Milo Yiannopoulos — a leader of the racist, misogynist far-right fringe movement known as the alt-right, who built his career on being hateful to people on the internet and has been described as a professional troll and the leader of an online hate mob — recently signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions for a reported $250,000 advance, says the Hollywood Reporter.
The response from progressives was immediate and outraged. What is Simon & Schuster — reputable, legitimate book publisher Simon & Schuster — doing giving money to the guy who declared his birthday World Patriarchy Day? (“If you have female employees, refer to them exclusively as ‘darling.’ All day.”) The guy who received a lifetime ban from Twitter for inciting a mob into sending racist, misogynistic, threatening, and generally hateful tweets to Leslie Jones? The guy whose publication history includes such gems as “Science Proves It: Fat-Shaming Works” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”?
The Chicago Review of Books vowed not to review a single Simon & Schuster book in 2017. The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Karen Hunter, who publishes with Simon & Schuster, tweeted that she was “rethinking” her relationship with the company. Prominent progressives like Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery promised to boycott Simon & Schuster books.
The surprise and outrage that greeted the Yiannopoulos news reflects the fact that book deals like his are unusual — right now, anyway. But as the Republican Party and conservative thought evolve in the Age of Trump, such deals are likely to grow increasingly common.
Most of the so-called Big Five publishing houses who make up the core of American book publishing have at least one imprint devoted to publishing right-wing authors. Although its writers might not always receive the awards or accolades afforded to liberal writers and non-political novelists, the niche of conservative book publishing has become an enormous money-maker — one that's flourished in the last decade especially. And as alt-right discourse becomes increasingly normalized within the conservative political sphere, there is every reason to think that figures like Yiannopoulos will continue to get major book deals.
To understand publishing’s right-wing imprints, first you have to understand how modern American book publishing is organized.
American trade book publishing is dominated by five publishing houses, known as the Big Five: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. Of these, Penguin Random House is the biggest, Macmillan is the smallest, and Simon & Schuster sits comfortably in the middle.
Together, these five publishing houses make up over 80 percent of the US trade publishing market share — meaning that they produce over 80 percent of the kinds of general-interest books that get sold in Barnes & Noble. The remainder is published by smaller independent presses, and those independent presses usually have specific areas of specialty. But the Big Five houses don’t need to specialize, because they can do that on an imprint level instead of a company level.
Each of the Big Five houses is made up of smaller imprints, each with its own distinct brand identity. Penguin Random House includes under its roof such imprints as Knopf, which publishes prestigious literary authors like Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro; Firebird, which publishes sci-fi and fantasy for young adults; and Clarkson Potter, which publishes cookbooks and self-help books.
Generally, the imprints of a particular publishing house will share certain parts of each other’s infrastructure — things like printing and distribution, maybe a sales force. They’ll sometimes be clumped together into “publishing groups,” which might share a marketing and publicity team. But no matter what, the editorial side of each imprint is independent. Toni Morrison’s editor and Ina Garten’s editor both work for Penguin Random House, but there’s no reason they would ever need to talk or come into contact with each other. They’re in totally different areas.
There are a lot of benefits for publishers in keeping these imprints editorially distinct. For one thing, it makes it easier to acquire an imprint. The Big Five houses often expand by buying up existing independent imprints or by merging — as Penguin and Random House, formerly independent entities, did in 2013 — and promising each imprint editorial freedom helps smooth over those transactions.
For another thing, it makes it easier for each book find its designated reader. The person buying Toni Morrison’s book is not necessarily in the market for Ina Garten’s book, so the publishing team for Toni Morrison has one set of skills and priorities, and the publishing team for Ina Garten has another. The stuff they have in common — for instance, both books need to be printed, warehoused, and distributed — they can share.
