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Josh Hawley in the House chamber during a reconvening of a joint session of Congress on January 6 in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Big Five book publishers embraced the right wing. Now they’re starting to back away.

On Thursday night, Simon & Schuster announced that it would not publish The Tyranny of Big Tech, a book by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) that was planned to come out in June.

Hawley was the first senator to announce that he planned to object to Wednesday’s congressional count of the presidential electoral votes, citing baseless claims of election fraud. His endorsement lent a new level of legitimacy to the false conspiracy theory that Joe Biden did not truly win the 2020 presidential election, a fact that has led many politicians — including Hawley’s former mentors — to hold him partially responsible for Wednesday’s riots in Washington, DC.

When Hawley was photographed on his way to the Senate chambers raising a fist in support of pro-Trump demonstrators who would soon storm the Capitol, the narrative that he bore personal culpability for the riots became widespread.

Simon & Schuster cited a belief in Hawley’s connection to the Capitol riots when it announced the cancellation of his book. “After witnessing the disturbing, deadly insurrection that took place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Simon & Schuster has decided to cancel publication of Senator Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book,” the publisher said in a statement. “We did not come to this decision lightly. As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”

The move was swift, sudden, and on some levels, surprising. For a long time, book publishing has made a habit of treating any ethical dilemmas that might emerge over the course of a book’s life cycle as not really any of its business, preferring to focus instead on the bottom line. That’s part of the reason that all of the so-called Big Five publishing houses that put out the majority of trade books in the US have right-wing imprints that publish un-fact-checked screeds full of racist and anti-democratic ideas. Those books may or may not be good for society, but they definitely sell.

Hawley is a rising star in the Republican Party, and even if Wednesday’s riots end his career as a presidential hopeful, he’s still the kind of polarizing figure who can generate a lot of book sales. It’s easy to imagine a profit-oriented argument to continue forward with Hawley’s book.

But over the past few years, and especially last year, publishing has been increasingly arguing with itself over what responsibility it bears for the kinds of books in which it chooses to invest. Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel Hawley’s book is just the latest flashpoint in an ever-escalating publishing battle: a battle between the idealistic and underpaid young liberals who make up the bulk of the industry’s workforce and the cynical and profit-motivated structures in which they do their work.

How the Big Five publishers embraced conservatism

Conservative book publishing has not always been a central tentpole of mainstream trade publishing. For much of the 20th century, right-wing publishing was left to independent conservative presses. Mainly, the market belonged to Washington-based Regnery, founded in 1947, which started off publishing figures like National Review founder William F. Buckley and today publishes figures like Sarah Palin and Mike Pence.

For decades, the lone conservative imprint among the Big Five publishers that command the books industry — Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan — was the Free Press. It was passed around among them, owned first by Macmillan and then by Simon & Schuster. And even the Free Press began in 1947 as an independent press focusing on civil liberties. It was acquired by Macmillan in 1980, and then in 1983, under the leadership of neoconservative Edwin Gilkes, it began publishing figures like rock music hater Allan Bloom and constitutional originalist Robert Bork.

The Free Press eventually developed into a more general interest imprint with a sideline in conservative writing, publishing Booker Prize-winning fiction and celebrity chef memoirs alongside prominent nonfiction authors like Richard Dawkins. And in 2012, Simon & Schuster would fold the Free Press into its flagship imprint — confusingly also named Simon & Schuster — which is the same imprint that would later acquire and then cancel Hawley’s book.

But outside of what happened at the Free Press, the Big Five traditionally didn’t get involved in publishing right-wing ideas. In the early aughts, that started to change.

That was the period when Fox News was taking off, and books by right-wing news personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck increasingly began to dominate the bestseller list. And trade publishing, supposing it was leaving money on the table by ignoring these figures, took note.

In 2002, Random House (then yet to merge with Penguin) launched Crown Forum and poached Ann Coulter away from Regnery. In 2003, Penguin launched Sentinel and began publishing Donald Rumsfeld and Mike Huckabee. In 2006, Simon & Schuster hired former Dick Cheney counselor Mary Matalin to launch Threshold Editions, which publishes Cheney and Karl Rove. And in 2010, HarperCollins launched Broadside Books, which publishes Ben Shapiro and Newt Gingrich.

The books these imprints publish can sell enormously well. They are, in an industry that has been known to bleed money, reliable profit drivers.

