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Uproar over Mike Pence's memoir highlights growing conflicts in publishing, experts say

The furor over the former vice president's book highlights the competing interests that weigh on top executives.
New York Street Scenes
The headquarters of Simon & Schuster on Avenue of the Americas in New York City.Robert Alexander / Getty Images file

When the publishing giant Simon & Schuster recently announced it would release former Vice President Mike Pence’s autobiography, the decision evidently infuriated rank-and-file workers, who reportedly submitted a petition demanding the company stop publishing authors associated with the Trump administration.

The petition, reportedly signed by 216 employees and thousands of outside supporters, asked the company to refrain from treating “the Trump administration as a ‘normal’ chapter in American history” and specifically accused Pence of championing policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory toward the LGBTQ+ community, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The furor at Simon & Schuster highlights the competing interests that weigh on top executives, according to publishing industry experts. The major mass-market publishers have traditionally sought to release titles they believe will be commercially successful with an array of readers, but increasingly they are being asked to consider their workers’ views.

“I think, in general, publishers want to publish what they think will make money,” said Mike Shatzkin, the founder and chief executive of Idea Logical, a publishing consulting firm. “They’re not in this to teach anybody a lesson or espouse particular principles. They recognize they make money off many different audiences with different political beliefs.”

Jane Friedman, a veteran of the publishing industry who produces a newsletter for authors about the business, said Simon & Schuster — one of the top publishers of political nonfiction books in the United States — has found success with various titles released through a conservative imprint, Threshold Editions, such as the Fox News host Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die.”

However, publishing firms are now confronted with ground-level employees who are increasingly vocal in their dissent, apparently unafraid to criticize management over decisions they consider offensive.

In recent years, employees at various media enterprises — including some news companies — have felt similarly emboldened against a backdrop of social media activism, thriving social justice movements, and renewed attention on corporate accountability.

Friedman said the outcry was a relatively new phenomenon, unlike anything she observed when she started working at a Midwestern publishing company in the late 1990s.

She said the uproar around the release of the film director Woody Allen’s autobiography “Apropos of Nothing” last March was one sign of cultural change. In that case, employees of the Hachette Book Group — the company that originally acquired the book — staged a walkout in protest. (Hachette canceled the publication and a different company, Arcade Publishing, picked up the rights.)

Shatzkin said it used to be “routine” for publishing houses to release books written by political figures from across the American ideological spectrum, and that many of those titles — including memoirs and nonfiction titles written by members of former President George W. Bush’s administration, for example — were greeted with comparatively little resistance.

And yet for millions of Americans, especially left-leaning readers who voted for Joe Biden or center-right Republicans who are hostile to Donald Trump, the previous administration represented a unique and unprecedented threat to American values.

Pence’s office declined to comment on the petition as reported by the Journal. Simon & Schuster’s corporate communications department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.

In a news release at the time Pence’s book was announced, Simon & Schuster’s publisher said the former vice president would deliver “the definitive book on one of the most consequential presidencies in American history.”

Pence’s memoir will soon be joined by other books that might provoke similar public debate, potentially opening up yet another front in the country’s bitter partisan clashes over issues such as free speech, censorship and the increasingly amorphous concept of “cancel culture.”

William Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, sold a book about his work at the Department of Justice, Politico reported. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whom Trump appointed to the bench after the death of the liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is writing a book for Sentinel, a conservative imprint within the Penguin Group.

Simon & Schuster, for its part, has repeatedly found itself at the center of cultural firestorms over the last four years.

In 2017, the company nixed its book deal with the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos amid outrage over comments he had made about pedophilia. In January, the company announced it would shelve a book by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., one of two GOP senators who led an effort to object to the certification of Biden’s victory in the Electoral College on the day of the U.S. Capitol riot.

In response, Hawley excoriated the “woke mob” at Simon & Schuster and vowed to “fight this cancel culture with everything I have.”

In the latest flashpoint, the company said it would not distribute a book written by a Louisville police officer involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.

The book is being published by Post Hill Press, a Tennessee-based company that has a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster and focuses on “current events, Christian and conservative political books." The petition from Simon & Schuster employees specifically calls on the company to end its relationship with Post Hill Press, the Journal reported.

However, Simon & Schuster has also been behind a recent wave of bestselling books whose authors are openly critical of Trump, including “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man,” by Mary J. Trump, a niece of the former president, and “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” by John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Trump.

Friedman, the author and editor of the publishing industry newsletter, said she believed it was unlikely Simon & Schuster would back away from releasing Pence’s book. Indeed, chief executive Jonathan Karp has reportedly rejected employees’ demands and said in an internal letter that the firm was committed to publishing “a diversity of voices and perspectives.”

It stands to reason that books written by former administration officials, Democratic and Republican alike, might be valuable to historians and political scientists of the future. The memoirs written by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for example, offered first-hand accounts of their decision-making that might inform scholars and journalists.

And yet Friedman said that particular reason for publishing a book by Pence or any other high-profile political figure might be a secondary consideration at best, perhaps a relevant concern if you were “speaking to someone very idealistic about what publishing does.”

“I don’t think that guides the large majority of what the big houses are publishing,” she said.