Publish and be damned?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


Who would be in the books business today? From sensitivity readers to social-media scrutiny, publishing books has become a tricky business.

As well as the quality of the work, publishers now seem to concern themselves with the social-media profiles of their authors. Little, Brown Book Group announced that it was dropping its planned release of Julie Burchill’s book Welcome to the Woke Trials after the author was accused of Islamophobia and involved in a row with fellow commentator Ash Sarkar on Twitter.

More recently, calls to censor certain books have come from inside publishing houses themselves, rather than companies having their arms forced by Twitter mobs. In March 2020, staff at the US publisher Hachette refused to work on Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing and JK Rowling’s children’s book The Ickabog because of the former’s alleged sexual abuse of his adopted daughter and the latter’s views on transgender rights. While Rowling’s book survived, Hachette pulped Allen’s work after ‘listening sessions’ with staff members.

Sometimes publishers get into trouble retroactively. Kate Clanchy vowed to re-write her award-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me after a handful of comments on Goodreads and Twitter claimed that her descriptions of some students were racist and ableist. When fellow author Phillip Pullman defended Clanchy on social media, the Society of Authors (where he is president) emailed its members to distance the organisation from Pullman, warning authors to ‘be mindful of privilege and of the impact of what they create, do and say’. Journalist and author Monisha Rajesh, who claimed that parts of Clanchy’s book were ‘rooted in eugenics and phrenology’, defended the idea that publishers should think about what books they produce. ‘Cancel culture is a term bounced around by people afraid of accountability’, she wrote in the Guardian.

Publishing houses seem to be getting it in the neck. In response of allegations of a pale, male and stale environment, publishing houses embraced the idea of sensitivity readers to check for racist stereotypes alongside quotas for hiring women and minorities. When Bernardine Evaristo became the first woman of colour to top the UK paperback fiction chart in 2020, many argued that the publishing world was finally changing.

Some argue that ‘cancel culture’ in the world of publishing is little more than an attempt to right the wrongs of years of exclusionary practice. But others worry that organisations feel constrained or limited by worrying about political norms. In a series of essays on censorship, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out the danger in silencing writers for fear of causing offence: ‘We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.’

Is it impossible to publish a book without checking it for tropes, stereotypes and anything else that might catch the ire of Twitter activists? Should we welcome a more cautious approach to the kinds of books we put out in the world? Or could a nervous industry make it more difficult for new authors to break through with bold content? Does a more politically conscious approach to writing make for better books? Or have we lost the confidence to publish and be damned?

Tim Abrahams
contributing editor, Architectural Record; publisher, Machine Books

Ben Cobley
author, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity; public speaker; former Labour Party activist

Masimba Musodza
novelist in ChiShona and English; blogger, The Times of Israel; writer

Emma Webb
commentator; writer; deputy research director, Free Speech Union; co-founder, Save Our Statues

Pauline Hadaway
researcher; writer; co-founder, The Liverpool Salon; author, Escaping the Panopticon