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Publishing postures

Book publishers are playing a dangerous game

After dark on March 13, 2020, three plainclothes cops broke into the Louisville apartment of Breonna Taylor, a hospital ER technician, during a drug investigation. Taylor’s boyfriend, assuming it was burglary, started shooting. In the crossfire that followed, one of the cops shot and killed Taylor.

Her story was a local tragedy until the death of George Floyd, when Breonna Taylor became a martyr to racist policing. I wrote about the Taylor and Floyd cases in a June column, pondering how small irregularities, when overlooked, can become crises. I was especially concerned about “no-knock warrants.” How was that even legal?

Some readers gently suggested I might want to look further into police procedures: the other side of the story. This is wise counsel. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). But in our hot-take world, it can take weeks for all sides of a case to shake out.

Or more than a year. The Fight for Truth: The Inside Story Behind the Breonna Taylor Tragedy is the account of Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, one of the three officers who broke into Taylor’s apartment, and the only one who was not discharged from the Louisville Police Department. He signed a contract with Post Hill Press, a small Nashville publisher, to tell his side.

Sgt. Mattingly’s account might be self-serving claptrap, but we won’t know unless we read it.

As the book was going to press, Mattingly approached the Louisville Courier Journal for permission to use one of their photos. Two days later the Courier Journal reported on the book, and within hours cries of outrage rose on social media, leading to some serious backtracking. Post Hill Press has not, to my knowledge, canceled publication, but it’s lost a vital link in the marketing chain. As a client of Simon & Schuster Distribution Services, it depends on S&S for getting The Fight for Truth into bookstores and libraries. The furor was too much for the venerable publisher, which declared hands-off on April 15.

Earlier this year, Simon & Schuster took another stand for public decency by canceling a book by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., after the senator questioned the Electoral College vote that handed the presidency to Joseph Biden. This allegedly put him on the side of the Capitol rioters, and therefore, “[We] cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom,” tweeted spokesperson Olivia Nuzzi.

Hawley’s book has nothing to do with Jan. 6. Its title is succinct, self-explanatory, and somewhat ironic, given the circumstances: The Tyranny of Big Tech. As it turned out, Regnery Press soon picked up the contract, and the book will appear this month. Ironically, again, Regnery’s distributor is none other than Simon & Schuster.

Sgt. Mattingly’s account might be self-serving claptrap, but we won’t know unless we read it. As one of four surviving witnesses, he has a singular perspective. Likewise, Hawley’s book might be political grandstanding, but he’s studied big tech, conducted hearings on it, and proposed legislation about it. Shouldn’t we read what he has to say?

Well, we can … so far. But publishers and booksellers are playing a game without rules on a field without boundaries. Publishing in general once adhered to If it bleeds, it leads. But now: Too hot? Maybe not. There are no guidelines, only “values.” No plan of action, only reaction. Postures, rather than principles.

One more example: Amazon recently swept one critique of transgenderism (Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally) from all its sales platforms. But similar books remain. Why? When four GOP senators asked that question, Amazon vice president for public policy Brian Huseman explained, “We have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identities as a mental illness.” This only raises more questions. What about books that frame LGBTQ+ identities as sin? Like the Bible?

These are privately owned companies, not government entities. But exclusion by preference is sometimes worse than by law. Censorship can glamorize the forbidden. Canceling merely smothers it.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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