The future of book publishing, censorship, and “cancel culture”

Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly. Photo by ABC News

Simon & Schuster will not distribute a book by Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, one of the policemen who shot Breonna Taylor. But crucially, this is not a publisher cancelling a book — Simon & Schuster is the book’s distributor. Let’s take a look at all the choke points in publishing and how their reaction to offensive content could change the business.

Remember, there is competition in every element of book publishing — and there are alway self-publishing options. Dan Kennedy recently wrote that self-published books make cancellation a non-issue. This is oversimplified: distribution matters, and self-publishers face challenges getting books into bookstores.

To analyze where books might be blocked, I examine each stage of how books get from the author’s brain into an object you can hold in your hand (or words on a virtual screen), and how organizations and people at each stage cancel distribution of offensive content.

Rightsholders can block content

Anyone can write a book. And no matter how outlandish or even offensive your perspective, you could probably find a ghost writer or editor to work with you, one who shares or at least tolerates your viewpoint.

But if your content is based on rights held by someone else, that rightsholder can stop you from publishing.

This is essentially what happened when the organization that controlled Dr. Seuss’s books decided to stop publishing six of his books that included racist imagery. Since it holds the rights, it makes the decision about what belongs in print.

Publishers are selective

Publishers demand a level of quality, accuracy, and salability in the works they publish. This process inherently screens out authors they don’t like or can’t support. There is nothing nefarious about this — publishers are gatekeepers who have a right to publish books based on any criteria they want.

But in several high-profile cases lately, publishers have cancelled books after signing publishing contracts. Notable cases include Simon & Schuster rejecting Milo Yiannopolous’ book that was a racist screed; Simon & Schuster cancelling Senator Josh Hawley’s book after his encouragement of the Capitol insurrection; and Hachette’s decision not to publish Woody Allen’s memoir. (Here’s one list of books that publishers cancelled.)

However, a book that got picked up by a publisher once is probably salable and can find another publisher. Regnery Publishing, which focuses on conservative books, will publish Josh Hawley’s book. Arcade Publishing published Woody Allen’s memoir. (Yiannopoulos self-published his book.)

Distributors blocking content is new

Mattingly’s book was going to be published by Post Hill Press, a small, traditional publisher that publishes many titles with conservative viewpoints. For example, Post Hill will be publishing Miranda Divine’s Laptop from Hell, the “unvarnished story” of the secrets on Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Post Hill books are distributed through a distribution agreement with Simon & Schuster. In this case, Simon & Schuster was acting, not as a publisher, but as a distributor.

Before Mattingly’s book, I had never heard of a distributor blocking content from a traditional publishing house, but now we have distributors deciding which books to cancel, not just publishers. Simon & Schuster also distributes books for conservative imprint Regnery Publishing, and I’m betting Regnery is looking the decision to block Mattingly’s book and wondering if it can continue to count on its distribution partner to distribute all of its books.

A publisher like Post Hill can always make a deal with a different distributor. Ingram, for example, is the largest supplier of books to bookstores of all kinds, and works with all sorts of publishers. And Ingram has made its reputation on being a universal distributor — basically, warehousing and distributing all books regardless of content. If Ingram got into the business of cancelling books based on what some people find offensive, that would be a seismic shift in the book business. There’s no indication that this is happening. But it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that it could.

I’m betting that some distributor will continue to carry these books. Just as there are always alternate publishers, there is likely to be an alternate distributor willing to carry books that other distributors are avoiding.

Retailers make choices, too

Obviously, a bricks-and-mortar retailer cannot carry every possible book. Bookstores exercise judgment, and can certainly decide not to carry books that they find offensive.

Amazon has exercised editorial judgment and refuses to carry certain categories of books. For example, Amazon won’t sell books that describe LGBTQ identities as mental illness. It won’t sell products adorned with confederate or Nazi symbols. It won’t sell most editions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. If it looks like hate speech, Amazon won’t sell it. (It’s still selling Milo Yiannopolous’s book, though.)

Of course, Amazon is not the only place to buy books. You can purchase Mein Kampf in its original 1939 edition from Thriftbooks.

What about self-publishing?

You can bypass the whole publishing apparatus by self-publishing. You can hire someone to lay out the pages for your book, then make it available for sale through print-on-demand. Anyone can do this.

If you self-publish, you are responsible for all the promotion of your book. And you need some way to get it to the public.

One way to do this is through IngramSpark, which makes books available to bookstores as well as Amazon. Many self-publishing services, like Gatekeeper Press, work through IngramSpark.

But IngramSpark won’t publish everything. It recently said it would no longer publish “trash titles” — books that are mostly blank, deceptive books, or books written by AI.

The other self-publishing option is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, which, despite its name, publishes print-on-demand books as well as ebooks. Such books are carried only on Amazon, and are of course subject to Amazon’s content rules.

Offensive books and authors can still publish

What does this mean for books that offend some people?

They won’t have access to the all possible publishers, distributors, or bookstores. As a result, they might not get the best possible deal, and might not be visible everywhere people would normally go to buy books.

All distribution channels have the right to determine what they carry. There is no such thing as the right to be on Amazon, right to be published by Random House, or right to be distributed by Ingram.

As you can see from this analysis, there is always a way to get such books to people, because of competition. We don’t license book publishing and printing in America the way they do in China.

But if your content is offensive enough, you may find the path to publication isn’t easy. And if distributors like Simon & Schuster continue to become gatekeepers for content to which they object, that path will become even more challenging.

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