January 10, 2017
Publishing during wartime, part II
by Dennis Johnson
See part one, Publishing during wartime
In yet another heart-rending sign of HOW THE LEFT IS PROBABLY GOING TO BLOW THE WAR AGAINST TRUMP, many of the publishing industry’s leading trade organizations including the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and the American Booksellers Association, have joined together to issue a statement opposing the boycott of Simon and Schuster over the $250,000 book deal between its Threshold Editions imprint and hate speech champion Milo Yiannopoulos for his book, Dangerous.
The statement is issued under the rubric of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), whose board of directors includes the president and publisher of the children’s division of, eh, Simon and Schuster. In the way it is too snooty to divulge such an obvious conflict of interest, but more importantly in the way it seems to not know the definition of certain words—the sort of thing you’d think groups like the Authors Guild would be good at—as well as in the way it seems to promote self-interest at a time of national crisis, the statement is, in a word, stupid.
More specifically, it’s stupid in the way it seems to willfully conflate the idea of protest with the act of censorship (an example of the rather treacherous kind of false equivalency beloved of the right and lazy media these days), which is what makes it hard to see the statement as anything but self-serving.
That impression is compounded by the fact that, as accommodationist statements always are, it’s a tortured affair that winds up sounding like it’s trying to pull a fast one, which indeed it is: “Readers are of course free…” it generously declares, “to urge a boycott.” However if they do, it notes ominously, it “will have a chilling effect on authors and publishers.” What’s more, it adds threateningly, a boycott would “undermine intellectual freedom and harm readers and writers.”
That’s ludicrous, of course — I mean, who’s censoring who? The statement is in itself censorious, saying that pretty much any protest of Simon and Schuster will have evil ramifications, especially a boycott. And given the long and honored history of boycotting in America—from the days of our very foundation with the Boston Tea Party to the long haul of the civil rights movement—that’s particularly repugnant, not to mention anti-democratic.
But where the NCAC proclamation is really stupid is this: Is this really where you want to make a stand, NCAC signatories? Really? In the dawning days of the Trump era, you want to defend a white nationalist, an actual fascist, and support the effort to give him wider broadcast by a member of your club? Really? These are desperate times — is that not clear? — and this is where you’re going to draw the line?
Apparently, the answer is yes — NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin is out and about vehemently defending the statement. In an interview with PW, she says, “Endorsing the right to express offensive ideas is not equivalent to endorsing the ideas themselves.”
But of course, by publishing Yiannopoulos and helping him spread the word to a wider audience, that’s exactly what S&S is doing. And it’s another nasty false equivalency to say that criticism of the deal is threatening Simon and Schuster’s “right to publish,” or denying Yiannopoulos the right to express himself. He’s got his bully pulpit as a journalist at Breitbart, for one thing, and there are dozens of right-wing publishers who would be happy to publish his book.
No, the only people having their free speech threatened are those protesting Simon and Schuster’s broadcasting of Yiannopoulos’ vile ideas. And in consistently obfuscating that, and in going forward with its full-scale broadcasting of those ideas, S&S is indeed essentially endorsing them. I mean, despite the fact that the NSAC statement uses words like “noxious” to define Yiannopoulos’ spoutings, and that NCAC head Bertin admits those views are “offensive,” are we nonetheless to think that S&S doesn’t stand behind what it publishes? Why, that would mean they’re only in it for … hmm, the money?
In any event, a growing crowd of independents in the industry, at least, are saying enough. Chicago Review of Books editor Adam Morgan announced early on that he’s boycotting Simon and Schuster by stopping coverage of any of its books because of the deal with Yiannopoulos, whom he calls “a clickbait grifter” who “peddles hate speech for profit.”
And just yesterday, one of the country’s leading indie booksellers, San Francisco’s Booksmith, announced that it felt the deal “crosses a line by promoting hate speech & bullying.” As a result, the bookseller announced on its website,
Booksmith is committed to the following, effective immediately:
We will not be stocking or special ordering Dangerous or anything else from Threshold Editions. No royalty revenue will come from Booksmith.
Booksmith will reduce our orders with Threshold’s parent company Simon & Schuster by 50% in order to communicate pressure to the corporation as a whole. While we respect Simon’s decision to publish any book, we reserve the right to allocate our discretionary inventory dollars with publishers who act with ethical & moral standards consistent with our own.
While we are not enacting a sweeping boycott of all S&S titles, for the foreseeable future, 40% of all S&S sales(which is to say all of our profit) will be turned right around and donated to the ACLU.
That’s one major indie bookseller, one major literary magazine, and, with Melville House, one indie publisher stepping up to oppose this deal.
This is, indeed, a moment for independents to step up, as the major players in the industry seem to have circled the wagons in a knee-jerk response to criticism and a threat to their ability to make money any way they want.
But this could be a defining moment in the culture, let alone the industry as we sail into the Trump wars: Who’s next to say the NCAC statement is shameful, and Simon and Schuster should be boycotted?
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives