January 26, 2021
Is it time for the Big Five to rethink conservative publishing?
by Alyea Canada
In the wake of the Capitol riots on January 6, Simon & Schuster cancelled Junior Senator Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book on January 7. Almost as quickly, and after many conservative cries of “cancel culture,” it was announced that conservative publisher Regnery had picked up Hawley’s book, and just like that no one was cancelled. The plot briefly thickened a few week later when author Barry Lyga published an open letter signed by over five hundred industry professionals asking publishers to reconsider book deals for members of the Trump administration. In a piece over on Publishers Weekly today, Rachel Deahl asks if this pressure will lead the Big Five to reconsider publishing conservative authors.
Unsurprisingly, most publishers defend their decision to publish conservative authors under the guise of a First Amendment issue, however that is a bit of a nonstarter. Yes the first amendment gives an author the right to say what they want, but publishing houses are private corporations and companies and nothing in the Constitution promises a right to a publishing contract. Moreover as the most prominent conservative voices in this country continue to shift right, more people are seeing these books as actively harmful. Deahl quotes Crown Forum founder and current agent, Steve Ross, as saying that this has shifted from a First Amendment issue to one of corporate responsibility. “It’s only natural, in the wake of this upheaval, that publishers would reassess their role in disseminating content that could be incendiary, even if incendiary sells books.”
And here Deahl gets at a part of the discussion that is always lurking in the shadows, conservative books are pretty lucrative for the Big Five. Many conservative imprints are staffed by a single acquiring editor, meaning there is not a lot of competition for these titles so advances are lower. Moreover, these books sell. Deahl reports one agent who sells conservative books as saying “regardless of what some of their employees think [publishers], can’t ignore the sizeable audience for conservative authors. He added that no one talks about the fact that conservative radio host Marc Levin sells more books than many liberal favorites.” (When I worked at B&N, Levin’s fans would often storm into the store when he released a new book and yell about us hiding his book as I was literally putting out a frontlist display next to the information desk.)
This isn’t the first time the industry has been side-eyed for conservative or Trump-related books. Bob Woodward received a lot of criticism for sitting on interviews for months in which Trump admitted to downplaying COVID, waiting for the news to be broken in his book Rage as thousands of people died. Numerous former members of the Trump administration have been called out and questioned about the ethics of withholding crucial information about dysfunction or criminal activity in order to sell more copies of their book. But the request here is a bit nebulous. Where do we draw the line at which conservative voices are published and which are not? Both left- and right-leaning publishers have benefited from the “Trump bump” as the New York Times put it. How directly involved in the attack on the Capitol does the author have to be to determine them worthy of deplatforming? What about conservative authors such as Levin who may not have governmental power, but are reinforcing the same ideals?
The criticism the industry is experiencing now is yet another wave of demands from younger professionals to rethink the moral and ethical standards of publishing as a whole. There is a direct throughline from the calls for increased diversity to #publishingpaidme to rethinking publishing harmful conservative voices. Most of the industry professionals who signed Lyga’s letter are not expecting change, but still felt it was important to say something. For a long time big publishers have used imprints to publish both sides and avoid a definitive political stance, but as the right continues to shift farther right many think we are far beyond the time to draw a line in the sand.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.