Penguin Random House is the latest publisher to feel the burn from a marquee author’s reputational flame-out

American Crisis is not just the title of a book – a political memoir/leadership title by a once lauded, now tarnished figure. It’s also an allusion to the state of affairs facing publishers more and more frequently of late. The book, the full title of which is American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, is by outgoing New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced his resignation on Tuesday following a period of cascading scandals involving alleged sexual harassment and accusations that his administration fudged numbers of deaths in long-term care homes during the pandemic.

Cuomo’s book, which sold to Penguin Random House imprint Crown, is reputed to have been worth $5.1 million USD to the governor. Even that hefty sum now dwarfs the hit – both reputational and financial – that PRH stands to take for continuing to sell the title following a damning report from New York attorney general Letitia Jones detailing the extent of Cuomo’s alleged bad behaviour.

One agent, quoted in The New York Times, calls the situation “a publisher’s worst nightmare.” The NYT goes on to state that the book has caused “financial and ethical headaches” for its publisher ever since its appearance in hardcover last October.

Sales were surprisingly weak for a title that Crown had invested in heavily, with fewer than 50,000 hardcover copies sold, according to NPD BookScan. Promoting the book became challenging, as Mr. Cuomo was mired in investigations that battered his public image, including allegations of sexual harassment from several women. In March, Crown made an attempt to distance itself from the governor, saying that it had cancelled plans for a paperback version and would no longer promote the book.

Cuomo is apparently still owed $2 million out of his advance; in the wake of his resignation, questions now exist about how or even if he will recoup this money.

The dilemma of publishers signing an author in the public eye – especially if that author is a white male – who later becomes embroiled in scandal or runs afoul of online criticism is becoming a pressing issue. In January, Simon & Schuster cancelled a contracted work with Missouri senator Josh Hawley, after the rookie politician was photographed encouraging assembled protesters who went on to storm the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was in the process of certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The book was eventually picked up by conservative publisher Regnery.

Hawley’s original publisher, S&S, also faced an in-house backlash after announcing a seven-figure deal for two books by former vice president Mike Pence. Pence’s memoir, along with a book by former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, are still scheduled to go ahead as planned. S&S will not, however, distribute a book by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisiana police officers who discharged rounds in the shooting that killed Breonna Taylor. (S&S, it should be noted, also distributes Regnery.)

While S&S continues to draw lines in what appear to be rapidly shifting sands, they are by no means the only publisher to run afoul of public opprobrium over the authors they choose to sign. W.W. Norton was forced to withdraw Blake Bailey’s highly anticipated biography of Philip Roth only weeks after its publication when it was revealed that the author had allegedly groomed (and, according to one accuser, raped) former students in his high-school English classes. Hachette pulled a planned volume of autobiography by Woody Allen after complaints from staff and from Ronan Farrow, the brother of Dylan Farrow, who accuses Allen of sexually assaulting her as a child. Ronan Farrow is also, not incidentally, a high-profile activist in the #MeToo movement, having helped break the Harvey Weinstein story for The New Yorker. He writes about that experience in his nonfiction book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, also published by Hachette.

As it happens, neither Bailey nor Allen were long in the wilderness: Skyhorse Publishing came to the rescue and published both.

Publishers wanting to give themselves cover from potential fallout should their marquee authors’ reputations suddenly melt down are increasingly relying on morals clauses in their contracts. In the NYT, Elizabeth A. Harris writes, “Widely detested by agents and authors, these clauses have become commonplace in mainstream publishing over the last few years. The clauses are rarely used to sever a relationship, but at a time when an online posting can wreak havoc on a writer’s reputation, most major publishing houses have come to insist upon them.” Harris’s article appeared in February; as of August, it may appear that these clauses are being invoked with more and more frequency, leading some to levy accusations of censorship. Others suggest that these clauses have a chilling effect on authors’ willingness to advance contrarian or controversial positions.

Notwithstanding the validity of many of these arguments, it appears as though these morals clauses are here to stay, at least in the current political environment. It does change the calculus for publishers and their bottom lines. In the not-too-distant past, many publishers relished controversy around authors and their books because controversy sold copies. In today’s polarized environment, controversy not only doesn’t sell with the public (Cuomo’s book apparently moved 71 copies for the final week of July – before he stepped down), it can also result in staff revolt and other bad publicity. Perhaps not a publisher’s worst nightmare, but far from an ideal state of affairs.

Penguin Random House is the latest publisher to feel the burn from a marquee author’s reputational flame-out