The book publishing industry last week learned the potency of pushback — that bad business decisions have consequences and that lower-level employees have more power than for which they’d previously been given credit.
On Friday afternoon Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of the publisher Hachette, announced that it would cancel filmmaker’s Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, mere days after announcing the deal. Employees at Hachette had been taken by surprise at the news that copies of the accused pedophile’s book were already in production by the time the announcement had been made, intimating that the publishing house knew that the decision was controversial and that some level of secrecy was required.
Allen’s estranged son, Ronan Farrow, was also caught off guard by the news of the impending publication of Allen’s memoir and Hachette’s lack of transparency. Farrow’s adopted sister Dylan has accused Allen of sexually assaulting her, and Farrow himself is the author of a recent book of reporting about sexual predators that had been a buzzy bestseller for Hachette. In Catch and Kill Farrow details the lengths to which powerful men have gone in order to deflect and deny allegations of sexual assault from less powerful women. “It’s wildly unprofessional in multiple obvious directions for Hachette to behave this way,” Farrow wrote on Twitter after announcing that he was breaking ties with the publisher. “But it also shows a lack of ethics and compassion for victims of sexual abuse, regardless of any personal connection or breach of trust here.”
Hey, just wanted to share my thoughts on some recent news: pic.twitter.com/ovPczgx8pB— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) March 4, 2020
So last Thursday afternoon dozens of employees from multiple imprints of the book publisher walked out in protest, saying in email away messages that “we stand in solidarity with Ronan Farrow, Dylan Farrow, and survivors of sexual assault.” It’s the first time in recent memory that employees of a corporate book publisher have taken collective action to express disapproval of management’s decisions. And it worked.
In canceling Allen’s book Hachette reverted publishing rights back to him, meaning that it is free and clear for him to publish his book elsewhere. Although the cancellation had many critics, including Stephen King — who tweeted that the cancellation of Allen’s book made him worry about “who gets muzzled next” — Allen has not been censored or denied the right to publish in any way. He has merely lost a deal that came with an advance on royalties and a corporate marketing machine to help him to sell his book. To be published by a major publisher is not a right covered by the First Amendment; it is and has always been a privilege.
In an industry that is built upon the backs of young women, it’s infuriating that publishers haven’t seemed to care about denigrating the very people who work on their big books.
More importantly, the cancellation of Allen’s book signals a sea change in a notoriously hierarchical industry in which management traditionally made decisions, and workers were expected to comply. Book publishers have long seen themselves as guardians of free speech, bastions of moral purity whose imperative it is to publish each and every side of an issue and all points of view. However, in recent years, as book publishing has consolidated into a business that now only has five major players known as the Big Five, the bottom line seems to hold more weight than ideological imperatives to not silence any voices. In an age in which bothsidesism in publishing has lended credence to climate-change deniers and conspiracy theorists, it’s time to admit that agendas have changed, especially when fact checking is not a built-in part of the editorial process. Books that may be commercially viable are not necessarily good simply because there is an audience for them (the French edition of Allen’s memoir will be published as planned). In an industry that is built upon the backs of young women, it’s infuriating that publishers haven’t seemed to care about denigrating the very people who work on their big books.
The people who walked out at Hachette ranged from the lowest level of employees — like editorial assistants and assistant publicists, many of whom make less than $40,000 per year and are expected to work overtime for no additional pay — to mid-level employees who make a bit more in salary but clearly aren’t in the industry for the money. Still, lower level employees want to hang on to their healthcare benefits, and so speaking out individually is too dangerous. Even walking out en masse was a huge risk, given how precarious positions in the industry can be.
There have been grumblings about questionable publishing decisions before. Last year, Hachette put out a book by Donald Trump, Jr., who recently accused his father’s adversaries of hoping the coronavirus would spread and cause widespread deaths. When Trump Jr.’s book was first on submission at Hachette, lower-level employees protested internally, but the power dynamic was too unequal for any individual worker to risk going public. The book was published and became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller due to bulk sales by the Republican National Committee.
Hachette is not the only corporate book publisher that has angered its employees and its broader reading audience with questionable acquisitions, and ultimately bowed to public pressure to cancel. In 2017, Simon & Schuster acquired a book by alt-right firebrand Milo Yiannopolous, the publishing house did not announce the deal in a timely fashion, Yiannopolous’s book was eventually canceled after it came under fire from a variety of celebrities who accused the house of spreading hate; author Roxane Gay pulled her forthcoming book from the publisher in protest. In 2006, after enormous internal and external pressure, the publisher HarperCollins canceled If I Did It, a book by O.J. Simpson that promised to hypothetically explain how he might have murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994.
In an industry widely known for its low wages and lack of diversity, the voices of workers in the lower levels of book publishing have consistently been downplayed and obscured. Meanwhile, publishing executives can offer money, validation, and attention to whichever authors they choose, from former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the author of the controversial novel American Dirt. So it’s reassuring to know that public shaming works, and that if publishers don’t have the moral clarity to determine whose voices do not require further amplification, their employees can serve as a check. By simply listening to and evaluating the concerns of lower level employees — a recent study by found that the industry’s interns are significantly more diverse than the industry as a whole — publishers have the opportunity to avoid making bad business decisions before contracts are even signed. And, if those employees are valued more, both in their opinions and their salaries, the publishing industry has a better shot at retaining them and becoming more diverse at higher levels.
As more and more media companies realize that unionization is the wave of the future (of the Big Five publishing houses only HarperCollins has a union for its lower-level employees) I’m hopeful that publishing employees have a way forward to call for better pay and benefits, and also to have a say in the kinds of books they work on. If collective action can force publishers to be more transparent about their business decisions, then who knows? Perhaps unions can one day force corporate book publishers to offer a liveable wage to each and every one of their entry-level workers, and the industry will be better for it.