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Cancelling Books

Written by Neil Levy

One of the latest flare ups in the culture wars concerns book publishing. Recent books by Mike Pence, Woody Allen and by Milo Yiannopoulos have all been met with protests, many of them stemming from staff within the publishing houses. Sometimes, these protests have been successful, at least to the extent that the publisher has decided not to publish the book.

Conflict over these books has pitted younger staff at publishing houses against older. It’s also pitted advocates of (relatively) unconstrained free speech against those who support no-platforming certain speakers. Perhaps showing my age, I find myself on both sides of these debates. These are very different cases, and the case for no-platforming Yiannopoulos seems strong; in the other cases, I am less certain. Elsewhere, I have given an underappreciated reason why we might often want to no-platform (a strong reason; not necessarily a decisive reason). In this post, though, I want to rebut some common arguments against cancelling books.

It’s important to bear in mind that publishers receive thousands of manuscripts and book proposals every year and that they reject the overwhelming majority. They do so for many reasons. Of course, commercial considerations loom very large for most: if they think there’s a market for a book, they’re likely to publish it. But many publishers (or particular imprints of these publishers) care about quality to some degree independently of commercial considerations. For many, this is an indirect way of caring about commercial considerations: they judge that the prestige that comes from being known to publish worthy books will indirectly increase sales for their entire list (perhaps by increasing its visibility). Some may have a sense of a mission, and will publish books because they believe in them.

Bearing these facts in mind is important for two reasons. First, given that commercial considerations drive most publishing decisions, we don’t need to worry about the fate of most cancelled books. Cancellation increases their visibility and makes other publishers even more eager to publish them. The highest profile cancelled books, like those of Mike Pence or Woody Allen, are guaranteed sellers and publishers fight to publish them. So long as there is a diversity of publishers with a diversity of political views, cancelled books find a ready home (the Woody Allen and Mike Pence books were rapidly picked up by other publishers; Milo Yiannopoulos self-published his cancelled book and it became a best-seller).

If the aim of those who cancel books is literally to cancel them, then they routinely fail: the books are published anyway, and they may have increased visibility due to the controversy. But their aim might be a different one: not to have their name or their company associated with the book. Some may see that aim as a mere indulgence, but it may be an aim worth pursuing, not only because we value integrity but because having a view associated with a prestige publisher may give that view extra credibility.

So bearing the facts about publishing in mind helps to rebut one common argument against cancellation: it doesn’t suppress ideas. It changes who publishes them, not whether they are published. But the facts about publishing also helps rebut a different worry.

Some people have expressed concern that publishers abrogating to themselves the power to decide who gets published is a step too far: it may prevent brilliant ideas or powerful writing seeing the light of day. But the truth about the slush pile is this: publishers routinely reject brilliant ideas and powerful writing. No doubt most of the manuscripts they see are mediocre, but a large number (even if a small proportion) are worthwhile. Publishers can’t accept more than a tiny fraction of the books that merit publication, and arbitrary decisions are made all the time. As a consequence, there are many thousands of people who have submitted books to publishers (often to many publishers) but are not published authors, simply because they were not as lucky as a small number of other writers.

Once we recognize that the catalogue of any publisher represents a tiny fraction of the books they might have published, we should worry less that cancelling books prevents brilliant or worthy books seeing the light of day. We can be confident that many excellent books won’t see the light of day no matter what. If cancelling a book by some right-wing provocateur  opens up space for a different book that is just or more as valuable, then it’s hard to see how the world has suffered a net loss.

Things might be different if publishers acted in concert, so that only ideas from an agreed on perspective could get published at all. There’s something to this worry, but not a great deal. It’s already true – it has always been true – that the biggest publishing houses publish little (not quite nothing) outside a spectrum that’s considered respectable. Lately, that spectrum has skewed a little more left than previously, as ideas like Critical Race Theory have become more respectable (the backlash against this shift in the Overton Window is powerful). But for the most part, if you want to read books from a perspective that’s left of the Democrat Party, you’ll have to go beyond the big name publishing houses (to, for example, Verso Books). Similarly, if you want to read books by those associated with the Trump presidency, you might have to turn to any of a number of conservative publishing houses. No perspective that is remotely worth regarding as respectable is prevented from being heard.

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15 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting point. I wonder whether another concern is about silo-isation. Eg the case where the NY Times opinion editor was sacked for publishing a piece by a right-wing senator. No doubt the senator can still get published in plenty of places, but the people who read the NY Times won’t read them, meanwhile, whoever reads the right-wing media will ONLY see those things. It seems to enhance the issues that we already have with news via social media which only gives you things it thinks you will like.

    Perhaps it is less of a concerns for publishing houses, as people tend to buy by the book not the publisher. But there are rumours of amazon not selling certain books due to pressure from activists (I don’t know if they are true or not). If booksellers went down the same route, silo-isation might start to become heavily ingrained- from social media, through mainstream media, and now books, people will start to only be offered perspectives they already agree with?

    1. Thanks Sarah. I agree that might be a problem (though more with publishers not accepting manuscripts than with cancelling them: cancelling them increases their visibility). There’s some evidence, by the way, that the common claim that social media leads to what you call silo-isolation doesn’t reflect reality: that people are actually exposed to a broader range of views on social media than elsewhere.

      1. Really! That’s surprising. From my social media, I thought vote remain was going to be a landslide. Led to quite a shock the next morning (and the next few years)….

