February 21, 2017

Publishing during wartime: Chickens, roosting


Hard for S&S to see anything provocative about this guy …

Milo Yiannopoulos went down in flames yesterday — spectacularly so, in a way that will likely leave him a regular guest on the Bill Maher show but unemployed and radioactive forever in the rest of the mainstream. Conservative groups are currently falling all over themselves to do the thing student protestors have been activating for, which is cancelling his speeches; staffers at his employer, Brietbart News, are threatening a walkout if he isn’t fired; and — most pertinent to this column — his publisher cancelled his book.

But don’t mistake the death of his book deal for a shining moment in American publishing.

In fact his publisher, Simon and Schuster, one of the country’s oldest and most celebrated publishers, ended the relationship in a manner that left them looking even worse than they’d been looking for entering it in the first place.

There’s the way they announced the breakup, for example: In a tweet from the company’s head publicist, which in itself tells you something about the amount of class and substance on offer. He didn’t even use the full 140 characters:

More telling, though — far more telling — is this: After months of staunchly defending its publication of Yiannopoulos as essentially a “free speech” issue, the company decided to cancel publication of his book “after the publication of a video in which he condones sexual relations with boys as young as 13 and laughs off the seriousness of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests,” as a New York Times report detailed.

In other words, Simon & Schuster cancelled Milo Yiannapoulos’s book because of something he said.

Of course, as I’ve tried to detail in ten columns now, the furor over this book deal has never been about free speech, despite the regular citation of the First Amendment by the likes of S&S and Yiannopoulos and his brownshirts. As anyone who’s actually read the First Amendment would know, it protects citizens from censorship by the government. By definition, people like me couldn’t have censored Yiannopoulos if we wanted to.

Thus, it was a nasty canard — God, I love that word! — a nasty canard for S&S to conflate the protest of the deal with censorship. From the start, it was clear that this was only an attempt to obscure the fact that the deal was only about money. The conflation, in short, was a smear campaign against protestors to cover that up.

So what to make of the other leading lights of the industry who backed S&S steadfastly in that campaign? That is, the signatories of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) statement that was signed by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the Authors Guild (AG), and others?

By way of disclosure I should note that Melville House is a proud member of the AAP, and I am a past, longtime member of the AG, and no one has gone to the mat for the ABA more than me. So I’m not exactly happy to also say that all of these groups should be ashamed of themselves for having backed a fascist they should have instantly recognized in the first place, not just now that he’s revealed himself, in his support of pederasty, to share the perversion of the most stereotypical Nazis.

To my mind this story has very few heroes — among them the staff and owners of The Booksmith in San Francisco, which took a major and public stand against S&S that was soon followed by Subtext Books in Minneapolis but few others in the indie bookselling world; Chicago Review of Books editor Adam Morgan, who announced early on he was boycotting S&S; Roxane Gay, who pulled her book from S&S; the group of 160 S&S children’s book authors who issued a stunning rebuke to company head Carolyn Reidy; and the sales representatives, publicists, and others at S&S who, people keep leaking to me, are leaving the company in protest and disgust.

You didn’t hear about the latter and their lonely bravery, though, because this story got precious little coverage beyond the cursory in the media. Business reporters at the Times and the Wall Street Journal, for instance, let alone publishing reporters in general (with the notable exception of Lynn Neary at NPR) barely if at all covered this tumultuous story occurring in one of the major industries on their local beat — they apprently never called Carolyn Reidy, for example, and asked her the obvious question, which could only have been What the fuck, you’re publishing a white supremacist? Or at least, they never ran an article noting she refused to answer.

That was stupid, as it was a good story, interesting and a perfect representation of the Trump wars in microcosm. But in any event a true industry uprisal in this first, meaningful skirmish of the Trump wars within the book business never arose. The stray acts of bravery never coalesced, and the silence of the other publishers and booksellers was deafening.

Meanwhile, it was up to students across the country to hound Yiannapolous, which they did gloriously — blocking his event at the University of California at Davis for example, by surrounding the auditorium and linking arms in a peaceful protest. And what did they get for blocking a fascist from speaking on their campus, which it would seem perfectly within their right to protest? Condemnation from school chancellor Ralph J. Hexter, that’s what.

Then there’s the protests at UC Berkeley and at the University of Washingotn in Seattle — where, as the Times noted in an article yesterday, “a man was shot,” instead of the more accurate a Yiannopoulos supporter shot a protestor.  Meanwhile the Berkeley protestors, like the protestors at U.C. Davis, managed to shut down the Yiannopoulos event.

And now the student antifascist battle against Yiannopoulos is effectively won, but who knows if Trump won’t personally elevate him beyond his stature once again? Or some other troll, for that matter?

This was, in many ways, a watershed moment for the industry, where, for one thing, booksellers were forced to confront what big publishing has become. While it’s important to note that all of the other Big Five publishers turned down this book, one has to wonder if this shameful incident isn’t going to permanently alter the way many booksellers do business with the big players.

This gave the rest of us a chance, too, to see the ultimate results of the death of private ownership and the conglomerization of big publishing — which is to say, there is no real brand there anymore, it’s just about money. After all, where was Carolyn Reidy yesterday? Where was Louise Burke, the publisher of the S&S imprint that bought the book, Threshold Editions? Why weren’t they publicly doing what a publisher should do — take responsibility for the books they publish?

Regardless, the thing I’ll take away from this is that one of the Big Five and almost all of the major trade groups called this wrong, and hugely so, and smeared those who disagreed — that is, those who, as it turned out, called it right. Will those same apparently unapologetic organizations now at least acknowledge something that was clearly not on their reality radar, which is that they need to conceptualize a stand against fascism — even if only because fascism is bad for business? Because people like Yiannopoulos are a dime a dozen, and so we will confront this again.

In short, it’s past time for industry leaders as well as everyone else who remained silent to wake up and realize what only a handful of indie players seemed to realize this time out: that we are, all of us, publishing during wartime, and we’d all better make a better effort to head fascism off at the pass next time … or there may not be a next time ….
See part one, Publishing during wartime
See Publishing during wartime, part II
See part III, Protest of S&S and “gaslighting” is growing
See part IV, Learning from history
See part V, The violence begins
See part VI, The growing resistance
See part VII, Enter the Black Bloc, exit discernment
See part VIII, Enter the rainmaker?
See part IX, The flying monkeys multiply, but so does the opposition
See part X, Chickens, roosting

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives