‘Book Publishers: Not Effective Gatekeepers Anymore’Funny thing about freedom of expression: it’s a lot easier to rally for it when someone is saying what you want to hear. And international book publishing has found itself faced with a wrenching demonstration of this as 2017 opens.
Some in the book industry are questioning Simon & Schuster’s coming publication on March 14 of Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos. A British journalist and the tech editor for far-right Web site Breitbart, Yiannopoulis is a supporter of the alt-right movement in the US. He was permanently banned from Twitter in July 2016 following harassment of actress Leslie Jones.
The initial story by Paul Bond at The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday (December 29) reported that Simon & Schuster paid a $250,000 advance for the book—a figure that has not been confirmed by the publisher and which Bond attributes to “people with knowledge of the situation.”
In comments to Bond about the book, Yiannopoulos said, “They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off. Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened.”
In an interview withAlison Kosik for CNN Money, Yiannopoulos said, “If I crack a few jokes at a Hollywood megastar’s expense, so what?”
“I said the women in [the film] were fat and ugly and ugly and fat.” He then says that his intention was “a message of compassion” about “what messages we’re sending to young girls” about “beauty culture.”
CNN’s story about the book deal quotes a release from Yiannopoulos himself. It refers to his persona as “America’s favorite mischievous gay conservative.” The announcement said that Dangerous will “seek to explain the rise of the ‘populist, nationalist Trump phenomenon,'” and that “readers can expect a string of waspish one-liners and bitchy put-downs.”
Others say they hear something far darker, a damaging voice of the internationally energized extreme right.
‘Many May Disagree Vehemently’
News of the book deal has put Simon & Schuster on the defensive. As Sian Cain reports at The Guardian:
“The news [of the book deal] sparked outrage among those who say Yiannopoulos should not have a platform to share his views. After a coordinated appeal began on 29 December, with instructions on how to call the publisher and individual agents being shared widely online, Simon & Schuster briefly responded to the backlash, asking critics to ‘withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book.’
“It later issued a longer statement, saying it does not and never has condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form, that it had ‘always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions,’ and that ‘while we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.”
The statement prepared by Simon & Schuster—like Yiannopoulos’ own attempts to characterize his commentary as naughty-columnist fodder—seems to have done little to reassure the publisher’s detractors.
— Simon & Schuster (@SimonBooks) December 30, 2016
— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) January 2, 2017
‘The Circulation of Unpopular Ideas’
Yiannopoulos eagerly became the alt-right’s poster boy during the summer for what many saw as his social-media racist and sexist harassment of Jones on Twitter. He’s a tech editor with Brietbart News, which is linked to the Trump administration by the appointment as senior White House counselor of Stephen K. Bannon, formerly the right-wing Breitbart site’s executive chairman.
When Twitter permanently banned Yiannopoulos, Breitbart’s Ben Kew quoted Yiannopoulos as saying, in part, “Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.”
The Poynter Institute‘s Kelly McBride and Benjamin Mullin discussed the question of such bannings in a Q&A that now has resonance for publishing. In it, Mullin asked, “In your mind, do we need more protection for free speech online? Is the status quo sufficient?”
McBride’s answer is both helpful and, necessarily, unsatisfying:
“Keep in mind that the concept of free speech is meant to allow the circulation of unpopular ideas. I wish we could figure out a way to get more diversity of speech and thought into the elusive marketplace of ideas that has become predominantly digital in nature, without rewarding the loudest and meanest or even the funniest speech.”
The publishing community, on the whole, has so far been critical of Simon & Schuster’s deal, generally condemning Yiannopoulos’ commentary as far more serious than “unpopular ideas.”
In London, The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell and Charlotte Eyre are reporting that Simon & Schuster UK has said it will not publish Yiannopoulos’ book.
In Publisher’s Lunch, Michael Cader writes that Simon & Schuster’s executive suite may not be the most vulnerable point of complaint: “People looking to exert external pressure on the corporation itself,” he writes, “will eventually figure out that starting at the top by taking on the simpler and more important target of parent company CBS might be the more logical and effective move.”
In fact, Campbell and Eyre quote Simon & Schuster’s CEO, Carolyn Reidy, in her end-of-year message, writing to the staff in a way that now might come across as a warning of what was to come:
“As we head into 2017, we can expect that our civic and cultural life will remain turbulent. In these times it is especially important to remember that as publishers we will always endeavor to give voice to a wide range of opinions and divergent viewpoints. We publish for many different and frequently conflicting audiences, and must be fully cognizant of our responsibility to resist censorship and stand unequivocally for freedom of speech.”
Outside the Big Five publisher, a kind of boycott has been quickly announced by the Chicago Review of Books:
— Chicago Rev of Books (@bookschicago) December 29, 2016
Just as quickly, however, many observers have pointed out that by canceling all reviews of Simon & Schuster content for the year, the Chicago Review will deprive many more authors than Yiannopoulos—and their readers—of deserved attention.
Similar concerns will pertain as a petition goes forward, asking The New York Times and Washington Post to follow the Chicago Review’s lead and decline to review Simon & Schuster books for a year. From the petition’s text:
“One of the internet’s biggest bullies has been given a $250,000 book deal to spew his hate. Let’s tell the world…we don’t want to hear from him. Sign if you want The New York Times and Washington Post to stop reviewing any books published by Simon & Schuster to show them hate speech will not be tolerated in this country.”
Wrestling It to the Ground
Spurred by the question of the Chicago Review boycott, a private list-serv of key professionals in international publishing has been lit up for days by a debate that some might recognize as “the ACLU problem”—a reference to the American Civil Liberties Union’s need at times to defend the freedom of expression of the most unsavory speech and views.
“Keep in mind that the concept of free speech is meant to allow the circulation of unpopular ideas.”Kelly McBride
A few lines from the discussion, without names attached in order to adhere to the privacy policies of the group:
- “[The fact that] S&S is publishing a book like this makes this particular kind of voice mainstream?—That bothers me greatly. The mere act of publishing this kind of hate and misinformation is not good business. I’m sorry, it’s not.”
- “We really should not rule out the possibility that the S&S editor thinks Milo has an important story to tell. This may be mission-driven, not financial in its basic impulse.”
- “Opting to publish this guy is just flatly stupid…I’m not sure how S&S could have been unaware of how toxic this guy is but the problem for them isn’t reader tarnishment but rather author tarnishment…Controversy is better at selling ads than it is at selling books. It’s a different amount of attention in play. S&S appears to have not much upside and a good deal of downside in this transaction.”
- “I really don’t see a ‘censorship’ issue here. Book publishers are not effective gatekeepers anymore, like they were 20 years ago…They stand at the gate but the fence around the field is down and we’re all grazing wherever the hell we want. This guy can sell lots of books whether S&S helps him or not. The advance level is low enough that you could say S&S is getting the better of the transaction from a purely dollars-and-cents point of view. Already. But that doesn’t make it a smart business decision.”
- “S&S has asked [us] to wait before judging the work—I say if there’s something earth-shattering and eye-opening that this author has to say, something that might cause me to rethink my position, tell us now.”
For the moment, the most telling element of the controversy may be that Dangerous pre-orders on US Amazon.com at press time are ranking it No. 1 in the categories of Commentary & Opinion and Censorship. It’s ranked No. 2 in Political nonfiction.
As freedom of expression questions are examined, the free market is very much in play.