On the trend to “depublish” books

June 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

A new article in the Guardian provides a useful summary—though not much new information—about how publishing companies are beginning to refuse to publish books, or are pressured to refuse them, that are written by the Unsavory, with that group generally determined not by the older editors but by younger workers at publishing houses. Click on the screenshot to read:

 

Here are some canceled books, books published over staff objection, or authors who refused to publish with companies that put out books by the Unsavory.  I don’t by any means agree that all these books should have been published, but in general I think that a good publisher will put out a range of topics and views, some of which they don’t agree with. There is no right of “free speech” when it comes to publishing manuscripts, but in general if a book is interesting and will stimulate discussion, and will sell at least reasonably well, it should be published. Many publishers put out books they know won’t recoup the advances as a public service, hoping that the big best sellers will compensate for the losses.

  • Milo Yiannopoulos’s book dropped by Simon & Schuster
  • Simon & Schuster agree to publish Mike Pence’s book over staff objections
  • Ronan Farrow stopped publishing with Hachette when the company announced it would publish Woody Allen’s memoirs (they were later picked up by another company)
  • Hachette’s impritng Little, Brown canceled a contract with Julie Burchill (the cause: her “Islamophobic tweets”)

Here are a few quotes from the article that I found intriguing:

First, how the system usually works, as described by an anonymous junior editor:

“Editors have the privilege of predominantly working on books that they have chosen – if they’re doing their job properly, they should feel confident in their acquisition. Assistant editors and editorial assistants don’t often have that privilege,” she says. “There’s a difference between working on a book that you think is a bit rubbish and working on a book that you find repulsive, that makes you angry, or genuinely upsets you. This framing of ‘young people should work on books that they hate’ seems so stupid and reductive to me. Do we just have to wait for all the people making dodgy editorial decisions with no integrity to retire?”

Another junior staffer said they were “slightly bemused by the fact that freedom of speech is so often being equated with the right to a book contract”, adding: “Those in senior positions are forgetting that there is surely a duty of care to their staff that must be considered when asking them to work on books by authors with views that might potentially directly oppose their identity and existence”.

My response would be that, as a junior editor, you always have the right to point out what you consider offensive to your boss. But your boss makes the decision, and if you are so hurt by the “violence” of a proposed book, you should work for another publisher.

And some changes about what is considered offensive:

The truth is, publishers have always walked this tightrope. “Publishers, while knowing that controversy sells, have always exercised the right to reject problematic books,” says Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press, pointing to “innumerable cases of publishers refusing to publish a book, from Schuster with Sheer, to HarperCollins cancelling Chris Patten’s contract over his book’s anti-China line in 1998, at a time when Murdoch was seeking a deal in China. In a recent episode of her podcast, bookcareers.com founder Suzanne Collier recalled working in a junior sales role on David Hamilton’s 1995 controversial photography book, The Age of Innocence. Collier and other staff raised concerns with management over the age of girls included in the book, but the book was still published.

But social media means concerned voices can be louder, and can find strength in numbers through petitions and open letters. “This has always been around, but I believe it’s grown in visibility,” Collier says.

Heath agrees: “The big difference we see now is in publishing staff, in many cases relatively junior staff, trying to dictate company policy, using their influence to block the publication of books already commissioned by their own firms – this is something, as far as I know, without long-term precedent in publishing history.”

The Pence memoir, Heath believes, “will be an important test case – if it is withdrawn, it could open the floodgates for similar action. And in the wake of BLM, #MeToo and other recent, empowering social movements, publishing executives may increasingly feel it behoves them to fall into line with the wishes of their staff.”

Much as I don’t want to read Pence’s memoirs, and won’t, I think they should be published for the historical record. After all, they’re still publishing Mein Kampf, even in Germany, for similar reasons. It would be sad if senior editors started capitulating to their offended or woke staff, for that would lead to the homogenization of literature ( most publishing staff are liberals).

