Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Publisher's Responsibility?

There have been two interesting publishing controversies recently, one involving a book that a publisher chose not to publish, and one involving a book that a publisher did choose to publish.

The not-published book, of course, was THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, which Random House canceled after concerns were raised by an Islamic scholar about its contents. Random House was worried about a backlash and possible acts of violence, while some people were disappointed by the decision, such as Salman Rushdie, who charged that they gave in to "censorship by fear."

Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster recently published a, shall we say, less than truthy smear of Barack Obama called OBAMA NATION, which promptly went straight to the top of bestseller lists everywhere. The Obama campaign issued a 40 page rebuttal and the book has been criticized in the press, prompting the Observer and Politico to wonder if Simon & Schuster will have to answer for the book and suffer a backlash.

So, with all of that fresh in your brain, here's what I'm wondering: how much responsibility should a publisher bear for what they choose to publish and choose not to publish?

Is a publisher morally responsible for the content they publish, or should the publisher respond to public demand, stand back, and let the public and marketplace determine the merits of the books they publish?

Do publishers have a civic responsibility or should they let the public decide?






111 comments:

ORION said...

Personally I think it's reprehensible for them to publish a book like that BUT I abhor the idea of any kind of censorship.
It does seem to be a subjective decision by editors whether to go with something or not- It appears to be easier for publishers to nix a fiction book tho...BUT
any publicity is good publicity.
I am curious about any recourse Obama has to obvious untruths - and wondering about the motivation of the editor not to fact check like - say - if it was a memoir. An interesting double standard.

Amber said...

I want to have the right to choose what to read. Period.

I think the publisher's job is to publish books, and the public's job is to choose which ones to read.

Just my 2 cents.

ac said...

"I think the publisher's job is to publish books, and the public's job is to choose which ones to read."

I agree with amber

slcard said...

Wow! I am beginning to feel rather strongly about a notion of shared subconscious (everyone deciding to have their home burn down for a recent example), as for months I have been considering the etiquette on how to write to you to ask you to post such a question. I look forward to the debate.

I believe we are all absolutely responsible for what we put our names on. Think long and hard about it, make your choice, then stand up for it. If future evidence proves you were wrong then say so, but we must take responsibility for what we say, do, write, publish, represent. Whether we like it or not, history will peg it to us anyway. If we must be damned, let us at least be damned for honesty.

Lauren Fobbs said...

Well, if it's full of fabricated "facts" then that's all on the author. Publishers, I'm sure, don't have time to do research on everything their clients write about. If the content is offensive, but not because the facts are screwed up, then I don't think that's the publisher's problem either. If someone doesn't like the content of a book, they shouldn't read it.

So, basically all I'm trying to say is that the AUTHOR should really think about what they're writing and be wise about it, and the PUBLISHER should select projects they believe in , but do so carefully. The public's reactions to the books aren't the publishers fault. That's all I have to say :3

Anonymous said...

"Civic responsibility" sounds like something the old Soviet Union would have used as an excuse to publish their govt propaganda. I wonder if the Chinese use something quite similar.

So, comrades! Is "civic responsibility" not just for communists anymore?

anothernathan said...

I agree with Amber about censorship, BUT if I maintained an office with several hundred employees under my charge and I recieved councel that something I was about to do might put any of them in actual physical harm (especially in a city like NY where 9/11 still shows scars)I would much rather be crucified in the press for succumbing to "censorship by fear" than not be able to sleep at night with real fear for myself or my employees.

Let Salmon Rushdie publish the book himself and then NOT go into hiding, if he's so concerned about it.

Anyway, aren't there are far more cases of books being published that shouldn't have been than there are of actual censorship in the publishing world?


ps - (In a horrble transition of topic) - Nathan - How about The Hills launch this week? "I will never be your friend."

Nathan Bransford said...

anothernathan-

Sadly, it's still waiting to be watched on my DVR.

Scott said...

I think this might be your stickiest question yet, and I don't have enough hands to come to a conclusion.

On one hand, censorship is bad. Really bad. On the other hand, among its many responsibilities, a publisher is responsible for the safety of the people who work for it, and if there's good reason to expect that they might be putting it's people at risk, the publisher should choose safety.

On the other hand, changing the way you do business, or the way you do anything, out of fear of terrorist gives a victory to the terrorists. If you admit terror and act out of fear, terrorists win.

And, on another hand, a publisher should be at least partly responsible for making sure non-fiction books are non-fiction. On the other hand, they can't check everything, and so, if I understand correctly, the contract usually assigns the responsibility for truth to the author.

I could pile on more hands, but these hands are supposed to be working.

Morgan Dempsey said...

I believe that publishers do have a responsibility to their public, which extends as far as publishing the truth, and apologizing and retracting when they failed to do so (and, in a perfect world, giving the money earned from the lies to public libraries--well, I can dream).

Outside of that, it's the public's responsibility to not be assholes when things get published. If it's a supposedly factual encounter that was a pack of lies, I hope you kept your receipts. If it's a work of fiction and it rubs you the wrong way, simply say, "Not for me."

What ever happened to the old kindergarten lesson of "Use your words, not your fists" ?

Sharpmetal said...

Tough call here, though it occurs to me that if a publisher required absolute truth in its non-fiction releases, we may never see another book from a politician or pundit from either side of the aisle on the shelves again! On second thought, maybe the call isn't so difficult...

Kat Harris said...

Well said Morgan Dempsey.

And sharpmetal...that probably wouldn't be a bad thing. ;-)

Dan said...

At first this struck me as a catch-22 situation, but after some thought, I'm going to agree with my mom - if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all.

If Random House's decision was based purely on anticipated reaction and not the content of the book (how many Islamic scholars raised concerns, btw?) - then that might be a little weak.

BUT if you hesitate to censor yourself, not only are you contributing to dropping media standards to somewhere between irrelevant and drivel - but you're also knowingly capitalizing on the mis-education of the public, which is even worse.

Nathan, how would you react if you had a hypothetical client who wrote either book?

J.P. Kurzitza said...

Good point Amber. We should have more books about how the holocaust never took place, or perhaps how to make a bomb out of materials in your shop class.

C'mon girl. :(

RED STICK WRITER said...

Generally, I think publishers will err on the side of what will sell. That means that untrue stuff will get published. That part of the question is easy. The part that is hard is public safety in the face of terrorist threats. It's a Hobson's choice. You lose either way.

JES said...

Two different discussions: the responsibility of a fiction publisher, and the responsibility of a non-fiction publisher.

In the Simon & Schuster case, what Lauren Fobbs said: publishers bear SOME responsibility, but it's limited by their resources. Their main weapon is (or should be, I think), a contractual agreement that a work of non-fiction is exactly that, with the burden of proof and heaviest responsibility on the author.

Random House wasn't in the same situation. Because "someone" voiced "concern" that "something" "bad" "might" happen, well, we better act on it as though the "threat" were imminent rather than merely possible. RH and its offspring publish thrillers every year, in effect templates for violence, which suggest various ingenious ways to kill people, to carry out acts of terrorism, to torture victims, and so on. Like, okay, RH -- so the mere possibility of actual human pain and death is sufficient to stop publication of a work of fiction? Then put your money where your mouth is: don't publish ANYTHING that might lead to such an outcome. Stick with children's, pallid YA, textbook, and reference products.

Katie Alender said...

Publishers should be free to publish or not publish as they please. Readers are free to buy or not buy as they please.

But the ultimate fallout of all these falsified memoirs and smeary political books remains to be seen.

Publishers will have to deal with decreased credibility, in the long run. And my instinct is that ultimately it hurts not only publishers but authors as well--by alienating readers, even in tiny doses.

Jeanne Ryan said...

Individual publishers have the right to say and not say what they want within the existing laws. We have laws against libel and the publisher has an obligation not to pass on information they know is false. It cannot hide under the skirts of "it's just a business decision." There is no such thing. Every action has a moral component to it. If it can be shown that 1) the information is false and 2) the publishing house knew the author was acting in a malicious manner, they should be held accountable for they are an accessory.

As for Medina, unfortunately Random House has a right to be a coward. It is shirking its responsibility that everyone has to create a society we want to live in. Does it want to live in a world where we are scared to publish certain books? Every time someone does that, it becomes a little easier for people to accept and we fall down that very dangerous slippery slope.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "Well, if it's full of fabricated "facts" then that's all on the author. Publishers, I'm sure, don't have time to do research on everything their clients write about."

I completely disagree - a political candidate for the US President? You can put anything into print by a reputable publisher about a candidate? Simon & Schuster lend credibility to untruth when they publish books like Obama Nation.

I agree with Orion - this is a double standard - the lies in Margaret Seltzer's book did not have GLOBAL implications, the way lies in a book about a presidential candidate does. It's Swift Book rather than Swift Boat - I mean, will Simon & Schuster pick up my potential bestseller about the other presidential candidate, entitled "Armageddon's Grandfather?" Please, Nathan, cut me a deal.

nomadshan said...

Publishing houses are businesses, and I expect them to act like businesses.

I expect houses to choose what they publishes based on market appeal.

In the case of an author whose book is yanked just before it's offloaded from the truck (as seems to be the case with Jewel of Medina), I expect the publisher to (a) compensate the author for any work they were directed to do on the book, and (b) NOT hold the author to paying back an advance.

If a house's Board of Directors or stockholders want the house to have a moral stance, I expect them to publish that stance on their website -- and then stick to it.

Dennis Cass said...

Bump to Jes on bringing up the apples and the oranges.

Also, Jack Shafer did a piece on Slate on how book publishers and newspaper publishers have different standards when it comes to factual accuracy.

http://www.slate.com/id/2133681/

Putting the shoulds aside, book publishers simply do not have a mechanism in place for ensuring accuracy for nonfiction.

They do, however, have a system for protecting themselves against legal troubles.

Sharpmetal said...

Wanda, that book has already been written: The Real McCain by Cliff Shecter. That the market for liberal attack books is a fraction of the conservative market doesn't make the lies/propaganda in that book any less onerous.

Anonymous said...

"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.." First Amendment to the Constitution.
"Truthiness" as defined by Colbert, has to do with wanting something to be true. If a book has been published with smears against someone that are unsubstantiated, it would appear to be loaded with truthiness, not lacking it.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Poor planning in regards to Jewel of Medina: Before they even got around to announcing the book was coming out, why didn't they sponsor a panel discussion on CSPAN with novelists, scholars etc, on "Contemporary Depictions of Islamic Woman in History," or something like that - start the dialogue MONTHS before you go sending out review copies or asking for blurbs. I mean, you didn't do your homework if you send your book to a scholar you thought would have a positive response, and it turns out she hates the book, the whole concept of the book. Wasn't there some other way to ease into it? Maybe there wasn't. But it just seems like the proper groundwork wasn't laid, to give you a soft (somewhat softer) landing when news of the book came out.

But then maybe the reasoning was, harder landing = bigger bucks?

Or maybe a panel discussion about free speech LAW in the Middle East - publishing in the Middle East, creative writing in the Middle East (is "creative writing," as in
creative writing MFA, just a Western Christian concept? seriously, I don't know...), women writers in the Middle East...Muslim women novelists...I think you get my drift...

Anonymous said...

Nathan (or readers), maybe you could address this question as well?

I'm kind of new at this writing gig, so patience is appreciated...

With the Obama smear book out there, did the author open himself up to a possible libel suit? How could a publishing house knowingly publish materials that were not true, unless they waived their liability in the contract with the author?

(I hope that makes sense - my real question follows...)

What do you do then, if you are writing a memoir based on someone and while the information paints them in a very ugly light, the information is all TRUE? Obviously, some of it is opinion/perception, but the facts stated can easily be backed up with evidence. Is the author putting himself/herself at risk for a lawsuit?

