Using What We Have: A Conversation Regarding Simon & Schuster and Milo Y.

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    By Amy Stephenson and Christin Evans

    Last Monday, our bookstore, The Booksmith in San Francisco, made a brief statement. We posted on our website and on social media that we were committed to three things: 1) we will not carry or special order any copies of Milo Yiannopoulos’ forthcoming memoir or anything from the Simon & Schuster imprint that is publishing it; 2) we will cut our orders with Simon & Schuster by 50 percent effective immediately; and 3) we will donate all of our profit from Simon & Schuster titles to the ACLU. (Here is the full statement.)

    This was not a knee-jerk reaction. Upon hearing news of the book deal, we facilitated a conversation with all store staff, soliciting opinions even from those who work only occasionally. We discussed the financial consequences by reviewing the size of our annual Simon & Schuster budget. We reached out and shared our internal discussions with our Simon sales rep as well as with our local Simon & Schuster authors to ask what they thought. After carefully considering all the feedback we’d received from our staff and authors, we drafted up a list of actions we all could support. The staff approved, and the next day, it went live.

    Within the hour, our posts had garnered hundreds of responses far more impassioned and vocal than we anticipated. For the next 48 hours, thousands of messages and notifications poured in — the majority supportive, but a few critical. Our statement started a conversation with our community about free speech, censorship, and the history and impact of boycotts. Now that we’ve had a few days to take in those reactions, we’d like to speak to some of the concerns people have shared. We appreciate the American Booksellers Association inviting us to discuss these matters and hope it might help other stores consider what protest actions might be appropriate for them and their spheres.

    1. Is this tantamount to censorship?

    Put simply: no. We’re not the government, nor a publicly funded library or school. As a private businesses we make decisions daily about what titles we will stock or feature. What we’re doing is a meaningful motion exactly because we acknowledge Simon & Schuster’s right to publish what they choose.

    Financially disincentivizing Simon & Schuster by cutting our orders to pressure them to not publish this book does not amount to curtailing Milo’s freedom of speech. Instead, it asks a powerful publisher in our industry not to bankroll his hate speech and online bullying with a quarter-million dollar advance for as yet unwritten content. It means we choose not to provide a marketing platform to spread his message of hate beyond the fringe and into the mainstream.

    In this case, we have not called for the total blackout of this book (we presume a certain online retailer will continue to sell it, as could the author self-publish and sell it himself). We included in our statement that we respect the author’s right to write a book and Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish it, and that’s true. We are simply exercising our right to criticize their decision.

    RECOMMENDED READING:

    “Publishing During Wartime, Part 2” by Dennis Johnson

    “Stop Confusing Boycotts With Censorship” by Ron Hogan

    2. What’s the value of making a statement about a book your community probably wasn’t going to buy anyway?

    Let’s not mince words: Milo Yiannopoulos is part of a white supremacist fringe and was permanently banned from Twitter for “participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.” His targets, often the most vulnerable among us, have been attacked with abusive language, their online accounts have been hacked and their private details made public, and they even have had SWAT teams sent to their homes.

    We have joined a chorus of others calling on the publisher to reconsider their decision. Simon & Schuster has yet to respond and it is unclear if they will, but we continue to hope they do.

    RECOMMENDED READING:

    “Publishing in War Time, Part 3: Protest Is Growing" by Dennis Johnson

    3. By reducing 50 percent of your total spend with Simon & Schuster, aren’t you hurting other authors, including midlist authors, who rely on indie booksellers to reach an audience?

    We structured our actions specifically so that midlist authors would not be hurt by our decision. While we are still finessing exactly where we’ll make those 50 percent cuts to our S&S orders, the books we normally carry from S&S and their various imprints will still be on our shelves.

    On a near-daily basis we make decisions to stock or order a particular title with a wide variety of considerations including quality, content, terms, and availability. We often tweak the way we allocate our discretionary inventory dollars, simply as a matter of curation. If a publisher changes direction, we may decide to buy fewer books from that publisher. In this case, we made the kind of decision we always make. We just made it more publicly and transparently, so that everyone could understand our reasoning behind it.

    It’s completely understandable that Simon & Schuster authors are nervous about our partial boycott. We wanted to show them that we stand with them, not against them simply for being under the same umbrella as Milo’s imprint. So, we’re donating our Simon & Schuster profits to the ACLU. This is important enough to us that that we don’t feel comfortable making a profit selling books that fund a company normalizing hate.

    Many Simon & Schuster authors who have expressed concern have also said they are sickened and devastated by their publisher’s decision to go forward with this memoir. So, we would ask them to stand with us. A few writers found each other in the thread of our Facebook post and suggested organizing to put pressure on Simon & Schuster. Several children’s authors recently did just this, releasing a letter last Thursday that strongly condemns S&S. Their letter states that “insinuating that people who protest this terrible decision wish to suppress free speech is gaslighting.” We agree and were disappointed with the National Coalition Against Censorship’s (NCAC) letter, which ABA co-signed.

    RECOMMENDED READING:

    “S&S Children’s Authors Protest Yiannopoulos Deal” (Publishers Weekly)

    4. Who has been most vocally supportive of your decision to protest?

    The loudest voices of support have come from two groups — the first, perhaps, may surprise you, as it surprised us. The most vocal support arrived from editors, publicists, and publisher reps who sent heartfelt thanks. Some shared how horrified they were by the news of the book deal and dismay at the cynicism of Simon’s initial statement disclaiming responsibility for what they will publish.

    The second group of supporters was Milo’s targets — people of color, Muslims, Jews, women, and/or LGBT folks. Conversely, the vocal critics were more likely to be straight, white, and, usually, men. Recognizing the lack of diversity and representation in our own industry, it felt necessary to point this out. Ultimately, the likelihood you will disagree with what we are doing may be inversely correlated to the degree that you’ve personally experienced hate speech.

    And this last point gets to the center of why we felt we had to do what we did. In the words of Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Publishing and bookselling is a sphere where we felt we could use our buying power to add our voices to those that so often go unheard and potentially make real progress against normalizing this kind of violence and hate.

    Amy Stephenson is Booksmith’s store manager and social media guru; Christin Evans celebrates 10 years of owning the Booksmith in June. Both will be at the Winter Institute and BookExpo this year and welcome all invitations for conversation and further discussion.


    Editor’s Note: As a matter of law, bookstores must make their own independent decisions whether to deal with another business or vendor. While booksellers cannot urge fellow stores — who are, strictly speaking, competitors — to join in a boycott, it is never a problem for a bookseller to talk about their own operations and individual business decisions. ABA fully encourages an open exchange of ideas, and talking about individual store choices and reasoning is always welcome.

    For more information on the NCAC Statement in Support of the Right to Publish and ABA’s endorsement of it, see:

    National Coalition Against Censorship, January 5, 2017, Statement in Support of Publisher of Milo Yiannopoulos book.

    “ABA Supports Freedom to Publish Yiannopoulos Book,” Bookselling This Week, January 9, 2017.

    “Hope for the New Year,” by Chris Finan, Bookselling This Week, January 4, 2017.