Sucking and blowing booksellers

Plus, what's the difference between editors and publishers at Knopf?

Regular readers of SHuSH know that we are friendlier toward book sellers than book lenders, for obvious reasons, but there is one area in which some libraries outperform in support of the publishing universe.

In 2019, the Toronto Public Library expended a lot of political capital to allow an appearance at one of its facilities by Meghan Murphy, author of the website Feminist Current. Murphy has raised questions about whether “allowing men to identify as women” undermines women’s rights.

Alicia Elliott, Catherine Hernandez, and other writers organized a petition in hopes of convincing the library to cancel the talk. "Offering Murphy a platform means denying the resources and promise of safe and equitable space to trans communities," they said.

The library’s response was stalwart, refusing to cancel the event: "We would also suggest that engaging in respectful civil discourse with people of opposing views may be a more productive strategy than abstaining from public library events. Libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities by welcoming and creating space for different perspectives rather than through censorship."

Even after Toronto mayor John Tory (above left) joined the fight on the protestors’ side, the library held fast.

Recently, the American Booksellers Association, which represents most of the independent bookstores in the US, sent a July mailing to its members. One of its promoted titles for the month was a paperback edition of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

Shrier’s book has been hailed as one of the best books of 2021 by The Economist and the Times and Sunday Times. The New York Times has challenged some of its reporting. This is from the description of the book offered by its publisher, Regnery:

Until just a few years ago, gender dysphoria—severe discomfort in one’s biological sex—was vanishingly rare…. But today whole groups of female friends in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools across the country are coming out as “transgender….” Unsuspecting parents are awakening to find their daughters in thrall to hip trans YouTube stars and “gender-affirming” educators and therapists who push life-changing interventions on young girls—including medically unnecessary double mastectomies and puberty blockers that can cause permanent infertility.

Abigail Shrier, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, has dug deep into the trans epidemic, talking to the girls, their agonized parents, and the counselors and doctors who enable gender transitions… Shrier’s essential book will help you understand what the trans craze is and how you can inoculate your child against it—or how to retrieve her from this dangerous path.

The moment the ABA’s July mailing landed, the organization was attacked for anti-trans behavior by a Twitter mob led by a Brooklyn bookseller. The ABA immediately regretted its promotion of Shrier’s book and issued an apology:

An anti-trans book was included in our July mailing to members. This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable.

That wasn’t good enough for some booksellers. Luis Correa, a member of the ABA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee and a staffer at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia., thought the apology flawed:

I'm disappointed with the use of the passive language at the beginning of the statement and the shift in blame. They really should say that ‘we’ included this book.

As apologies go, he has a point.

Any suggestion that ABA staff was running rogue and didn’t represent the values and interests of actual booksellers was dispelled by a memo distributed by the ABA board, comprised entirely of eminent booksellers:

There are no apologies and no amount of explanations that are sufficient or satisfactory. These incidents harmed booksellers, ABA board members, and ABA staff who identify as LGBTQUI+ …. They also added to a toxic culture overall.

I, too, think the ABA’s apology was flawed, albeit for different reasons than Luis Correa. If you go to its website and press the “Advocacy” tab, you’ll find that no issue receives more space from the booksellers than free expression.

The ABA, says the site, engages in “efforts to advance the issues critical to independent booksellers and to protect the First Amendment rights of all Americans.” Italics mine.

Then comes the big ABFE logo:

And this heroic statement:

The American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) is the bookseller's voice in the fight for free speech. Its mission is to promote and protect the free exchange of ideas, particularly those contained in books, by opposing restrictions on the freedom of speech; issuing statements on significant free expression controversies; participating in legal cases involving First Amendment rights; collaborating with other groups with an interest in free speech; and providing education about the importance of free expression to booksellers, other members of the book industry, politicians, the press and the public.

And you can also follow the link to Banned Books Week, which the ABA sponsors, beginning this year on September 26. It, too, has a logo:

Booksellers are prepared to “share their plans and photos of their displays” and by tagging ABA and using the following hashtags on Twitter: #BannedBooksWeek, #bannedbooks, #FirstAmendment, #freespeech, #censorship, #intellectualfreedom, #bannedbookslist, #freespeechfighter. Twitter, you might recall, is where the campaign to cancel Shrier’s book began.

Some might say that the ABA isn’t necessarily saying that Shrier’s book be banned, only that it not be promoted. But that distinction is not observed in the general run of ABA free-speech advocacy. They follow the librarians’ practice of including in their lists of “banned books” any that receive complaints or “challenges” from the public.

My initial thought was that only in the bookselling world can you suck and blow at the same time. But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for 101 years a leading defender of individual rights and liberties, an organization that rose to prominence largely in defense of free speech and admirably has stood for that principal arm-in-arm with gun nuts, the KKK, and gay-bashers, does it, too.

“Abigail Shrier’s book is a dangerous polemic with a goal of making people not trans,” says Chase Strangio, its deputy director for transgender justice. “I think of all the times & ways I was told my transness wasn’t real & the daily toll it takes. We have to fight these ideas which are leading to the criminalization of trans life again…. Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.”

So the ABA has company. And some of its larger competitors have also been tripped up by this issue. Target at least had the dignity to take both sides the old-fashioned way. It canceled Shrier’s book and then flopped on the decision in response to criticism from Shrier supporters.

This is not a statement anyone in the book business utters lightly but thank God for Amazon, which has continued to sell the books even after protests and resignations among its staff.

A taxonomy of entitlement

I know a thing or two about publishing organizations and titles. I can easily talk for half an hour on the differences between editors-in-chief, editors, deputy editors, executive editors, managing editors, senior editors, section editors, associate editors, assistant editors, guest editors, and editors-at-large as they pertain to magazines and newspapers. I thought I also knew a thing or two about editors at book publishing companies but the more I read about them, the more uncertain I get.

This week Jordan Pavlin (above) was named editor-in-chief at Knopf, which according to the New York Times is “one of the most prestigious imprints in book publishing, the literary home of such authors as Toni Morrison, John Updike and Kazuo Ishiguro.”

Pavlin has been at Knopf for a quarter of a century, most recently as editorial director, and by all accounts is beloved by her authors. That the Times did a story on her promotion suggests it’s a big deal, but the newspaper doesn’t explain what, if any, difference exists between the jobs of editorial director and editor-in-chief. It does mention that Pavlin will continue to report to Reagan Arthur, Knopf’s publisher. New job, same boss. There can be no doubt, however, that editor-in-chief is a more exalted title than editorial director and, in my experience, people in all branches of publishing love exalted titles. I’ve seen many happily accept a new business card over a raise in salary.

It wasn’t that long ago that both the editor-in-chief and publisher titles at Knopf belonged to the legendary Sonny Mehta, who had a knack for looking just a little bit louche (above) in every photo taken of him and whose obituaries we critiqued here when he died a couple of years ago. Reagan Arthur got the publisher title, along with that of executive vice president of Knopf (as well as the Pantheon and Schocken imprints at Penguin Random House), just before the pandemic hit.

Funny thing: both Mehta and Arthur came up on the editing side, as opposed to the business side. Arthur seems to spend most of her time working with authors, as did Mehta. When Arthur talks to reporters about her job, she focuses on books, authors, and readers, as editors tend to do (and Mehta did, as does Pavlin, in near-identical terms, here). So it would seem that in American book publishing, ‘publisher’ means super-editor-in-chief. This would appear to be true in Canada, as well. Anne Collins was the publisher of Knopf Canada and spent almost all of her time working on manuscripts.

Arthur reports to Canadian Maya Mavjee, who is the president and publisher of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Mavjee’s skills, which are considerable, are also essentially editorial, but I expect she has her hands on the Knopf budget.

To find someone with broad-based business experience—someone who did not come up on the editorial side—you have to go all the way up to Mavjee’s boss, Madeline McIntosh, US chief executive of Penguin Random House. She oversees the whole shebang: an endless list of imprints (in addition to Penguin, Random House, and Knopf), and a range of business services—audiobooks, strategy, supply chain, human resources, marketing, and corporate affairs—some of which appear to be centralized, some not. Knopf, for instance, appears to have its own marketing and public relations people, but its audiobooks are handled centrally by Penguin Random House.

To recap the hierarchy at Knopf: there’s president and former editor Mavjee; publisher with largely editorial responsibilities Arthur; and editor-in-chief Pavlin. (Robin Desser presents herself on LinkedIn as vice president and editorial director of Knopf but according to what I read on the internet, she lit out for Random House proper just before Mehta passed). Knopf also has a raft of senior editors, the likes of Lexy Bloom, Andrew Miller, Tim O’Connell, and Wanger Shelley, who have quite a lot of independence in the books they commission and edit.

It would seem everyone in Knopf’s editing hierarchy spends a lot of time commissioning books and working on manuscripts. Which is as it should be, however confusing to the rest of us.