Gosh, I hope that came out clearly. I do believe that country has become ridiculously litigious. Our constitutional rights should trump any level of publishing censorship AS LONG AS the information is accurate.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "Wanda, that book has already been written: The Real McCain by Cliff Shecter. That the market for liberal attack books is a fraction of the conservative market doesn't make the lies/propaganda in that book any less onerous."

No, it hasn't been written. I don't mean a book directed at liberals. I mean, an attack book directed AT the conservative market - with a picture of John McCain superimposed on a nuclear bomb going off - and then in the book, it makes the argument that John McCain wants thermonuclear war, i.e., he is Armageddon's Grandfather.

Please, a book with McCain embracing Bush, and THAT'S supposed to be "a liberal attack book." Quite lukewarm I would say. Kindly even.

I haven't read the book, so I don't know if The Real McCain does indeed have "lies/propaganda" in it.

Sam Hranac said...

Do publishers have a civic responsibility? I think that is secondary to the fact that everyone has a moral responsibility to shoulder the consequences of their actions.

Civic-schmivic.

Is it a civic or a moral decision to not stage dog fights to the death? That's what the publication of some material amounts to. Free speech is one thing, but if you just like to drop bombs in a crowded room, you have a moral responsibility for the consequences. Saying you didn't write it shouldn't let you off the hook.

To rightfully publish a book that will stir controversy or violence, the publisher should feel that it was necessary. That decision is on them. They make the call. They need to live with it. I'm not advocating censorship - it is up to each of us to write and publish what we believe will make the world a better place.

(Pardon me while I step off of this rickety soapbox.)

Dave F. said...

Well, nothing like TWO controversial books to spice things up.
#1 - I think that Random House was wrong for not publishing "The Jewel of Medina." They gave into fear and threats. They cluck. Their pants drip from something other than fear. The Fatwa against Salmon Rushdie has been lifted and violence toward him renounced. They should have stood up to the bullies. It's sad they didn't.
#2 - Jerome Corsi's own history proves him a less than truthful or even moral person. "Obama Nation" is a compilation of lies, smears, innuendos with nothing new or even startling in it. The only person he could get to publish it was the "lean and hungry" (think Shakespeare) Mary Matlan (spelling), a well known opponent ofr everything liberal, Democratic or progressive. She's also got that "new imprint" under her control and needed a book that sells. Ah what greed can spawn....
HOWEVER, HOWEVER, HOWEVER...
Far be it from me to say that political screeds shouldn't be published. Abe Lincoln was reviled for having "smelly feet" - some of our founding father were accused of fathering illegitimate offspring, cross dressing, being less than men (eunuchs) and other such vile nonsense that yellow journalists blush. There is a grand tradition of smutty political mud-slinging. Why should we start behaving now?

AS one of the other commentators said - I want to be able to read anything. Of course I may choose not to read it, but I want the choice.

Luc2 said...

As a European, i was brought up with a mix of the socialist liberalism roughly inspired by the French revolution) and the individual-based freedoms of the American constitution.

I do believe in the importance of these constitutional freedoms and rights, like the freedom of speech, but it does bother me that in today's society, everybody is only interested in their rights, and nobody cares about responsibilities and obligations.

The ever-expanding individualism is great, and I enjoy many aspects of it. But we are part of a community, which should be steered mostly by manners, moral consciousness and mutual respect, and not by civil lawsuits (and I'm a lawyer!).

When i get off the soapbox, and look at these two cases, I believe that one should be mindful of others when publishing something that may be hurtful to others. There's nothing wrong with self-censure. we apply it every day in our social behavior.

A publisher makes money from the books it sells. IMO, that also brings with it a moral responsibility (moral, not legal) to be accountable for the books it publishes. Hiding behind the author is too easy. It reminds me of officers in violent conflicts who hid behind the mantra of taking orders from higher officers.

The issue raised by Rushdie is the most difficult. I don't think one should bend to the threat of violence. I don't know much about the books in question, but if they consciously entices hate or violence, I think the moral obligation to act respectfully towards others is more important than the freedom of speech.

SAVanVleck said...

I too abhor censorship, but I think any publisher/journalist has the responsibility to check their facts.

I do not expect a respectable publishing house to take part in Tabloid journalism. When they put their imprint on a book, their reputation is a factor in my purchase.

There are plenty of publishers out there who want to publish, and have the reputation of publishing, grist for the rumor mill.

At election time, it is even more important to stick to the facts to help people make an informed decision.

Jen Turner said...

Whatever happened to everyone being responsible for their own words and actions?

I also agree there is a difference here between non-fiction and fiction.

In the case of Obama Nation - I think it really has to do with the intelligence of the person picking up the book. I would like to believe that any person reading a book as such, wouldn't necessarily believe every word found inside, unless the author is Obama. If it's written by anyone else, it's simply an account, given by a person who interpreted events in their own personal way. No more, no less.

In terms of The Jewel of Medina...it's fiction. The thought that anyone would raise a torch and pitchfork over a fictional novel, boggles the mind.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think the individual publishers must decide, based on their own mission statements and standards, what to publish. I abhor censorship as well, but having recently turned down an intriguing story for content, I know that I have to decide what I'll pay for and what I won't.

I think it's a crying shame that Random House 1. let such a book get so far without pulling it long ago, or 2. didn't just go ahead and publish it. Letting it get so far and then pulling it just chalks one up for Islamic terrorism. In fact, I'd say RH just let them strike at the heart of what makes the US great. Cheesy, I know, but I believe that strongly in Freedom of Speech. Unfortunately, capitalism is often at odds with it, as is wanting to live safely.

As for the other, I wonder if the book had been "McCain Nation" whether there would have been as much stink over it. I don't worry about it too much. I'm guessing intelligent, thinking readers can smell strong bias in the media by now. If not, then shame on us.

Ken said...

It's a business. When we set up a business to guard our moral and civic responsibilities, we all lose in too many ways to describe. Why are books regarded so differently to other media, is the question I ponder. Books have a nationwide institution dedicated to doing exactly what Napster did. No one can deny that libraries push someone else's hard work to others for free. Just imagine Microsoft's response to "Office" free from any library. And think about it, does it cause nationwide uproar to prosecute (literally or otherwise) DIRECTV for broadcasting pornography, or choosing not to? (Should I begin my next query with that rhetorical question? How about some more?) Do we prosecute newspapers for publishing someone's opinion, so long as it's properly ascribed to that individual? Are you weary of this rhetorical rant yet? Folks, business is business and businesses are there to make money and protect themselves from risks they cannot stomach. Any other expectation is an excuse to disagree with a choice -- censorship, in other words. Thanks for listening.

superwench83 said...

Not publishing The Jewel of Medina is kind of like the gun-prevention rules in some schools. You can only carry a clear bookbag because someone might try to sneak a gun in with a bag you can't see through. If you get cold in class, you can't put on a jacket with a hood because you might be concealing a weapon in there. Such rules are silly. If people want to commit acts of terror, they're going to do it sooner or later no matter what preventative tactics you put in place. And if you put those tactics into place, all of those people who have no intentions of hurting anyone are going to be the ones affected, not the ones you're trying to stop. That being said, Random House has every right to make the decision they did. I just don't agree with that choice.

Regarding the Obama book, it's hardly the first or last book to contain blatant lies about a person. I'm kind of torn about how accountable I think the publisher is. Reading the comments has given me some food for thought. I'll ponder it.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Re: "In the case of Obama Nation - I think it really has to do with the intelligence of the person picking up the book."

From:http://economistsview.
typepad.com/economistsview/
2008/08/of-corsi-lies.html

"As I understand it, these books are propelled to the top of the best seller list in large part by bulk purchases from interested groups. A conservative group will purchase a large quantity of the books (for far less than the cost of, say, a TV ad - they get the books at a discount), then hand them out to people who might be susceptible to the lies in the book. [...]

The New York Times best-seller list does count corporate sales, etc., in its rankings, but it notes when a book's sales have been influenced by these factors. Unsurprisingly, Corsi's book has a footnote attached to it saying "A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders." So they're at it again."

See:

http://www.nytimes.com
/2008/08/17/books/
bestseller/
besthardnonfiction.html
?_r=1&oref=slogin

Sharpmetal said...

Wanda - so the equivalent response to a book claiming Obama is a Muslim who belonged to a radical church is a book claiming McCain desires thermonuclear war and the destruction of manking? Okay...not the bar I'm looking to set for politcal discourse but to each his own. That's why we live in America.

Jen Turner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
badkitty said...

Well, right at the moment S& S is on my loser list because of a "teen" book that I just read that should be X rated. If you're going to market it as YA, it should be so, and there should be no lines from a drag queen about wanting sperm in your scrambled eggs (yes, really. And that's not even the worst line. Plus, the book just sucked.)

So as much as I abhor censorship, I do think that writers and publishers have to have some sort of moral obligation to the public. If something is marketed for teens, there should be certain guidelines to follow. If a book is published as factual, then it should be just that. Otherwise, they are lying through their (in this case) swiftboating teeth.

In this day and age, most facts can be checked by a click of the keyboard.Al Franken checked all facts in his book about Rush (checking facts not being something Rush would know about).And doesn't this set them up for a huge slander suit? Isn't writing and publishing a book of lies about a LAWYER probably the most stupid thing to do ever?

Are there not any standards of decency left in this world? Greed, terror, thank goodness I have my writing to keep me going. Now if you will excuse me, my protagonist's house is just about to be set on fire by overweight Mayan vampires...

Jen Turner said...

Re: Wanda - "A conservative group will purchase a large quantity of the books (for far less than the cost of, say, a TV ad - they get the books at a discount), then hand them out to people who might be susceptible to the lies in the book."

I'd be interested to know how one is identified as a susceptible/gullible target.

Personally, I admit to having a moral compass stuck firmly in the grey, and to not believing anything unless presented with proof. But someone would have to be lacking something necessary for survival to believe anything printed in a political book is 100% true.

I just can't get on board with the publisher being held liable for this one.

Nicole said...

I think what "should" happen might be irrelevant since many, many books have been published which do tell outright lies and slant the truth to fit their political or moral or historical agendas.
Responsibility for what a company publishes does land square on their shoulders, but it's their company after all so they can spend the money to publish truth or lies. The dynamic of specific contractual responsibilities adds another dimension for the legal crowd.
Readers have a responsibility as well. They can read back cover copy, scan reviews and interviews, etc. The decisions to buy are in their hands.

Dave F. said...

Remember the old joke about the politician who screams: "My opponent is a philatelist" knowing that his audience will not understand and think the worst sexual acts possible? And remember that some political groups tried to use Rick Santorum's last name for a subject/object I can't even hint at in polite company? Politics is filled with mud.

We reward politicians with attack ads by voting for them. Who are we kidding?

Paul Vitello of the International Herald Tribune writes:
When Thomas Jefferson found himself accused of planning to burn all Bibles and legalize prostitution if elected president in 1800, he was ready with a counterpunch that might make today's most vitriolic campaign operatives stop short.

Jefferson's rival, President John Adams, was endowed with a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." If re-elected he would crown himself king, and, by the way, he was "mentally deranged."

The author of the attacks was not Jefferson himself, of course, but a master poison-pen pamphleteer named James Callender, who, historians have since determined, was bankrolled by Jefferson.


Jefferson? Our beloved Jefferson? The one with that big stone memorial on the river in DC?
YES! Jefferson.

Kate H said...

A publisher has a responsibility to make sure that the nonfiction they publish is substantially true. A book can be offensive, but only if its targets are offended because it's true.

A publisher does not exactly have a responsibility to publish books like the Medina one, but I sure wish someone would have the guts to do it.

Dwight said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

dwight-

Wildly off topic. Let's stick to books.

larrymuse@msn.com said...

I just have one questin. Why are we decidieng that the book about Obama is a stack of bovine wast but the rebuttal is only supassed in truth by the bible?

Nikki Hootman said...

