Before 2024—or, God forbid, 2028—Tom Cotton will almost certainly publish a book. The Arkansas senator’s first book—Sacred Duty, published by HarperCollins’s William Morrow imprint in 2019—was a portrait of the Old Guard, which serves in Arlington National Cemetery. Cotton was a member of the Old Guard, in between tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the book was, despite his hard-right politics, apolitical. The point was to underline his bona fides: Other U.S. senators may claim to support the troops, but here is a man who was a troop himself (who also really supports the troops).
Cotton’s next book will almost certainly be of another cursed genre: the campaign book. It is no secret that Cotton is eyeing the White House, and he appears to be well-positioned as Donald Trump’s successor. A second Cotton book will undoubtedly advocate for restrictions on immigration, argue that Big Tech companies are biased against conservatives, and play up Cotton’s insistence that American troops be brought in to shut down violent protesters angered by George Floyd’s death, as well as the subsequent controversy his position caused at The New York Times.
The publishing landscape in 2024, however, may look rather different. A large, long-overdue reckoning is afoot in the industry. On Monday, thousands of workers conducted a work stoppage—an unprecedented action in an industry with little union representation—in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest of publishing’s staggering lack of diversity, both in terms of the industry’s workforce and the types of books it publishes. Meanwhile, #PublishingPaidMe, a hashtag with hundreds of entries, has drawn attention to the low advances paid to writers, particularly women and writers of color.
These have been issues for a long time—Lee & Low has been releasing figures that showcase the industry’s lack of diversity for years—but major publishers, including three of the Big Five, have made commitments that suggest something might actually change. And increased scrutiny is now being paid not just to what publishers aren’t publishing, but to what they are: Namely, the conservative bestsellers that have been cash cows for years.
The seeds of publishing’s growing activist moment could be seen in the response to the acquisition of Milo Yiannopoulos’s Dangerous by Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions imprint, in late 2016. Coming less than two months after Trump’s election, the decision to give Yiannopoulos, a troll known for shallow publicity stunts, a $250,000 advance was greeted with outrage. Some authors even withdrew books from Simon & Schuster’s other imprints.
The book was ultimately rejected, after clips of Yiannopoulos defending pedophilia began circulating online. Since then, more questions have been raised about publishing’s dependency on conservative and right-wing authors. Henry Holt, a nonpolitical imprint that publishes, among others, Hilary Mantel, drew fire for its decision to continue publishing Bill O’Reilly after multiple accusations of sexual harassment were made against him. Some Hachette employees I spoke to expressed discomfort about the company’s conservative imprint, Center Street, which publishes Donald Trump Jr., among others.
Publishing such authors was once uncontroversial. The conservative publishing industrial complex has been a mainstay ever since Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind topped the bestseller lists. Free speech has always been a slippery concept in book publishing. At times it is presented as a badge of honor—we stand by Salman Rushdie!—but mostly, it is an excuse to publish something that is profitable but otherwise valueless. Beleaguered publishers have understandably cast themselves as slaves to the marketplace: They publish whatever it is people want to buy.
The imprint model helps publishers from collapsing under their own contradictions. The large houses are federations containing many largely autonomous fiefdoms. The right hand rarely knows what the left is doing, which enables Big Five CEOs to claim innocence when one of their imprints acquires a controversial book. But that is less true than it was in the past. The idea, for instance, that Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch wasn’t aware of Woody Allen’s controversial memoir—which had been acquired a year earlier but concealed from the public and nearly all Hachette employees—is laughable. When Threshold Editions acquired Dangerous, it was Simon & Schuster, not Threshold, that got the heat.
At the same time, these publishing houses are, like many corporations in the country, being asked by their employees and customers to live up to a set of values. And that would seem to be impossible while also publishing the likes of Tucker Carlson, who declared on his show earlier this week that the protests across the country are “definitely not about black lives.” (Carlson’s most recent book, Ship of Fools, was published by Free Press, a Simon & Schuster imprint.)
Some have suggested that a form of quality control is required. “I’m OK with books being published from different political viewpoints—in fact, it’s necessary for debate and being able to see a whole picture,” publicist Kimberly Burns told Vanity Fair last year. “The problem is when authors write things only to get themselves attention or to make news, instead of to enhance a dialogue. If publishers are going to continue to cash in, as they have been, it’s time for those publishers—certainly the Big Five publishers—to bring in fact-checkers and more copy editors.” The lack of fact-checking in corporate publishing remains a scandal, but there are few signs that any conglomerate publisher plans on making the expensive decision to apply basic scrutiny to its books any time soon.
Fact-checking would, it’s also worth pointing out, make it impossible to publish a great many conservative books. Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered contains a number of factual inaccuracies. What a fact-checker would make of something like Corey Lewandowski’s Let Trump Be Trump or Nick Adams’s Trump and Churchill: Defenders of Western Civilization is anyone’s guess. Even the more “respectable” side of conservative publishing would have problems. I’m not sure how a book like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism would fare in the environment that Burns suggests.
This is certainly true of nonconservative books, as well, including the barrage of literature suggesting that the president was a Russian stooge. But being forced to tell the truth is not an existential issue for most of publishing; it is for conservative imprints.
Which brings us back to Cotton. A few years ago, a book from a rising star of the Republican Party would have been a no-brainer. That’s no longer the case. Pariahs like Yiannopoulos and Allen are already out, and the next test may very well come from a figure in the Republican mainstream. What happens if Cotton devotes a chapter to using the military to fight black rioters?