Enter the vultures
So one of the five major English-language publishers, Simon & Schuster, has offered a book deal to a prominent media figure of the “Alt-Right” (better known to you and I as the Far-Right). Not a small deal either – apparently we are talking an advance of some $250,000 US. This naturally raises some interesting questions about book publishing and social obligations, which has sparked my publisher Inspired Quill to weigh in on the issue.
I figured I would add my twenty cents worth too.
First off, criticising the book deal is not censorship. Nor is it an attack on freedom of speech. This media figure is completely within his rights to write, print, and distribute any book he pleases (within legal boundaries). What is being criticised is the commercial decision by Simon & Schuster to accept the book in question – to pay this person a large advance, and to use their resources as a major publisher to distribute the work to the public. If criticising that is censorship, then any time a publisher says “no” to a manuscript is censorship too.
To put it another way, I am entitled to write blog posts criticising my current Government. I have strong opinions about them. Are Penguin/Random House (the only one of the Big Five to still have a branch office in New Zealand) morally obliged to offer me a juicy advance for a book attacking said Government? Of course not. I am entitled to Free Speech (within the context of New Zealand parliamentary sovereignty), but I am not entitled to Paid Speech. This book deal is Paid Speech.
This comes to the second point – the supposed notion that Simon & Schuster’s decision represents a victory for the marketplace of ideas. In other words, by engaging the public in dialogue with different views, the superior view will emerge triumphant – and if we are truly confident that tolerant ideas are superior to intolerance, then we have nothing to fear from this book.
This second point sounds attractive (indeed, I have used it in the past with reference to reading Robert E. Howard, where I argued that we should not expect books to simply parrot our own worldviews). The problem is that this applies to reading much more than it does actual publishing. Believing that it is worthwhile to read morally objectionable material is one thing. Believing that publishers have an onus to sign up representative opinions on all matters of the day is another. There is nothing preventing an interested reader from seeking out this Alt-Right person’s opinion for free on the internet. Indeed, this person has any number of ways to participate in social debate without Simon & Schuster paying him (why aren’t they paying me for this post, damn it? I’m contributing to debate!).
In essence, by agreeing to this book deal, Simon & Schuster are privileging Far-Right views over others – they are not merely allowing him to speak and be heard, but actually rewarding him generously for his stance. It is the second point that I find disturbing, for if one’s only qualification for $250,000 US is holding extreme political views, then there are plenty of other (and more worthwhile) candidates for this publisher’s generosity who are currently missing out.
And it is there that we turn to the actual reason behind Simon & Schuster’s decision: they believe that this book will sell enough to recoup their investment. That this person’s views are being privileged over others is a cold publishing calculation about current public appetite – Simon & Schuster think more people want to hear from this person than, for example, the President of the Flat Earth Society. The calculation may even be true, though in the circumstances it makes the publisher no better than social vultures.
But here is the funny thing: if there is no principled basis to supporting this book deal – and as I reasoned above, I do not think there is, for neither opposing censorship nor encouraging the free expression of ideas necessitate support for Simon & Schuster’s decision – then raw market calculations are all that matter. If raw market calculations are all that matter, and one opposes this book deal, then the rational course of action is to ensure that the calculation is wrong. In short, if this publisher pays a financial price for their folly, then they are much less likely to play the vulture role again.
I will finish off by reposting an interesting graphic that shows which of the Big Five own which imprint. Including Simon & Schuster…