I don't think a publisher has any moral responsibility to publish or not publish any book, at any time. They make choices every day - reject one manuscript, make an offer on another. They don't really have to justify those choices to anybody.

On the other hand, however, when it comes down to it, what is a publisher but a group of people?

So the question is not, "Do publishers have a responsibility..." but, "Do *people* have a responsibility...?"

Do people have a responsibility to stand up to terrorism?

Do people have a responsibility to tell the truth?

My answers are yes and yes. I don't think threats of terror are a valid excuse for not publishing a book, and I don't think lack of veracity (in non-fiction) is a good reason TO publish a book. Neither one are acceptable criteria for rejection or acceptance, from my moral standpoint.

Anonymous said...

I think it all depends on how the book is marketed.

I don't know much about the Random House title, so I'm not going to address that one directly, but in the case of the book on Obama (or any other public figure)-

If a book is a "less than truthy smear" then it should not be marketed as a hard hitting, factually accurate piece. These facts are verifiable, and it is the responsibility of the editor/publisher to either 1) verify them 2)request re-writes to come into factual truth or 3) not market the book as either factual or truth. The Obama book could still have been published under a different flag; Satire, Humor, edtiorial/perspective. (Though I've not read the book to know if any of these are appropriate)

In general terms regarding the Random House piece, I agree that censorship is not to be desired. But at the same time, Random House has the right to publish or not publish as it see's fit and so long as it can do so within the terms of the contract. Assuming the contract allows it, there is nothing stopping the author from marketing his book elsewhere should he/she so choose.

Nikki Hootman said...

Incidentally I find it a little odd that people are referring to a publisher's decision not to publish a particular book as 'censorship.' Simply because a certain business - not the government, mind you - declines to spend their own money making a book available to the public for purchase does NOT mean that author is somehow prohibited from going to another publisher, self-publishing, e-publishing, or distributing his/her ideas in some other fashion. Claiming that this IS censorship is not only silly, it's a bit insulting to authors and other artists who endured great suffering for their work under totalitarian regimes.

Steppe said...

Tough questions always cause me to eliminate the weirdest possibilities first.

Maybe the character of the fictional novel is out there somewhere reincarnated and put the old whammy on the book by throwing a space alien monkey mind meld on the writer.

Maybe Obama's ID jumped ship and the spectre went south for the election and as Obama tried to track it down ,it start retaliating by blabbing all kinds of previously secret information.

One way or another Random House would never have published the Obama book. But, Simon an Schuster might have published the fictionalized historical novel about Mohammed's nubile concubine.

Random House is Liberal
Simon and Schuster are Conservative

The rest is just a chess game.

Although I do check out if an agent is selling to both sides being the machievellian space monkeey that I am.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Check this out:

From March 2005:

http://query.nytimes.com
/gst/fullpage.html?res=
9F01E2DE163FF930A15750C0A9639C8B63

"Mary Matalin, right, the political strategist, will oversee a new imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.'s adult publishing group that will specialize in books about conservative politics and current events, executives said yesterday. The imprint, which has yet to be named, will publish 6 to 10 books a year and will be jointly managed by David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, and Louise Burke, the publisher of Pocket Books." Etc.

Timothy Fish said...

A publisher is under no obligation to publish a book. A publisher does has a responsibility to stand behind anything they publish. Knowingly publishing inaccurate content is no better a gossip repeating the latest rumor or a supermarket tabloid. Even worse, one inaccurate book can hurt the reputation of all of the books they publish.

Anonymous said...

Since Simon & Schuster promotes Obama Nation as nonfiction, as a "thoroughly researched and documented book," shouldn't they be held accountable? Why should memoirists be held to task, but a publisher, who labels and promotes the book, be let to slide? Shouldn't it be slander!!

Nathan Bransford said...

I think anon raises an interesting point -- why are memoirists (and the publishers who publish them) held to a higher standard than political authors (and the publishers who publish them)?

Arjay said...

You bet your sweet bippy they're responsible!

Anonymous said...

So, what about Comrade Pelosi's book? Why didn't that sell? Don't inquiring minds want to know, or at least discuss? How are you going to explain that? Crappy marketing? LOL

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

What does that have to do with anything?

Can the political trolls of both stripes please stand on the sidelines so we can talk about books? I'm going to be wielding the delete button liberally (and I don't mean that in a political sense) from here on out.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
r.c. said...

"Do publishers have a civic responsibility or should they let the public decide?"

Don't we all have a civic responsibility? Isn't it kind of a sad reflection on the business that you have to ask this?

Erik said...

I believe very strongly that the printed word has and will continue to have a tremendous affect on what could be called "culture", and that this is something which should be taken seriously.

Now, back to the biz. A publisher exists to make money. In order to do that, they can go with the quick-hits of what they know will be fashionable, regardless of veracity. But their reputation suffers in the long run for doing so.

S&S can publish whatever they want, and I will kvetch about it endlessly. If I can make use of this as an example as to why the public needs to support works of cultural value, I will. I hope that the backlash is more powerful than the $$$ they got by publishing it.

But it's their call as to what kind of publisher they want to be. I hope to be part of a movement that shows them that this was the wrong call.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, my post was about a book. I got the impression that some people are trying to blame the best-selling status of Obama Nation on its publisher being "conservative."

Personally, I think that's a ridiculous premise. IMO a lot of liberals tend to overlook the fact that conservatives are readers, too, not just publicists or what have you! They buy books, a lot of books. I think a lot of conservatives would have bought the Jewel of Medina, too, and will once it finally gets published.

But, Nancy's flop really does stump me. I know liberals are readers, too. So why didn't her book sell?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I think people have a handle on why Obama Nation is a bestseller, but that's not what we're talking about. The discussion isn't about why it has sold well but rather about what responsibility a publisher has to publish a nonfiction book that is accurate, and whether a backlash against inaccuracy is justified. Politics doesn't really have anything to do with this, we could have the same discussion about an inaccurate liberal book. But OBAMA NATION happened to be in the news, so there you go.