 

h/t: Ginger K.

30 thoughts on “On the trend to “depublish” books

  1. Am I being unfair if I compare the junior staff to children complaining about what’s on their plate?

    1. I was just about to post about them sounding like whining children. Most people don’t enjoy doing their jobs every day, kids. That’s why it’s called “work.” Sometimes you need to do things you don’t necessarily enjoy doing. You signed up to do a job. I’m pretty sure the job description did not read, “junior editor wanted to only edit books he/she/they/zher/xir like and agree with.”

  2. People don’t always get to do only the things they like in life.
    Bills need paying. People make controversial or difficult decisions about other people’s lives all the time. If this one book (or author) is a strong enough reason to quit their job, then it might be worth sticking their head above the parapet. Do they want to feel right but not be able to pay their bills or just get on with doing the job they are paid to do? Thus will not be the last time they feel angry about a toxic workplace. Adulthood means not getting your own way all the time. Not being validated or heard. Paying dues. Making difficult choices. Seeing things from other people’s perspectives. If that author makes the publisher a million quid every time they have a book out, so it’s between them and a handful of replaceable staff, then it’s a no brainier. Do they really want their employer to make that choice? Life is not a game of “you’re either with us 100% or you’re against us” and it’s naive to think that.

  3. “the Unsavory”

    Hell, there’s hardly a book worth reading whose author wasn’t at least a bit unsavory (but then, I’ll be the first to admit that my literary tastes tend to run toward the transgressive).

  4. I don’t see anything wrong with junior editors getting organized to pressure their bosses about editorial choices. It’s legal. It’s an exercise of their freedom of expression.

    Does free speech suffer? Not really. Pence can go to another publisher — if the book has a market I’m sure some publisher will take it — or print it out on A4 paper, stand on the curb of Pennsylvania Ave and shove it to the passers-by. There is no danger of his wisdom being lost to future generations.

    To the bosses who don’t like employees having an organized voice, my advice is: say so in the contract (if you could do it legally), so you might be able to fire the rebels later. Otherwise you get what you bargained for.

    1. Who said employees were not entitled to organize against their bosses? You’re arguing against a point I didn’t make. I just said that if they lose, their only recourse is to go elsewhere.

      1. My last paragraph was provoked not by your post, Prof. Coyne, but by some of the comments. The first comment to be specific. But I knew it would not be the only one — and indeed a new comment just urged that the “junior staff should know their place”.

        1. You’re still conflating two entirely separate things; organizing and voicing a concern on the one hand (perfectly acceptable), and not doing the job when the boss makes their decision on the other (not acceptable).

          A good organization will generally welcome feedback from its staff. However it is ultimately leadership that has the job of considering that feedback, other factors, and making a final decision on what to do.That decision will not always go in the direction of the feedback. Once leadership makes it, however, assuming they’re not asking you to do something illegal or unethical, your responsibility is to act on it.

          Do we need to bring up Kim Davis here? She was welcome to voice her concerns about same sex marriage to her management. But when management says “concerns noted, you’re going to do it anyway”, then she has to do it. Or quit. Well the same is true for liberals being asked to do something they don’t agree with. Absolutely, voice your concerns. Tell your boss what you think is the best course of action, and why. But when they say “thank you for your input, we’re going in a different direction,” and assuming they’re not asking you to do something illegal, then your choice pretty much narrows down to do the job or quit.

          Every military and civil service person knows this (or should know it); leadership is ephemeral and variable; your obligation to do the job is not.

          1. it is ultimately leadership that has the job of considering that feedback, other factors, and making a final decision on what to do.

            Okay, set aside whatever peculiar issues raised by “depublishing” and let’s talk about the employer-employee relation in general. As a statement of fact what you said is true. But it should not be. I know it sounds radical to some ears here, but the scope of democracy should not be confined to governments. Private corporations too should be run democratically, i.e., by negotiation, compromise, and (when all else fails) majority rule where no one’s preference is worth more than anyone else’s.

