There is a debate raging in the publishing world about what to do about the preponderance of far-right political writing being churned out in the past two years, with the rise of Trumpism and far-right candidates across Europe gaining popularity. The media landscape has never been more divided than it is today, and with so many people absorbing content only from sources which confirm their preconceived notions and biases, it is hard for publishing houses to avoid becoming involved in politically-fraught situations.
The highest profile case so far this year is that of publishing house Simon and Schuster, which has given a contract to far-right author and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos for his forthcoming book, which promises to be his most controversial and vitriolic to date. The reaction to this announcement has been an utter uproar from the left and indeed most of the center over what they see as the publisher’s giving voice to what many see as hate speech. Indeed, almost in anticipation of the reaction, the publishing house immediately released a public statement which claimed that the fact that they were publishing the book in no way signaled their approval of its views and words. This did nothing to assuage dissenters.
It is fairly simple to discern the motivation for a publishing house like Simon and Schuster to publish a far-right book like Yiannopoulos’s. Conservative and right-wing books by figures from politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin to media talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are incredibly popular among American readers. They regularly reach the New York Times Bestseller lists, and remain stalwart paperback sellers long after their publishing.
It is a well-established fact that right-wing memoirs and political manifestos are much better for sales than their liberal counterparts. Liberals are by nature interested in a more diverse range of viewpoints and perspective than those on the right, who are more apt to buy 6 books from the same author than 6 books by 6 different authors. This promotes a very specific approach to publishing and book deal decisions, as it concentrates attention among the loudest and most provocative authors who have the biggest popular draw.
So, in deciding to publish this admittedly far-right book, Simon and Schuster is merely following the trend of the American Right to a more xenophobic, nationalist, and populist territory. There is also something to be said for the shock factor of the decision. For every reader who picks up a copy because he or she agrees with its central tenets, one other reader will pick it up to see what all the furor is about. No publicity is bad publicity, as the saying goes.
Beyond simple economics, though, there is a fraught issue at the heart of this: do publishing houses have a responsibility to filter out extremist views in their printed stock, or do they have a duty to uphold the freedom of speech outlined in the constitution no matter the effect certain words may have in vulnerable communities? It is something we are all wrestling with as an industry. Where is the line between a provocative view, and an expression that would be considered hate speech?
Many would argue that because the content of some far-right books offends people in minority or LGBTQ communities, it should not be published. Others would say that it is not the duty of the publisher to censor. Still others would argue that while differing viewpoints should be freely expressed, the publishing world should have some role in combating misinformation, which is rampant in fringe political writing of all stripes. Regardless of an individual publisher’s opinion, this is a whole web of concerns with which we as an industry must grapple in the coming years.
Join the discussion in the forum to see what your fellow publishers are saying, and chime in with your thoughts!
It’s not news to anyone in publishing that printed media is less and less of a revenue stream with every passing year. The internet has made information more easily accessible to people, but it has also made them less inclined to treat it as a commodity or service that must be paid for, which of course it always has been. The same has been true of printed books, with the rise of ebooks with freely available copies of literature available for download. So, in order to survive in a rapidly-evolving digital media landscape, traditional publishing institution are changing in any number of ways.
While newspapers used to employ staffs in a newsroom, with cubicle desks and office chairs, it is more common now for those same newspapers to hire freelance writers who more often than not send in copy from their couch at home than from inside headquarters. Likewise, it is now more unusual for someone to purchase a newspaper than to read it online.
For a while, advertising revenue seemed like the most promising source of income for publishers, especially online news outlets. It seems like a recent advent, but online advertisements really fill the same role as traditional print advertisements, either hugging content in the sidebars, or being interspersed between pieces of content. When you really think about it, is there any difference between a 5-second pop-up ad and a full-page spread for the latest Dior line in the New York Times Fashion section?
In some ways, the popular aversion to digital advertisements is a more interesting dynamic than digital advertisement in the first place. For years, we have become perfectly accustomed to seeing advertisers take up spreads in our favorite magazines and newspapers, and yet there is a particular indignation which arises when readers are asked to put up with advertisements in the midst of their online consumption.
However, the revenue stream from advertisements has proved to be extremely fickle. Online advertisements are dominated by Google and Facebook, and most people are not visiting the actual news sites which display advertisements, instead viewing content on social media networks or in news apps on smartphones. Ad-blockers on internet browsers also play a role in deactivating advertisement content on news websites, which is why many sites now request that visitors disable their ad-blockers, or pay for ad-free experiences.
So, in the latest development, many prominent newspapers are now taking an approach that has been common for several years among smaller publications: limiting content to non-subscribers. The New York Times, for instance, offers 10 full articles per month to non-subscribers, and then requires subscription to continue reading. If users truly want to enjoy the content, they will have to pay for it. Of course, getting consumers to pay for your content means convincing them of its importance to their lives.
Diversified content is one way publishers are trying to demonstrate their worth. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian are now publishing video content online to compete with cable news sources for clicks. Media outlets are making full use of social media platforms to insert themselves between users and the catered selection of content offered by Google or Facebook. By making themselves more omnipresent, publishers hope to demonstrate how integral a part of consumers’ lives they can be, even if they are not being read around the breakfast table every morning.