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What’s Going on with the Publishing Industry? An Overview
Recent controversies and internal conflicts within major publishing houses and book retailers highlight a worrying trend.
Before Johannes Gutenberg, publishing consisted largely of monks and scribes recopying a relatively small selection of written material, primarily the Bible. The printing press upended that world, and the digital revolution upended it again. Both, in their way, not only exploded the volume of material available to read, but also leveled the playing field, opening it to orders of magnitude more entrants.
Practically speaking, however, large publishing companies still control the lion’s share of what makes its way to mass audiences. In 2015, five publishers controlled 80% of the book publishing market share.
While this seems like a relatively competitive industry, this concentration has become worrying as more and more of these major publishers as well as book retailers and even libraries are succumbing to illiberal impulses. An industry that once made a strong stand against government censorship is now being policed from within, yielding to political and social pressures from newcomers to the field.
Recent events provide some disparate examples of this phenomenon which could spell trouble for the ability of authors to make their voices heard.
J.K. Rowling is one of the best selling authors in recent memory. However, her legendary status and general progressive views did not shield her from a storm of criticism following comments she made questioning the scientific basis (or lack thereof) of terms used by transgender rights activists, even earning rebukes from some of the stars of the Harry Potter movies. While Rowling’s publisher Hachette has continued to stand by her so far, the company had to face down an employee revolt with some workers refusing to have anything to do with Rowling’s latest book, some even reportedly threatening some kind of sabotage.
Earlier in 2020, however, Hachette employees in the US successfully helped kill their employer’s publication of a Woody Allen memoir based on allegations of sexual abuse of one of his children. An employee walkout along with a public call-out of Hachette by Allen’s estranged son, reporter Ronan Farrow (who ditched Hachette as his own publisher), quickly brought about cancellation of the project. The company’s explanation for its sudden reversal was rather vague, saying that while Hachette would “continue to publish many challenging books, [ . . .] extensive conversations with [their] staff and others” made clear that “moving forward with publication would not be feasible for HBG.”
Ultimately an independent publisher, Arcade, owned by Skyhorse Publishing, acquired and released the book. Despite the controversy, or arguably because of it, Simon & Schuster became involved in its distribution. The book is now widely available and has even received positive reviews, debuting at number 15 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list.
While Simon & Schuster appears to have avoided flak for its involvement with Woody Allen’s book, the publisher recently came under fire for a pair of conservative books scheduled for release. Shortly after the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots, the company announced that Senator Josh Hawley’s role in the events of that day was disqualifying and cancelled their book deal with him.. Several months later, in spite of turmoil within the company, Mike Pence’s autobiography avoided a similar fate. As in the case with Hachette, the pushback came from employees of the company via an online statement (though it remains unclear how many employees endorsed the letter.)
Employees of Penguin Random House launched a similar campaign against their employer’s publication of Canadian conservative clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s latest book. In this case, however, Penguin went ahead with the release despite the internal power struggle.
While there is a long tradition of employees taking issue with the actions of their employers (see labor unions), the inclination toward censorship of some within an industry that would traditionally be considered a bastion of classical liberalism and free expression seems noteworthy.
Publishers themselves are not the only component of the industry that seem to have pulled back from full-throated support for free expression. Amazon, by far the largest retailer of books, yanked Ryan Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment after three years, saying it would no longer sell titles “that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.”
On the other hand, despite a complaint from over 450 Amazon employees about Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, the company ultimately decided the book did not violate its policies. Additionally, retailer Target briefly halted sales of Shrier’s book, but quickly reversed its decision after pushback from free speech advocates.
Shrier’s book has continued to make waves in the industry, however. The American Booksellers Association (ABA) recently felt compelled to issue an apology for including the book in a July mailing to member bookstores, calling the mailing a “serious, violent incident,” a jarring description for an organization whose existence is predicated on the widest dissemination of diverse and free expression possible. Notably, the ABA signed on to the American Library Association’s 1953 statement “The Freedom to Read,” a radical statement for its time, which affirmed that “[i]t is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous." Contrast that with the ABA’s full statement here:
Libraries, one of the main outlets for the book industry and historically champions of free speech, have not escaped similar debates over censorship and free expression. When Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would no longer publish six titles due to concerns over “harmful and offensive content” as a CNN article put it, some librarians saw an opening to inveigh against a system they see as complicit in perpetuating stereotypes and racism by continuing to shelve books seen as offensive and outdated by modern eyes. In an interview in Yellow Scene Magazine with a librarian about censorship and the Dr. Seuss books, both the interviewer and the librarian took issue with the idea that, short of full control and funding by the federal government, the First Amendment even applies to libraries.
While the American Library Association’s commitment to the First Amendment and opposition to censorship remains firm on paper, the social unrest and riots in the summer of 2020 prompted the ALA to call for its members to more actively join the fight for social justice. While social justice and a commitment to free expression are not mutually exclusive, the “neutrality” of libraries as sources of information rather than advocates of causes is now being explicitly called into question by rank and file librarians.
Even before the events of 2020, an ALA policy that specifically named “hate groups” as eligible to use library meeting space was met with pushback, seen by some as complicity rather than neutrality. However, given that organizations such as the American Family Association have been deemed hate groups by some prominent social justice organizations, a prohibition against “hate groups” would arguably cast a wide net.
Despite some concerning trends, at present the United States continues to enjoy widespread freedom of expression and vigorous public debate on a variety of social, cultural, political and even religious issues. But if traditional First Amendment standard-bearer industries like book publishers and libraries cave to pressure to conform to populist sensibilities, the long term outlook for the free marketplace of ideas will become increasingly bleak.