            Why, you might ask. Well, whatever argument you have for demanding democracy in the government (e.g., the need for the consent of the governed), chances are it also applies to the workplace. People don’t lose their fundamental rights the moment they swipe their badges.

            Whatever the case for democracy (in the government), we recognize that in an undemocratic regime, be it a dictatorship or an oligarchy, the majority have no obligation to submit to the whims of the ruling minority. Would you exhort to people reeling under a dictatorship, “Protest all you want, but if the dictator says no, then your only options are (1) roll over or (2) emigrate?” I hope not.

            Now, most private enterprises are basically mini dictatorships/oligarchies. Although the boss’s authority is maintained not by guns and prisons but by the somewhat less lethal threat of unemployment — it’s a form of coercion nonetheless. You allow employees to express dissent, but you think they should either roll over or “emigrate” as soon as the mini dictator says no. Well, I think other forms of resistance are also within their right. Strike, for example. We’d probably still be working 16-hour days if workers had followed your advice.

            As for Kim Davis (and civil servants and military personnel in general), it should be obvious now why that’s a different case. Davis was employed by an organization which was already democratically organized (however flawed that democracy was/is). If in such an organization you don’t want to do a job the majority decided should be done, then indeed you have to either hold your nose and do it, or quit.

            1. Don’t agree if there is a big difference in competence between grades of employment. If the boss knows a lot more than the other employees, there’s a case to be made for a hierarchy of decision-making.

              1. And to add to that good point – why would any entrepreneur invest bundles of cash, risking his/her livelihood, home or savings if they must then cede control to the unskilled, inexperienced associates who have been fully CRT-trained (or indoctrinated), yet know nothing of that business or industry, and aren’t inclined to help you build your fortune. No one would start a business in such a universe, they’d never risk their cash and nor should they.

                The suggestion that a business is a quasi-democracy, or should be, is patently absurd. Those wishing to have their say in the management of a company should have as much at stake as anybody else (which is why we are allowed to vote), even if those other people are on the company board. NO company would EVER provide associates with the financial and business influence that more seasoned professionals (who are usually also major stock holders) enjoy. At the least, these junior people would always need to thoroughly understand the business, understand the industry and community, have shown exceptional engagement and expended much effort in attempting to achieve company goals.

                Can any business owner honestly say that they would imbue their own employees with such egalitarian, democratic power? Especially if they had already sunk their own house, pension and savings into the venture?

            2. Private corporations too should be run democratically, i.e., by negotiation, compromise, and (when all else fails) majority rule where no one’s preference is worth more than anyone else’s.

              Private corporations, by the nature of being private, can set up any legal organizational structure they want. That’s part and parcel with the “private” label.

              But even if they did as you ask, you’re still wrong. The President is a democratically elected leader, but when he dictates policy, his employees do not get a right of refusal. So in your hypothetical private democratic corporation, the employees elect their leader..and then have to do what the leader says.

              whatever argument you have for demanding democracy in the government (e.g., the need for the consent of the governed), chances are it also applies to the workplace.

              Nope. The government is a democracy because we own it, so we get to vote on how it acts (by proxy and representation). We don’t own every private company. And when we do own a bit of it, we in fact do get to vote on what it does by proxy and representation – that is what shareholders do when they elect board members. “Employee,” however, is not the same as “shareholder.”

              If in such an organization you don’t want to do a job the majority decided should be done, then indeed you have to either hold your nose and do it, or quit.

              The majority didn’t decide what should be done in the Kim Davis case. Kentucy didn’t legalize SSM. Congress didn’t legalize SSM. The Supreme Court did, and then a federal judge ordered Kentuky to comply. So according to your logic, this was unfair to her and she shouldn’t have been made to do it. Right? Or does your “nobody should be under the tyrrany of the minority” only apply to liberals defending liberal concepts?

