Fiona Inglis is adamant. The managing director of Curtis Brown literary agency in Sydney would refuse to represent US President Donald Trump and promote any possible presidential memoir to publishers – even if it meant her company going down the gurgler.
Of course, Ms Inglis knows she isn’t going to get a call from Trump Tower or wherever the outgoing president will be based after the White House. But even if she could get $US100 million ($140 million) for his memoir – the figure being bandied around – ‘‘my absolutely categorical answer would be no’’.
‘‘I couldn’t do it because of all the things I have thought about him, said about him and listened to him and knowing what an absolutely odious, overblown narcissistic creature he is. I would have to stand by my principles.’’
Publishing can be a tricky balancing act. It’s a commercial business, but it’s also a vital part of the cultural landscape. You need to sell books, and you need to contribute to society. You need big-name authors so the lesser known can be published. Sometimes you want controversy; other times you run a mile from it.
So when a writer is on the nose what do you? The issue arose this week when it was reported that staff at Penguin Random House in Canada had objected to the local arm of the world’s largest publisher handling the latest book, Beyond Order, by psychologist Jordan Peterson because of his popularity in far-right circles.
The Peterson kerfuffle comes after staff at Hachette in the US objected to publication of Woody Allen’s memoir and a Perth bookstore refused to stock the Harry Potter novels after author J.K. Rowling was slammed on social media for her views on transgender people.
And it comes not long after Pan Macmillan took pre-emptive action by dumping chef and alternative-health advocate Pete Evans: ‘‘Those views are not our views as a company or the views of our staff.’’ Book chain Dymocks followed suit by recommending to its franchisees that they return their stock.
Henry Rosenbloom, publisher at Scribe, says as he deals with serious non-fiction he is happy to handle books that he disagrees with. It is an essential part of our democracy, but they have to be well argued and not just fantasy. ‘‘I have published people a long way to the right of me and Scribe’s position. I like publishing contrarians, offering new interpretations, historical revision and political arguments.’’
But he is uncertain what he would do if he were presented with a book by someone such as Peterson. The staff would have significant influence in any decision, he said. In the end, it would boil down to whether it would be morally acceptable to publish the views of a particularly controversial figure.
Mr Rosenbloom says a publisher couldn’t take on a book such as Allen’s if the staff was strongly opposed. Like titles Mr Rosenbloom has rejected, Allen’s was later published by another house. ‘‘There are legitimate arguments to be had about his behaviour, but he’s entitled to tell his story.’’
And there is nothing wrong with a publishing house having a particular position or character provided it is authentic. Mr Rosenbloom says ‘‘as a publisher Scribe has been warning of global warming since the late 1980s’’ so he would never publish a climate-change denier.
The problem for big booksellers such as Dymocks is that there is a disconnect between what is stocked on its shelves and what is available on its website. Titles available online amount to many millions and the sites are automatically updated by data feeds. So although Dymocks might, say, be careful to stock only a carefully annotated edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, there may be other editions on the website.
Rejecting titles grates with Readings managing director Mark Rubbo, although he agreed about those by Evans because of his use of neo-Nazi imagery.
‘‘A lot of my younger staff feel quite strongly about certain books. My argument is we’re not censors; we’re selling books to adults. We do have discussions but as a bookseller it’s about an exchange of ideas. With cancel culture we are getting more pressure, but if a book seems terribly unsuitable we won’t go out of our way to shout about it to the rafters.’’
Should the industry be worried as a consequence of the recent flare-ups? Ms Inglis thinks not.
‘‘We’re talking a lot more about them because of the impact of social media, people can communicate much more easily and make their feelings known. We always want to back stories that are good even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. But when it comes to something that’s dangerous, that’s a different kettle of fish.’’