An Astonishingly Honest Look At Publishing

Life is still up in the air here in my small corner of the Lone Star State. Because of that, I find myself coming up for air with less frequency as real life demands on my time increase. But come up I did this morning. So I went looking for inspiration and came across this article about publishing. To say it doesn’t mince words about the industry is putting it mildly–and it echoes much of what we’ve said here at MGC for some time.

The article starts with a flashback seven years or so to when Amazon was doing battle with the major players over, you guessed it, money. At that time, these traditional publishers kept telling us how they were right and Amazon was wrong because “publishing was a crucial industry for the nation’s cultural and intellectual life.”

These same folks claimed that publishers took chances thousands of times of years on “unknown authors”, giving them money to write, etc. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have been on this earth for a number of years and the only place I see “thousands” of unknown authors being given a chance every year is through Amazon and its KDP program. I sure as hell don’t remember any traditional publisher, together or individually, giving anywhere close to that number of unknown authors a chance each year.

From the linked article:

This is more or less the story that publishers have told about themselves for decades. Publishers take chances, they nurture talent, they’re constantly on the hunt not just for marketable books, but for ideas. The industry is, by extension, one of the most important protectors of speech in the country. It doesn’t matter what the idea is or who it comes from, as long as it’s bold and original.

This may be what the industry is telling itself–and us–but is it really the protector of speech in this country?

The answer, and it is a resounding one, is “NO!”. At least not free speech. In fact, not any speech unless it fits what the publisher–or, more exactly right now, its employees–approve. How many books have been canceled because a group of employees demanded it because the author didn’t meet their vision of being woke enough or liberal enough or whatever? The linked article gives several examples. We’ve written about others here on MGC.

In many ways, traditional publishing has fallen into the same role as the mainstream media. Instead of encouraging a variety of ideas, it sees itself as being the “informer” and “enforcer” for the industry. It wasn’t to “educate” people instead of entertain. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good non-fiction book. I want to be educated when I read one. But there is a difference between education and indoctrination.

I have to wonder why a publisher would refuse to publish a book–one that would make money for them–simply because they feel the author’s politics are controversial. How are we to learn not to make certain mistakes or to move forward if we erase those “controversial” views from our libraries?

Then there’s the very natural human response of wanting to do or see or read something simply because it is forbidden. How many of us as kids, or even as adults, have searched out books or graphic novels or movies or anything else simply because someone told us we can’t read or watch them?

Now we have a group of publishing employees demanding their bosses not publish anything written by pretty much anyone who served in the Trump administration. If that’s not bad enough, they also demand anyone who challenges the validity of the last election not be given a publishing contract. There are even those who don’t want people who don’t buy into the Covid-19 government theory or into climate change be denied publishing contracts.

That’s bad enough. They are trying to control the industry in such a way that only their approved messages are allowed. What’s worse, they aren’t limiting these demands. These self-important whiners want to make it impossible for someone who served in the Trump Administration to publish anything–it doesn’t have to do with politics, their time in office, etc. These bad think people could be writing a children’s book playing baseball for the first time but their exposure to Orange Mad Bad is enough to prevent them from publishing what might be an excellent book.

But there is hope. It is dim right now, but there is a flicker out there in the darkness.

Simon & Schuster is set to publish a book by former-Vice President Mike Pence. Of course, certain folks at the publisher demanded he be canceled. But S&S CEO Jonathan Karp refused, saying this:

As a publisher in this polarized era, we have experienced outrage from both sides of the political divide and from different constituencies and groups,” Karp wrote in an email responding to an open letter signed by about 15 percent of the publisher’s staff protesting the Pence deal. “But we come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives. We will, therefore, proceed in our publishing agreement with Vice President Mike Pence.”

All I can say is good for Karp. He is acting not only like a responsible businessman but as someone who remembers what publishing is there to do. It isn’t there to become an echo chamber. If publishing is there to educate, it should give us a variety of differing opinions. It shouldn’t give in to the demands of a few disgruntled employees who believe their political or social views outweighs the business demands of the company or the public’s right to see all sides of an issue.

Now the big question is if Karp will wind up being “canceled” or if this will be a turning point for the industry or just a flash in the pan. I’m not holding my breath.

Featured image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

47 thoughts on “An Astonishingly Honest Look At Publishing

  1. Off topic…

    Our oldest is in the operating room for a long-dreaded heart surgery.
    If anyone is so inclined, she could use some requests for divine aid.

