What’s Bad for America is Good for Book Sales

This is a guest post from Guy LeCharles Gonzalez. Guy is an old/new media pragmatist from New York City, and has worked in the publishing business since 1993, including stints at Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, Digital Book World, and Library Journal. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, always opinionated. loudpoet.com and @glecharles for more.


If there’s a celebrity with a big enough social media following, there’s probably an imprint or two at the major trade publishers whose sole reason for existence is to pony up a decent advance for the rights to publish their book, regardless of whether or not they have anything new or interesting to say, for no other reason than the hope of easy money. The majority of these won’t sell enough to cover their advances, ending up on remainder tables at your local Barnes & Noble, but thanks to the arcane accounting methods of the publishing industry, it will have a lot of company.

Publishing is a business, after all, and if the recent Presidential election reminded us of anything, you don’t actually have to be good at business nor have any sense of decency to be successful.

So-called conservative publishers are very good at business, having thrived for decades off the work of loud-mouthed pundits and craven politicians bouncing between cable news appearances, decent book deals, and lucrative speaking gigs, putting profit before patriotism while using their platforms to set the world on fire. “Oftentimes, we have said here that what’s bad for America is good for Regnery book sales,” explains Marji Ross, president and publisher of Regnery, a successful independent purveyor of toxic waste from NY Times Bestsellers Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and Mark Fuhrman, among many others.

“Conservative books have been a blockbuster category for publishers for decades, dating to the rise of right-wing radio and cable in the 1980s…  As the political ideology of the right has been injected with populism and nationalism, conservative writers and publishers are wrestling with how to reach a wide audience now that a block of readers that was once reliably in lock step philosophically has splintered. Once dependable formulas for generating best sellers — write a book attacking the Clintons, plug it on Fox News, repeat — may no longer deliver a hit.”

“Publishers Encounter Political Storms in Turn to Right,” NY Times

Without Clinton and Obama to kick around anymore, and Trump proving to be the literal Teflon Don, conservative publishers are going to have to figure out new ways to pander and grow their profits at the expense of truth and civil discourse. So it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the too-awful-even-for-Twitter professional troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, got a book deal and a sweet $250,000 advance.

What apparently surprised many, though, was that the deal came from a major publisher, Simon & Schuster, which surely prefers to be known for its authors and books that have garnered 56 Pulitzer Prizes, 17 National Book Awards, 10 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 8 Grammy Awards, 15 Caldecott Medals, and 19 Newbery Medals.

BEYOND THE THRESHOLD

Yiannopoulos’ book was acquired by Threshold Editions, a Simon & Schuster imprint founded in 2006 with the self-described “mission to ‘provide a forum for the creative people, bedrock principles, and innovative ideas of contemporary conservatism’ and to chronicle the historic reforms those people and principles would bring.” Their authors include “creative people” like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham, and even the Teflon Don himself. While Yiannopoulos stands out in that company for his comparatively lightweight resume, and his approach to punditry is slightly cruder and more overtly offensive than what’s been deemed acceptable in recent years, he fits right in with conservative publishing’s unofficial mantra: “what’s bad for America is good for book sales.”

“I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building — but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money,” Yiannopoulos told THR.

Simon & Schuster immediately caught a surprising amount of flak and felt pressured enough to offer a rather weak explanation to its authors, assuring them that the book wouldn’t be as hateful as Yiannopoulos himself and should presumably be judged in a vacuum, as if no one’s ever used a traditionally published book as a calling card to validate themselves and help spread their views far and wide, for better and worse.

The outrage and calls for boycotts were predictable, some extending beyond Yiannopoulos and Threshold to S&S itself, but the most interesting and potentially effective action came from another NY Times bestselling author, Roxane Gay, who pulled her own upcoming book (ironically titled How to Be Heard), from an unrelated S&S imprint, TED Books, on moral grounds.

“I was supposed to turn the book in this month and I kept thinking about how egregious it is to give someone like Milo a platform for his blunt, inelegant hate and provocation. I just couldn’t bring myself to turn the book in. My editor emailed me last week and I kept staring at that email in my inbox and finally over the weekend I asked my agent to pull the book.”

While Yiannopoulos has garnered a disproportionate amount of attention despite Threshold’s history of validating similar deplorables under their “conservative” hood, it’s mostly gone unremarked that Penguin Random House has two similar imprints, Sentinel and Crown Forum (which have collectively published the works of Coulter, Huckabee, Rubio, and Scarborough), while HarperCollins’ Broadside Books appears to be dormant, but as I’m writing this sentence, their Twitter account is RTing the likes of Coulter and Sarah Palin.

What major imprint isn’t tainted by disreputable sister imprints, though? And more importantly, for readers who aren’t on extreme ends of the political spectrum, which publishers can they trust to put principles before profits?

WHAT’S GOOD, PUBLISHING?

Regardless of which side of the political divide you fall on, there’s no question that there’s currently an imbalance in the Force and mainstream media is facing a crisis of our own creation. We have to second guess everything we read now thanks to years of rewarding being first over being factual. We helped disrupt the media landscape and now we’re all living with the wreckage.

New media startups pop up left and right, promising to disrupt what’s already been thoroughly disrupted rather than taking on the real challenge of fixing what’s broken. They lean heavily into filter bubbles that have helped polarize the country and coarsen our national discourse because that’s the path of least resistance. Whether funded by venture capital, private equity, and/or advertising, they are more likely to accelerate our cultural descent, if they have any noteworthy impact at all.

Meanwhile, Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 have seen huge sales spikes in an apparent search for context to help make sense of what’s been naively deemed unimaginable and unPresidented.

For an allegedly liberal industry, publishers do a much better job of packaging and peddling the worst aspects of conservative punditry (along with celebrity memoirs and coloring books), while truth, history, and “diverse” perspectives and experiences are often dismissed as having limited commercial potential regardless of their cultural value. Many are sitting on a treasure trove of great content and access to a roster of truly creative people with timely and compelling insights and ideas that could literally change the world, but we’ll most likely just see a few anthologies cranked out to modest acclaim, with minimal marketing and zero cultural or financial impact.

Back in the relatively halcyon days of 2011, three of the then Big 6 publishers banded together to announce Bookish, an ill-conceived and ill-fated attempt to answer what turned out to be a very complicated question: “Which book should I read next?”

Imagine if half of the time, energy, and resources that went into that misguided failure were instead directed towards answering more specific questions about what’s really happening in the world today?

There’s a legitimate opportunity right now for a savvy publisher to take a bold stance and build a media platform that fills the ever-widening credibility gap in mainstream media; to curate and promote thoughtful, accessible voices that cut through the noise and provide much-needed context for current events. An opportunity to proactively resurface critical works from the past and make clear connections to the present; to leverage social media and “big data” to answer the hard questions with trustworthy, fact-based content. To sell good old fashioned books — front and backlist, print and electronic — instead of relying on fickle and intrusive advertising to sustain itself.

Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to be reminded that, in a world where “alternative facts” have become a real thing and people are literally turning to the dictionary for answers, words still matter. Publishers could matter again, too, but only if they have the courage to stand up and become the cultural tastemakers they already imagine themselves to be, aggressively investing in what’s good for America before it’s too late.

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