In recent years, the conservative imprints at the major New York publishing houses have been put under a microscope. Simon & Schuster canceled its contracts with Milo Yiannopoulos and Josh Hawley in response to public outcry and in-house protests (while refusing to comply with similar demands regarding Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence).* Kate Hartson, former editorial director of the Center Street imprint at the Hachette Book Group, maintains that she was fired earlier this year for her pro-Trump politics. Last month, Hartson and Louise Burke, former publisher of Simon & Schuster’s conservative imprint, announced the launch of All Seasons Press, a new independent conservative press like Regnery, the publisher that picked up Hawley’s book. Could these developments mark the migration of conservative book publishing from the mainstream houses to smaller companies? And what might be the unintended consequences of such a shift?
To find out how this potential change looks from inside the industry, I called Eric Nelson, the vice president and executive editor of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins dedicated to publishing books by political conservatives. He joined Broadside the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, after working for the conservative and business imprints at Penguin Random House.
Slate: Why did you personally choose to work at conservative imprints?
Eric Nelson: I realized how rare that knowledge was in the industry, to know the difference between the conservative magazines or the difference between a good 11 a.m. Fox host and a good 11 p.m. Fox host. I thought that not only could I do a good job by concentrating on this but that there was a lot of room for improvement in the quality of the books.
Why did major book publishers start conservative imprints in the early 2000s?
In the ’90s, if you had a book that was for what we now think of as red America, publishers would worry that there were no bookstores in the towns where the audience for this was. Nielsen BookScan proved that not only could those people buy books, they could buy lots and lots of books.
So big publishers saw that either smaller presses like Regnery were having success with conservative titles, or that the few conservative titles from the big houses were doing well, and they decided to publish more of them. But tell me why they decided to establish special imprints for them.
You needed an editor who knew that world. When Threshold started at Simon & Schuster, they hired Mary Matalin to help bring in authors and make sure that their books were being marketed properly. Someone who, say, knew that talk radio was a good way to move books in the 2000s. That was a world that people in New York media didn’t know anything about.
Why not just hire an editor who could do that? Why a separate imprint?
I definitely had the sense from the outside that they were trying to keep the brands separate. People were not excited about publishing the next Rush Limbaugh as part of the same list that included prestige fiction authors. And so there was a sense of maybe it would be better if people weren’t 100 percent aware that Threshold is part of Simon & Schuster.
Do the books you edit appeal to you politically, or is that not that relevant to you as an editor?
The older I get, the more concerned I am about the health of our democracy. And so I do feel like every day that I go to work and I help a smart person make a more coherent and truthful argument, the better it is for our country.
OK, but there are plenty of people who could say that and then would add, “Oh, but I wouldn’t want to work for a conservative imprint because it’s against my own values.”
I’m a libertarian, so it’s usually obvious to me what’s awful about both parties.
I’m going to guess that sometimes you’ve wound up working on books that you really disagree with politically. I’m curious how you have negotiated that. Some people find it so difficult.
In the past five years, my primary political belief is in the capital-T truth. It’s really important to me that people are trying to make the world a better place regardless of their ideology. I edited a book called The Trump Century by Lou Dobbs. His argument was that Trump was such a consequential president that we’ll still be living in Trump’s policy world for years and possibly decades to come. I felt that his argument made sense and was compelling. Even if there are some Trump policies that I don’t agree with, I was convinced by Lou’s assessment of the consequential nature of Trump.
I’m sure that there are plenty of things in that book that Slate’s readers would consider to be untrue.
Yeah, this is an argument I’m constantly getting into on Twitter. To me, something is a lie if it concerns a fact. It can be looked up and established that thing is not a fact. A lie is giving a fake statistic or making a promise you have no intention of keeping. Whereas if somebody says, “Experts say raising the minimum wage could cause more unemployment,” there are people who would be mad, call that a lie, and respond that just as many experts would say the opposite is true, and I feel like that’s just having an argument.
I don’t find any arguments on the left or right morally distasteful if they are intelligent and well made. I have had people say, “But wouldn’t you find a pro-racist argument morally distasteful?” But the problem is that it’s impossible to construct a pro-racism argument that’s true and based on solid research.
