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Who deserves a book deal?

As former Trump officials and other polarizing figures seek book deals, publishing is caught in a generational battle that’s becoming an existential crisis.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to a crowd during an event sponsored by the Palmetto Family organization on April 29, 2021, in Columbia, South Carolina. Pence has signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Book publishing is having an existential crisis. The industry is finding itself saddled with deals by polarizing political figures, and no idea how to handle them. Which, in turn, gives rise to some fundamental questions about the purpose of publishing.

Is the industry’s purpose to make the widest array of viewpoints available to the largest audience possible? Is it to curate only the most truthful, accurate, and high-quality books to the public? Or is it to sell as many books as possible, and to try to stay out of the spotlight while doing so? Should a publisher ever care about any part of an author’s life besides their ability to write a book?

These questions are becoming more and more urgent within the private realms of publishing, amid debates over which authors deserve the enormous platform and resources that publishers can offer — and when it’s acceptable for publishers to decide to take those resources away.

Within the media watering hole of Twitter, it can look as though these concerns are being imposed from the outside: by progressive authors calling on their publishers to abstain from signing right-wing writers; by angry YA fans and Goodreads readers; by petitions and boycotts and special interest groups. But the conversation about who deserves a publishing deal is also happening within the glass-and-steel walls of the industry itself.

Insiders describe recurring generational battles, with young and junior staffers flagging the work of certain authors as potential publicity risks, and then struggling to get older and more conservative executives to take their worries seriously. “It’s like a relationship you really want to work,” says one young staffer, “but your partner is not making it easy for you.”

This April, Simon & Schuster announced two new book deals that left its staff polarized and furious: one with former Vice President Mike Pence, and one with former Trump administration official Kellyanne Conway. More than 200 staffers at Simon & Schuster signed a petition calling on the company to cancel the deals. (As in literally cancel their contracts — though this does overlap with the idea of “cancel culture.”) More than 3,500 figures outside the company added their support, including two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

That very public show of internal outrage from Simon & Schuster staffers was only the latest iteration of this larger generational fight, one that usually takes place behind closed doors. In 2019, Penguin Random House imprint Dutton quietly dropped its author Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the 1989 prosecution of the Exonerated Five, in the wake of a public outcry following the Ava DuVernay series When They See Us. Dutton never made so much as a public statement about its decision to part ways with Fairstein, but former Dutton employees described to Vox an internal dynamic similar to the one playing out publicly at Simon & Schuster. At Dutton, junior staffers repeatedly sounded the alarm over an author they considered a liability for the imprint, a former employee says, only to have their concerns brushed aside by senior executives invested in maintaining the status quo, right up until the status quo became untenable.

American culture is changing rapidly right now, and publishing is changing along with it. The stories of Mike Pence’s book deal and Linda Fairstein’s contract speak to the struggle in which publishing is enmeshed: determining what it stands for and what its purpose is.

“As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints”: A year of strife in publishing

The past year of publishing has been one of repeat controversies, protests, and cancellations — most of them taking place in public.

2020 began with the literary advocacy group Dignidad Literaria organizing against the novel American Dirt, which critics argued fetishized the suffering of Mexican migrants. (Publisher Macmillan had celebrated its launch with barbed wire centerpieces.) That March, journalist Ronan Farrow wrote an open letter against his publisher Hachette for choosing to publish Woody Allen’s memoir, despite accusations from Ronan’s sister Dylan that Woody had molested her when she was a child. (Allen continues to deny all allegations of molestation; Hachette eventually dropped Allen’s book following a staff walkout, and it went to another publisher.) In July, the author L.L. McKinney launched the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe to draw attention to the disparity between the way many publishers pay white authors and the way they pay authors of color. Meanwhile, publishers spent the summer of protests issuing statements avowing their support for Black Lives Matter.

The protests didn’t stop there. In April, Blake Bailey, author of a splashy new Philip Roth biography, was accused of rape by two women, including one of his former students. (Bailey has denied all allegations.) Bailey’s publisher W.W. Norton announced first that it would stop printing and promoting his book, and then that it would take the book entirely out of print.

But Bailey’s book wasn’t the first to see its publisher withdrawing support this year. The industry kicked off 2021 with two high-profile cancellations. Both came from Simon & Schuster, one of the “Big Five” publishing houses whose imprints together publish the majority of trade print books in the US.

In January, in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, the company announced it was dropping plans to publish a book by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO). “We did not come to this decision lightly,” it said in a statement. “As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”

Soon, Simon & Schuster would distance itself from another title. On April 15, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Jonathan Mattingly, one of the police officers who fired shots at Breonna Taylor, would be publishing a book about the case through Post Hill Press, an independent publisher distributed by Simon & Schuster. The same day, Simon & Schuster announced it would not be distributing Mattingly’s book.

But even as Simon & Schuster abandoned Mattingly’s book, it was about to announce two more book deals that would be nearly as controversial: one with Pence, and one with Conway.

And these new acquisitions would prompt outrage not only from outside the company but also from its staffers.

