Radius News

Publishing Note: The Squeeze To Please


Voices on the right and left accuse the book publishing industry of either leaning too far left or not leaning far enough in that direction. Okay, publishing is an easy scapegoat to rail against. Even so, no industry is a lockstep monolith, least of all book publishing. Sprawling and chaotic, slow to change, it defies any attempt to be consistent. Especially when it comes to free speech, theoretically the bulwark of a democratic society, publishing is notoriously fickle.

Pamela Paul’s opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times (July 24, 2022), “There’s More Than One Way to Ban a Book,” portrays a publishing world nervous about offending anyone. Various factions within book publishing champion causes at odds with one another, switching camps from cause to cause, creating very odd bedfellows indeed. Publishers, editors, literary agents, authors, booksellers, distributors, printers, marketing and publicity firms, you name it, they are buffeted on all sides when they do or don’t publish a given title, or sign a contract to publish a controversial book, only to rescind the contract.

On one hand, we can point to examples of publishers and authors that stood their ground as champions of free speech. In 1955, during the heyday of McCarthyism, Walter Minton planted a flag for free speech when he staked the reputation of G. P. Putnam’s Sons on the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita. Thirty-three years later (1988), Random House published Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, the backlash to which led in 1989 to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issuing a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. And thirty-four years later, on August 12, 2022, Rushdie was hospitalized after a man stabbed him in an attempted murder at a Chautauqua event in upstate New York. Talk about the cost of free speech.

On the other hand, these days, publishers are cautious about sticking their necks out too far and so shy away from risking too much for free speech. They are caught in the no-win position of being squeezed from all sides not to offend anyone, knowing that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. As Paul asserts, “The heart of publishing lies in taking risks, not avoiding them.” The insidious movement that Paul points out is the collusion of publishers in self censorship.

Almost by definition, standing up for the principle of free speech puts the publisher on a collision course with some group or another. Were the book they agreed to publish not controversial the publisher would receive no pushback. And when there is pushback, one needs to ask who are the publisher trying to please? Another way of putting it might be, to whom does the publisher answer? Or what values guide the publisher’s decision whether or not to publish a given book?

For Radius Book Group the answer is quite clear, our commitment is to put the author’s interests first. Yes, we are selective and discriminating when it comes to which authors and titles we will publish. We wouldn’t have published Lolita, for instance, not because it was controversial, but because we only publish nonfiction. At the same time, we strongly advocate for free speech. Giving a book the green light is not influenced by whether it will ruffle feathers or cut against prevailing sensibilities. It doesn’t matter whether the author’s message pushes the envelope on one edge of the spectrum or the other. What matters is giving the author a chance to voice an opinion, share ideas, and engage the world in meaningful conversation. Readers can decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree. They will tell us what they think by whether or not they purchase the book; the proof is in the sales pudding.