R. Daley said...

A publisher's decision is based on finances...will the book make money. Especially if it is a public entity, then it is beholden to its shareholders, and all decisions are based on top line revenues and bottom line earnings.

As a reader, I am comfortable in choosing what I do and do not read.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

But what is civic responsibility? Can you even define it in today's America? Where are the lines drawn between responsible and irresponsible? And, really, does a publisher have more civic responsibility than a writer, the bookseller, or the reader?

Anonymous said...

I should have said "Shouldn't it be libel?" rather than "... slander".

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marva said...

Better to keep the fiction (IT'S FICTION, YOU DUMMIES!) and not print the non-fic book laden with lies.

The responsibility of the publisher lies on that line. Is the book supposed to be 'real' or not? If 'real' then it'd better be true.

Okay, liberals need to start being suicide bombers to get any respect. Apparently, being a freakin' nutcase is what's needed to enforce your POV on the public.

Edith said...

I think the publisher's responsibility is to fact check. If what's printed is a lie--then that's libel and the publisher, as well as the author should be responsible. With all the fictionalized memoirs being published of late, one has to be seriously concerned about publishers ability to conduct simple fact-checking. I would think it should be a routine procedure for every book. Heck, even fiction books usually have a fact or two that needs verifying. Who's the weak link? Is it being left to the underpaid copyeditor who could care less? Obviously authors are supposed to do their own due diligence before turning the book over for publication, but as we've seen authors aren't always honest.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Check this out:

The Middle East Book Award

http://socialscience.tyler.cc.tx.us
/mkho/MEOC/
middle_east_book_award.htm

Haven't found one yet for adult fiction...anyone know of any such awards?

JES said...

Anonymous@ 3:37 PM and Nathan@3:42 PM -- I almost brought that up before (non-fiction publisher vs. memoirist). Put OBAMA NATION up against, say, the James Frey mess from a year or so ago -- A MILLION SHINY PIECES or whatever it was. The publisher flipped, and rightly so, when JF was exposed as a liar. At the time, at least as I recall, there was no outcry about the publisher's responsibility. They were embarrassed as bejeezus, sure, and they took their embarrassment out on Frey. I thought that was a justifiable response on their part.

But if a publisher hasn't taken explicit steps to protect itself -- by contractually holding the author to some standard of truth (as any smart publisher would, I'd think) -- I don't see that the publisher deserves a pass. If they have taken those steps, then it's on the author.

Nathan, isn't this what... uh... is the term "indemnification" relates to? like holding a publisher harmless for factual errors in material which the author has averred to be "true"?

gsavorgnan said...

Although I am opposed to censorship, I am also in favor of responsible reporting. If an author promotes his work as factual, then perhaps the author and publisher should be held to the same standard of due diligence as the news industry.

strangerface said...

To the Anon who said : With the Obama smear book out there, did the author open himself up to a possible libel suit? How could a publishing house knowingly publish materials that were not true, unless they waived their liability in the contract with the author?

Yes, the author opened himself up to a possible lawsuit. Whenever you publish something that someone will disagree with, you take that risk. However, with the Corsi book it is a different situation than with a regular memoir. The difference is that Barack Obama is a public figure (legally speaking) which makes it harder to sue for libel. Obama would have to prove "actual malice" if he were to sue Corsi. And Corsi has pretty much covered his ass by citing "sources" for his claims. He can then say he just didn't know they weren't true (for all we know, he really does believe all this crud).

Legal departments in publishing houses are trained to look for the sort of thing that could bring a lawsuit like this. That's why they change names in memoirs, etc. When a person isn't a public figure, they can sue for invasion of privacy.

The author also makes certain reps and warranties when they sign a contract (Nathan can probably speak more to that). I wouldn't be surprised if the S&S contract with Corsi was very specific, to protect the house.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Simple answer, publishers should publish what they want to publish.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it called "yellow journalism" when the press tried to get involved in creating gossip about political candidates?

Mary

katherinelw said...

This may seem naive in the wake of all the previous comments but I feel strongly that publishers should stand behind the books they choose to publish.

Publishing is a huge investment of time, money and expertise. If you're going to make that sort of investment then you should believe in your book and your author. And that means you don't back down to fearmongers who say that the sky might fall. Neither do you publish something that you know is inaccurate and market it as fact.

Of course publishers can be duped by authors - we see it happening all the time with memoirists - but they should go into the process in good faith and believing in the book and the author. A publisher who publishes a smear campaign knowing that it's full of inaccuracies and also knowing that it will sell millions of copies should be held accountable for any distress caused by their book.

Those are my thoughts, anyway.

Anonymous said...
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M Clement Hall said...

Nathan has thrown out a real "Hail Mary" and the players are scambling after the ball.
A writer will have a problem if
(s)he doesn't grasp the elementary fact that the publishing industry is controlled by the rules and laws of business.
It is not a public service.
It is not a charity.
It is not a rich man's playground.
It's purpose is to make money for the owners. If it fails in that purpose, it becomes a part of history.

Inner Child said...

The author and the publisher have strong Republican ties and are unapologetic about the intent of the book - to discredit Senator Obama. The book should be printed, if at all, as a piece of fiction. To represent it as fact is dishonest and disgraceful.

Gabrielle said...

I think they are two separate problems. Censorship, with the Medina novel, is awful. Of course there are lots of iffy and potentially offensive books. They should still be published.

The second-- publishers should do their job in making sure the facts are CORRECT. They stand behind the book if it's in the Nonfiction section as saying the facts (not opinions) are correct. If the facts are incorrect, they haven't done their job. *Especially* with such a high profile book as Obama Nation.

Mags said...

Why'd it get picked up?

Jewel of Medina? Topical, but how's the writing? Fabulous? Okay, decide whether to publish and stand by it. Not fabulous? Acknowledge that you've stepped into heated waters and take responsibility.

The Obama tome? You chose to grab, you knew money would follow, don't complain if you're held accountable for the fallout. You've got fact checkers.

Like everything, a publisher's responsibility slides around, depending on the situation.

IM(so very)HO.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

the same standard of due diligence as the news industry

What if the news industry was held to any standard of due dilligence??

Ok, that was rhetorical, just to bug Nathan. Heehee.

Anonymous said...

Publishers, especially the good people at S&S whom I've worked with and adore, have a moral responsibility to publish the truth, and I don't think they take that lightly. I don't think their laywers take that lightly either.

Ben said...

This is a tough call. I am against censorship--however, that is a personal standpoint. In the publishing industry, I'm given to understand that the driving force is book sales. If an agent, editor, or publisher doesn't believe that a book is going to sell, then it uses that as a criterion for rejecting an author's book. One could describe that as a sort of censorship.

It would be absurd to say that publishers must publish all books, of course. So some censorship is required to keep the industry practical.

I don't like the fact that Random House pulled The Jewel of Medina. I think that it is within its rights as a publisher to refuse to publish something on moral grounds. However, if the Random House holds the rights to The Jewel of Medina, then that's just mean. If a publisher refuses to publish a books for moral reasons, the author should have the right to seek another publisher or publish it online. Otherwise, a publisher could just buy a book, refuse to publish it for moral reasons, and leave it sitting in a shelf forever. That's unfair to the public and unfair to the author. Random House should have rejected The Jewel of Medina outright if it had concerns because of its content.

Vieva said...

I think that if they're publishing nonfiction, they have a moral responsibility to at least TRY to make sure it's honest - so the Obama book is a problem on that front. Because it's known bull.

As far as refusing to publish based on fear - I think it was the wrong decision, but an understandable one. After all, they didn't want their people getting targeted, and that's another admirable trait. It's two goods in opposition, and that's the hardest thing to judge. It's two good things. And while I might decide *for myself* to take the risk to publish and take the consequences, that's a pretty difficult thing to take for *other people*. I think that's an important distinction.

Anonymous said...

The publisher, especially one in the supposedly "free and home of the "brave" USA, should have published the book about Mohammed's mistress. It wasn't even a Muslim who said there would be violence, it was a professor at a Texas college (not Muslim.) ANd even if it were a threatening Muslim, what happened to free press, free speech and that this IS AMERICA? NOT a fascist country who bows down to terrorists. I guess shopping is in order, but not book publishing and book reading. The PC police are at it again - conservatism in the guise of extreme politically correct liberalism.

What next, if I write a book about a government agency, the publisher will be scared that some corporate-sucking bribe-taking Congressman is going to blow them all up? Give me a break.

This is America. Random House should act like it. They are cowards and going against all that America stands for.

Anonymous said...

from what i'm reading lately - a few memoirs - I don't think they are truthful - people remembering in detail conversations, chair cushions, mom and dad's conversation, what they wore, etc when the writer was 3 years old - give me a break!

Kristin Laughtin said...

I've got to agree with JES here re: the responsibility of fiction publishers. RH is doing this based on something that "might" happen, and has happened before. (And the person it happened to, Salman Rushdie, is still against it!) But are they willing to do this any time any author writes something offensive? Because if something's offensive, someone somewhere will be willing to kill because of it. Censoring works like this puts us on a slippery slope--how controversial does a work have to be before it becomes too "dangerous" to publish? How many people does it have to potentially offend? Does it matter who those people are, or are all demographics equal? There have been many books published that insult my religion/religious figures, and while I may dislike the content, I never expect any publisher to stop putting out such works out of fear. There's freedom of the press in America, so publishers are free to publish (or not) whatever they want, but selective censorship still annoys me. It's caving in and it's cowardly and I wonder if it will start a new trend and how far that trend will extend.

Jeff said...

I think publishers of non-fiction have a responsibility to make a minimal effort to check the facts of the nonfiction they publish. I wouldn't want to see a pubishing world like it is in Great Britain, but at the same time, far too much garbage has been published in the name of the free market.

As for the threat of terrorist actions against a publisher for publishing a work of fiction, I'd say the chances of that actually happening are miniscule. Terrorists have much juicier targets. I would have to say that we aren't being told the whole story here. My guess is S&S wanted out of this book, for whatever reason, and this is a handy excuse.

Jeff said...

Sorry, that should have been Random House, not S&S.

kai said...

Yes, I think the publisher is responsible for the content they publsh. If they choose to publish degrating, prejudice material shining a light on how all 5 year old blonde children should be eradicated, then they must stand behind that decision. This is no different. However, if they choose to publish it and the public doesn't like it, the publisher should suffer the consequences. Just like they 'suffer' them when the public loves it, eats it up and reccommends it to all their friends. To break under pressure and retract a book after publishing seems wrong to me. They should have done all the research and made all the decisions about content BEFORE the book was published.

clindsay said...

Re the Random House decision...well, that's a hard one.

While the decision to not publish makes me personally uncomfortable, I can also see the other side of the situation. I was a bookseller in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1988 and 1989, during the time of the Satanic Verses/Salman Rushdie fatwa and the subsequent paranoia that ensued. I had good friends who worked at Cody's Bookstore when it was firebombed for carrying the book. A lot of booksellers were (justifiably) frightened after that. Some bookstores chose not to carry the book.

Ultimately, our bookstore - a tiny independent - chose to carry the book but I do remember thinking to myself at the time "Yeah, censorship sucks, but at $3.95 an hour, does a bookseller really earn enough money to justify putting his or her life at risk to simply make a point?"

Just thought I'd throw that out there.

markwise said...

Publishers are there to make money and not decide morality. If the public wants to buy it, then there will be a publisher out there to print it.

If publishers were meant to be guardians of our moral conscience, then there would be no Romance section in the bookstores.

putzjab said...

I'm in complete agreement with markwise. Publishers are in it for the money. If they deem a story is not going to give them enough buck for all the banging they have to do to get the story on the shelf, they won't bother. Obama stuff sells regardless of whether or not there's an inch of truth to the content.

Sincerely,

Frustrated Struggling Wannabe Published Author...(Lena)

wafla said...

Publishers and authors can publish whatever they please. Similarly, they are free to take the consequences. Corsi and his publisher should be sued into oblivion by the wounded parties. In that regard the system works just fine.