“Your decision-making is only guided by profit right now”: The fight over Mike Pence’s book deal

On April 7, Simon & Schuster announced that it had reached a two-book deal with Mike Pence and that it planned to publish his autobiography in 2023 through the company’s flagship imprint, also called Simon & Schuster. (For more on the difference between Simon & Schuster the company and Simon & Schuster the imprint, see here.)

Within days, angry staffers began circulating a petition urging Simon & Schuster management to cancel the Pence deal, to commit to refusing to sign any other members of the Trump administration, and to end all association with Mattingly’s publisher, Post Hill Books. When they delivered the petition to CEO Jonathan Karp on April 26, they had signatures from about 14 percent of the company.

“Editors exercise subjective judgement every day at S&S—we put our trust in them,” a group of organized employees wrote in a cover email delivering the petition to management. “When S&S chose to sign Mike Pence, we broke the public’s trust in our editorial process, and blatantly contradicted previous public claims in support of Black and other lives made vulnerable by structural oppression.”

Karp wrote a letter in response maintaining that Pence’s book deal would go forward. “We come to work each day to publish, not cancel,” he wrote, “which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives.”

The next day, the New York Times reported that Simon & Schuster’s conservative imprint Threshold had signed a book deal with former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. (Threshold became briefly infamous in 2016 for signing and then canceling a book deal with the alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos.)

To the Simon & Schuster staff members who signed the petition, the central issue was one of hypocrisy and normalization. No one is owed a book deal, and editors turn down prospective authors every day without anyone crying censorship. So why, they asked, was Simon & Schuster offering deals to Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence, after spending the previous summer putting out statements declaring its support for Black Lives Matter? Why, they asked, was it willing to say that Josh Hawley’s support of the Capitol rioters was a bridge too far, but not the Trump administration’s failure to protect Americans during the pandemic?

“There are innumerable ways in which Mike Pence’s anti-LGBTQ, racist, anti-immigrant agenda has and will continue to pose a threat to many people, including those who work for your company,” the group said in another email on May 4. “So, our question remains: Why was the distribution deal with Jonathan Mattingly and the book deals with Josh Hawley and Milo Yiannopoulos canceled, but not Pence’s deal? If a standard of truth in publishing is important, how will that possibly be executed in a project with Kellyanne Conway, who proudly coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’?”

“It’s just like, stop inserting these phony statements about morals and political and ethical commitments,” one staffer commented to Vox, rhetorically addressing Simon & Schuster management. This source argues that Simon & Schuster’s statements aren’t really based in a true moral code: “They’re bullshit. That’s branding that you’re trying to tack on. It’s inconsistent with your decision-making. Your decision-making is only guided by profit right now.”

(Vox spoke to a former Dutton employee and two current Simon & Schuster employees for this story, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.)

“Why are we giving him so much money?” said another employee to Vox, referring to reports suggesting that Pence’s advance could be worth around $3 million to $4 million. “Who’s going to buy his book? No one on either side of the aisle likes him. So why can we not give him a smaller advance? Why can’t you distribute the rest of it among your employees, or maybe give bigger advances to BIPOC authors?” (Publishing assistants are notoriously underpaid, in one of the factors leading to the monolithic whiteness of the industry, and Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color are consistently given smaller advances than white authors.)

Karp and the rest of Simon & Schuster have made no additional statements about the decision to publish either Pence or Conway, and Simon & Schuster declined to comment for this article. Some staffers have suggested to Vox that the internal discontent will soon die down, with one employee saying, “I think we’re mostly just grumbling at this point.” But an organizer of the protest said, “We are definitely not intending to let this go.”

“It felt like, ‘Sit down, shut up, we’re going to continue publishing her books’”: An internal struggle over who should be published

The public Simon & Schuster battle has plenty of hushed-up precursors. One of them took place at Dutton, the Penguin Random House imprint, in 2019, as realization gradually dawned on young staffers that their franchise author Linda Fairstein wasn’t just a mystery novelist but had also been the lead prosecutor on an infamous criminal case. This skirmish would follow the same pattern that Simon & Schuster is repeating now: a younger and more progressive bloc of junior staffers protesting the decision to publish a polarizing right-wing figure, while senior executives sternly maintain that the decision cannot be changed.

“The team at Dutton is proactive about listening to each other,” Dutton told Vox in a statement. “We are open to hearing our employees’ feedback and answering questions, regardless of whether we all agree on a specific issue. We are committed to publishing a wide range of voices with integrity and purpose.”

Dutton originally contracted Linda Fairstein to write a series of thrillers in 2009. By that point, Fairstein’s second career as a bestselling crime novelist was well established. Slightly less well known, however, was the fact that before she transitioned to writing fiction, Fairstein had overseen the prosecution of the five teenagers who would eventually be known as the Exonerated Five.

All five boys were coerced into confessing to the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park, and were eventually convicted on the grounds of their coerced confessions. Their convictions would later be overturned. The boys ranged in age from 14 to 16 at the time of their arrest, and none of them were white. Each of them served a sentence ranging from 6 to 12 years. Even after their convictions were overturned, Fairstein has maintained that the boys were “not totally innocent.”