Having a diverse group of imprints is also good for company stability. If one imprint is having an off year, another can compensate. And ideally, if one imprint is having a very good year, everyone else can benefit as well. 50 Shades of Greywas published by the Penguin Random House imprint Vintage Books, but when it sold 60 million copies in 2012, everyone working at what was then just Random House (pre-Penguin merger) got a $5,000 Christmas bonus, not just Vintage employees.
But looking in from the outside, things get confusing. As you’ve probably gathered by now, publishing houses often share names with some of their groups and some of their imprints, which means that it gets complicated to distinguish between them. For instance, Penguin Random House is the home of the Penguin Publishing Group, which includes Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, and Penguin Press, each of which does different things. It’s also the home of the Random House publishing group (the official title is just Random House, which seems willfully confusing), which includes the Random House imprint, familiarly known as Little Random. These groups and imprints are just small parts of a much larger company, but the names obscure that fact.
So when we say that Milo Yiannopoulos has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, that’s technically true. But he doesn’t have a book deal with Simon & Schuster, the prestigious imprint that publishes people like Bret Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, and Hillary Clinton. He has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, the publishing house that includes such imprints as Enliven (New Age books) and Jeter Publishing, the official publishing imprint of New York Yankee Derek Jeter.
Specifically, Yiannopoulos has a book deal with Threshold Editions, the designated right-wing imprint for Simon & Schuster.
Threshold Editions wears its political affiliations on its sleeve. Currently wrapping up its 10-year anniversary celebrations, it has adopted the oddly bitter anniversary motto “10 Years of Being Right.” It counts among its authors Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and President-elect Donald Trump. In its mission statement, it declares that it exists to “provide a forum for the creative people, bedrock principles, and innovative ideas of contemporary conservatism.”
And for the most part, that’s more or less what it does. Trump postures about his policy plans. Cheney explains why we should go back to his policies. Glenn Beck gets invective on his pet issues, like education (the federal government should get out of it), and so-called Islamic extremism (he thinks violence is inherent to Islamic teachings). Ben Shapiro explains how the media is controlled by a liberal conspiracy. The occasional lay historian gets sentimental about a dead president or two. None of it is particularly intellectually rigorous, but it’s not far away from what you’d hear on, say, Fox News — mostly because most of these authors are regular fixtures on Fox News.
Simon & Schuster isn’t alone in offering these authors a platform for their work. Threshold Editions is just one of the most recent Big Five imprints created specifically to give right-wing authors a platform.
The idea of specifically right-wing imprints in the Big Five houses is a relatively new one. For years, the only major player in the conservative publishing field was Regnery Books, a Washington-based press founded in 1947. Most of the big-league conservative authors have published at least one book with Regnery — Trump, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Newt Gingrich, and all the rest. It had some competition from The Free Press, the academic/trade crossover imprint that migrated from Macmillan to Simon & Schuster and specialized in scholarly conservative thought before it was absorbed into Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint in 2012, but otherwise, the Big Five houses stayed away from conservative publishing.
But then, in the early ’00s, Fox News started churning out right-wing pundits with what publishers call built-in platforms: They had audiences who cared about their thoughts and opinions, and were willing to spend money to hear more of them. As those pundits’ books became reliable players on the New York Times bestseller list, the publishers who made up what was then the Big Six decided that it was time for them to join the game, the New York Times reported in 2010.
Random House, at the time independent from Penguin and the largest publisher in the Big Six, kicked off the trend with Crown Forum. Founded in 2002, the same year that Fox News became the top-rated cable news channel, it publishes Ann Coulter’s books alongside titles like Enhanced Interrogation. (Waterboarding: worth it if you do it right!)
Penguin quickly followed suit with Sentinel, founded in 2003, which publishes Mike Huckabee and books like Your Teacher Said What?!: Defending Our Kids from the Liberal Assault on Capitalism.
The smaller Simon & Schuster prudently waited a few years before diving into the burgeoning conservative-imprint field. But as it became clear that major New York trade publishing houses could make money from conservative voices just as well as niche political presses in Washington could, it jumped. It established Threshold Editions in 2006.
