Catch and cull

It is hard to imagine the concatenation of bad decisions that led to Hachette Book Group USA announcing that it intended to publish Woody Allen’s memoir on 7th April, only to renounce the decision four days later following a staff walkout at its New York and Boston buildings.

Only a publisher blinded by the logic of its own federal structure could have thought that Allen’s estranged son, the journalist Ronan Farrow, who is published by Little, Brown, would not notice the announcement by sister division Grand Central Publishing, or accept, as HBG argued, that the unit was independent. As I’ve said before, if publishing made sense it wouldn’t be interesting, but even so, this sets the bar high. Yet whatever the thinking behind this deal, the group’s decision to cancel the title represents a serious development for a sector that relies on getting these judgements correct and sticking to them.

One can argue that two bad decisions resulted in the right one. Allen needs no pulpit, no publisher marketing budget and certainly no affirmation from an industry that has had its own problems creating a safe space for its female employees. It is also true that the film director could find a new publisher; he could self-publish; stand on a box on Seventh Avenue and read his memoir aloud, or even tweet it out. But HBG USA did not make those arguments. Instead, following discussions with its staff, it said that publication was no longer “feasible”. In short, it could not, not would not.

Publishing has a good track record standing up to the censor. Penguin did not tell Salman Rushdie to take his book elsewhere when it came under attack; Macmillan did not move Michael Wolff on when President Trump pounced. “Our response is firm, as it has to be,” Macmillan c.e.o. John Sargent told staff. The argument that dropped authors can find other outlets for their work is not well-served by history: when UK indie Gibson Square had its offices firebombed over Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina, the author did not find an alternative UK publisher, and the book remains available now only in a self-published format. Another bad example is Milo Yiannopoulos, cancelled by Simon & Schuster US, of course. A dropped book carries with it a stain.

Perhaps how we view these things has changed: that there is a difference between stopping books we do not like, while getting behind those we do. When PEN America gave a “Courage Award” to the French paper Charlie Hebdo, a number of authors objected on the grounds that while they supported the magazine’s right to free expression, PEN did not need to reward it. Comedy has long delineated between punching up and punching down. With the Allen deal, HBG managed to plant a foot in both these camps.

Yet when the author Stephen King says that the Allen decision makes him “uneasy”, we ought to listen and reflect. There are very few enduring principles in publishing, but having the freedom to publish whatever we want, when we want, is one that we weaken at our peril.