Why publishers’ integrity matters more than ever

Let’s start with an obvious point: publishing a book is a big deal. It’s a big deal for an individual, who can take pride in seeing years, sometimes decades, of work finally finished. And it’s a big deal for a publisher, who will have put a huge amount of resource—time, effort, money, and more—into the project.

But it’s not a done deal. Absolutely nobody has a fundamental right to have their book published: to be an author is an honour. Any publisher has the right to choose whom exactly they want to promote. And when we recognise this, some of the claims made last week by Andrew Crofts in his piece for The Bookseller, ‘Why we must publish books we hate’, begin to look a bit weak.

After all, publishers have to think about whether they want to support an author: will the book sell enough copies to make the work put in worthwhile? Will featuring an author on their list enhance or diminish the brand? Will any initial controversy be worth it, in the end?

There’s also, undeniably, the responsibility that comes with publishing a book. Take WH Allen, the imprint responsible for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. Rees-Mogg, let’s not forget, spoke at a dinner in 2013 for Traditional Britain Group, whose vice president has suggested that non-whites should be deported to their "natural homelands".

Rees-Mogg has since distanced himself from the group, claiming he had been misinformed by Conservative central office. However, to argue, as Crofts has, that we must publish books we disagree with is a curious response to an individual who sits on the extreme right, suggesting such a position is simply a matter of intellectual disagreement rather than abhorrent. One does not need to be a ‘liberal “bubble dweller”’, in Crofts’ term, to know this. It seems strange, from a commercial point of view, that WH Allen would wish itself to be associated with Rees-Mogg given the increasing toxicity of his brand (especially among book-buying circles).

But it’s not just publishers who are culpable for giving someone a platform. Ghostwriters who accept these commissions are also responsible for inflating the reputation of such individuals. Similarly, newspaper editors who commission reviews, when they could let such a book sink quietly into oblivion, also have skin in this game.

All these individuals have to answer the question: why this person? Of all the many brilliant and talented and hardworking authors out there: why promote Rees-Mogg (or Johnson, or Trump, or whoever)? We’re at a cultural turning point: it no long makes commercial sense for publishers to sign up controversial figures. Recently Ebury announced it has dropped Gareth Roberts over transphobic tweets: in a reversal of the Rees-Mogg situation, it’s clear that publishers do not, in fact, have to give anyone a book contract if they don’t want to (notably, both Ebury and WH Allen are part of Penguin Random House).

In an age in which authors can be ‘cancelled’ for their views at a whim—recall Lionel Shriver’s frustration with her publisher’s introduction of a ‘morality clause’ earlier this year—we might wonder why they go to the bother of writing a book (or having one written for them) at all. There are quicker and easier ways to raise one’s profile (and make more money while you’re at it, too).

As Crofts remarks, ‘the players all want to write books’. Well, they all want to appear to have written a book. In this age of podcasts, Netflix and YouTube—also the era of fake news—the book matters more than ever. Or, more accurately, the values that many people associate with the book (eloquence, research, integrity) still matter. These attributes don’t only come from the book itself: they are bestowed upon an author by virtue of them being chosen a publisher.

Let’s take Milo Yiannopoulos as an example, as Crofts does. Yiannopoulos was dropped by Simon & Schuster following remarks that appeared to condone paedophilia. He self-published his book anyway and in December 2018, he declared himself bankrupt. Cause and effect are hard to trace, but I’m sure that being dropped by a major publisher—and losing sales and prestige as a consequence—must have had a part to play in this.

Ultimately, any publisher can choose to publish what they want, so long as it falls with the law. But in the case of Rees-Mogg, Yiannopoulos, and the rest: what value do these books have? We don’t have to like the books we publish, contrary to Crofts’ claim, but we must, as an industry, publish in good faith. Outrage is the political currency of our times and publishers know that it can be valuable in the short term. But let’s think again about the long term health of our industry: let’s celebrate those that do better.

Helen Saunders is Editorial Officer at Open Library of Humanities. Previously at Bloomsbury Academic, she has also written for The Times Literary Supplement and The Conversation.