The Work of Publishers in an Authoritarian Age
January 19, 2017
By Tom Hallock
We, as publishers, have important work to do in protecting an open, democratic society that is now under increasing threat. The threat has been growing after decades of disturbing illiberal trends: the growth of corporate power, a widespread anti-intellectualism, the rise of social media echo chambers, pervasive racism, and partisan attacks on the nature and purpose of government. Now we are about to inaugurate a president whose election is a product of these trends, a man whose public statements have been true only fifteen percent of the time according to Politifacts and who regularly disparages science, expert advice, the media, and his critics. As Robert Reich points out, these are the tactics of demagogues.
In the face of these threats, publishers have urgent work to do.
- Counter falsehoods and outright propaganda by publishing books from writers who use the tools of science, research, and journalism to illuminate the issues of our day.
- Defend Freedom of Expression. Writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and educators who write, publish, sell, shelve or teach ideas that challenge the new orthodoxy will need support. It’s an important time to stand together as an industry with organizations such as ABFFE, PEN, AAP, ALA, NCTE, and others in The Free Expression Network of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
- Publish voices from communities that are under attack or marginalized. We will need the fiction, literature, memoir, and calls to action that break down walls, create compassion, and lead to just social policies.
- Publish prophetic voices and books that provide the blueprints for a more just world, and promote them vigorously.
- Practice the values that we want to see in the nation. In particular, we need to open the doors of publishing to those who have been excluded, whether by race, class or other means.
After 9/11, while some advocated for war and were willing to relinquish civil liberties, others sought to understand the forces that had just changed our lives. Their search was reflected in the high sales of books like Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God from Knopf and Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban from Yale University Press. In the aftermath of the elections this year, book sales again reflected people’s attempts to make sense of current events by reading books like Hillbilly Elegy (Harper) and Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press). On Beacon’s list, sales for MLK’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? and Rev. Dr. William Barber’s The Third Reconstruction increased dramatically as people searched for models of resistance to injustice.
To meet the needs of our times, we don’t have to publish bestsellers. On the day that SCOTUS handed down their decision on marriage equality, Hillary Goodridge (a lead plaintiff in the Massachusetts case that rocked the nation) publicly thanked Beacon Press for publishing What is Marriage For? by E. J. Graff. She said that it had provided her with the intellectual framework to take a stand. The book sold modestly, but has so far helped make it possible for almost a million gay and lesbian people in the US to marry. And that’s just so far.
Books make a difference. They always have, but our work matters now more than ever. Even a 6,000 copy book can change the course of history.
About the Author
Tom Hallock is Associate Publisher and Director of Sales & Marketing at Beacon Press. Tom joined Beacon in 1996 after holding executive positions in sales and marketing at Farrar Straus and Giroux, Simon and Schuster and Aperture. He is a former bookseller and was the manager and buyer for the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHallock.