January 5, 2017
Publishing during wartime
by Dennis Johnson
The furor over Milo Yiannopoulos’s book deal with Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions inspires this publisher to ask one question of the disconcerted: Where have you been?
Because this is where American publishing is now—or at least, the fifty percent of it dominated by the so-called “Big Five”—and it’s been there for a long time.
Look at Threshold alone: It’s published Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Donald Trump. S&S launched the imprint back in 2006 (with Mary Matalin as its founding editor) after Random House‘s conservative Crown imprint (publisher of George Bush) formed an even more conservative sub-imprint, Crown Forum (Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan), in 2003 … which in turn had been a response to Penguin’s 2002 formation of its conservative Sentinel imprint (Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker).
And then there’s the HarperCollins (Sarah Palin) conservative imprint (yes, I too think that sounds redundant) Broadside Books (Dick Morris), founded in 2010.
You’ll note some of the authors of these imprints, such as George Bush and Dick Cheney, have the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on their hands. (Call me crazy, but I think that’s worse than the showboating loutishness of Milo Yiannopoulos.) And yet, do you remember any of these books sparking a significant protest?
In fact what criticism there was along the way was countered the same way S&S is countering criticism now. For example, when Crown was almost kind of slightly not really criticized for publishing George Bush, the company countered by saying no no no it would publish anyone, right or left, due to free speech, fighting censorship, the First Amendment, diversity, and, you know, freedom!
It also used the human shield ploy by pointing out that its corporate owner published lots of other authors you wouldn’t want a boycott to deprive you of — such as Barrack Obama and Dr. Seuss!
It’s the modern predicament in a nutshell — the normalization of the most vile nonsense.
In the book business, as in the general economy, it’s the end of a long process that began when privately owned companies like Simon & Schuster (there really was a guy named Simon, you know, and another one named Schuster) started selling out to big corporations, which soon sold out to even bigger international mega-corps in the wild and wooly era of free trade unleashed by Bill Clinton.
In the end, each individual brand became diluted to a thing that exists only to make money, meaning that what they publish is basically random — well-written, badly written, left, right, moral, immoral … doesn’t matter. Just has to make money. In fact, there’s no real brand there anymore, let alone an ideology.
Of course that’s something that’s happened across the sorry landscape of American capitalism, but it’s particularly odd to observe in the business of art-making and speaking truth to power. Ideology is now the former bottom line of centuries of publishing.
In any event, thus, the person at Simon & Schuster who had to decide on whether or not to publish Yiannopoulos — and it did, rest assured, come down to one person greenlighting the project — said to themselves not “I don’t want to do an immoral thing like publish this evil troll,” but “I’d better pretend I have no human agency and instead behave according to the dictates of international-conglomerate-capitalism and buy this book because it will make my employer a lot of money.”
And soon a bunch more people in the S&S food chain will forget where they put their agency, too, and do what they are told and edit the book and copyedit and proof the book and design it and print it and distribute it and sell it. To make their living. To make money.
But in point of fact that first, highly-placed, self-designated apparatchik did have agency. He or she could have said no.
Because that’s what a real publisher does all day, as opposed to what a cog in a corporate machine does — i.e., it’s what Messrs. Simon and Schuster did, back in the day: They say yes, and they say no. They say, “Yes, I’ll publish this thing because it’s worthy and fits my company and could make the world a better place and yes I think it might make money but more importantly I believe in it”; or they say, “No, I won’t publish this piece of vile dreck even though it would probably make a lot of money because it’s evil and so is its author and I don’t want to support them let alone get in bed with them nor force my staff to do it either nor lie to readers by saying this sort of thing is okay.”
And note: Not publishing vile dreck is not censorship. If you don’t like something, there’s no law that says you nevertheless have to spend your money on publishing it. It’s also not censorship because you haven’t blocked it from being published by anyone else, such as any of the many publishers who love to publish vile dreck, such as Regnery.
But the deal nonetheless went forward at S&S, and the outraged—readers, booksellers, authors, the good-hearted and generally sentient—are trembling in timidity over what in the world to do about it.
This is a common reaction in the book biz — a business of lovers-not-fighters, much like the liberal classes in general, which explains how a mercenary cutthroat like Amazon was able to become a monopoly without even breaking a sweat.
It also explains how those outraged by the Yiannopoulos deal have resisted the one glaringly obvious thing that people could do right now, which is the thing that would have the most powerful impact, which is the explosive tool that powered the civil rights movement, which is a boycott. Letters, phone calls, emails, yes, yes, yes, they would make responsible parties at S&S uncomfortable … for a matter of minutes, until they learned to not answer the phone or look at their email, and it eventually fades away.
A boycott is the only way to make a statement to entities to which only money has meaning.
Yet people who wouldn’t think twice about boycotting a Trump hotel nor give a thought in the world to the good people working there who are the collateral damage of such a boycott are increasingly firm about why they can’t boycott Simon & Schuster: Because it would hurt all its employees and other authors.
Thus the buck, as it were, stops no where.
Still … the obvious appropriateness of a boycott seems to have nagged at people enough that, after some dithering, a modifcation of the boycott-is-too-mean justification has been reached: People should boycott Simon & Schuster’s bad books … even if, um, they aren’t the kind of books you were going to buy anyway ….
And this is where we’re at, at the dawning of the Trump era.
Look, the battle against Yiannopoulos is a minor skirmish against the kind of penny-ante icon we’re going to come up against again and again in the Trump era, but the encompassing war against Trump — which is, after all, a war against fascism — is going to be a war of attrition, and this is an early, easy round. It’s going to get harder. If people don’t have the stomach or nerve to do the right thing on this one, we’re in big trouble.
Booksellers! Readers! Media! It’s not like there aren’t a million and one other choices out there — from, say, the other fifty percent of American publishing, the indies, university presses, nonprofits, and more, who operate by a discernable and conscientious moral code, be it right, left, or center, and who publish equally fine books as the Big Five.
Regardless, the choice before anyone upset about the Yiannopoulos deal, and for those who say they’re dedicated to resisting Donald Trump, is a simple one: Publishers can say no, and so can you.
Read part two, Publishing during wartime, part II
Read part three, Publishing during wartime, part III
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives