Publishers must encourage conversation and not silence voices, Sargent urges

Publishers must encourage conversation and not silence voices, Sargent urges

Macmillan c.e.o. John Sargent has called for the trade "to publish across the spectrum for everyone", not only according to the mostly liberal values of the book publishing industry. 

The US publishing chief who last year was presented with PEN's 2017 Publisher Honoree Award, most recently demonstrated his committment to freedom of speech when he refused to pull Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury from shelves in the United States despite a "cease and desist" demand from president Donald Trump.  

Wolff's insider account of the Trump administration called into question the president's suitability for office and provoked particular controversy after one of the author's 200 interviewees, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, was reported as refering to a meeting between Trump's son and a group of Russians during the election campaign as "treasonous". 

Speaking in an interview with The Bookseller about the decision to proceed in publishing Wolff's book, despite the president's attempts to quash it through "prior restraint", Sargent said it had been an "easy" call to make. In a memo to staff, Sargent invoked the First Amendment, explaining there had been a "clear effort…to intimidate a publisher" that was “flagrantly unconstitutional".

The company's decision to push ahead with publication paid off when unprecedented demand challenged the publisher to print and distribute 1.5 million copies. Sargent said he "never in a million years" would have predicted the strength of reaction to Fire and Fury, even though he "knew the nature of what we had" and had already put in "a very agressive" print run of 150,000. "At its peak, velocity was absolutely incredible," said Sargent. "It's slowed, but the book is still selling at a terrific pace."

However, Sargent went on to tell The Bookseller that "given the rise of the alt-right, what to publish and what not to publish is now an extremely difficult decision". Drawing the line on hate speech needs to be taken on a "book-by-book" basis, he said, further warning publishers not to stifle voices but to "encourage conversation" with the whole population in mind.

"Publishers should be careful: we should publish across the spectrum for everybody, not just from the point of view of our industry’s employee base," he said. "What’s important is the conversation: The right answer is not to silence, but to encourage conversation in a well-meaning way, especially for younger people. At a time when the US is so ideologically split, we should be publishing books for the country as a whole.”

Sargent's comments echo those made by Simon & Schuster's president and c.e.o. Carolyn Reidy at Frankfurt Book Fair last year following the criticism it faced after signing a since-scrapped publishing deal with alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. At the time, Reidy warned calls to censor authors were "bubbling up from the public". She argued however there was still a place for "books that don’t make us so comfortable" and that it is "essential we defend the right of expression against mob rule".

At the end of 2016, she had told staff: "In these times it is especially important to remember that as publishers we will always endeavor to give voice to a wide range of opinions and divergent viewpoints. We publish for many different and frequently conflicting audiences, and must be fully cognizant of our responsibility to resist censorship and stand unequivocally for freedom of speech, no matter how difficult  that might be at times."

The full interview between Sargent and Gayle Feldman is available to read here.