By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
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‘What Is at Stake’Twenty-one days to what’s may be the most consequential presidential election in American history—an event watched with mounting intensity on the international stage—Penguin Random House has announced today (October 12) its new partnership with PEN America, Out Of Print, and When We All Vote.
“Credible, authoritative information that will help Americans know what to expect.”Suzanne Nossel, PEN America
The result of their collaboration is Book the Vote, a joint effort to “help you feel empowered, get active, and make your voice heard.”
It’s impossible to imagine anyone in the United States who isn’t feeling active and empowered and making her- or himself heard already, relative to the looming November 3 election. By Sunday (October 11), John King on CNN’s Inside Politics reported that 7.4 million US voters already have cast their ballots in vote-by-mail and early-voting procedures. Dareh Gregorian, Matteo Moshcella, and Jane C. Timm are reporting for NBC News within an hour of this writing that the state of Georgia’s early voting polling places have opened today with “hours-long waits amid what election officials said was a record high turnout.”
Entering the fevered levels of interest around the contest between the incumbent Donald Trump and the former vice-president Joe Biden, Book the Vote is positioned by Penguin Random House’s media messaging as “a nonpartisan initiative to protect free speech and ensure every voter’s right to participate in elections.”
And this is not the effort’s first outing. The program was piloted for the 2018 US midterm elections, testing how well it might bring together the four entities’ “distinct initiatives” into one centralized hub to “create and disseminate book and author content, voter registration information, and “resources to increase understanding of civic topics.”
This year, of course, the relaunch of the site follows the September 17 announcement of Barack Obama’s upcoming two-part memoir, A Promised Land, creating a major new overhang on the already teeming political books category for the season.
Book the Vote’s Partners
Three of the four partners are nonprofit. Penguin Random House is the quartet’s one for-profit corporation.
PEN America needs no introduction to Publishing Perspectives readers, and is part of the PEN International network of agencies dedicated to “human rights to protect free expression.
Less well known is When We All Vote, an organization the mission of which is “to increase participation in every election and close the race and age voting gap by changing the culture around voting, harnessing grassroots energy, and through strategic partnerships to reach every American.” Created in 2018 by co-chairs Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monae, Chris Paul, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw, the program’s core aim is to build voter registration and participation.
And Out of Print, with its slogan “Books Worn Well,” is a maker of apparel and other products that “feature iconic book cover artwork and literary references to delight bookworms of all ages.” This is the swag arm of the triangle, in other words, onboard to provide the T-shirts and other merchandise while functioning as a contributor of books to literacy initiatives.
Perhaps most interesting is Penguin Random House’s plan to engage more than 20 of its higher-profile authors “to makes sense of America’s history and politics through engaging and informative videos based on their books.”
That program features legal analyst and author Jeffrey Toobin and others and is branded “How America Works”—something a great many of us would surely like to know–and is to have four parts:
- The right to vote
- Voting for the president
- The Supreme Court of the United States
- The Electoral College
PEN America’s #FreeSpeech2020 initiative–which seeks to combat disinformation, defend press freedom, and fight online harassment–”will live alongside Penguin Random House book and author content” on the Book the Vote site.
PEN has also featured Penguin Random House authors including Brit Bennett, Alan Cumming, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Neil Gaiman, Anita Hill, and Susan Orlean in a video series to prepare Americans for what to expect this fall. A portion of sales from each of Out of Print’s “Get PoLITical” collection will continue to be donated to PEN America’s #FreeSpeech2020 campaign.
In a prepared statement, PRH’s US CEO Madeline McIntosh is quoted, saying, “We are thrilled to announce our Book the Vote campaign and site, and to join with PEN America to promote understanding of, and participation in, the election process for every voice and every voter.
“Through the books we publish, we strive to contribute to a world where independent thinking and free expression are protected, not just for this current election season, but for the generations of voters to come.”
And at PEN America, CEO Suzanne Nossel says, “Truth, facts, press freedom, and the future of open discourse are all on the ballot this November.
“We are pleased to be working with Penguin Random House to disseminate credible, authoritative information that will help Americans know what to expect when they are electing–and what is at stake as they exercise their constitutional right to vote.”
At the Book the Vote site, PRH is displaying many of its political and election-related titles along with themed “Read. Think. Vote” masks, tote bags, caps, and other items.
What’s interesting about this project, of course, is not only that it combines the commercialism of the world’s largest publisher with the nonprofit work of three agencies but also that it creates a display format for some of its most prominent politically charged work and in a super-heated moment of a national market’s political competition.
Some of the house’s most serious material with political content is reached by clicking away from the rather family-friendly landing page on the “Get More Books on the Issues” link. It takes you here, where you immediately begin to surface some of the house’s stronger work, from Jon Meachum’s His Truth Is Marching On about the late civil rights icon John Lewis’ ordeal and career to Isabel Wilkerson’s incisive Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.
A further click on the Politics tab, then takes you deeper into the most meaningful heart of the list, including the just-released The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker III by The New York Times’ Peter Baker and The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and, from May, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
For those willing to explore the rabbit hole, in other words, the Book the Vote site and its partners beckon consumers toward some genuinely timely and important work in one of the most fraught moments of national and world politics.
More from Publishing Perspectives on political books is here. More from us on Penguin Random House is here and more on PEN America is here. More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.
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