Inside the Simon & Schuster blowup over its Mike Pence book deal
Petition demanded publisher drop potential blockbuster, saying it betrayed company’s promise to oppose bigotry, while CEO defended commitment to broad range of views
During an April workplace-culture session, one of many in the past year held by book publisher Simon & Schuster, topics included how to evaluate proposals from Black or LGBTQ+ authors and how best to promote them.
Not on the agenda, to the frustration of some gathered on the Zoom call, was the company’s recent deal with former Vice President Mike Pence for a memoir of his life in politics and the Trump administration.
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Publishing the book, some staffers said at the session, would be a betrayal of the company’s promises to oppose bigotry and make minority employees feel safe.
A petition soon followed, signed by more than 200 staff members, or 14% of the staff, plus about 3,500 outside supporters, including Simon & Schuster authors. It demanded that the company scrap the Pence memoir, part of a two-book deal, and refrain from making any deals with members of the Trump administration. It said Mr. Pence advocated for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory, and that publishing the book would be "legitimizing bigotry."
That’s when Jonathan Karp, the book publisher’s chief executive, pushed back. Mr. Karp knew he could face dissatisfaction from the staff over the company’s interest in publishing conservative and Republican authors. He had already taken a public stand against one, a book by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley.
But he decided the Pence contract would stand. He turned down the petition.
In an interview, Mr. Karp said he respects that some employees have a moral objection to the memoir deal, but that the company is committed to publishing a broad range of views. "We don’t want to be a niche publisher," he said. "The former vice president who got 74 million votes is representative of a broad range of people."
He said Mr. Pence’s role in one of the most tumultuous periods of U.S. history will make for compelling reading. More broadly, he said, the publisher can treat its employees with respect and also publish authors with views they find anathema. "Those two realities don’t have to be in conflict," he said.
A spokesman for Mr. Pence declined to comment.
Similar pressures have ricocheted across the business world, and companies including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Apple Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. have often struggled to address employee demands.
The Pence conflict stands out because the demand struck at the heart of the publisher’s business. Book companies, which have long prized their willingness to publish a wide range of voices, in contrast to the silos of cable news, say they need blockbuster books of all stripes to carry the rest of their titles.
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If a "tentpole" book, as publishers dub it, attracts a big audience, it can provide funds needed to publish other books deemed worthy but that may sell fewer than 5,000 copies.
In the publishing industry, political books have been a driver of growth, and 2020 was the biggest year for such titles since NPD BookScan began tracking data in 2004. Print sales of political books jumped 62%. Simon & Schuster has been at the forefront, publishing major titles from Bob Woodward, former national security adviser John Bolton and former President Donald Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump, among others.
Terminating Mr. Pence’s deal and shunning titles from associates of Mr. Trump would have serious business implications, taking potential moneymaking titles off the table and possibly discouraging other big-name authors from working with the company.
Business leaders are spending more time than ever thinking about how to respond to more vocal employees who want their bosses to take positions, or change policies, on issues from racial justice to political spending to voting rights. Executives are weighing those demands against the company’s interests, and deciding how and when to draw a line.
In a Microsoft Corp. town hall in January, President Brad Smith addressed questions about the company’s political-action committee. An employee had earlier called for Microsoft to stop supporting legislators who challenged the results of the presidential election. Microsoft ultimately said it would pause contributions through 2022 to candidates who opposed certification of the Electoral College results.
The company also created a new initiative to support organizations that promote public transparency, changes to campaign finance laws and voting rights, following feedback from employees involved in its PAC.
Some managers want to be responsive but don’t want to give their employees veto power over how to operate their businesses. JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon said during a Wall Street Journal event this month that if employees ever pushed to restrict his ability to do business with the U.S. military, he would say, "If you don’t like it, leave the company."
Mohan Maheswaran, CEO of semiconductor firm Semtech Corp. , said executives have to pick their spots when taking a stand. After the killing of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer, for instance, Semtech executives concluded it would be more beneficial for employees to have more education, training, coaching and mentoring than it would be to immediately make a public statement about Mr. Floyd’s death, he said.
Semtech has prioritized diversity and the environment since employees care about those issues, he said. But, he added: "We could spend all our time thinking about and talking about these issues. We don’t have enough time, to be honest with you—we have a business to run."
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Simon & Schuster’s Mr. Karp has faced employee demands with higher stakes than many other CEOs, and has found himself on both sides of the argument.
In January, the company canceled the publication of a book by Sen. Hawley, citing his role in challenging the presidential election results on Jan. 6, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Mr. Karp said Mr. Hawley’s book deal was canceled because his actions "led to a dangerous threat to our democracy." He said the senator’s role in that day’s events "brought widespread disapproval and outrage to him and would have redounded to us."
Sen. Hawley on Twitter called the decision "a direct assault on the First Amendment." Conservative book publisher Regnery Publishing recently published Sen. Hawley’s book, "The Tyranny of Big Tech."
Mr. Karp said one reason Simon & Schuster is comfortable publishing Mr. Pence is that the former vice president refused to take an action to overturn the election. "Look how he upheld his constitutional responsibilities on Jan. 6," Mr. Karp said.
