While mainstream publishers wage internal wars, a new upstart threatens to import online polarization into the print sphere

What we are seeing is the development of a “parallel infrastructure” in print publishing (Image: netivist.org)

Months after leaving the White House, Donald Trump is still causing problems. The latest sector to feel the pinch is publishing. The American industry, which is based largely in New York City, is grappling with the implications of a potential memoir by the 45th U.S. president (or his latest ghostwriter), something Trump says he is hard at work on. According to The Guardian, Trump claims, in typically hyperbolic language, to be working on “the book of all books.” He also claims to have had “substantial” offers from two “of the biggest and most prestigious” publishers, both of which he says he turned down.

This is – to put it mildly – highly improbable. As Politico’s Daniel Lippman and Meredith McGraw point out, Trump’s reputation with the Big Five New York City publishers was so abysmal prior to his assuming office in 2017 that none was willing to work with him. (The quote is attributed to an anonymous, “skeptical” industry insider.) Since leaving office, the calculus has changed. A book by the former president would no doubt sell, but it would be a nightmare to produce from a fact-checking perspective and would likely result in a palace revolt from rank-and-file staff members and other authors in whatever house dared to sign the deal.

How can we anticipate this last eventuality? Because it has already happened. When Simon & Schuster signed former Trump vice-president Mike Pence to a seven-figure, two-book deal, 216 S&S employees, along with 3,500 outsiders, signed a letter calling on the publisher to cancel the contract and to refrain from signing any further books by former members of the Trump administration. Jonathan Karp, S&S president, refused to accede to demands to cancel Pence’s contract. According to The New Republic, at a fractious in-house town hall, Karp suggested the issue boiled down to a conflict between social justice on one side and free speech on the other.

The publisher had already cancelled a contract with Missouri senator Josh Hawley over Hawley’s involvement in cheering on the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 (that book was subsequently picked up by Regnery, a conservative publisher that S&S distributes) and refused to distribute a book published by Post Hill Press and written by one of the police officers who fired shots at Breonna Taylor. They will, however, proceed with publication of a book by former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who is already an S&S author, having co-written a 2010 book called What Women Really Want.

Other figures in or adjacent to the former Trump administration who have signed book deals recently include former attorney general William Barr and newly minted Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett.

While many publishing employees skew liberal in their personal politics, the Big Five in the U.S. (soon to be the Big Four, once the merger between Penguin Random House and S&S is approved) have traditionally been politically agnostic, publishing across the political spectrum. In addition to its recent acquisitions, S&S had a string of bestsellers that were critical of Trump and his coterie, including Melania and Me by Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton, and Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump. As The New York Times points out, major multinationals were responsible for publishing books by virtually all the high-ranking members of the George W. Bush administration – including the 43rd president himself – to little if any controversy.

But the current environment is different. Calls from within the industry to cancel existing contracts and refrain from signing future deals with political figures deemed toxic or otherwise unsavoury have become routine, which Vox suggests has led to an “existential crisis” on the part of the industry:

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?

It’s unclear why it should not be possible to do at least the first and second of those things simultaneously, though there is undoubtedly a tension on the ground between those who believe a publisher has a moral responsibility to shield readers from damaging ideas and those who fear so-called cancel culture.

This tension, as much as anything, resulted in this week’s announcement that two U.S. publishing veterans, Louise Burke and Kate Hartson, have joined forces to create All Seasons Press, a company that will publish, in the co-founders’ words, “authors who are being attacked, bullied, banned from social media, and, in some cases, outright rejected by politically correct publishers.” They are not messing around, if their inaugural list is any indication. According to Publishers Lunch, the first three books All Seasons plans to bring out include “Rush on the Radio, by Rush Limbaugh show producer James Golden; The Chief’s Chief by Mark Meadows, former chief of staff for Donald Trump; and In Trump Time: My Journal of America’s Plague Year by Peter Navarro.”

It has long been the case that the Big Five have hived off their conservative publishing streams into dedicated imprints: Broadside Books at HarperCollins; Crown Publishing Group at Random House; Sentinel at Penguin; Threshold Editions (co-founded by Burke) at S&S. But All Seasons feels different. It is explicitly staking out ground as a publisher of last resort: the place where arch-conservative MAGA supporters can have a soft landing. It joins Regnery Publishing and Skyhorse Publishing as a place where authors who have been booted from more mainstream publishers, or were never able to secure a deal with one of them to begin with, can find a home. According to an email quoted in the NYT, Burke and Hartson started their new company because “[p]eople are being fed a false narrative about the history and current state of our great nation, and even being told what words to use and what to think.” This is an interesting tack for the publisher to take, given that at least one of their authors — Meadows — was on the front lines trying to assist his boss in overturning the results of a democratic election deemed by every reliable observer the most secure in American history.

What we are seeing with the arrival of All Seasons, as one PR flack put it in the same NYT piece, is the development of a “parallel infrastructure” catering to the MAGA crowd. It’s hard even to refer to them as conservative, since, as Jonny Diamond of LitHub points out, the denizens of Trumpland bear scant resemblance to classical conservatives such as Thomas Hobbes or Edmund Burke, or “even, gasp, William F. Buckley.” Diamond suggests that what All Seasons represents is “the Fox Newsification of publishing,” though the first three books on the roster appear to lean more toward Newsmax or the One America News Network than Fox.

Whatever you want to compare it to, it seems clear that the polarization that has infected cable television news and the internet is making inroads into the publishing sphere, and that can’t bode well for the intellectual commons as we have come to know it. The Big Five all have long-established reputations to protect; it would not be in their interest to publish a book that, for example, forwarded the argument that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump — a clear and demonstrable falsehood. A publisher catering exclusively to the MAGA crowd, the vast majority of whom already accept this thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory, would have fewer qualms about letting such a text out into the world.

So while mainstream publishers are busy fighting internal wars about what is and is not permissible to publish, a separate, nascent “parallel infrastructure” is appearing alongside it, one that, in the words of Diamond, threatens the possibility of any shared objective reality whatsoever. And that is equally, if not infinitely more, dangerous.

While mainstream publishers wage internal wars, a new upstart threatens to import online polarization into the print sphere