‘If publishers become afraid, we’re in trouble’: publishing’s cancel culture debate boils over | Publishing


In the 1960s, Simon & Schuster’s co-founder Max Schuster was facing a dilemma. Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and armaments minister, had written a memoir providing new insights into the workings of Nazi leadership. As Michael Korda, Schuster’s editor-in-chief, recounted in his memoir Another Life, Schuster knew it would be a huge success. “There is only one problem,” he said, “and it’s this: I do not want to see Albert Speer’s name and mine on the same book.”

In the liberal industry of publishing, the tension that exists between profit and morality is nothing new, whether it’s Schuster turning down Speer (the book was finally published by Macmillan), or the UK government introducing legislation to prevent criminals making money from writing about their crimes.

But the debate over what should be published has reached a fever pitch. Publishing staff who feel uncomfortable about working on certain titles are speaking out more often and more loudly, through open letters and on social media. In April, more than 200 employees at S&S in the US asked their employer to pull out of a seven-figure book deal with former vice president Mike Pence. Authors, too, have withdrawn titles when their publishers sign writers they disagree with; Roxane Gay pulled out of a book deal with S&S in 2017 over its decision to publish “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, as did Ronan Farrow when his publisher Hachette announced it would publish a memoir by his estranged father, Woody Allen. Pankaj Mishra recently revealed he had written to his publisher, Penguin Random House India, to ask it to reconsider reissuing a book by prime minister Narendra Modi during the country’s Covid-19 crisis.

Mike Pence speaks on 29 April 29 in Columbia, South Carolina.
‘An important test case’ … Mike Pence speaks on 29 April 29 in Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Sometimes the pressure works: Yiannopoulos was dropped by S&S amid outrage over his comments about consent, and Allen was dropped by Hachette after a staff walkout. Sometimes it doesn’t: staff at PRH Canada complained about Jordan Peterson’s book Beyond Order, but it went ahead anyway; PRH India chief executive Gaurav Shrinagesh brushed off Mishra’s concerns by writing about publishing a “diverse range of voices”. S&S president Jonathan Karp told staff protesting about Pence that “we come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make” but reports from a recent S&S town hall show this did little to calm the workforce.

Publishers today are teetering on a tightrope. Which voices should they amplify with a publishing deal – those their staff agree with, or those with an audience who agree with them? How far does an author have to go before their views are deemed unpublishable? What about when the personal views of an author, say JK Rowling, are condemned and staff object to working on her next children’s book? Where to draw the line?

It is a “watershed moment”, literary agent Clare Alexander told a House of Lords committee investigating freedom of speech online last month, highlighting the gap she saw between “older management” and “younger refuseniks”. Hachette chief executive David Shelley added that new staff needed to be told they “might need to work on books they don’t agree with … I think in the past possibly, not having seen this coming, maybe we haven’t been clear enough with people about what sort of organisation we are, what that is.”

But speaking to publishing staff for this article – particularly those at the big conglomerates, and more junior staff worried for their jobs – most are wary of speaking on the record regardless of their perspective, fearful of what one described as the “raging binfire” which followed on social media after the House of Lords hearing.

“Everyone is very guarded around this subject and inclined to speak with incredible care,” one head of PR says. “These days, it’s all too easy to earn yourself the unshakable label of ‘bigot’. Also, too many areas of discussion feel like they’re off limits – which should hardly be the case in an industry that disseminates ideas.”

On one side is the argument that if there is a market for a book, then it should be published, regardless of whether it falls in line with the views of staff. In 2017, Sam Jordison’s book Enemies of the People – about Brexit and Trump, and in favour of neither – was published by HarperCollins, where a number of staff (including the owner, Rupert Murdoch) disagreed with his viewpoint.

“While there was no great enthusiasm for the book within the company they still all gritted their teeth and put it out there. What would have happened if there was a widespread understanding that staff could just down tools on books that make them feel uncomfortable?” Jordison says. “I’d have been silenced, too – but for very different reasons, I think, to those the people advocating censorship are thinking about at the moment … If publishers become afraid to publish things that people might find objectionable, we’re in all kinds of trouble. And not just because there’s a risk of upsetting people who think they are of high moral standing.”

