When Simon & Schuster announced in late February that it is canceling Milo Yiannopoulos’s book, Dangerous, many in the publishing industry reacted with a sigh of relief. The six-figure book deal that the right-wing provocateur landed at Threshold Editions, S&S’s conservative imprint, late last year caused a wave of criticism—from various factions of the media, the public, and the house’s own authors. And, though it’s still unclear what ultimately motivated the publisher to yank the book, the fervor that the alt-right bad boy’s deal caused put some on alert. Could other publishers be pressured into canceling books by controversial conservatives? Does the industry have a double standard for authors on the right? Does it matter?
PW contacted a number of industry members, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, about whether the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s book, coupled with the highly charged political climate, sets any worrisome precedents. While no one said they felt the situation amounted to censorship, or that it signals anything about the industry’s ability to adequately publish conservative voices, some saw a disconcerting connection between the book’s cancellation and the free speech battles erupting on liberal college campuses across the country.
“Politics is a dangerous thing to be candid about,” said one agent, who has worked with conservative authors. “It’s now acceptable to ban speech on college campuses; this is the world we live in.” Although this agent did not equate what happened at schools such as the University of California, Berkeley and Middlebury College in Vermont—where protestors, some of them students, violently opposed appearances by Yiannopoulos and Bell Curve author Charles Murray, respectively—with what is happening in publishing, he feels the industry needs to pay attention to these events. He cited, as a trend to watch, the appearance of “sensitivity readers,” who are being hired by some publishers and authors (largely in YA and middle grade) to ensure accuracy and sensitivity in portrayals of characters who have marginalized identities or experiences. (In most cases sensitivity readers are hired when authors are depicting characters with backgrounds or identities different from their own.) “It’s a short trip between [sensitivity readers] and trigger warnings.”
This agent, though, like all sources interviewed, expressed sympathy, more than anything else, for the position S&S found itself in. “There’s a fundamental [tension] between publishing to express an idea and publishing to make money,” he said. “And those things come into conflict from time to time.”
“Nobody wants to be in the situation S&S found itself in,” said one editor. He felt S&S may have misjudged just how controversial their author is; as he put it,“If you sign someone up who’s throwing Molotov cocktails, he’s not going to stop throwing them.” He also foresees this kind of thing happening again. “I don’t think [what happened with the Yiannopoulos book] is a one-off,” he explained, noting that he presumes another publisher will sign up a controversial figure on the right and face a potentially deal-killing outcry from authors, industry members, and/or the public. He added, “At a time that cries out for transparency, you would think [people in this industry] would want to celebrate the First Amendment, rather than trying to circumscribe it.”
One source, who had seen parts of the Yiannopoulos proposal, waved off insinuations that what happened with this book smacked of censorship. He guessed that S&S dropped the book not because of pressure from its authors or the public but because Yiannopoulos wound up alienating his core readership. “I think they canceled the book because, finally, his comments [about pedophilia] made it impossible for even his base to stay with him.”
For many sources, equating what happened with Yiannopoulos’s book to censorship misses the point. A number of insiders said that not every speaker deserves a platform or, in this case, a book deal. For these observers the issue isn’t silencing anyone, it’s choosing not to spread hate speech.
Other sources said that what happened with Yiannopoulos isn’t surprising, given the industry’s track record with conservative authors. And, for some, that’s worth highlighting. Marji Ross, president at Regnery Publishing, is no stranger to championing conservative books in a liberal industry. Ross, whose conservative house was cited last week by BuzzFeed as the potential new home for the Yiannopoulos book, has long made a successful business out of publishing right-wing voices. (Ross would not comment on the BuzzFeed rumor.)
Noting that a number of Regnery’s most successful authors were turned away by major houses, Ross said: “Lack of support for conservative authors and books by the big New York publishers is nothing new. Certainly you can find a handful of conservative authors on the roster of most New York houses, but those authors are often treated with disdain and contempt.”
While the major New York houses have consistently and successfully published conservative authors for decades, many sources saw some truth in Ross’s comments. Some cited the existence of conservative imprints (at all Big Five publishers) as proof that right-wing authors are treated differently than liberal ones. One source described the existence of these imprints as something that “balkanizes” conservative authors. He said, “I’ve had editors tell me they wouldn’t possibly consider a book by a conservative, and I never would hear that if the politics were flipped.”
Another agent, who handles a number of conservative authors, said the industry’s longstanding “double standard” for right-wing authors is evidenced by the fact that “there are no quote-unquote liberal imprints in publishing.” In other words, books espousing liberal ideas often land at general-interest imprints. This, more than anything else, means there are fewer places to shop conservative books and authors. “A liberal senator has dozens of options [when it comes to imprints and editors that will publish his book],” he said. “Conservatives have a much smaller pool.”
That another book by a controversial conservative might cause trouble for a big publisher is a lingering concern. All sources said they think houses will proceed with caution.
Another agent, who also has conservative clients, said he believes the author reaction to S&S’s deal with Yiannopoulos—more than 100 of the house’s authors wrote a letter to CEO Carolyn Reidy requesting the publisher drop the title—will be the thing people in the business remember. “I think part of the internal calculus [on future deals for controversial conservatives] will be trying to take the temperature of the author community,” he noted. “Publishers will have to be really smart in deciding who’s an alternative voice who has a right to be at the table, and who’s just a vile person.”
Ross predicts that what happened with Yiannopoulos “may, indeed, be the start of a new trend: liberal authors demanding not only their own right to offend others but the silencing of those they find offensive.”
Adrian Zackheim, a veteran editor at New York conservative imprints who is now president and publisher of the Sentinel imprint at Penguin Random House, said publishing polarizing figures has always been difficult, and this isn’t changing. “I am sure there are people who vigorously disagree with authors we publish, and I’m comfortable with that.”
Zackheim, though, sees opportunity amid the turmoil of the country’s political landscape: “What we’ve observed, so far, is that this is a golden age for political awareness.” And this, he feels, is good for those publishing on both sides of the political divide. “I’d have to go all the way back to the late 1960s to think of a time when politics was on people’s mind the way it is now. Or the early ’70s, Watergate. You can’t top that.”