And from 2010 to 2013, HarperCollins had Broadside Books, which published books like Eco-Fascists: How Radical Conservationists Are Destroying Our Natural Heritageand Why ObamaCare is Wrong for America: How the New Health Care Law Drives Up Costs, Puts Government in Charge of Your Decisions, and Threatens Your Constitutional Rights. Broadside Books, which branded itself as the intellectual pinnacle of conservative publishing — the William F. Buckley to the other imprints’ Sean Hannity — is still listed on HarperCollins’s imprints page, but it has no homepage of its own, and its Twitter page hasn't been updated since 2013. HarperCollins did not reply to my questions about Broadside Books’ current status, but if it is now defunct (and all the evidence suggests that it is), then it was the only one of the Big Five conservative imprints to collapse.
The imprints that survived were all built specifically to appeal to conservative readers, but not out of any high-minded ideas about celebrating the great American belief in free speech for all, or out of deep commitment on the part of the publishing CEOs to conservative values. These imprints were established because conservative readers have demonstrated that they can put a book on the best-seller list, and the Big Five houses are in the business of trying to publish bestsellers. These imprints are cogs in a money-making machine.
And as conservatism evolves in the Age of Trump, these imprints are going to change with it in order to keep churning out books that sell.
Milo Yiannopoulos is not a run-of-the-mill conservative thinker. His brand is ostensibly a winking, provocative, speaking-truth-to-power punk rock ethos — hence the title of his forthcoming book, Dangerous. But that image only rings true if you think that women, people of color, trans people, and other historically disenfranchised people have too much power over white cis men and need to be put in their place.
That is what Yiannopoulos believes deeply. And while many more mainstream conservative thinkers would agree with him that liberals have a stranglehold on the culture and bully those who disagree with them, Yiannopoulos’s tactics are extreme even by their standards.
He is scheduled to give a talk at Stanford on “female biological inferiority in science.” He has said that Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers is “the one thing” the country got right, because “behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.” He goes to a college campus and says “Feminism is cancer,” and then watches people melt down. His entire thing is to say something hyperbolically offensive that is designed to anger liberals, and then laugh at them when they take it seriously — and then he winks at his followers, so that you can’t quite tell how much he means what he says.
If, as Vox’s Aja Romano has argued, the alt-right knowingly masks sincerely felt ideals with ironic trolling, then Yiannopoulos is a master of the form. He spreads hatred and bigotry under the guise of hipper-than-thou trolling: Obviously he’s posting that swastika ironically, he’ll tell you. Can’t you take a joke? But the swastika is still there, no matter how much Yiannopoulos might posture about how hilarious it is, and it’s still spreading its intended message.
Ben Shapiro, a conservative in the more classic mold, cannot stand him. “If I can’t tell the difference between your ironic tweet and [Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke’s, that’s your fault,” Shapiro told Bloomberg News. “He’s not making fun of racism. It’s clown nose on, clown nose off. It’s basic teenage bullshit by someone who is immature.”
Shapiro is an instructive figure because he is, in many ways, a more conventional mirror to Yiannopoulos. Like Yiannopoulos, Shapiro is published at Threshold Editions, where he wrote a book alleging that the left is strangling free speech — incidentally, the same general topic that Dangerous is slated to cover. He and Yiannopoulos briefly overlapped as writers for the right-wing website Breitbart before Shapiro left — in protest, Bloomberg News says, of its transition from far-right (more traditionally conservative) to alt-right (neo-Nazis). It’s a transition in which Yiannopoulos is considered to have been instrumental.
Now, Yiannopoulos is leading the same transition in conservative book publishing. Threshold Editions still thinks of itself as a place for the familiar Ben Shapiros of the world, but it’s also making room for the world’s Milo Yiannopouloses: for the people who perform their politics through trolling and hate speech.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a hateful person who has built a career on bigotry, but it is not hard to see why an editor at a right-wing publishing imprint might think it would be a good idea to sign him. He is loud, he has a loyal army of followers, and he knows how to get people’s attention. He has that all-important built-in platform.