The question gets more difficult when people like Corsi incite murder. By de-legitimizing progressive views and dehumanizing progressives, we get credulous Republicans shooting unitarians in churches, killing Democrats, and blowing up buildings. In these cases Corsi and other profiteers are essentially steadying the shooter's aim and pointing out targets, and then laughing all the way to the bank.

If the publishers didn't want money so much, they would have no motive to publish these books. Fewer conservatives would be misled, and more Americans would be alive today. I know that money is awesomely cool... but it's only one consideration in a decision, ergo the publishers aren't really thinking this through.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a question of morality. Nobody is saying publishers shouldn't publish immoral tales.

It's about lies. It's about deliberately publishing falsehoods. There are plenty of rag magazines and rag publishers to publish the lies, but they are known for publishing lies and nobody should take anything they publish seriously.

What Simon and Schuster does is hurt the reliability of all their other non-fiction. That's why most publishers take getting it right very seriously, because why should I believe anything S&S publishes if they are willing to publish a book full of lies? Where does it stop?

If they want to join the ranks of Regenery Press, they are welcome to do so. There's a lot of right-wing billionaires out there to buy up books and put them on the bestseller list.

But if they want to remain a reputable publisher, they should stand behind what they publish. If they can't do that, if right-wing billionaire money is just too tempting, fine, that's there business decision. But I hope they don't get offended if peope begin to doubt the reliability of the remainder of their book list.

Once a cheater, always a cheater.

Anonymous said...

Are (read here conservative)cable news networks morally responsible for misleading millions of viewers by putting their own spin (read here agenda) on programming and so called breaking news? Are newspapers morally responsible for printing misleading headlines, which less than savy readers scan and call themselves informed, and putting the truth in fine print on page 14B?
Or, is it up to the reader or viewer to fire up brain cell number two and actually incorporate their own thoughts, morals and values in deciding what to read, what to believe, and how to act and react?
On the other hand, morals rarely have a place when we're talking bottom dollar. Publishers will publish what they believe will make them money, and they will back out on what they believe will cost them money.

Paula said...

Being alive means accepting responsibility for one's actions, Nathan. I strongly support the right to free speech, but just because we are free to say anything doesn't necessarily mean we should.

Maripat said...

I hate censorship in all of its ugly disguises. Afraid to publish a book? Shame on them. As for Obama Nation, well, it is the political season. I would’ve found it stranger if no such book even existed. Not saying it’s right or wrong, but there have always been books published on candidates, presidents and other world leaders. I’m sure most (if not all) have been less than credible. And sometimes it’s not done deliberately. If I wanted the truth I’d look toward the newspapers and hope they were honest. But books? Nah. Not even autobiographies or memoirs.

From where I’m standing, let the books be published. Publishers have the right to print what they want and readers have the right to read it or not.

Anonymous said...
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M Clement Hall said...

The repetitious claims of a country that prides itself on free speech should refer to Kurzita's entry at 11.50.

Scott said...

Publishers should make their own choices, and we should cast our consumer votes accordingly. If we're lucky, the reaction will right the ship by itself.

But that's my head talking.

My heart tells me the title alone is worthy of a resounding and very public box to S&S's corporate ear.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, anyone else super curious about all of those 'comment deleted' entries? :-)

Looks like you've been busy, Nathan! Great question. It got us all going.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@10:33-

Well, I guess I've learned by now learned that when politics is even tangentially involved it brings the tinfoil hat types out of the woodwork.

Nathan Bransford said...

(I meant that in reference to the deleted comments, not the very good and non-deleted discussion)

Steppe said...

I think the fact checking argument is unnassailable. Fact checking is fact checking...etc.

Obama fired off a 40 page rebuttal.
So the controversy must have been on characterization and inference building.

The Liberals should have had such a political weapon deployed or deployable.

The lady who got her fiction yanked made a bold artistic foray and she did get to keep the money and the rights to her book. I would think someone would come along and exploit the publicity factor.

The lemmings factor is in play.

The hidden factor in the equations is the
Russians are behaving in the way they are behaving to promote the Republican
image and standing not just to keep up the price of gas.

That's tangential to the production of tombes of overt and subtle political
persuausion but it plays into the idea of manipulating cause and effect on the subtle difficult to find motivation levels.

The old "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." theme.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Just_Me said...

I like to choose my own books.

I understand the publishers need to have veto rights. There are some things that aren't ready to be published. They aren't written well or no one will read. But when it comes to politics the publishers need to pick one side or the other: they either publish everything and let people decide or they censor everything.

Of the two books mentioned I did want to read Jewel of Medina. The topic is interesting to me. I couldn't care less about Obama... that's Just Me.

But imagine what would happen if publishers started censoring material based on reader backlash-

Have you read 1984?

How many books would be pulled off the shelves?
- Every single religious work, because it offends someone.
- Every science text, because that offends people.
- Most of the romance genre would be down the drain (heaven forbid adults talk about sex).
- Most mysteries, sci-fi, and fantasy books for being too violent

I really don't know where you would end with that. Every book has the potential to offend someone. Random House has started a very dangerous trend.

Anonymous said...

For obvious reasons, I'm going to post this anonymously.

Why is this particular publisher being vilified when religious ones publish what could be considered lies, too?

These latter aren't called upon to verify the "facts" in some of their titles, are they?

Anonymous said...
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Chatty Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chatty Kelly said...

If people could police themselves, we wouldn't need the police. If people could govern their actions, we wouldn't need the government to create laws.

In a perfect world, publishers could let the public decide. We don't live in a perfect world. I believe publishers do have a civic responsibility.

Scott Jones said...

One of the precepts of the American Civil Liberties Union, freedom of speech under the Constitution, has a nifty spin-off here. If you let the skinheads out in public in Skokie Illinois and actually listen to what they say, any glamor of being a secretive, fringe organization disappears as you realize their message is idiotic.

Let the idiots out of the closet, so that we can dismiss them and put their message behind us.

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