According to a former Dutton staffer, few of those who worked on the imprint fully understood who Fairstein was until 2018. That year, the city of New York released thousands of pages of internal documents related to the Central Park jogger case, and in a New York Times article about the release, Fairstein stood by the work of her office.

That’s when a number of junior staffers say they went to their managers with concerns about continuing to work with Fairstein. According to one former employee, and confirmed by two other sources familiar with the matter, Dutton publisher Christine Ball responded by pointing out that Fairstein’s involvement with the Exonerated Five had long been public knowledge, including a mention on her Wikipedia page. Nothing had changed, Ball said. So why bring it up now?

As Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson has reported, Fairstein’s downfall seemed to happen in slow motion, and you can almost track America’s changing attitudes toward race and the police through its attitude toward Fairstein. She had spent years drawing on her background as a prosecutor as an asset, something that gave her fiction credibility. But by 2018, something had shifted in the culture; Fairstein’s past had become a liability.

It would take a while for publishing to figure that out.

Over the course of 2018 and 2019, Fairstein lost her professional credibility. Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us premiered, ushering in a new era of discussion about the Central Park jogger case and presenting Fairstein as a villain. Fairstein was given a prestigious award, only to see it rescinded. Glamour apologized for having once made her its 1993 Woman of the Year. #CancelLindaFairstein trended across social media. The Penguin Random House customer service lines became jammed with people calling for Dutton to terminate Fairstein’s contract. Within Dutton, junior staffers began asking their managers why Fairstein was still a Dutton author.

According to sources, Christine Ball called a meeting on June 4, 2019, to discuss staff concerns over continuing to publish Fairstein.

“Who here has actually watched the interrogation tapes?” Ball asked her staff at the opening of the meeting. She then raised her hand to indicate that she had watched the tapes, and went on to argue that the tapes show that Fairstein had not personally been in the interrogation room with the Exonerated Five, and thus could not have coerced their confessions.

“The feeling in the room was that Ball had prepared a ‘gotcha’ question,” says the former staffer. “The meeting had barely begun, and yet we knew what direction it was going to go and where Dutton’s loyalties lay.”

According to accounts from the former Dutton employee, and confirmed by two people with knowledge of the meeting, Ball acknowledged that she had heard concerns from junior staffers that Fairstein had become a liability, and from staffers of color that they were uncomfortable working at a company that continued to financially support Fairstein.

But Ball apparently suggested that these concerns were being driven by emotion more than anything else, and reminded everyone that When They See Us was a work of fiction. (The series was marketed as a dramatization of a true story, along the lines of The People v. O.J. Simpson.) Her hands were tied, she added: Fairstein had just signed a two-book contract. Moreover, she apparently asked, did Dutton really want to be responsible for ruining this woman’s career?

“Linda Fairstein is a pretty terrible person, with what she did and the fact that everyone knew she did it. And the fact that there’s just this silent complicity with what she did for years?” says a former Dutton staffer. “Dutton published her for a decade, book after book, every year a new book coming out, her contract being renewed. Then saying, ‘Well, it was on her Wikipedia page,’ made it feel like we were all complicit. Like, ‘Well, we all knew, it was public knowledge.” It felt, the former staffer says, as though they were all being told, “Sit down, shut up, we’re going to continue publishing her books.’”

On June 7, 2019, Dutton held a second staff meeting. This time, according to sources, Ball tersely announced that Dutton would be canceling Fairstein’s contract, citing her declining sales. Dutton president Ivan Held stated multiple times that dropping Fairstein was purely a business decision. According to the former employee, and confirmed by sources with knowledge of the events, neither Ball nor Held mentioned racism at this meeting.

In January 2020, Christine Ball sent out an email in response to staff questions about why, despite making a series of new hires over the past year, Dutton hadn’t brought in any BIPOC staffers. According to multiple sources who saw the email, Ball said that she had interviewed a few candidates of color. None of them, she wrote, demonstrated a true love of reading.

“It felt like very coded language,” says the former employee.

In the summer of 2020, Dutton issued a series of statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, promising to stand against racism and violence against Black communities, and vowing to make sure its staff would keep growing more diverse.

“It felt very hypocritical,” says the former Dutton staffer. “There’s all these brilliant, amazing authors — BIPOC authors, LGBTQ authors, authors from marginalized backgrounds — who get hardly any advance. [But you tried] to go to bat for Linda Fairstein and throw money at her? It doesn’t feel like we’re making any great steps.”

The conflict at Dutton resolved itself quietly, out of the public eye. But the fixtures on each side are still working their way through publishing: an older and more conservative group of executives resistant to changing the way the industry has always operated, and a younger and more progressive group of junior staffers who feel committed to bringing the industry in line with contemporary ideals about racial justice.

As these fights continue to play out, whether publicly or in private, publishing will have to continue to search for its guiding ethos. Is this going to be an industry that keeps putting its money and resources behind powerful figures, since that’s the way business has always been done? Is it going to decide that certain kinds of speech are now unsuitable to publish, while publishing others is part of supporting “a diversity of voices and perspectives”? And when it makes its choice, whose speech will it decide to print?