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What Does Book Publishing Stand For?

A series of controversies has called the industry’s supposed values into question.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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.

Conway is a different case. The commercial argument for a book by Kellyanne Conway makes more sense than it does for Pence: There is a disturbing level of interest in her and particularly in her relationship with her husband and eldest daughter. The premise behind publishing a diversity of voices, however, is that a publisher would be advancing rigorous, good-faith arguments from people across the ideological spectrum. Calling Conway an unreliable narrator is an understatement—she’s a serial liar, someone who literally coined the phrase “alternative facts.”

There may be an ideological component to publishing Pence and Conway, but it has nothing to do with ideas. It has to do with fetishizing ideological diversity, in which publishing garbage books from prominent Republicans is an end in and of itself. These deals only underline what’s been increasingly obvious for decades now: The commitment to free speech and intellectual diversity is a fig leaf, held up to defend often dubious decisions that are rooted in financial concerns, rather than intellectual or moral ones. If you are building a case for “ideological diversity” and are basing it on books by Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway, you have already lost.

As all of this was happening, W.W. Norton was dealing with a different issue. After disturbing allegations of grooming, harassment, and rape spanning decades were made against Philip Roth biographer Blake Bailey—allegations that at least one W.W. Norton executive was aware of years before the book was published—the company initially announced that it was pausing promotion and distribution of the book. As the controversy continued to swirl, it went further, announcing that it was taking the book out of print and that Bailey could publish it elsewhere if he so chose (it is currently unavailable as an ebook, though new copies are still being sold on Amazon, presumably until the retailer runs out of stock).

That decision was a public relations one: Norton itself had been implicated in the scandal; without this, it’s highly unlikely the book would have been pulled. Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, found a line it wouldn’t cross, announcing that it wouldn’t distribute a book written by one of the Louisville police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. (Simon & Schuster had, months earlier, canceled a book contract with Josh Hawley, citing his involvement in the January 6 insurrection.)

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.

Publishing is unique in American arts in that its largest corporations claim to be guided by a set of values in ways that you don’t see in the music and film industries, for example. Publishers may say they are clinging to those values, but they haven’t been living up to them for some time.