Essays

What We Talk About When We Talk About Boycotts

By posted at 6:00 am on January 18, 2017 35

With the news of Simon & Schuster’s conservative Threshold imprint acquiring — via $250,000 advance — a memoir by “that person” (whom I’m declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?), the outcry was swift, accusing Simon & Schuster of cynically capitalizing on and rewarding hate speech and normalizing white supremacy.

I don’t disagree with those sentiments, but I didn’t jump into the fray because, quite honestly, I didn’t know how I felt. There are a lot of issues at play: hate, misogyny, capitalism (i.e., publishing as a business), coexisting with my reality as a writer fortunate enough to have a supportive publisher. And that publisher is Simon & Schuster.

I had an 800-page manuscript that I had taken 10 years to finish; literary fiction is never a clear moneymaker, long novels are problematic from, if anything, a production point of view (all that paper, all that ink, the increased shipping costs), and yet my editor took me on for a nice five, not six-figure, advance. Even better, she had also just taken on a prizewinning Korean American author whom I admired, whose first book had also come out with an independent press. My editing process at Beacon Press was fairly straightforward because the novel was ready to go. With the current novel, there are structural issues, and a team of editors have rolled up their sleeves, put the tome on a metaphorical lift, and gotten just as sweaty and dirty tinkering with its guts as I have. I’m relieved that, even as the years slide by, they talk only about getting the book right, rather than pushing out “product.” In short, I’m living a dream I’d had as a child banging out stories on my hand-me-down typewriter and selling them — to my parents.

Like many, I was horrified that a person who Twitter had deemed so odious/dangerous it banned him from the platform was being given another platform, a paid one, in short order.

coverProtest is often the only way to get a company’s attention. And it can have results. But it’s not always the results that were intended, or wanted. For instance, after the outcry over the “sadistic contents” of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, three months before the book’s publication, it was dropped by the publishing house….Simon & Schuster. CEO Richard Snyder explained, “It was an error of judgment to put our name on a book of such questionable taste.”

But the book was just as quickly picked up by esteemed editor Sonny Mehta and published by Random House’s prestigious Vintage imprint.

Irrespective of the nature and quality of these two books, it’s instructive to examine these unintended consequences. Books are indeed published by corporations, which need to sell to stay in business. But as much was we like to treat books as “widgets,” they aren’t interchangeable goods or services. Each one is written by an author or co-author.

In an overcrowded publishing market, bad attention can be just as valuable, perhaps more so, as good attention. The brouhaha over American Psycho certainly branded it into America’s cultural consciousness; the book is still robustly with us, it recently turned 25 and just appeared on Broadway as a musical (!), i.e., trying to kill it with bad publicity may have done exactly the opposite.

coverThe second thing to consider is unintended collateral damage. Many people objected to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it not only helped keep Random House (now Penguin Random House) in the black, it brought in so much revenue that every employee, from “top editors to warehouse workers,” received a $5,000 bonus.

So what’s the opposite of a rising tide?

When I heard the calls to boycott Simon & Schuster, that reviewers were going to refuse to review, authors were vowing not to blurb S&S authors’ books, a bookstore tweeted that it wasn’t even going to stock any S&S books, I felt a bit of a chill. I had no urge to write my editors, because they had zero to do with the decision to acquire that book. Publishing firms are “houses” with huge family trees, divided into specialized groups called imprints. While imprints are not wholly autonomous, they each have their own eco-systems. I write literary fiction and publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint. Simon & Schuster also has several other general interest imprints, specialized imprints, and several children’s book imprints, as well as Howard Books, which publishes for the Christian marketplace. Should its Folger Shakespeare Library imprint be penalized for an acquisition by Threshold Editions, a conservative writers’ imprint (that has also published Donald Trump and bona fide war criminal Dick Cheney — with no outcry)?

The calls to boycott are continuing after Simon & Schuster (the company) has stated it intends to go ahead and publish the book in question.  So what, then, is the endgame?

coverProfessor Matthew Garcia, who wrote From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement and who has studied boycotts for years told me that “The boycott of S&S will be tricky. It requires a campaign and a set of goals. First, is there an organization willing to put the time in to organize and pursue the campaign the way the United Farm Workers did?”

Good question. I personally feel that protecting healthcare, especially Medicaid and Medicare, is one of the most important things we need to do right now.

“Second, that organization needs to do what UFW did with grapes — identify what percentage of the product’s delivery to market they need to effect in order to have S&S respond,” Garcia said. “In the UFW case, they did not hit all sellers of grapes equally.  They targeted the biggest sellers, and set as their goal to reduce sales by 10 percent in 10 of the top markets.  They did that by knowing what amount would hurt their bottom line, and produce the biggest seller’s capitulation.  I imagine the organization that pursues a boycott of S&S would have to identify the same profit margins for the company and what it would take to tip them in order to identify effective goals.”

Books, though, aren’t an undifferentiated product like grapes. There’s a lot of untethered anger that’s much more than about one guy, one book deal, one company. People are mad as hell (rightly so) about the rise of the so-called “alt-right” (a.k.a. white supremacists). But how do we try to harness this anger productively? Successfully boycotting S&S is not going achieve what many of us really want — which is to boycott 2016.

covercoverBut if we’re going to try to get Simon & Schuster (and CBS, its parent company) to listen, what books should boycotters target to get to the United Farmworkers’ 10 percent threshold? Probably the big ones like…the Bruce Springsteen memoir. Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel,  All the Light We Cannot See.  Maybe Shonda Rhimes’s bestselling memoir, Stephen King’s latest? How about Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything — cited as one of the “Seven Books You Need to Understand (and Fight) the Age of Trump“?

Even if such a boycott was successful in harming the bottom line of a publisher, how do we know in a capitalist society that the publisher wouldn’t then make up the difference by publishing even worse things or being less inclined to take risks? S&S started Salaam Reads, a imprint for Muslim-themed children’s books. Why not starve “that person’s book” financially and publicity-wise, and instead buy two books from Salaam Reads?

Bookstore owners and buyers, who are the most direct link in all of this, are starting to formulate statements and implementing plans. Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, a Boston-area store set to open this spring, is a writer herself, and she told me that she and her husband have decided “Belmont Books won’t sell this book.” She adds, “Though I do want S&S to feel the heat for this decision, boycotting all S&S authors seems neither fair nor likely to be effective. More likely, the boycott generates lots of publicity for the book, raises the hackles of the anti-PC, pro-[‘that person’], pro-Trump crowd, and, in the end, rewards S&S and [‘that person’].”

On the other coast, Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, a 40-year-old institution, which is, she said “specifically located in the historic Haight Ashbury” section of San Francisco will skip over “that person’s” book (and anything from the Threshold Editions imprint), cut the number of S&S books, and, of the remainder, donate any profits from S&S books to the ACLU “for the foreseeable future.”

The extremity of what’s coming requires we actually lay out on the table what we stand for. If we stand for a free exchange of ideas, we have to support publishing. Can we instead reject this person’s ideas and collectively stop giving him a platform? If publishing is a business, can we vote with our dollars and our attention (cultural capital)? Store owners can decide whether to stock this title or not, reviewers can review or not. But a blanket boycott of any publisher’s books makes no sense. It’s burning down the house because you saw a spider.

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35 Responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Boycotts”

  1. Coldstone Luke the Elder
    at 8:28 am on January 18, 2017

    Should “not giving him a platform” extend to “not writing thinkpieces about his controversial, shitty memoir and a possible boycott?” I don’t ask this snarkily, I truly don’t know the answer here. But I guess I wonder how much better it would be if we simply gave these aspects of far right culture the equivalent of the silent treatment, or putting a tantrum-y toddler in the corner.

    A large part of what helped get Donald Trump traction was his ability to exploit an endless cycle of outrage on social media, and left-leaning news coverage. As the woman says in this, the boycott will at the very least succeed in raising Yiannapolous’s profile (sorry, don’t see the point of not printing his name) among non-reading conservatives, who will then spite-order ten copies from Amazon, since the one reliable motivation among conservatives is pissing off liberals (again, witness our new president). What if we all expressed a collective yawn at this stuff? What if we acted like discussing it was beneath us, since it is. I feel like a Donald Trump in Edward R. Murrow’s day would have gotten a ten second clip, a disgusted shake of the head, and little else.

    I truly do not know the answer here, but I do know we have more important things to focus on, and maybe a good reaction to The Twitter President would be to get off Twitter.

  2. Coldstone Luke the Elder
    at 8:30 am on January 18, 2017

    By the way, I should have said in that first comment, I thought this was a good piece.

  3. Archimboldi
    at 11:26 am on January 18, 2017

    Censorship never works. And hurting innocent bystanders is immoral. Today’s book deal for He Who Shall Not Be Named may lead to a future book deal for one of this site’s writers.. Quit whining and start winning. If you really want to make a difference, start organizing now and win the vote in 2018 and 2020.

  4. gargoyle
    at 12:23 pm on January 18, 2017

    Just to understand the level of censorship in our culture, the level of small-mindedness, and the totalitarian impulses that govern the minnow-sized overton window of the contemporary left and publishing:

    The Millions won’t EVEN post comments with Milo’s full name. Just had two taken down or not posted.

  5. Coldstone Luke the Elder
    at 12:28 pm on January 18, 2017

    @gargoyle

    His name is in mine above. Maybe it was the content of what you posted?

  6. Lydia Kiesling
    at 12:40 pm on January 18, 2017

    No comments have been deleted from this post; perhaps this is a case of user error. You are very free to say Milo Yiannopoulos if you like.

  7. steven augustine
    at 1:25 pm on January 18, 2017

    “a memoir by “that person” (whom I’m declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?),”

    “That person”? This is getting extremely silly. First, “the n-word”… now “He who shall remain nameless” (as applied to various boogeymen).

    But when is summer camp over…?

  8. gargoyle
    at 3:07 pm on January 18, 2017

    Milo Yiannopoulos

  9. toad
    at 4:02 pm on January 18, 2017

    It’s funny, in the 70s liberals would have marched in the street over free speech, right to protest/assemble, etc for groups like neo-nazis, KKK, etc. Now, in the age of President I Can’t Even, it’s come full circle to boycotts and censorship. What a world.

  10. Ed
    at 4:45 pm on January 18, 2017

    To be clear, the author is opposed to a boycott. And I don’t see anyone practicing censorship here. I think most progressives still strenuously advocate on behalf of free speech (of which, btw, boycotts are a form), though of course it’s a bit easier when neonazis are a fringe group rather than the president’s advisers and propaganda wing.

    A question: why does The Millions, a site focusing on intelligent takes on mainstream literature, seem to attract such a hostile, aggrieved, PC Police Police commentariat? Seems weird. Or is that just the internet these days?

  11. steven augustine
    at 4:57 pm on January 18, 2017

    “So what, then, is the endgame?”

    Are we talking about Milo Yiannopoulos or Darth Vader? Why not sic one of the highly-lauded “geniuses” of 2016 on him? Yiannopoulos has an IQ of 105 (and three of those IQ points are contributed by his British accent)… simply hire Paul “The New Swift” Beatty to write a series of devastatingly witty, evisceratingly-precise satires. Or arrange a public debate between Yiannopoulos and Roxane “I Dare You To Critique Me” Gay… it’ll be better than Vidal vs Buckley (or Lefty Hitchens vs Righty Hitchens) ! Imagine the rhetorical firepower unleashed! The Wildean barbs! The Nabokovian slights!

    Ha! Just kidding.

    The real joke being that Yiannopoulos isn’t even a genuine creature of the Right… he’s no more ideologically committed to the Right Wing than any of the vast majority of (successful) American politicians are ideologically committed to Israel… they just do what they “gotta” do. That is to say, Yiannopoulos is a run of the mill, power-hungry, self-interested airhead-Capitalist at heart and if this were twenty years ago, he’d be Ariana Huffington (née Arianna Stassinopoulus), realizing that there was more influence/money to be had in wrapping a conservative core with a smiley facade and fleecing softer soccer mom sheep (aka The Clinton Maneuver).

    All these years later, though, the “Liberals” are no longer sexy (have you seen what’s happening to the Clinton Foundation? Yipes!)… so Yiannopoulos is milking the “Alt Right” for what it’s worth. But what is he milking? (npi)

    He makes comments and speeches we disagree with…. and? What kind of shelf-life do you think a Gay British Pretty Boy Nazi-Lite Shock-Jock Nitwit will actually have as a meme in America? Simply printing his name won’t give him any extra “power”, but treating him like 10x the threat he actually is is precisely what grants him visibility.

    Will we even be talking about Milo Yiannopoulos in 2018…? If he’s smart, he’ll switch polarities in time to cash in on the inevitable backlash of 2024. Yes, that’s right, kids: the pendulum will keep swinging. And just like the proverbial broken clocks you’ll all get to…. and so on.

    ” why does The Millions, a site focusing on intelligent takes on mainstream literature, seem to attract such a hostile, aggrieved, PC Police Police commentariat?”

    Probably owing to all the political editorials being sneaked in with the Lit Chat, I’d wager.

  12. steven augustine
    at 5:05 pm on January 18, 2017

    erratum:

    “But what is he milking?” was meant to be “But how is he milking it?”

  13. J R
    at 6:59 pm on January 18, 2017

    Another day in the comments section of a Millions article. Nice to see the usual fodder I guess.

  14. toad
    at 8:07 pm on January 18, 2017

    Ed, of course the author is against a boycott – a viewpoint she finds unique enough to devote an entire essay to. And as far as censorship the author refuses to print the name of the subject of her piece, which is of course a political statement in and of itself. Why you are baffled that political statements about political figures elicits politically-tinged comments is, er, baffling. Unless you just don’t like hearing views you don’t agree with, which is a pretty accurate description of the Internet these days.

  15. Ed
    at 8:45 am on January 19, 2017

    Toad,

    First, electing not to print someone’s name, while possibly silly, is not censorship, though leave it to the geniuses here to immediately assume they’re not allowed to print Milo Yiannapolous’s name just because their stubby little fingers stabbed submit wrong twice.

    And baffled is a funny word, and dismissive, but yeah okay, color me baffled by the reflexive hostility and defensiveness in the comment section of this website. And it isn’t just in the political tinged columns–it is in reviews, thinkpieces, you name it. Anywhere that people can detect anything to be offended by, most often by perceived over-PCness. Which is odd, considering 1) The Millions isn’t an especially leftist site, unless you have been living in a cave and find ideas like white privilege new and shocking, and 2) that said, it is clear that there’s a progressive bent to the editorial direction here, so why people don’t find another place to go is beyond me, though people enjoy being offended, so I guess I’m not baffled after all.

  16. toad
    at 9:37 am on January 19, 2017

    Ed – “censorship” is probably a bit strong, I agree. I think the “hostility” you are picking up on is a reflection of our society as a whole right now – people are mad/proud/scared etc. But if you don’t think the Millions – or American literary culture as a whole – is leftist, man, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not saying that as a condemnation, necessarily, and I’m a proud lefty myself, but it’s interesting, for how vocal the lit community is about diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual identification, etc, there is zero clamor for diversity of opinion (political or otherwise). The way to counter voices like this Yannanopolis clown is to ignore them. The reason your race-baiting hate-spewing uncle doesn’t have a $250k book deal is that no one takes him seriously, no one writes think pieces about him or boycotts his employer. Yanni is a fictional character, like Bill O’Reilly or pre-CBS Colbert. He’s a wrestling heel. He subsists on boos; without them he dies. So just quit booing. Go write a book instead.

  17. Heather Curran
    at 12:30 pm on January 19, 2017

    Illuminating article. Thanks for this essay. Much to think about. Don’t buy the book, and say no to censorship seems obvious. The idea of boycotting S&S was/is a knee jerk reaction. It becomes tricky, however, when a nonfiction book crosses the border of free speech to hate speech. Quite troubling.

  18. gargoyle
    at 12:37 pm on January 19, 2017

    “while the lit community is about diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual identification, etc, there is zero clamor for diversity of opinion (political or otherwise)”

    There’s also extremely little diversity of people in terms of socioeconomic class. MFAs that you (read: parents) have to drop 150K for are the norm.

  19. steven augustine
    at 1:29 pm on January 19, 2017

    “But if you don’t think the Millions – or American literary culture as a whole – is leftist, man, I don’t know what to tell you.”

    Leftist? Not even remotely. Liberal and/or “Liberal”, sure.

  20. Ted
    at 2:04 pm on January 19, 2017

    My MFA cost me nothing and gave me time to finish two books. My agent is shopping them around at the moment. We wouldn’t turn down a deal with S&S.

  21. Ed
    at 3:43 pm on January 19, 2017

    Toad,

    I know the publishing/lit world, including this website, are liberal. I’m saying I don’t think The Millions is an especially liberal operation, and yet it seems to consistently attract a certain brand of vitriolic comment in response to what, to my mind, are pretty standard PCisms. But again, maybe this is just the internet in 2017. On the rest, we totally agree. Feel like social media has a lot to answer for, in terms of creating the kind of constant outrage that elevates clowns like Yiannapolous. Gamergate wouldn’t even have been a thing as a recently as ten years ago.

    Gargoyle,

    MFAs–the top 50 or so anyway–mostly don’t cost anything, and usually provide a stipend. The trust fund MFA baby is a total canard. It’s kind of impressive how authoritatively wrong you are in this thread.

  22. gargoyle
    at 4:59 pm on January 19, 2017

    ” saying I don’t think The Millions is an especially liberal operation”

    lol

  23. joeyjojojunior
    at 6:37 pm on January 20, 2017

    “I wonder how much better it would be if we simply gave these aspects of far right culture the equivalent of the silent treatment, or putting a tantrum-y toddler in the corner.”

    I understand the impulse, but the sad truth is that this just doesn’t work. In fact, this is exactly what they want, because it allows them to grow their odious little networks without anyone paying them any mind, and then when they finally force us to pay attention to them, it’s too late.

  24. joeyjojojunior
    at 6:40 pm on January 20, 2017

    “It’s funny, in the 70s liberals would have marched in the street over free speech”

    “Free speech” does not include the right to get a quarter-million dollar advance from a Big Five publisher. Milo is free to write and publish whatever he wants. Liberals are free to let his enablers know that his views are not okay, and that we object to funding any infrastructure that supports the dissemination of those ideas.

    Nobody is stopping him or S&S from doing it without us, so I don’t know what your “free speech / censorship” beef is. Perhaps you should think a bit harder about what those things actually are.

  25. gargoyle
    at 2:08 pm on January 23, 2017

    “MFAs–the top 50 or so anyway–mostly don’t cost anything, and usually provide a stipend. The trust fund MFA baby is a total canard.”

    I missed Ed’s fumbling point. As you say, there are only around 50 MFAs that fully pay for tuition and provide (some sort) of stipend. The vast majority don’t do either (there are over 300 residency MFA programs). So just already, looks like MFAs are for people who can take out a lot of debt, unless you get into one of the 50.

    Now, let’s look at those stipends. All of them are below poverty level. Some incredibly slim number are at poverty level. Now, I know that, Ed, as someone with a mommy and daddy who pays for their car, rent, and cellphone bill, it may be confusing to realize that most people can’t live at poverty level. Let alone supporting a family!!!! I’ve never met an MFA student who didn’t a) have an ton of debt or b) rich parents, and I’ve met plenty of MFA students. It’s a rich kids game.

  26. gargoyle
    at 2:13 pm on January 23, 2017

    Ed, you also need to look up on wikipedia something called opportunity cost. They don’t teach about it in an MFA, but it is covered in books which can be read, if you do that sort of thing.

  27. Ed
    at 6:20 pm on January 23, 2017

    Gargoyle,

    You obviously thought MFAs cost 150k and were wrong about that. I’ve seen this bit of misinformation before time and agin, from people who have a personal stake for whatever reason in hating MFAs, and I think it’s because Columbia costs that much. The rest of the good ones, i.e. the ones worth going to, as we’ve established, are tuition-waived and usually provide stipends.

    Lol at “you’ve never met an MFA student who didn’t have a ton of debt or rich parents.” First, from your complete lack of knowledge or authority on the subject, my suspicion is you haven’t met an MFA student, and they exist in your mind as a anger-inducing strawman. As someone who has actually met MFA students, lots of them, I can say they run the gamut in terms of socioeconomic class, age, circumstance, etc. Also, signally, in your zealous taxonomy of Made Up Privileged People, you left out c), which is having a job.

  28. gargoyle
    at 3:13 pm on January 24, 2017

    @Ed

    Wow. I mean I know critical thinking is at an all time low… but you didn’t address my points at all! I’ll help you again: 1.) poverty-wage living and 2.) the significant majority of programs don’t pay for tuition and 3.) opportunity-cost.

    The only thing your response said was to make up that I believe all MFAs cost 150K… which I never said. Please post comments that actually respond to things, not rants that make you feel good, cause it’s just a waste of time.

  29. Ed
    at 8:58 am on January 25, 2017

    Garg,

    I did adress it. Literally all the programs worth going to besides Columbia are tuition free. I’m sure there are ones that charge an arm and a leg, but I don’t know about them. And most MFA students have jobs. is that clear enough?

    Idk what you mean by opportunity cost. Yeah, people have to give stuff up to do MFAs, have to quit jobs and move, as is the case with most ventures. Why this particular one has a hair so far up your ass, I’m not sure. But feel free to continue imagining the average MFAer to be a certain kind of person if it makes you feel good, I really don’t care.

  30. gargoyle
    at 10:30 am on January 25, 2017

    @Ed

    Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to scramble through life, lacking so in logic.

    “Literally all the programs worth going to besides Columbia are tuition free.”

    You can’t redefine all MFA goers as just the people who go to the (minority of) free ones. You. Dumbass. That’s called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. I’d suggest you look it up on wikipedia, but since you already failed to do that for opportunity cost, I’m not holding my breath.

  31. Ed
    at 10:42 am on January 25, 2017

    Gargoyle,

    You seem angry. Is it because of the vicious censorship you endured upthread, or the fact that you thought the average MFA cost 150k? Lol. Again, 1) Any of the ones worth discussing or attending cost nothing, and 2) In either case (tuition remitted or not) most people either work or take loans out. It is not, as you say, a rich kid’s game. Rich kids have better things to do than attend MFA programs and work at coffeeshops for three years. Like moving to Manhattan and interning at a publisher.

  32. Ed
    at 11:03 am on January 25, 2017

    As a follow up, and to be clearer (since you seem like the worst kind of dense person, i.e. a dense person who thinks they’re smart), I was confining my response to what most people who know anything about it consider to be real MFA programs worth attending, which are definitionally the programs with tuition remitted. Expanding the conversation to every shitty program in the country though, it still seems the average tuition may be 30k, which is far far less than the 150k you believed people to be dropping as a norm, a number I assume you picked to support your fanciful notion of MFAs a country club for rich white layabouts.

  33. gargoyle
    at 1:08 pm on January 25, 2017

    @Ed

    I never said the tuition was 150K. I understand why that was confusing though, you aren’t exactly detail focused. As usual, your responses don’t address any of my 3 points tho… quit rambling!

  34. Ed
    at 1:27 pm on January 25, 2017

    Gargoyle,

    Enough. Calling people stupid on the internet is the height of stupidity. I apologize to you, and to anyone with the misfortune to have read this comments tangent.

  35. gargoyle
    at 5:23 pm on January 25, 2017

    @Ed – Wa alaikum assalam

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