Cancelling Books

So bearing the facts about publishing in mind helps to rebut one common argument against cancellation: it doesn’t suppress ideas. It changes who publishes them, not whether they are published. But the facts about publishing also helps rebut a different worry.
One of the latest flare ups in the culture wars concerns book publishing. Recent books by Mike Pence, Woody Allen and by Milo Yiannopoulos have all been met with protests, many of them stemming from staff within the publishing houses. Sometimes, these protests have been successful, at least to the extent that the publisher has decided not to publish the book.
Some people have expressed concern that publishers abrogating to themselves the power to decide who gets published is a step too far: it may prevent brilliant ideas or powerful writing seeing the light of day. But the truth about the slush pile is this: publishers routinely reject brilliant ideas and powerful writing. No doubt most of the manuscripts they see are mediocre, but a large number (even if a small proportion) are worthwhile. Publishers can’t accept more than a tiny fraction of the books that merit publication, and arbitrary decisions are made all the time. As a consequence, there are many thousands of people who have submitted books to publishers (often to many publishers) but are not published authors, simply because they were not as lucky as a small number of other writers.
Bearing these facts in mind is important for two reasons. First, given that commercial considerations drive most publishing decisions, we don’t need to worry about the fate of most cancelled books. Cancellation increases their visibility and makes other publishers even more eager to publish them. The highest profile cancelled books, like those of Mike Pence or Woody Allen, are guaranteed sellers and publishers fight to publish them. So long as there is a diversity of publishers with a diversity of political views, cancelled books find a ready home (the Woody Allen and Mike Pence books were rapidly picked up by other publishers; Milo Yiannopoulos self-published his cancelled book and it became a best-seller).
If the aim of those who cancel books is literally to cancel them, then they routinely fail: the books are published anyway, and they may have increased visibility due to the controversy. But their aim might be a different one: not to have their name or their company associated with the book. Some may see that aim as a mere indulgence, but it may be an aim worth pursuing, not only because we value integrity but because having a view associated with a prestige publisher may give that view extra credibility.
Written by Neil Levy
Things might be different if publishers acted in concert, so that only ideas from an agreed on perspective could get published at all. There’s something to this worry, but not a great deal. It’s already true – it has always been true – that the biggest publishing houses publish little (not quite nothing) outside a spectrum that’s considered respectable. Lately, that spectrum has skewed a little more left than previously, as ideas like Critical Race Theory have become more respectable (the backlash against this shift in the Overton Window is powerful). But for the most part, if you want to read books from a perspective that’s left of the Democrat Party, you’ll have to go beyond the big name publishing houses (to, for example, Verso Books). Similarly, if you want to read books by those associated with the Trump presidency, you might have to turn to any of a number of conservative publishing houses. No perspective that is remotely worth regarding as respectable is prevented from being heard.
It’s important to bear in mind that publishers receive thousands of manuscripts and book proposals every year and that they reject the overwhelming majority. They do so for many reasons. Of course, commercial considerations loom very large for most: if they think there’s a market for a book, they’re likely to publish it. But many publishers (or particular imprints of these publishers) care about quality to some degree independently of commercial considerations. For many, this is an indirect way of caring about commercial considerations: they judge that the prestige that comes from being known to publish worthy books will indirectly increase sales for their entire list (perhaps by increasing its visibility). Some may have a sense of a mission, and will publish books because they believe in them.
Conflict over these books has pitted younger staff at publishing houses against older. It’s also pitted advocates of (relatively) unconstrained free speech against those who support no-platforming certain speakers. Perhaps showing my age, I find myself on both sides of these debates. These are very different cases, and the case for no-platforming Yiannopoulos seems strong; in the other cases, I am less certain. Elsewhere, I have given an underappreciated reason why we might often want to no-platform (a strong reason; not necessarily a decisive reason). In this post, though, I want to rebut some common arguments against cancelling books.
Once we recognize that the catalogue of any publisher represents a tiny fraction of the books they might have published, we should worry less that cancelling books prevents brilliant or worthy books seeing the light of day. We can be confident that many excellent books won’t see the light of day no matter what. If cancelling a book by some right-wing provocateur  opens up space for a different book that is just or more as valuable, then it’s hard to see how the world has suffered a net loss.