Mr. Karp’s appointment as Simon & Schuster CEO was announced on May 28, 2020, at a raw moment for the nation. Three days earlier, Mr. Floyd had been killed, and protests were spreading across the U.S. Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted last month for murdering Mr. Floyd.
Simon & Schuster voiced public support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The company created two new posts: director of workplace culture and diversity initiatives, and director of multicultural marketing. It also committed to creating a more diverse workforce and introduced a contest to find writers typically overlooked by big publishers, including Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ authors.
In August, Mr. Karp started a series of monthly town hall meetings on Zoom. At a November town hall, he pointed to the book "High Conflict" by Amanda Ripley —it was unpublished at the time but released last month—which examines how Americans have been polarized into tribal camps that view each other in good-versus-evil terms. A shared purpose is one way to resolve conflict, he said.
"If you disagree with something we’re about to publish, or have published, let us know. We want to have those conversations, as long as they’re constructive. That’s the kind of conflict that makes us better," he said at the town hall.
Conflict came in the form of Mr. Pence’s book deal. In March, Dana Canedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times journalist and head of Simon & Schuster’s namesake imprint, began exploring the possibility with the former vice president.
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In an interview, she said she met Mr. Pence in person at an Arlington, Va., office building. In a 2½-hour discussion, she told him he would have to agree to rigorous editing. Ms. Canedy said she wouldn’t discuss whether the company will employ fact checkers for Mr. Pence’s memoir.
"I made the point that I believe regardless of your politics, everybody has the right to own their narrative and legacy, and he didn’t own it at that point," Ms. Canedy said. "The Trump administration did. And that he had the right to tell his story."
Ms. Canedy, who is Black, said she also conveyed that she wanted Mr. Pence to address how he is perceived by some racial minorities. She had done an informal focus group on what some Black people thought of him and took out her phone in the meeting to read off those notes. She said she told Mr. Pence, "You’ll need to answer some of this in the book."
Ms. Canedy said Mr. Pence listened and made notes. She declined to say what she told him from the focus group.
She said the public will be well served by hearing from Mr. Pence on issues like the Jan. 6 insurrection and LGBTQ+ rights. "I thought I might take some hits for acquiring the book but it might be a public service if it helps us understand this man and his administration," she said.
Speaking broadly about the recent wave of employees expressing their political views in the workplace, Ms. Canedy added: "What’s largely behind this is that we’re in a new civil-rights movement, and it’s no longer just in the streets. They march on the weekend and they come to work and try to be advocates by applying whatever pressure they can to create change."
She wasn’t surprised by the petition, she said. "It’s a small minority of the staff," she said. "But it reflects the intensity of what’s been happening in the country."
Simon & Schuster announced the deal with Mr. Pence on April 7. Mr. Pence said in a statement at the time he was grateful for "the opportunity to tell the story of my life in public service."
The petition came less than three weeks later, on April 26. Kliph Nesteroff, a Simon & Schuster author who has written about the history of comedy, said he signed the petition because it is "immoral and unethical" for Simon & Schuster to do a deal with Mr. Pence. "If you don’t speak up, you are guilty by association," he said. "Why reward racism? Why reward bigotry? Why reward dishonesty?"
Last week, during a nearly two-hour online gathering, Mr. Karp fielded questions from staffers regarding Simon & Schuster’s commitment to minority employees in light of his decision to move forward with Mr. Pence’s book, said one person who attended. Mr. Karp responded by saying he had been told there wouldn’t be any discriminatory content in Mr. Pence’s book.
"I don’t think anyone thinks Pence should be banned from writing and publishing a book," said Louisa Solomon, a veteran managing producer and casting director at Simon & Schuster Audio who signed the petition and spoke at last week’s meeting. "The issue is that an ostensibly apolitical company like S&S, and worse, one that claims to stand in solidarity with oppressed communities, is normalizing the violent and extremist views Pence stands for."
While the majority of employees didn’t sign the petition, it continues drawing external support and now has more than 5,000 external signatories.
Yahdon Israel, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, said he understood the decision to publish Mr. Pence’s book, saying it isn’t the same as endorsing his views. "As a student of history, I want to know what went on in the rooms to which Mr. Pence had access," Mr. Israel said.
Mr. Karp said social media has amplified those criticizing the Pence book deal. "The voices on the other side are there but they aren’t as loud," he said.
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"A lot of people were deeply upset and threatened by the last four years and want the country to change," Mr. Karp said. "They think by changing companies they can change the country."
Simon & Schuster, founded in 1924, has a rich history. It has won 57 Pulitzer Prizes, and has published such classic authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and such current bestselling writers as Stephen King, Jason Reynolds and Jennifer Weiner. In the 1980s and 1990s the company bought other publishers, part of a wave of deals across the book industry that eventually created the five big global publishing houses that exist today. Bertelsmann SE has agreed to acquire Simon & Schuster from ViacomCBS Inc. for almost $2.18 billion. The deal is expected to close later this year, pending regulatory approval.
Tensions over political books date back years. Jack Romanos, a former CEO at Simon & Schuster, recalled during the early 1990s that he agreed to publish Rush Limbaugh’s "The Way Things Ought to Be" when he oversaw one of the company’s divisions. "I had a line of people outside my door begging me not to approve the acquisition," said Mr. Romanos. The book was a hit, and delivered a large portion of the profits that year.
Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org and Emily Glazer at email@example.com