that he “was pleasantly surprised” to find “an engaging, intelligent, educated voice” instead of “a hodgepodge of rants and Twitter insults. Nothing I saw led me to feel that the book was incendiary or dangerous.” Reid is making the case that Yiannopoulos’s book, unlike nearly all of his public work, would advance a substantive argument and participate in a pre-existing dialogue about “political correctness.”

“I want to make clear that we do not support or condone, nor will we publish, hate speech,” Reidy writes. “Not from our authors. Not in our books. Not at our imprints. Not from our employees and not in our workplace.” But that boggles the mind. Milo was given $250,000 precisely because he has a track record of attention-grabbing hate speech. Yiannopoulos has not risen to fame by making incisive critiques of the political establishment, but by being outrageous and offensive, particularly to women and people of color.

The idea that Simon & Schuster actually wanted a staid work of social science is absurd. The $250,000 already assumes modest sales—Milo’s demographic is much younger than that of most other conservative writers, and the assumption seems to be that he will only sell about 15,000 to 20,000 books. But if Milo’s book also includes none of the stuff that Milo’s fans expect from him, that is money poorly spent indeed.

There’s another problem with Reidy’s claim. Yiannopoulos’s book was acquired based on a proposal, so it seems safe to say that no one at Threshold Editions or Simon & Schuster saw the manuscript before it was acquired. Although Reidy has asked authors and employees to “withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book,” it is highly unlikely that even she has read the book in anything resembling a finished state. The book, moreover, is being rushed to print: It will come out in March and no pre-publication galleys are being printed. (When asked directly about the decision to crash the book and not print galleys, Simon & Schuster would not comment.) That means that even if the book did contain offensive sections, there’s little anyone can do to stop it because Threshold and Simon & Schuster have designed the production process to ram the book through. If it contains offensive passages, it’ll be too late. The book will already be on sale.

But there’s another argument in Reidy’s letter: that Threshold’s “editorial independence” must be protected. This is a much stronger argument than the rather absurd one that Yiannopoulos’s contract was given to him for his track record as a thinker as opposed to his track record as a pot-stirrer and hatemonger. Threshold Editions, after all, is a relative oddity in the generally liberal publishing ecosystem, a conservative imprint in a house whose employees and imprints skew liberal. Threshold Editions exists to serve a constituency that is often overlooked by Simon & Schuster’s other imprints.

On its face, this is a pretty good argument. If imprints were given veto power—or any editorial control—over the work done by other imprints, it could have a chilling effect for publishers. More importantly, editorial independence also shields imprints from the intrusions of Simon & Schuster’s parent company CBS and its shareholders.

But Reidy is trying to square a circle. She’s arguing that publishing Yiannopoulos’s book is also a free speech issue. Simon & Schuster, like all publishers, is a proud purveyor in the marketplace of ideas and not all ideas are palatable. Nixing a book by Milo Yiannopoulos today could mean eroding the editorial independence that allows other controversial books to be published—the kinds of books that parents call to have removed from their children’s libraries every year. Perhaps coincidentally, free speech was a major part of Reidy’s message to her employees in December, when she urged the company to “resist censorship” and “to stand unequivocally for freedom of speech, no matter how difficult that might be at times.”

Perhaps because it’s not a particularly profitable industry, book publishing is a remarkably self-important one. Publishers are rightfully proud of their history of pushing controversial books by authors like Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and William Burroughs.

But that history is also more removed than ever before. Over the past 50 years, the publishing industry has condensed to a remarkable degree: Five corporations dominate the publishing landscape and exert an enormous influence over what is and is not read. While many of the imprints at these corporations are devoted to publishing important works, it would be absurd to argue that this is the defining feature of Penguin Random House (part of Bertelsmann), Hachette (part of Hachette Livre), HarperCollins (part of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp), Macmillan (part of Holtzbrinck Publishing), or Simon & Schuster (CBS). Reidy is very aware that her company and its imprints need to provide profits to the parent company. Her company’s editorial decisions are made with that in mind.

Conservative publishers were not, moreover, created as part of some grand vision of reflecting America in all of its diversity—if that were true, publishing would be way more diverse than it is. These publishers didn’t really flourish until the early 2000s when it became clear that if you published books by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck, you would essentially be printing money—these pundits all have large platforms and older audiences, which means they sell a ton of books. Yiannopoulos’s book is part of this tradition, and was acquired because of its potential to make money. If it also contributes to the marketplace of ideas, well, so be it.

Reidy, in other words, is using the story that publishers tell about themselves as a cloak to cover what is obvious: that Yiannopoulos’s book was acquired because of his record as an attention-grabbing troll and because Threshold Editions thought it would make some money. The idea of “editorial independence,” like the idea of free speech, is not faulty per se, nor is it necessarily misapplied. But Milo’s case reveals the contradictions of any endeavor that speaks in noble tones about the profit motive.