    1. Thanks.

      Update: two valves and an artificial vessel replaced, off bypass, and currently being closed back up.
      It went as smoothly as we possibly could have hoped.

      1. Update:
        The child is not agreeing with the doctor’s judgement that she should remain sedated.

        She spent a good portion of the night trying to remove the respiratory tube that they had shoved down her throat, and demanding food.

        Little miss does not lack sass.

    1. So, are you saying it’s okay to silence (at least on the publishing front) someone because you don’t agree with his or her opinion?

      1. I don’t think that was the point he was making. I’d say it a bit differently.

        Not all publishing today is done in expectation of profits or even sales. Publishing in some cases has become a means of funneling money to selected individuals without leaving the usual financial tracks that can run afoul of the laws on payments to politicians, or to exposure of the folks paying the money to unwanted attention from the public.
        Look at the huge advances many political authors have gotten for very unremarkable books. Look at the amazing sales numbers reported for some of the books, even though they are soon on the deep-discount table at your local bookstore.

        So while Pence would look bad cashing a million dollar check from someone not of his party, he has no problem cashing the same check from his publisher, after the same people buy a pile of books and launder the money through the publishing system.

        1. And this *particular* thing should be very illegal. A way of stopping that would be to give a publisher a certain number of years to show payout of the advance given to a political figure. If the political biography or whatever campaign publication or memoir doesn’t pay out, the publisher should have to explain why, sufficiently and to the satisfaction of the court.

          1. That is thinking appropriate for regulating an industry whose accounting isn’t already systemically fraudulent.

            If hearsay is correct, there is no reason to suspect that trad pub sales figures are competently measured and honest enough to be a meaningful test.

            I don’t have a good remedy to offer. It turns out that I too often jump to the conclusion of ‘sow the fields with salt’, and overlook many practical issues.

        2. Pence the great Christian VP. So that was his price. To paraphrase A Man For All Seasons, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for all the world…but for a book advance???

      2. I can see two interpretations.

        First interpretation, we’ve been scammed into treating people as part of the same society, who aren’t willing to do the fundamental cooperative things. This can be remedied, and both Pence and the publisher are on the wrong side of that.

        Second interpretation, the woke should not be seriously trying to interfere with ‘publishing’ Pence, because that is the means by which Pence is bribed for betraying us to the woke.

        I think the second theory is definitely not correct. Pence’s history was of someone untrustworthy and unreliable before Trump picked him. He did some very good work most of the time for Trump, but in so far as ‘our’ side exists, he was not one to be trusted to show resolve in supporting ‘our’ side. Pence’s failure, and Trump’s failure are not things to take as betrayals. Their thinking is much too conventional for the current circumstances, and the mistake was partly ‘ours’ for trying to use them for those tasks.

  2. I think the cancel-culture urge has gotten so heavy-handed and blatant that the potential damage to corporate profits can’t be ignored. Even by administrators who would prefer to pretend that it’s not happening, or that it’s only happening to writers with so-called bad ideas and intentions.

    1. No, it can’t be ignored. But then publishing has a long history of promoting books that wind up losing money. My issue is that they aren’t paying attention to what the buying public might want but to what a small percentage of their employees are demanding. IIRC, the number of employees demanding Pence’s book be canceled was less than 20%. How many of them had actually read the book? How many are saying to cancel simply because he served as Trump’s VP?

      1. They haven’t been paying attention to what readers really, really want for decades.
        There is a huge market out there for the old-fashioned traditional Western, for example. But the NY-based Literary Industrial Complex turn up their nose at that genre.

        1. Totally agree, Celia. This is all part of their idea that they should be “educating” us by directing what we should be interested in.

    2. It’s gotten to the point of counterattack — claiming that any call for someone to lose a job, no matter the reason, is cancel culture.

  3. I’ll admit that I read this and was stunned that The New Republic of all places would publish it. Over at The Passive Voice, they quote a bit more of the article, and the world makes more sense:

    “The use of “cancel” here is notable in that these types of culture-war defenses are the last refuge of those without a substantive case to be made. And, to be clear, there really isn’t one to be made in defense of either the Pence deal or the Conway one…morally speaking, the corporations have been outflanked by their employees. The moral vision laid out in the open letter to Simon & Schuster, for instance, is much clearer than the one provided by Karp….On one side, you have employees making the kind of value-based argument that publishers have been making for decades; on the other, you have an executive making dubious “cancel culture” arguments in service of the profit motive.”

