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Why Milo Yiannopoulos’s canceled book deal isn’t a moral win for conservative publishing

Milo Yiannopoulos Holds Press Conference To Discuss Controversy Over Statements Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Earlier this week, Simon & Schuster announced the cancellation of its contract with Milo Yiannopoulos, the infamous internet troll and proud darling of the white supremacists of the self-described alt-right. The announcement followed months of controversy and outrage surrounding nearly anything having to do with Yiannopoulos. It also came on the heels of Yiannopoulos being disinvited from speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, in response to the resurfacing of an old video in which Yiannopoulos defended pedophilia.

Simon & Schuster announced the cancellation quietly, in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, and it is keeping its editorializing to an absolute minimum. When Vox emailed the publisher to request a comment, a spokesperson repeated word for word the statement printed in Publishers Weekly: “After careful consideration, Simon & Schuster and its Threshold Editions imprint have cancelled publication of Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos.”

But just this December, when Simon & Schuster announced that it had acquired Yiannopoulos’s book, it did so with a mild flourish. There was a Hollywood Reporter article, and the trade publication Publisher’s Lunch listed Yiannopoulos at the top of the nonfiction section in its daily list of book deals.

It wasn’t the big, splashy rollout that, say, beloved children’s author Philip Pullman received last week when he revealed that he’s writing a follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy. It was instead an announcement with the gentlest and most subdued of jazz hands, as if to say: Observe, we are about to publish a book by a political pundit of minor notoriety. Which, for acquiring imprint Threshold Books — Simon & Schuster’s designated home for conservative authors and half the pundits of Fox News — is more or less par for the course.

But Milo Yiannopoulos is not mildly notorious. He is infamous for his bigotry and for leading vicious harassment campaigns — and the fact that Threshold Books eventually canceled his contract after he said he was okay with pedophilia does not change the fact that the publisher seemed to be okay with everything else he represented. It appears Threshold was perfectly willing, and even eager, to capitalize on the career Yiannopoulos built through hatred and bigotry, right up until the bigotry started to look like it wouldn’t be profitable.

Threshold Books tried to treat Yiannopoulos like any other vaguely famous pundit. That didn’t work out very well.

In the days after its December announcement, Threshold Books gave every indication that it planned to treat Yiannopoulos like any other slightly famous author, albeit one whose bubble might well be on the verge of bursting. The imprint had him on what appeared to be an accelerated publication schedule, with his book initially slated to come out this March, despite the fact that Yiannopoulos would later claim, in early February, that he had not yet submitted his final manuscript.

If Yiannopoulos is to be believed, the timeline suggests that Threshold was apparently planning to edit, copy edit, lay out, print, bind, and distribute his book in the span of about a month. (It usually takes at least nine months to shepherd a manuscript from submission through publication.) Often, when a publisher rushes a book, it’s trying to capitalize on someone’s 15 minutes of fame: Better to spend the extra money to get the book out fast, the thinking goes, than risk losing the entire sales base by publishing a year after everyone’s already forgotten about this guy.

Everything about the announcement made it seem as though Threshold believed Yiannopoulos was like any other author in its catalog, someone whose book a conservative audience could be counted on to buy — assuming it could get the book out before a conservative audience forgot who Yiannopoulos was. Certainly nothing about the announcement qualified as awareness that the deal was about to face an enormous swell of outrage and a boycott. But that’s exactly what happened.

Milo Yiannopoulos is a professional internet troll known for harassment and bigotry

Shortly after Threshold’s deal with Yiannopoulos was announced, prominent liberal intellectuals announced that they would be boycotting Simon & Schuster. The Chicago Review of Books announced that it would not review any Simon & Schuster books in 2017. Literary superstar Roxane Gay pulled her upcoming book from Simon & Schuster’s list.

And that’s because Yiannopoulos is not a garden-variety conservative author. He is a professional troll who weaponized Twitter as a tool for (racist, sexist, transphobic) harassment so effectively that Twitter was forced to permanently ban him. On his ongoing college speaking tour, he has doxed trans students, putting their lives in danger. He routinely makes hyperbolically offensive statements like “feminism is cancer,” designed to rile up liberals, and then when liberals get angry, he winks and says he didn’t really mean it: He was just being provocative.

But none of that — not Yiannopoulos’s history of harassment and bigotry, not the widespread outcry and the loss of major authors — was enough for Threshold Books to think twice about acquiring his book in the first place, let alone cancel his contract. It took the resurfacing of a video in which Yiannopoulos explicitly defends pedophilia for Threshold to pull the plug.

The cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s book deal suggests a dangerous acceptance of bigotry from conservative thinkers

For many on the left, including writers like Gay, the timing of Threshold’s decision demonstrates that the publisher doesn’t really care about Yiannopoulos’s right to free speech so much as it liked what he was saying before he got to the part about pedophiles — and, more importantly, that it believed its customers would like what he was saying. Threshold thought it could make money from his book, and now it doesn’t think it will. Writes Gay:

When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies. They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies. They were fine with his transphobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. They were fine with how he encourages his followers to harass women and people of color and transgender people online. Let me assure you, as someone who endured a bit of that harassment, it is breathtaking in its scope, intensity, and cruelty but hey, we must protect the freedom of speech.

In other words, Threshold has sent a clear message: Explicit bigotry, harassment, and hatred are tolerable among conservative thinkers. Defense of child molestation is where we draw the line in the sand.

Conservative book publishing is still mired in dog-whistle punditry

Yiannopoulos’s canceled contract is a minor victory for the left, but it does not mean conservative book publishing is going to enter a new golden age of sober-minded thought. Book publishing has already found that it can make obscene amounts of money on dog-whistle racism and fearmongering, and it learned as much by doing the same kind of cynical calculations that first led it to strike a book deal with Yiannopoulos: This person is getting attention, this person has an audience, this person is someone who will effectively sell books. It’s not a decision motivated by commitment to free speech or to any particular ideology. It’s a decision motivated by profit margins.

What conservative book publishing has learned from the Milo Yiannopoulos controversy is that it is unlikely to make significant amounts of money publishing a provocateur who defends pedophilia, and it will definitely lose prestige and cultural capital. But publishers will continue to make money on authors who are just a little more guarded than Yiannopoulos in their bigotry, and they will likely continue to push the envelope on how guarded that bigotry has to be, as long as they think they can make money by doing so.

Meanwhile, Yiannopoulos is planning to seek another publisher for Dangerous and has said he’ll donate 10 percent of the eventual royalties to child abuse charities. (The last time he announced he’d be making a major charitable donation — to white men — it never panned out.)

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says.

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