They are also consistently released without fact-checking because book publishing considers fact-checking to be the author’s responsibility, not its own. And they are, in an industry staffed by mostly liberal young people, odd ideological outliers. They make money, but they’re a bizarre fit for the companies that shepherd them into existence.

In recent years, the strangeness of that fit has become ever more apparent.

The past four years have seen publishing repeatedly argue over the point where moral transgressions become financial liabilities

In December 2016, Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions announced a book deal with the alt-right provocateur and professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. The news was met with immediate outrage and promise of boycotts from progressive groups, and in February 2017, after a video surfaced in which Yiannopoulos defended pedophilia, Threshold canceled the book.

That cancellation demonstrated a line in the sand. Simon & Schuster was willing to publish Yiannopoulos when he was just the guy who invented World Patriarchy Day and harassed Leslie Jones so much he was banned from Twitter, but a defense of pedophilia was the hard limit. That was the point at which Yiannopoulos seemed to become a potential financial and reputational liability.

2017 was also the year Me Too went big, and famous men across multiple industries — including famous authors — were accused one after another of sexual misconduct. Ultimately, some, not anywhere close to all, of those men lost their publishing deals.

Bill O’Reilly, accused of sexual harassment, lost his literary agency (although not his publisher). Penguin Press dropped Game Change author Mark Halperin, accused of sexual harassment. Ballantine dropped Maze Runner author James Dashner, accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.

Publishers, meanwhile, instituted controversial morality clauses into their contracts, reserving the right to cancel a book if an author should ever do anything “that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” These clauses are the result of a financial calculation, not a moral one: They are meant to protect a publisher’s financial interests as the prevailing culture becomes increasingly unwilling to buy books from authors accused of harming others.

But in 2020, publishing staffers began to make arguments increasingly based in morality against publishing books by certain figures.

In 2020, publishing staffers forced the industry to stop talking about finances and start talking about ethics

In March 2020, Hachette imprint Grand Central announced that it would be publishing a new memoir by Woody Allen, whose daughter Dylan Farrow has accused him of molesting her as a child. In response, Hachette staffers from across the company walked out.

“We want the book to be canceled,” one staffer told Slate anonymously. “It’s going to be expensive, but it’s the right thing to do. We want a public apology from the CEO.”

Hachette canceled the book.

As the year went on and the George Floyd protests took off across the country, publishing staffers began to turn their attention to the industry’s systemic racism. Large book publishers are staffed almost entirely by white people, release works that are mostly by white authors for white audiences, and tend to fail to pay authors and staffers of color at the same level it pays their white counterparts. On June 8, publishing staffers across the industry walked out in protest.

“We want more books by Black authors,” organizers wrote in an open letter addressed to the CEOs of the Big Five publishers. “Too often, the books acquired from Black authors are ‘trauma stories.’ There are other stories that Black authors want to tell and we want publishing to amplify narratives that don’t rest on the trauma of living in a Black body. We want more Black coworkers and more Black coworkers in leadership positions. The voices of junior staff, often more diverse than senior staff, are too easily excluded from decision-making processes.”

The argument staffers were making in this letter and during the Hachette walkout was an ethical one. It was not an argument about what kind of books will sell well or what publishing needs to do to safeguard its purse strings. Instead, the argument posited that publishing has an ethical responsibility to consider carefully the stories in which it invests, and to devote its resources less often to the powerful and more often to the disenfranchised.

This idea of the industry as holding ethical responsibilities is in fundamental opposition to the kind of profit-minded logic that led the Big Five to embrace figures like Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly: figures who spent decades calling the Democrats traitors and arguing that Democrats’ claims to power were illegitimate. We can arguably draw a straight line from the rhetoric of Coulter, O’Reilly, and the like directly to the riot at the Capitol, and mainstream trade publishing played a major role in legitimizing, platforming, and profiting from the voices that got us there.

So the question facing publishing right now becomes: Are such dangers acceptable? Is publishing meant to function as a politically neutral marketplace of ideas and free speech and print any idea, no matter how inflammatory, false, or dangerous, as long as it can find a buyer? Or is publishing meant to function as an ethical gatekeeper, one that enshrines values like fact-checking and anti-racism and not publishing people accused of child molestation?

Right now, the industry doesn’t seem to know. So far, it’s only concluded that the Josh Hawleys of the world are both a financial and an ethical liability.

Author: Constance Grady

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