The publishing imprint Penguin Press has canceled its plans to publish a book from political journalist and Game Change author Mark Halperin, in the wake of multiple women accusing Halperin of sexually harassing them when he was a journalist at ABC News.
The book was set to focus on the 2016 election and be co-authored by Halperin and his Game Change collaborator John Heilemann. Just hours before Penguin Press announced its cancellation, HBO announced that it was canceling its plans to adapt the book into a miniseries, saying, "HBO has no tolerance for sexual harassment within the company or its productions."
The decision means that both Penguin Press and HBO are turning their backs on a potentially lucrative investment. Halperin and Heilemann’s 2010 book, Game Change — an account of the 2008 election and the mainstream political debut of Sarah Palin — sold nearly 500,000 hardcover copies by 2013; when HBO adapted it into a TV movie starring Julianne Moore, it won five Emmys and three Golden Globes. It was a gossipy, salacious read that avoided political wonkery in favor of broad narrative strokes — an approach that seems tailor-made for a book on the 2016 election — and it was a bona fide success.
And Halperin and Heilemann gave every indication of being in a perfect position to hit it big again with their new book, and to follow up on their reputation for being, as Mark Leibovich put it, “the picture of mass-market success in a category — political books — that never produces smashes outside of [Bob] Woodward.”
But then the world learned that Halperin had allegedly groped his co-workers and pressed his genitals against them without their consent (Halperin has admitted that he pursued relationships with co-workers but denies that he groped them), and his potentially extremely profitable book deal went away.
Penguin Press’s announcement comes hot on the heels of the news that the literary agency William Morris Endeavor has dropped Bill O’Reilly following a new report in the New York Times that O’Reilly settled a sexual harassment suit for $32 million shortly before Fox News renewed his contract.
O’Reilly is a perennial best-seller and undoubtedly a profitable client for WME to have on its roster. Last year, his book The Killing of the Rising Sun sold 146,000 copies in its first week alone — meaning that while it took major best-seller Game Change three years to reach 500,000 units sold, O’Reilly was a third of the way there in a single week.
It’s true that O’Reilly’s book sales fell after he lost his job at Fox News and all the attendant publicity that came with his ouster, so that his latest book, Killing England, sold only 65,000 copies in its first week — but that sales figure is only disappointing when set against O’Reilly’s traditional runaway successes. In the rest of the book world, in which you only need to sell 5,000 books in a week to be considered a best-seller, O’Reilly still sits comfortably in the top tier of sellers.
That an author as profitable as O’Reilly has lost his agent, and an author as profitable as Halperin has lost his book deal, suggests that we are entering a cultural moment in which the negative publicity that comes from doing business with a man accused of sexual harassment is becoming a true liability. It’s becoming such a liability, in fact, that some businesses are calculating that it outweighs the money these men are sure to bring in.
That calculation is far from being universally accepted. O’Reilly’s publisher, Henry Holt, currently shows no sign of dropping him. And there are plenty of men across multiple industries who have faced high-profile accusations of sexual assault and harassment and who continue to succeed and flourish; see, for instance, Casey Affleck, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Donald Trump.
But the downfall of Harvey Weinstein seems to have marked the beginnings of a change in the way our society thinks and talks about sexual harassment and assault. If the Halperin and O’Reilly cases are any indication, we’re beginning to consider those allegations to be so serious that a company might lose money over ignoring them, more money than even a major best-seller could make back — and that’s not a calculation that big publishers used to have to make.