              1. “So in your hypothetical private democratic corporation, the employees elect their leader..and then have to do what the leader says.”

                I never claimed otherwise. What I said was that in an undemocratic corporation, employees have a right to persistent resistance.

                “The government is a democracy because we own it, so we get to vote on how it acts (by proxy and representation). We don’t own every private company.”

                When you speak of ownership of a company you are thinking of ownership of the capital. But it’s not on capital alone that a business runs. Labor power is also necessary, and employees own that. I cannot see any morally defensible reason why those who contribute capital should have all the power of decision making while those who contribute labor have none.

                I don’t know what you mean by “owning”. The government isn’t an asset like land or machinery, that’s just lying around waiting to be owned (and would still be there if not owned). Rather we come together to create a government by agreeing on a certain social contract, and we keep it in existence by our allegiance to the terms of the contract (at least this is how, according to advocates of liberal democracy, a government ideally should be formed in order to be legitimate). In the same way a group people, some with capital and some with labor power, come together to create a corporation, and by their daily allegiance to it keep it running. If creating/maintaining = owning (this is the only sense in which we can own the government), then employees own the corporation they work for as much as their boss.

              2. (Sorry if another duplicate. WordPress drives me crazy.)

                “So in your hypothetical private democratic corporation, the employees elect their leader..and then have to do what the leader says.”

                I never claimed otherwise. What I said was that in an undemocratic corporation, employees have a right to persistent resistance.

                “The government is a democracy because we own it, so we get to vote on how it acts (by proxy and representation). We don’t own every private company.”

                When you speak of ownership of a company you are thinking of ownership of the capital. But it’s not on capital alone that a business runs. Labor power is also necessary, and employees own that. I cannot see any morally defensible reason why those who contribute capital should have all the power of decision making while those who contribute labor have none.

                I don’t know what you mean by “owning” the government. The government isn’t an asset like land or machinery, that’s just lying around waiting to be owned (and would still be there if not owned). Rather we come together to create a government by agreeing on a certain social contract, and we keep it in existence by our allegiance to the terms of the contract (at least this is how, according to advocates of liberal democracy, a government ideally should be formed in order to be legitimate). In the same way a group people, some with capital and some with labor power, come together to create a corporation, and by their daily allegiance to it keep it running. If creating/maintaining = owning (this is the only sense in which we can own the government), then employees own the corporation they work for as much as their boss.

  5. Lots of publishing companies specialize in literary genres, presumably because there’s a business case for doing so, and if a manuscript is declined by one publisher, there are other publishers to solicit. I’m not sure it is “depublishing” so much as it is declining to publish, perhaps because there is no expectation of profitable sales. People like Milo Yiannopoulos are professional trolls and have nothing interesting to add to any important national conversation, at least as I see it, but perhaps some publisher thinks otherwise and can monetize his schtick. I’ve read plenty of controversial authors, and will continue to do so, but really have no interest in reading anything from bad faith actors and professional liars.

    1. perhaps because there is no expectation of profitable sales.

      The two issues (politics, sales) are entangled though, aren’t they. A big PR backlash is a potential signal that you overestimated the public interest in buying the book.

  6. Simon & Schuster agree to publish Mike Pence’s book over staff objections

    Ronan Farrow stopped publishing with Hachette when the company announced it would publish Woody Allen’s memoirs (they were later picked up by another company)

    The first should be counted in the win column, not the lose column, if it’s going to be counted at all. We don’t want staff feeling they are unable to voice concerns. Rather we want them to be able to voice concerns and the employing publisher to consider them…then sometimes make the decision to publish anyway. Which is exactly what happened here.

    The second case…I don’t think the publisher should be blamed for Ronan’s choice to publish elsewhere. Having those discussions with him, disagreeing on the right course of action, and having him choose to leave is not a ‘failure’ on their part. Again, this is the sort of thing we should occasionally expect to happen if publishers are sticking to their guns. Now, their flip to choosing not to publish the memoirs after all this went public and they got negative press, that can be seen as caving in to pressure.

