The publishing industry hasn’t produced a must-read adult book in several years, but that drought came to an end in the first week of January with Henry Holt’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. The title was originally set to publish January 9, but Holt’s rollout plans were overwhelmed by fast-moving events that began January 3 with the publication of highlights from the embargoed book by the Guardian. The story included a description of an incident in which former Trump strategist Steve Bannon referred to a meeting during the 2016 campaign between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians as “unpatriotic” and “treasonous.”
The Guardian’s move prompted New York magazine, which has first serial rights, to post its excerpts, originally set for release on January 9, around noon last Wednesday. Those excerpts included detailed accounts of infighting and general dysfunction at the White House and led to widespread news coverage of the book—and increased attacks on the book, author, and Bannon by the president. After the Guardian revelations, Trump said Bannon had “lost his mind”; as news of the book’s content spread, Trump, in addition to blasting Wolff’s credibility, directed his lawyer to send a cease-and-desist letter to Holt threatening a libel and defamation lawsuit if it went ahead with the release of the book.
The cease-and-desist letter led to even more news coverage and a growing demand for the book—based on preorders, it was #1 on Amazon Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon, Holt responded to the wave of publicity—as well as the threat from the White House—by announcing that it was moving up the release of the book to Friday, January 5. The company also confirmed the receipt of a cease-and-desist letter from Trump’s lawyers, but issued a statement that said: “Henry Holt confirms that we received a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney for President Trump. We see Fire and Fury as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book.”
Despite some logistical challenges, which included overcoming a fierce East Coast snowstorm, Holt’s decision to move up the pub date seemed to be a good one. With its preorders filled, Amazon was out of stock early Friday. Barnes & Noble was also briefly out of stock Friday, but a spokesperson said it expected to receive small quantities of the book that day and to have more in stores early this week, as originally planned.
Independent booksellers on the East Coast also reported selling out of their inventory quickly. Two stores in the Washington, D.C., area—Kramerbooks & Afterwords and Politics and Prose—reported that they sold out their inventories of about 80 books each in 15 minutes.
Trump’s decision to send the cease-and-desist letter also led to an outcry from several publishing organizations that saw the action as a threat to free speech. “The American people have a First Amendment right to read Fire and Fury and other works that contribute to an important public debate, even when they contain statements critical of the president,” said Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “It is up to the courts to determine if the statements are libelous after they are published.”
American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher called the threat of legal action “an appalling abuse of executive power.” He added, “We believe this sort of attempted prior restraint sets a dangerous precedent, and, if successful, would represent a chilling effect on free speech.”
In its response to Trump’s action, the Authors Guild cited the president’s well-documented practice of suing, or threatening to sue, writers of articles and books critical of him. “It is one thing for a private citizen to use libel laws to quash speech. It is unheard of for a sitting president to do so,” the Guild said in a statement. Guild president James Gleick further observed: “This isn’t a country where we quash books that the leader finds unpleasant. That’s what tyrants do, not American presidents.”