    So yeah, Karp’s statement is a flash-in-the-pan. S&S is merging with the Randy Penguin, and I suspect he won’t end up in charge of the final company. And with the prevailing winds saying that publishing forfeited its “protectors of speech in the country” role not by trying to cancel the Right but by publishing them in the first place, his successor will likely work to make sure the soon-to-be Big 4 becomes the kinda-middle-size 3.

    1. Re: merging with the randy one: is this all of S&S or just the distribution arm? I’ll readily admit I’ve not been following that as closely as I probably should since life has been throwing curveballs.

    2. If you read the article, it definitely fits TNR, and honestly wasn’t worth the time I spent reading it (the author has left-wing goggles on).

      1. I will disagree with you about it not being worth the time. Yes, the left-wing goggles are on. But it is important we know what those wearing them are saying and how they are pitching things. If we don’t, we not only live in our own echo chambers but we leave ourselves with a knowledge gap that can and will come back and bite us on the ass eventually. It is important to know what the other side is thinking AND saying.

  4. I can’t think of anything to say that I’m sure is appropriate for here.

      1. More often than you would probably think.

        (My expected value for your expected value for “times Bob lets that stop him” is pretty low. 2-3 times a year would be higher. 🙂 I’m actually not sure myself, but 2-3 times a year might be on the low end. I abandon a fair number of comments because I realize I am writing something stupid and incoherent. And I actually try to be on nicer behavior at MGC, and some other sites.)

        But, yeah, I have certainly earned a reputation for saying silly things and hurtful things. Given the public track record, my saying correct things could well be accidental. ;P

  5. Good heavens. If I read that article correctly, The New Republic is trying to have it both ways. Diversity good but only if it’s the right kind of diversity.
    I seem to remember back in the dim and distant past that whatever else Publisher said they were looking for, the bottom line in accepting a book was “Can we sell this and make money?”
    If the answer was yes, they bought it.
    If the answer was no, they might or might not have bought the title depending on what else Publisher earned in terms of status points and bragging rights.
    Now, it’s all status points and bragging rights.
    But if Publisher doesn’t earn money via sales, bankruptcy eventually arrives.

    1. There are universities trying to pull the same thing.

      Expelling students and punishing instructors for speech that is deemed to include racially charged words.

      Then, when the funding tries to tell them to knock the crud off, ‘muh academic free speech principles’.

      Expect much more of this before people figure out that they should have left things alone.

    2. > “Can we sell this and make money?”

      Peculiar concept. What does it have to do with running a modern business?

  6. I suspect S&S slapping down their employees protesting the Pence deal was a matter of the useful idiots getting out of their place and not understanding the back room deals when they protested this particular rightist getting published.

    While I might wish it was a sign of someone realizing they needed to make money, I’m afraid it’s more along the lines of “His election campaign will buy tons of them as gifts to donors. This means we take money away from his campaign, and if it helps him in the primaries? Well _this_ over-religious fellow couldn’t possibly beat the democratic candidate in 2024! So it’s all to the good.”

    1. Exactly, Pam. But just the fact they did something is surprising. At least to me. And it means we need to keep an eye on what they do in the future.

      1. Yeah, either the top level’s getting a clue about the desirability of staying in business . . . or they just realized the mob is escaping their control.

  7. “Then there’s the very natural human response of wanting to do or see or read something simply because it is forbidden. How many of us as kids, or even as adults, have searched out books or graphic novels or movies or anything else simply because someone told us we can’t read or watch them?”

    How do you think I find new sf/fantasy/horror/crime authors to read? Whoever the wokescolds have their knickers in a twist about (at least the ones I haven’t yet read) are the authors I check out.

    1. I know for a while, being blocked on certain sciif/fantasy review blogs or being condemned by certain writers and sites was a near guarantee of hundreds of sales. “If they hate it, it must be good!” Sort of like certain movie reviewers – if he/she/it couldn’t stand a film, I’d probably enjoy it.

      1. Being blocked on Vile666 is a badge of honor. In fact, all I have to do is mention it and a Chinese bot farmer will pop right up in the comments to defend the ban. Too bad he can’t do that here. >:D

  8. ” . . . while the author cravenly glosses over the fact that his former boss incited a riot that nearly killed him.”

    Oh my effing . . . Sorry off topic. Did _any_ of our precious lawmakers really feel their lives were in danger? Have the sweet little cupcakes who are afraid of everything infected the whole &^%$ government? Someone please tell me that this is just a lib paper talking to the cupcakes!