Speaking at the House of Lords hearing, Shelley explained that Hachette makes its decisions to publish based on commercial viability and legality, saying “we have rejected books before, decided not to publish them, because in some respect, we feel they would contravene the law, to be defamatory, or to incite hate speech.”

In December, Hachette acted on this when its imprint Little, Brown cancelled a contract with Julie Burchill for her book Welcome to the Woke Trials, over Islamophobic tweets she sent to the journalist Ash Sarkar. Hachette said Burchill had “crossed a line”; Burchill later paid Sarkar “substantial damages” to settle a libel case.

One managing director at the Big Five, who asked to remain anonymous, said he saw “a strange contradiction” in his workplace where everyone was positive about diversity, but where some also want to “pick and choose the kind of diversity we want”.

“If we want to be a publisher and employer for everyone, our publishing has to reflect that. And it becomes a necessary inevitability that we publish books and authors of viewpoints some of our staff don’t agree with or indeed, very, very actively disagree with,” he says. “That tension is not entirely new, but for whatever reason, it seems to be sort of boiling over now. It is complicated, but also, I think, quite stimulating.”

At political publisher Biteback, editorial director Olivia Beattie finds it frustrating that the debate is “so often framed as younger editors being oversensitive, rather than acknowledging that what senior editors choose to publish has an impact on the terms of public debate.

“Any half-decent junior editor learns very quickly how to separate their personal ideological positions from the material they’re editing, because that’s a crucial part of the job,” she says. She believes the publishing industry skews more leftwing than the book-buying public, making it inevitable that staff will work on books they disagree with.

“But people aren’t having these kinds of conflicts over simple differences of political opinion, as you might assume from listening to the debate on it,” she says. “Nobody’s refusing to work on a book because it doesn’t fit with their party affiliation: what’s been at stake has virtually always been a question of whether the book or the author is responsible for inciting prejudice against already marginalised and oppressed minorities. That’s an absolutely valid area for debate. It’s also not always clear-cut – some people will be deafened by a dog-whistle that others can’t hear.”

Once junior editors are “up in arms”, Beattie believes that is proof of enough concern to warrant an internal conversation. “Ironically, the people railing against ‘cancel culture’ very often seem to be trying to shut down criticism themselves,” she says.

Not every book that is written has to be published. By choosing to publish Pence, for example, S&S’s reported seven-figure advance will go to the former vice-president, rather than to any number of other books that some might deem more worthy. (And some, of course, less worthy.) Our bookshelves are not curated by us, but first by literary agents, then publishers, then bookshops. Our choices, of what to put in them – and what not to put in them – are our own, and each choice we make will affect, albeit in a tiny way, what publishers will believe is viable commercially in the future.

“It seems to me that the nature of publishing is that it exists in the intersection between market forces and cultural forces,” says one junior publisher. “We’re making books, we’re making a cultural product. But our decisions about what we publish are bound up in our perceptions of what the market wants. The senior staff, those with the most power, are making conscious decisions about how they balance those two things. More often than not, it feels like they’re prioritising money over editorial integrity.”

Junior staff, meanwhile, overworked and underpaid, are “being forced to do the bulk of the work on titles that they have serious issues with – with very little choice, and very little support,” she says.

“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”.

British photographer David Hamilton.
David Hamilton, whose 1995 photography book The Age of Innocence was highly controversial. Photograph: Ingo Wagner/EPA

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.”

Schuster’s editor-in-chief Korda recalled similar upheaval in the 1960s. “Book publishers had hitherto considered themselves to be under a kind of self-imposed obligation to publish both sides of most issues more or less impartially, rather than to take the moral high ground,” he writes in Another Life. But an “increasingly heated and partisan debate” saw “management hunkered down against the editors and vice versa”.

Korda himself argued against publishing a book: by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. “I didn’t think Max would have wanted his name on that book, either,” he writes. “As Dick Snyder was later to say: ‘A publisher has an obligation to believe in the first amendment but not to publish everything that’s sent to him.’”



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