As summer winds down, books have been making cheesy news. Here is a take on three controversies, unrelated but sharing this characteristic: positions on all sides have been notably self-righteous and/or disingenuous, overwhelming the principles at stake—and they are real—with explanations that fall well short of impressive.
Chelsea Green, a respected independent publisher in Vermont that has had success with books of progressive argument, announced that it was releasing a book by an admirable liberal journalist, Robert Kuttner, called Obama's Challenge, to coincide with the Democratic Convention. The wrinkle was that Chelsea Green made an exclusive arrangement with Amazon to feature the book in a print-on-demand version for three weeks before it was put on sale elsewhere. Other booksellers, from Barnes and Noble to independents, expressed indignation with Barnes and Noble's decision to sell the book only on its Web site. Margo Baldwin, Chelsea Green's publisher, was quoted as saying, "this election is too important to wait around for traditional publishing lead times," and in an open letter to retailers, she called for "perspective" and said the cancellation of orders meant a "really good and important book on Obama will be effectively boycotted."
I very much share Ms. Baldwin's belief in speed to market for newsy books. But the reality is that Amazon—a great asset to authors and publishers alike—is also a very aggressive business, using its clout to extract concessions from publishers that are sharply reducing benefits of sales on the site. Chelsea Green had an alternative option: to make an e-book and print-on-demand version of Kuttner's book available simultaneously to all retailers. For a variety of reasons, Amazon would still probably dominate the early sales—through their proprietary Kindle device and a print-on-demand subsidiary—but shutting out other booksellers for a critical sales period is a bad precedent for all concerned.
Instead of a successful launch for what is doubtless a worthwhile contribution to political debate, everyone involved has lost, except Amazon.
Sherry Jones, a journalist, was on the verge of publishing her first novel, The Jewel of Medina, about Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives, when the book was suddenly pulled by Random House. The problem began when another author, Denise Spellberg, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, read a galley, and then mounted a campaign against the book, calling it "provocative" and asserting that it uses "sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith." Random House said that, as a result of Spellberg's alarm, the company called security consultants and Islamic experts, "all but one of whom expressed strong concern," according to a spokesperson quoted in the Washington Post.
Having not read the book, I have no idea whether its publication would have led to the predicted mayhem. But there is definitely something troubling when a publisher that got an early boost more that 75 years ago by releasing James Joyce's banned Ulysses would cancel a book on the possibility that someone might be offended. Here is a passage from the novel, quoted in the Washington Post:
"Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan's waist. My neighbors rushed into the street. What they saw: my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God's Prophet entwined around another man."
And finally, there is the case of Jerome Corsi's New York Times #1 bestseller, The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality. The book was published by the Threshold imprint of Simon and Schuster, a division of CBS, which under the Simon and Schuster colophon has an illustrious nonfiction tradition, and is releasing Bob Woodward's next blockbuster on September 8. According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about three-quarters of sales, the book has sold 98,819 copies since its release August 1, strong numbers for a political book, but negligible in a country of 300 million people. What struck me as risible about the publication was Corsi's invariable description (including in the book's by-line) as Ph.D., coupled with the comment to the New York Times by Mary Matalin, Threshold's "publisher," that the book is "a piece of scholarship and a good one at that." Matalin, whose last job on the public payroll was as a media adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, must have a very low bar for scholarship.
Corsi churns out books and made an indelible impact with his 2004 Swift Boat attack on Senator John Kerry, Unfit for Command. Corsi has been candid about the book's goal of defeating Obama, and by the same standard that argues against canceling Sherry Jones' novel, he has a right to his perspective. But Matalin's pious regard for the book's value as scholarship is ridiculous.
For an industry committed to widely available and reasoned expression, using the time-honored techniques of research and storytelling, and reaching for the broadest possible appeal to readers, this definitely has been a down month.
Peter Osnos is Senior Fellow for Media at The Century Foundation.