In recent weeks, two major publishers have flinched in the face of protests. In January, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, cancelled the book tour for American Dirt, citing threats to the author and booksellers. Last week, following a walkout by members of its staff, Hachette announced that it has canceled the publication of a memoir by Woody Allen.
Both decisions raise serious concerns.
For over a century, publishers have played a leading role in defending free speech. In the 1920s, they challenged efforts to ban novels that became American classics. Random House defied obscenity laws to publish Ulysses.
During the Cold War, publishers and librarians pushed back against efforts to censor “subversive” books and magazines by issuing the Freedom to Read Statement.
In 1988, Viking Penguin published Satanic Verses and defended it from the Ayatollah’s fatwa and a worldwide campaign of terror.
If publishers abandon their leadership, we are in real trouble. Demands for censorship have never stopped and they never will. Whether we support the cause of protestors or disagree with it, yielding to demands for censorship is likely to discourage the publication of controversial works and, ultimately, impoverish our public sphere.
In the end, readers should decide which books have value. It is up to publishers to make sure they can read them.