Free speech is a right we all have as Americans. However, as the Supreme Court has ruled, free speech has its limits. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
On the other hand, there are no boundaries on inflammatory copy in books. The Supreme Court has ruled that it is allowable under the First Amendment to explain how to build a bomb or murder another human being. According to the same doctrine, books are permitted to promote racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and false information with complete impunity.
So exactly what is the responsibility of a legitimate book publisher—that is, a company that spends its own money on acquiring, editing, marketing, and selling its titles? I have been asking myself this ever since I read the story about Simon & Schuster giving Breitbart staffer Milo Yiannopoulos $250,000 as an advance for his book on “free speech.”
I’m sure that the social-media-savvy editor at S&S who shepherded the deal recognized the many financial and public relations benefits of signing up a controversial writer with a large online following. Hell, who wouldn’t want to sign the Justin Bieber of the alt-right? Perhaps what was missing in all the excitement was the notion of responsibility—the very thing on which Richard Simon and Max Schuster built their company.
A few years back, I was invited to participate in a debate titled “Are Publishers Relevant?” The goal was to question whether self-publishing had made commercial houses unnecessary. My side was to argue the merits of writers working with an established publishing company rather than on their own.
When the debate ended, participants fielded questions from the audience. One of the questions was, “As a publisher, aren’t you a gatekeeper who chooses only the books you want?” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but the answer is, yes, that is exactly what publishers are. We use our best judgment to select titles that fit our companies’ editorial profiles.
“Well, isn’t that a form of censorship?” asked another audience member. Certainly, that is one way of looking at it, but as publishers, we do have to sort out the good from the bad. And that determination reflects who we are as businesspeople as well as human beings.
As an independent publisher who produces health books, I can take chances on unagented projects written by first-time authors. If the information presented in these manuscripts flies in the face of traditional medicine, I will still publish the titles as long as they have the science behind them. But I also have a responsibility to produce books that do no harm. For doctors, it’s part of their Hippocratic oath, but publishers must rely on our consciences to make our decisions.
Yet over the past several decades, the desire to attract attention and make a quick buck has increasingly overtaken conscience. Years ago, I stood in line at a supermarket looking at the bizarre tabloid headlines: “I Married an Alien,” “Marilyn Monroe’s Love Child Found!” Ridiculous, I thought, but obviously someone was buying these papers. More recently, the same “I can say anything as long as I get your attention” behavior found its way into our nation’s presidential race.
We now have a major publishing house paying an author who has a history of writing hate-based articles and using social media in the same way that supermarket tabloids use sensational headlines. And ironically, the author wishes to write a book about his constitutional right to spew intolerance under the guise of free speech. Should the book find its market, it is likely to open the door to hundreds of similar profit-making titles. And what’s wrong with that?
If we, as publishers, cannot tell the difference between good and evil, between conscience and profit, between extremist views and the views our founding fathers put forth, we are no better than those tabloids. What would Simon or Schuster think of the fact that their namesake house is playing a major role in legitimizing such an author?
Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One.