All of that equals press attention — such as the flurry of articles the book deal prompted, including this one — and press attention usually means increased book sales. In Yiannopoulos’s case, it seems to have worked. Dangerous is currently a best-seller on Amazon.
And Yiannopoulos is a creature of the internet, which makes him attractive to an industry still trying to figure out how to survive in the digital era. In a time when YA publishers are encouraged to sign YouTube stars and see if their teen fans can be cajoled into buying books, an author who is fluent in the internet and its ways is a godsend.
But most importantly, he looks like a very possible future of the Republican party in the age of Trump. The white supremacists of the so-called alt right are ascendant right now, taking cushy White House appointments and featuring in swooning fashion profiles, and Yiannopoulos is part of their vanguard. It makes sense that an editor would make that kind of calculation and decide to bring him on.
But in identifying Yiannopoulos as a possible future of conservative thought, Threshold Editions is caught in a cycle. Because by giving him a book deal, they’re not looking at a figure who is already considered culturally legitimate and giving him another platform for his thoughts. They’re looking at a figure who is reviled in some corners of the culture and adored in others — a kind of threshold figure — and they are saying that they consider him to be legitimate. They are not just describing; they are prescribing. They have decided that Yiannopoulos seems like someone who is about to be mainstream, and so they have brought him into the mainstream themselves. When Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter that “this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream,” he was being entirely accurate.
And having brought in one Milo Yiannopoulos, it will be increasingly easy to bring in another, and then another, until all of the hatred and all of the rage of the white supremacists and misogynists and bigots on the alt-right is considered a valid part of the cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other. It will become normal.
Normalizing the alt-right is incredibly dangerous, but that doesn’t mean that a boycott of Simon & Schuster is necessarily the best solution to this problem. It all goes back to that all-important imprint model.
Simon & Schuster is the home of Threshold Editions, and it is set to make a great deal of money by legitimizing and mainstreaming Milo Yiannopoulos and his hatred. But it is also the home of imprints like Salaam Reads, a Muslim-themed children’s imprint that was established with the laudable goal “to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.” In its eponymous imprint, it publishes explicitly progressive authors like Rebecca Traister and E.J. Dionne.
That’s the basic business model of the Big Five: Publish as much as possible, as widely as possible, but keep different kinds of thinking and writing siloed off in different imprints to avoid diluting anyone’s brand. Simon & Schuster can found a new imprint dedicated to positive depictions of Muslim children in the same year that it publishes Glenn Beck’s book about how violence is inherent to Islamic teachings, and none of the people at the top will consider anything about that fact remotely contradictory. That’s just the way the business is set up, because conservative money spends just as well as progressive money.
And the imprint model makes a boycott difficult on two levels. For one thing, a would-be boycotter can’t just refuse to buy any book that has “Simon & Schuster” printed on its spine. He or she would have to keep track of which imprints Simon & Schuster owns, and any imprints they might acquire or establish in the near future.
For another thing, if progressives boycott Simon & Schuster, it’s not clear that the company will get any message from that action beyond the fact that their progressive books aren’t selling as well as they used to, but there seems to be real money in the conservative books. The imprint model’s built-in stability means that a boycott will probably not hurt the house as a whole, but it may well hurt the imprints designed to reach progressive audiences.
If progressives really want to undermine the increasing visibility of alt-right figures like Yiannopoulos, a blanket boycott of Simon & Schuster is most likely going to be counterproductive. A better response would be supporting progressive writers and writers of color and the imprints that promote them, to amplify voices that are too often undermined and ignored.
Update: This article has been updated to include the Free Press’s role in the history of conservative trade publishing, and to note that 50 Shades of Gray was published by Vintage Books, not Doubleday.