It took Simon & Schuster a little over 24 hours to change course on its publication of Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book, The Tyranny of Big Tech. On the morning of January 6, Hawley was a junior senator from Missouri who was aggressively (and baselessly) challenging the results of the presidential election. By the end of the day, he was seen by many as having played a major role in inciting a riot at the Capitol. By the morning of January 7, S&S announced that it was canceling the publication of his book, raising questions about the future of conservative authors at the country’s biggest houses.
There are some in the industry who believe houses have a responsibility to publish a wide range of viewpoints, seeing it as a First Amendment issue. But a burgeoning group of mostly younger industry members argue that certain conservative figures, whose messages they say are harmful to society at large, should not be given a platform.
“I think it’s one thing to incite a rebellion against the Capitol, and it’s another to say distasteful things to people like me,” said literary agent Wendy Strothman, when asked about Hawley’s book. Strothman, who runs her own agency and sells an array of nonfiction titles, added that she sees the Hawley situation as an isolated incident, though. “I’ve been in publishing a long time, and conservative books have sold well that entire time.” She called S&S’s cancellation of Hawley’s book “a publisher acting responsibly.”
As Strothman noted, the major houses have been publishing conservative books successfully for decades. After largely ignoring the growing readership for these books, they all opened conservative imprints in the early 2000s. Since then, in an industry full of people who lean left politically, the community buying and selling conservative titles has remained small. If anything, it has slimmed even further: conservative imprints at the big houses that once had two or three acquiring editors now tend to have one.
To illustrate the discrepancy, some agents who sell conservative books said that a debut title by an author working at (liberal-leaning) MSNBC could be shopped to 30–40 editors in New York. A similar debut by an author at (conservative-leaning) Fox News could be shopped to four or five editors.
This disparity has, ironically, made conservative publishing even more lucrative for the big houses. With fewer takers for conservative books, publishers often wind up paying lower advances for them.
But as the political divide in the country deepens, the looming question for those in publishing is whether, and where, big houses will draw the line with conservative authors. Will publishers start to shy away from anyone who is seen as having played a role in inciting the rioters on January 6? Will they avoid books by politicians who refused to certify the election results after the Capitol was ransacked? Will conservative pundits who continue to claim the election was stolen be persona non grata?
Steve Ross, who founded Penguin Random House’s Crown Forum imprint in 2002, said it was a much different proposition to be publishing political books back then. The goal of the imprint (which continues to publish conservative titles today) was to give a platform to thinkers on the right, since the flagship Crown imprint had been publishing voices from the left for many years (including Barack Obama, Spike Lee, and Jonathan Kozol). And, at that time, he noted, “Republican authors and thinkers had not been finding a home with the big houses, so there was a First Amendment issue at play.”
For Ross, who now runs an eponymous literary agency, the current situation points to a larger question of corporate responsibility and, to some extent, moral responsibility. Noting that the events of January 6 shook the country dramatically, he said he believes “we are all reassessing our role in the propagation and dissemination of falsehoods, particularly if they can lead to dangerous situations.” He cited the actions of certain tech giants in blocking platforms favored by far-right extremists and added that he thinks “it’s only natural, in the wake of this upheaval, that publishers would reassess their role in disseminating content that could be incendiary, even if incendiary sells books.”
There is a growing desire, especially among younger industry members, to see publishers draw very firm lines in the sand. This was evidenced by a recent open letter signed by 500 authors and industry professionals. The letter, released on January 15 and titled “No Book Deal for Traitors,” was organized by author Barry Lyga and opposes publishers signing books by President Trump or members of his administration. It equates them with criminals, stating, “ ‘Son of Sam’ laws exist to prevent criminals from benefiting financially from writing about their crimes. In that spirit, those who enabled, promulgated, and covered up crimes against the American people should not be enriched through the coffers of publishing.”
This sentiment is rejected by Tom Spence, publisher of the conservative indie publisher Regnery (which bought Hawley’s book after it was dropped by S&S). Spence said he was extremely taken aback by the letter, noting that he found its “vitriol” very disturbing. On January 18, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Spence, in which he said that the letter’s signatories are engaged in a form of blacklisting. He understands S&S’s decision to cancel Hawley’s book but said Regnery simply takes a different view of the senator.
While few in the business feel the letter will have a direct impact on acquisitions, its existence points to a growing anger within the industry about which voices publishers decide to elevate. Will this anger matter to those in positions of power? It’s hard to tell. Though no one thinks the Big Five will shut their doors to mainstream conservatives (even if mainstream conservatism has swung farther to the right), publishing them without incident may prove difficult.
Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Penguin Random House’s conservative Sentinel imprint, acknowledged that the country is in an unusually “tense moment” right now. “Perhaps not the most perfect time to take a read on the future direction of sentiment on the right,” he said. Nonetheless, “the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump didn’t simply vanish.”
Though Zackheim admits he doesn’t know exactly where the Trump voting block will move, he knows the audience is “looking for answers” right now, and that the big houses will be ready. “Publishing to the opposition presents us with a huge opportunity.”
Zackheim is probably correct. If anything, editors and agents in the conservative publishing space may simply be facing an issue of timing.
As one agent who sells books by conservative and liberal authors stressed, now might not be the right moment to shop books by certain conservatives at the big houses. But in six months or so, when tensions are lower, the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes it will be fine. “There are going to be some land mines out there,” he said. “You just have to be careful navigating that.”
Like Zackheim, this agent said publishers, regardless of what some of their employees think, can’t ignore the sizeable audience for conservative authors. He added that no one talks about the fact that conservative radio host Marc Levin sells more books than many liberal favorites.
Many young industry professionals won’t be surprised if the conservative publishing space at the big houses continues on, business as usual. This doesn’t mean that they’re okay with it.
One junior editorial employee at a Big Five house, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “I definitely felt a sense of futility in signing the [Lyga] letter. On the one hand, I’m glad I signed it, because I’m of the unflinching belief that Trump and anyone who served in his administration—or stood by it—should be publicly shamed into hiding for the rest of their lives and should never see a penny of profit. On the other hand, I know some publishers will always see dollars and cents before they see reason, and that’s not something that can be signed away by a single open letter. As long as that’s the case, publishers will continue to cite ‘free speech’ while publishing bigots, trolls, and Trumpers.”