  7. I can’t help but wonder if the normalization of allowing professionals to deny a service based on their alleged morals and conscience – ie – pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions, etc, has helped this sort of activity along.

    My own upbringing, as a military brat and a diplomat’s kid, emphasized the importance of not saying your personal opinion or negative things about the administration or your country even if you disagree. You keep a lid on that and do your job.

    1. Yes, you treat to the best of your ability, even those, often criminals, that you would otherwise despise. My task is to treat, not to judge. I made a habit of trying not to find out for what the prisoners I treated were punished.

      However, I do advise people who are beaten up by their partners to leave that partner (it is well established these things recur, or worse), not to do that would be negligence, but that is as far as I’ll go.

      On a different note, if I were a publisher I would refuse Mr Pence’s memoirs, not because of possible repulsiveness, but because it would in all probability be so boring it wouldn’t sell. Bad business risk, meseems.

      1. Honestly, who would be interested in reading Pence’s memoirs? Who wishes for a twelve inch pianist? (I don’t remember who posted that, but it is one of the very few of those elaborate jokes that are actually funny)

        1. “Honestly, who would be interested in reading Pence’s memoirs?”

          Whoever that might be, is there something “wrong” with them and, if so, what?

          1. I contemplate that Trump has yet to write his presidential memoirs. What monetarily-grasping major publishing house would not want that book contract? That will be an exercise in cognitive dissonance, or mental health trauma management, for these omniscient, self-absorbed junior editors.

          2. My theory: I don’t think anybody reads those kinds of books: all the “America’s Decline” shit put out by Fox talking heads, etc.
            I think they sell (and they do) b/c people buy them for Christmas for their right wing relatives. Who don’t read them b/c they’re busy watching Fox and working on today’s grievances.
            Also, the publishers and Fox /Newscorp buy up thousands of copies to rig the numbers. They’re a marketing tool. If you disagree check out one of Bill O’Reilly’s howlers – I found (and sadly) read one I found in a trash can once. Horrible.
            D.A.
            NYC

  8. “The big difference we see now is in publishing staff, in many cases relatively junior staff, trying to dictate company policy, using their influence to block the publication of books already commissioned by their own firms – this is something, as far as I know, without long-term precedent in publishing history.”

    Yeah, I’m not keen on this sort of behavior. First of all, junior staff should know their place and it should take some earned respect before you start pot-stirring. This sounds like a great way to find one’s self looking for a new job.

  9. There’s a difference between working on a book that you think is a bit rubbish and working on a book that you find repulsive, that makes you angry, or genuinely upsets you. This framing of ‘young people should work on books that they hate’ seems so stupid and reductive to me.

    That seems quite reasonable to me. If you don’t want to work on the book your employer wants you to work on, you can request work elsewhere within the company or resign if such work is not forthcoming.

    However, I don’t think these people are objecting because they find the books repulsive, they are objecting because they do not like the authors or find them repulsive. I doubt if more than a few of the relevant employees have read Mike Pence’s memoirs, they don’t want the book published because they loathe its author.

  10. There’s a difference between working on a book that you think is a bit rubbish and working on a book that you find repulsive, that makes you angry, or genuinely upsets you.

    I believe this is a difficult concept known as “doing your job”.
    Of course, you could quit. Or you could stay in the job and rely on the “Nuremburg defense”, and hope to avoid dancing the air fandango. Not a complex choice.

    1. Bravo! Excellent point. Since when did we all have to love everything we do in our jobs? On occasion, work and life both suck, which can be tough. But the world doesn’t owe you a living, neither does your owner / manager – yes, the person who keeps reminding you that work can be a chore. It’s simple: if you don’t like what you are being asked to do, get another job.

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