        1. True story about the referendum, indicating how our bubbles may not be representative at all. I mentioned to someone I knew slightly (but whose views I knew nothing about) that I was worried about the Brexit vote. “What’s Brexit?”, he asked. I said the referendum on leaving the EU. “What’s the EU?” he asked. I changed the subject.

  2. Concern regarding publishing relying upon commercial freedom to weed/reduce the availability of potentially socially damaging material seems to merely partially focus on the problem currently troubling society. One could say the same for the content of libraries, and commercial freedoms do not necessarily apply there; But more troubling are internet search engines and the values applied within their algorithms. A recent set of searches by myself utilising the privacy enhancing search engine SwissCows without any filters applied, to find details of an intensely private issue regarding unlawful disclosure of sexual practices by a pornographic web site, highlighted the difficulties that well meaning censoring algorithms can cause. A quick search with another search engine immediately revealed the news broadcast and coverage being sought. (respecting more sensitive private matters by not touching any of the original material subject of the legal action – could that be a minimal intrusion which continues to respect individual privacy? I certainly hope so.). Such social protections do what they say, they protect by limiting availability, but in the same way that avoiding an unusual idea creates a blindness requiring other protections because people miss particular experiential learning curves, social weaknesses are created which in this case this/these people are very bravely confronting.

    It appears to me that censorship by enforcing focus, whether politically, in publication, education or on the web can be used to direct, but it also causes significant social blindness which others will inevitably take advantage of. An individually chosen focus on the other hand appears to be an essential and necessary advantage which is a changing part of the life of every individual Avoiding projecting (or reading) a refined focus as a singular value applicable to everyone all of the time appears as a simple mistake often made which becomes a routine following well trodden routes and removes the thing individuals most cherish.

  3. Sounds right for Milo, but is this true across the board? What about less-than-famous authors who have good books that are outside of the orthodoxy? Isn’t it kind of scummy for publishers to turn down these authors for purely political reasons — and wouldn’t it help authors to have a publisher that stands by their work?

    To add another kind of exmaple to the mix, consider the debate a few years ago in YA, as Twitter warriors started crusading against “racist” books that — gasp! — depicted racism (or, you know, the YA-fantasy version: bigotry against orcs or what have you). One anonymous agent was quoted in an article for Vulture:

    “None of us are willing to comment publicly for fear of being targeted and labeled racist or bigoted. But if children’s-book publishing is no longer allowed to feature an unlikable character, who grows as a person over the course of the story, then we’re going to have a pretty boring business.”

    1. Milo is an easier case, I agree. I’m not worried about lesser authors being rejected on political grounds. So long as there is a diversity of publishers, there shouldn’t be any net loss in diversity of views (I’m assuming here that a diversity of views is a good thing independent of their content. I’m not sure I believe that, but I’m accepting it for the sake of argument). Lesser known authors will just have to choose where to submit. That’s something everyone already does: different publishers already specialise in different topics, and approaches.

      I’ve seen examples of cases like the one you mention, where authors are criticised for having characters that have bigoted views. While there might sometimes be grounds for criticism (if it’s gratuitous or cheap), I agree that at least some of these accusations are ridiculous.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Neil. I think I’m still uneasy with politics in publishing, at least when the publisher’s avowed goal is just quality (and profit). If nothing else, the publishers should feel a little ashamed when they cater to partisan outrage.

        But I take your point that it’s not as bad if the book finds another home in the publishing ecosystem, and this point does seem to get lost in some discussions. Cheers.

  4. It seems wrong and undemocratic that the political viewpoints of about half the population cannot be found in main stream bookstores or main stream publishers. This blog post seems like a disingenuous apologia for that state of affairs. But if the shoe were on the other foot and it was anyone left of the mainstream right that could not get published or reviewed outside of specialty houses, I think Neil would see the problem.

    1. Pretty sure private companies are not democracies. You seem to be implying that anyone right of the mainstream left can get published or reviewed in mainstream places. But you can’t mean that, since that’s silly.

      1. Private companies are not democracies, but the justification for a market sector of private companies is democratic: the notion that the market is a good way of organising society because it meets the majority’s needs and desires. We can still criticize an undemocratic outcome of an entire market sector. If there is a demand for books and media that are right-wing, which is not being met, then the market is not working as claimed.

        I don’t think you comprehend what I wrote. The right-wing cannot get reviewed or published anywhere that most of the public is able to read or buy. If the market only produced right-wing works even though half the public was left-wing, you’d see the problem.

        1. Never seen it suggested that the justification of markets was democracy. Markets are standardly justified on efficiency grounds. That’s the reason why the right standardly holds we shouldn’t interfere with them!
          I did understand you, it seems. But what you’re claiming is obviously false. The WSJ is right wing. The Times is right wing. The Telegraph is right wing. So is The Sun, the Daily Mail and so on. The right probably makes up the majority of the mainstream media.

  5. Thank you, Neil, for your thought-provoking piece.
    There may be a difference between competent and professional selection of manuscripts within a publishing house and the loud and threatening protests of an intolerant minority when the publication of a book is announced. In this sense, the proposed analogy could be less sound, and the book cancelling could slip into a risky practice for freedom of thought,. The risk could be not that publishers act in concert, but that many if not all publishers bow to cancellation requests out of conformism or out of fear of protests from an organized and noisy minority.

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