Should Simon & Schuster, one of the nation’s largest publishers, cancel former Vice President Mike Pence? Among a hundred questions now facing the country, that one may rank ninety-ninth. But it does raise some intriguing issues.
On April 28, the front page of the New York Times reported that “over 200 employees” and 3,500 “outsiders” had signed a petition demanding that Simon & Schuster scrap a contract the publisher had signed for two books by Pence. Pence, in case you’ve forgotten, was the determinedly acquiescent accomplice of Donald Trump until finally refusing to drive the getaway car when Trump actually invaded the bank for the Big Robbery.
If the Republican party itself chose to cancel Mike Pence, as perhaps it already has, I would be delighted. But whether Simon & Schuster should do so is a more complicated question. The publisher’s own reply was an unqualified “no.” “We come to work each day to publish, not cancel,” declared Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster’s president. The “very core” of the company’s mission, he said, was “to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives.”
Ringing sentiments, but do they settle the matter? Four months earlier, on January 7, Simon & Schuster also presumably came to work “to publish, not cancel”; but on that day, immediately following the siege of the Capitol, the publisher announced that it was canceling the publication of a book by Sen. Josh Hawley. Prefacing its announcement then with the same commitment to publishing “a variety of voices,” the company declared that it also had “a larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat.”
As the author of two books published by Simon & Schuster, I may have a special interest in this quarrel, although no one invited me to sign the anti-Pence protest. (My last royalty check was for $40.13.) But actions by other publishers raise similar questions. W. W. Norton recently halted publication of a new biography of the late Philip Roth because of sexual-assault allegations against its author, Blake Bailey, who claims to be innocent.
Is this censorship? Legally, absolutely not. Private companies have no obligation to publish everything coming their way. While there has been a disturbing concentration of major publishers in recent years, there is nothing resembling the quasi-monopolies of internet giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which have come to match the government in their power. (This was, ironically, the topic of Sen. Hawley’s canceled book.) Indeed, many publishers have always made a point of their political or literary leanings in what they choose to publish. Some cultivate a distinct profile—a brand, if you will—as part of a market strategy; others do it out of a sense of calling. Profit is an unavoidable consideration, but not the only one. Even in the cases of strictly commercial publishers for whom profit rules, some degree of professional pride and social respectability tempers its reign.
So all publishing companies draw a line. But who, exactly, gets to draw it? Only top management, senior publishers, and chief editors? Why not, at least in some cases, a wide swath of employees?