US Vice President Mike Pence makes his keynote speech at the CEO Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby on November 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks
Former US vice-president Mike Pence, shown here making a keynote speech at the APEC summit in Port Moresby on November 17, 2018, is publishing a memoir. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

De-platforming has finally come to book publishing. An internal employees’ petition has been circulating inside Simon & Schuster demanding that the company cancel a book by former US vice-president Mike Pence and that books by Trump administration figures not be published by the firm.

The petition also demands that Simon & Schuster stop acting as distributor for independent publisher Post Hill Press.

There have been several recent instances in which previous publishing decisions have been reversed. On January 7, Simon & Schuster decided not to publish US Senator Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech. It was quickly picked up by Regnery and scheduled for spring publication.

In March of last year, Hachette decided not to publish Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing. But it was quickly acquired by veteran Jeannette Seaver at Arcade Publishing. Ironically, Seaver, as author, has her official publisher’s page at the Simon & Schuster website. And Arcade, like Regnery and Post Hill Press, is one of Simon & Schuster’s 100 distribution clients.

If this sounds more than a little incestuous, that’s because of the consolidation of former independent imprints into huge publishing conglomerates like Hachette, Bertelsmann, and Simon & Schuster. Simon & Schuster alone has more than 40 different publishing imprints, including Scribner’s. 

And while the number of independent bookstores is actually growing, book sales in this area, after impressive growth in the early 2000s, have fallen back to 1990s levels.

The occasional cancellation of a controversial book is not “Orwellian,” as an understandably irked Senator Hawley called it. It is a commercial byproduct of concerns about irritating a vitally important distribution chain into a limited number of book outlets.

With the activist liberal inclinations of many booksellers, one or two of those can dampen the sales of hundreds of a publisher’s own new titles and those of its distribution clients as well – and for more than one season. That can be a tremendous competitive handicap.

This is not a new problem. When Doubleday was an independent publisher under Republican-inclined management, it decided to turn down William Safire’s memoir of his time in the Nixon White House after scandals began to pile up. Doubleday was concerned it would damage its brand. His agent offered me the book and I needed it more than Doubleday, but I acknowledged its concerns by lowering the advance offer.

But the internal petition being circulated by Simon & Schuster employees is far more extensive. It is demanding categorical censorship irrespective of any underlying editorial merit. It wants to employ a heckler’s veto to override the judgment of some of the finest editors in publishing in multiple imprints, even extending it to canceling totally independent distribution clients.

Simon & Schuster’s president, Jonathan Karp, announced that his firm would go forward and publish Mike Pence’s memoir. In the same letter he reminded his employees “… we come to work 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.”

Simon & Schuster’s petitioners have now reached outside their own community looking for “solidarity” throughout publishing for their position.

This has happened before as well. In the aftermath of Watergate, a number of publishers organized a “don’t buy books by crooks” movement. No publisher was supposed to publish any book by members of the disgraced Richard Nixon administration. Later a separate activist group in Washington, DC, created posters, bumper stickers, even T-shirts. 

I was president of Times Books at the time, then the New York Times Book Company. My editors thought this was ridiculous. How was history served by stifling the various testimonies that might emerge? We broke the boycott and published a book by Nixon’s chief of staff, H R Haldeman.

Haldeman’s The Ends of Power went to the top of the best-seller list and to the front page of every major newspaper with its revelations. The dam broke … we were soon followed by memoirs from John Ehrlichman and others, almost all best-sellers. It was a reminder that successful publishers serve the interests of their markets, not their own staffs’ predilections.

The New York Times editorial page carried an item on it suggesting, “Let the marketplace decide the issue.… We have a powerful aversion to blacklists of any sort. If the publishing industry had refused to put out the works of the Messrs Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Co, as the television and motion-picture industries refused to hire Communists during the 1950s, that would be a serious matter….” 

It concluded: “Whatever one’s opinion of the former president, if scoundrels could not publish, the world would be deprived of much literature.”

Simon & Schuster’s Jonathan Karp is part of a great tradition. One wonders what The New York Times editorial page might think today.

Thomas H Lipscomb

Thomas Lipscomb has been CEO of three book and magazine publishing companies including the New York Times subsidiary Times Books. His news and commentary have been in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times.