On Cancelling Books

On Cancelling Books

This week’s column is taking us a little far afield, as it’s not about a children’s book. I thought it was a subject worth addressing, though, as it deals with a situation that bothered many in the kidlit community, including some prominent children’s authors who were stunned to hear that the company publishing their books was also publishing a controversial alt-right personality. And I know a lot of the readers of Bookcave have an interest in what goes on on the publishing side of things, so I thought my views as a book publisher might be valued.

Never before have so many been so thrilled to hear a book has been cancelled. Simon & Schuster announced on Monday that a new book from Milo Yiannopoulos, which was scheduled to be released this spring by their imprint, Threshold Editions, has been cancelled.

If Simon & Schuster was expecting to be patted on the back by the masses, they’re probably disappointed right now, because people are still stinging from the fact that the book was contracted to begin with, and that Simon & Schuster went on to announce they would stick with the book even after the initial outcry against it.

Is the criticism of Simon & Schuster fair? To a certain extent, it has to be, though perhaps overdone in a world that only thinks 140 characters at a time and can only view things as unchangably black or white.

It’s important to remember that the book was acquired by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and I think we can all agree that it’s tough to hold other imprints of Simon & Schuster to blame for this, as they are unlikely to have had any involvement or even knowledge of the acquisition. It’s also fair to say that authors published by Simon & Schuster are blameless, and that is why I refused to boycott those authors’ books, as others were doing.

As for the parent company … that’s a bit more complicated.

Threshold Editions is a very special little imprint. Their author list is a who’s who of people I’ve flashed my middle finger at when they’ve appeared on TV. Not only have they published books “written” by Donald Trump, but they’ve got children’s books from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. That’s a very special publishing mandate, if you ask me, as evidenced by my uncontrollable vomit as I clicked through their website.

Threshold almost certainly operates relatively autonomously. They deserve the blame for signing this book, and for their list. How involved is Simon & Schuster in the decision-making? I don’t know. Presumably the parent company signs off on projects, but how much discussion goes on, I can’t say. They could just rubber-stamp whatever Threshold wants to do, or they could vet every project. I’m not sure either of those gets Simon & Schuster off the hook; even if Threshold has complete free reign to do what they want, that’s something Simon & Schuster signed up for when the imprint was created. And it’s not like Threshold has been showing its poker face over the years.

So, when I suggest that the imprint may have been acting autonomously and that Simon & Schuster may have just signed off on projects based on the word of the imprint’s editors, that’s not much of a defence. I mean, if you’re not keeping a judgmental eye on what this imprint is putting out, you’re asking for trouble.

Moving beyond the initial acquisition, Simon & Schuster has faced criticism for not cancelling when there was a public outcry. In fact, they even put out a statement saying publication would proceed.

Is that criticism fair? It may come down to their hands being legally tied. There was a contract.

Publishing contracts generally have at least one out clause, but it would be unusual for that out clause to be enforceable simply because the publisher changed their mind. Something would have had to have changed to contractually allow the publisher to drop the book.

For Simon & Schuster, nothing had changed yet. No new information had come out about the author, there had just been criticism. Every bit of criticism that came out in those early stages of the outcry was a matter of public knowledge prior to the signing of the contract. For Simon & Schuster to cancel at that point, they would have had to argue that they didn’t do their research, which would have been a failing legal argument. They were stuck with either publishing the book or being sued for breach of contract. (And maybe they should have opted for the latter, to be honest.)

I suppose that brings up a question, then: why are they able to cancel the book now?

First, let’s look at some of the reasons a publisher might unilaterally cancel a book.

Sometimes the manuscript isn’t the manuscript the publisher had contracted. This happens more often with non-fiction than fiction, because it’s more common for non-fiction to be signed based on a proposal. And with non-fiction, the author can sometimes go a different direction as they put their book together. I was once involved with a book of historical non-fiction that was signed based on an established author’s pitch. As the author was working on the book, he made some comments to me verbally and in emails that raised red flags about potential land mines – I was concerned by some anti-Semitic and misogynist views he was expressing, and had reason to think those views were making their way into the book. I asked the editor assigned to the book to be on the lookout for any comments, subtle or otherwise. Well, it turned out the objectionable content was not subtle in the least, and that, in fact, anti-Semitic theory had become central to the book. The author then insisted this material could not be removed as he felt it was necessary. That made things easy: it was not the book we’d contracted, he was unwilling to change the content, therefore, the book was terminated.

Sometimes a book is signed from a finished manuscript, but the editor and author have discussions about possible changes. If the revisions are not in line with what was discussed, or are unsatisfactory, most publishing contracts allow the publisher to cancel the book. It rarely comes to this, though; usually things get resolved before the publisher moves to enforce such a clause. It’s not something publishers are generally comfortable with. For what it’s worth, I don’t recall such a termination ever happening at any company I’ve worked at in my twenty-plus-year career.

A book could also be cancelled if advance sales are so low as to be disastrous. Again, it’s rare that a publisher enforces a sales-based cancellation clause. When I’ve seen low-order books cancelled there has almost always been a mutual agreement to terminate the contract. The publisher has talked to the author about the situation and the author has agreed that it’s best to part ways. The author generally feels that if the publisher isn’t getting orders, the book might be better off if freed from the contract so it could be submitted elsewhere. While it’s not a happy outcome for anyone, it’s far better than a unilateral cancellation.

None of these things, as far as I know, played into Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel. None of these things needed to.

There was a change that Simon & Schuster could reasonably argue would materially affect the market for the book: video emerged of Yiannopoulos seemingly endorsing pedophilia in certain situations. If Simon & Schuster was looking for a way to cancel the book, they’d found it.

Of course, there is a caveat. The contract called for the author to receive a $250,000 advance. Often, when there is an out clause in a publishing contract, the author is entitled to keep any money already paid to them. In some cases, they might even be entitled to advance installments that have not yet been paid. So, those concerned that Yiannopoulos’s book contract was rewarding him for his intolerant views are likely to be unsatisfied by the new development, as he’s still getting paid.

The irony is that in addition to likely keeping the advance, Yiannopoulos will undoubtedly publish the book anyway, either by himself, or through another publisher. And unless the book contains hate speech (none of us have read it, so let’s not jump to conclusions), that is his right, and that is the publisher’s right. He got paid, he’ll get his book out; he’ll be the only person who is happy, in the end.

Everyone else has been scarred. Simon & Schuster has been scarred, but more importantly, completely innocent people have been scarred. There are authors who were stunned to find out they shared a publisher with someone whose views they consider vile. There were other imprints who were doing their own thing and were completely uninvolved in the decision-making and found themselves being boycotted. There were branch plants in other countries who were being impacted by American political writing. And there were countless employees who were not involved at the decision-making level who found themselves demonized because they had jobs. And, of course, there were readers, many of whom wondered if they were doing something wrong if they bought a book by an author they loved who happened to be published by the same company as an author they loathed.


Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

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