    1. Seriously Pam, the way those rioters were staying between the ropes and picking up the garbage after the riot, ANYTHING could have happened! ~:D

    2. Situation was pretty clearly Pelosi playing games to manipulate the other Representatives and perhaps Senators. There’s a bunch of stuff we don’t know about about what they are experiencing, and it is possible that some of them are legitimately concerned for their lives.

    3. Since they had scaffolding (For legit repairs) set up to get into the Republican area, there should have been law makers who felt their lives were in danger.

      Just…not from the folks who were at Trump’s speech.

      Which was still going on when arrests for violence got started…..

  9. “There may be an ideological component to publishing Pence and Conway, but it has nothing to do with ideas. It has to do with fetishizing ideological diversity, in which publishing garbage books from prominent Republicans is an end in and of itself. These deals only underline what’s been increasingly obvious for decades now: The commitment to free speech and intellectual diversity is a fig leaf, held up to defend often dubious decisions that are rooted in financial concerns, rather than intellectual or moral ones. If you are building a case for “ideological diversity” and are basing it on books by Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway, you have already lost.”

    First of all, this thing is a left-wing screed by a left-wing wingnut in The New Republic, a left-wing rag.

    However, as all clocks are right at least twice a day, broken or not, this Alex Sheppard wingnut is right about the publishers being full of horse puckey. They are.

    The truth of the matter is that publishing as a whole has been captured by a political faction. It doesn’t even matter what faction it is, just that one political element is calling all the shots in the book publishing universe. As Mr. Sheppard-Wingnut said, the publisher’s talk of intellectual “diversity” -is- a fig leaf. They’re lying. And we all know it.

    One of the reasons they all hate Amazon so much is that The Bezos Big Box will still publish their political enemies. Meaning me. Mr. Nobody Important Phantom, the one-book-wonder that managed to skip past their gatekeepers while laughing and giving them the finger. Me and a million other Mr. and Mrs. Nobodies.

    The other reason they hate him is that Bezos is the only one making money out of publishing these days. He has eaten their whole lunch, while they watched, and now he’s down at the bakery looking for dessert. With their lunch money.

    But the rest of the article is doodoo. The truth is that, as Mr. Correia was screaming at some random sock-puppet the other day on his blog, there is zero diversity in publishing and particularly in science fiction. This year we have for the Best Novel category in the Nebula awards: 6 female Liberals, 0 male Liberals, 3 black Liberals, 2 white Liberals, 1 Native American Liberal, 1 Hispanic Liberal, 1 LGBTQ Liberal, and 1 disabled Liberal. It has been that way since ~1985ish (when it was 6 white male Liberals), and since 2016 they’ve stopped pretending otherwise.

    Sheppard’s complaint is that Pence and Conway get a book the same as Hillary and Gore got books. He’s mad they were allowed to play. Because they’re not Liberals.

    1. With their sales so far in the crapper, one can’t help but wonder where they get the money to pay self-important politicians those multi-million-dollar advances for books nobody will ever want to read.

      Plus, they never did figure out that Sad Puppies was never about getting a Hugo for Larry Correia, but showing that the Hugo committee had become an incestuous left-wing circle-jerk awarding prizes to each other. Actual good science fiction was irrelevant to them.
      Not everybody should go to college. Some folks, you send ’em to college and you just wind up with an educated idiot.

      1. No, you wind up with a credentialed but uneducated idiot who thinks he’s educated. And boy howdy does that cause problems…

      2. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I did not participate myself so that Larry could get a Hugo. I paid money for a membership to serve notice that I was sick unto death of the 100% Liberal sweep of the awards. The WorldCon response was to change the rules to prevent my votes from affecting the outcome of the election. (Don’t even bother, lurkers. We know what you did. We all watched you do it.)

        The result of all that was A) WorldCon doesn’t even pretend to be non-partisan anymore and B) they’re sinking into irrelevant obscurity even faster now.

        No one on our side of the new barricade cares even faintly what the nominations were this year, just the same as nobody knows or cares what got nominated for the Aurora awards. The Auroras used to be a thing, but now it is 140 old fat guys voting by mail. WorldCon will be right behind them, ~1,500 people nominated this year.

  10. I had a similar reaction (and may have posted a comment here a while back) to this news. However, it’s “fake news”. They didn’t cancel Pence, but they did cancel Josh Hawley and a police officer involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor. I got that from Behind the Black.

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