You work at Harper, which, because it’s owned by News Corp, is probably the major publisher where it’s easiest to edit the conservative imprint. Your counterparts at the other houses work with colleagues who want to undo the contracts that they’ve signed. Have you ever encountered that kind of internal tension with your co-workers? What’s it like at work to be the editor of the conservative imprint?
You have to have a sense of humor about it. I find if you’re not antagonistic about it, New York media people generally understand what you’re up to. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have colleagues who secretly wish that none of my books were being published.
Let’s talk about the pressure campaigns to cancel the contracts of everyone from Josh Hawley to Kellyanne Conway to Mike Pence. This is not something that would have happened 10 years ago, is that correct?
How would you characterize what is happening with the rise of these campaigns?
The overall culture has changed to be pro-censorship, with the belief that by limiting our ability to discuss some ideas, it will make those ideas disappear or lose value among the public—which is delusional, and that has been proven over and over.
Also, there are more truly awful people that have carved out a big audience for themselves than before. These people are famous enough now to have a platform, and so their books look worth doing, financially, but 10 years ago these people would have been taking out ads in the back of the Weekly World News to get people to order their pamphlets on various snake oils.
Who are some examples of that?
I mean, somebody like Alex Berenson occurs to me. He’s developed a huge following for a very methodical kind of insanity.
Do you think these pressure campaigns focused on specific titles, whatever their intentions, might ultimately result in the closing down of the conservative imprints?
I’m not sure. I’m sure that the pressure campaigns that burst into public view started as quiet, interior campaigns. I’m guessing that there have been lots of cases where somebody went to their boss saying, look, we think that the title or cover or blurb for this book is going to be really offensive. It may even have been changed. But I also think that there must be some significant group of people within book publishing companies who would like to see nothing to the right of Joe Biden ever published by their publishing company again, as a purely political win.
What is your argument for conservative books being published by imprints in major houses versus by small specialty publishers? When Josh Hawley’s book contract was canceled by Simon & Schuster, he went to Regnery. As a result, many people who objected to Hawley have pointed out that he wasn’t censored. But will there be unforeseen consequences of a shift like that, if more and more of these people start publishing with independent conservative presses?
Something that was really instructive to me at the end of the Trump administration was the growth of Parler. The idea was that if Twitter and Facebook start limiting the things you can talk about, then Americans will lose interest in talking about those things. And one of those things was whether or not the election was stolen. And what we got, instead of turning down the temperature, was an insurrection that started among the kinds of people on Parler. So blocking ideas out of the mainstream doesn’t reduce what ideas are acceptable to the American public. It probably actually grows them. It encourages more conspiracy theories.
What you are implying is that a smaller, independent, purely conservative press might not have the same quality control you provide with your imprint.
Can you give me an example of that?
A story that I’ve mentioned frequently is that most conservatives got the impression from social media that Joe Biden said that Donald Trump’s policy of ending direct flights from China during the early days of the pandemic was xenophobic. In fact, Biden constantly called Trump xenophobic in his stump speech, and he wasn’t referring to that specific policy. This is a little thing, but gets mentioned offhand in manuscript after manuscript I’m editing. Usually when I point out to the authors that it didn’t go down the way that they thought it did, they get rid of it. This isn’t quite fact-checking, but it is not letting people build any part of their argument out of something that’s not footnote-able.
Do you feel that some of the independent conservative presses don’t apply the same level of checking?
Absolutely. There are many small publishers where, when I see one of their books—you can let your ideology blind you to whether or not you’re publishing books that are presenting reality to your readers.
An argument that many people in the book publishing industry make about conservative imprints is that even if they dislike the books and the authors who write them, the money made from those books goes to less lucrative books that they care deeply about.
It’s a reasonable argument. If someone really famous goes to a small press instead, and all the rest of that press’s list is anti-vaccine propaganda, and that famous person’s book is a tremendous success, then what that is going to get us is a slew of additional books that are anti-vaccine propaganda. If you’re liberal and you don’t want there to be any conservative bestsellers from the mainstream houses, then you’re likely just injecting a bunch of money into the parts of the media that you most hate. It’s not a very good tactic.
What are your thoughts on the New York Times bestseller list and conservative books?
What I’m constantly explaining to my authors when they don’t make the New York Times bestseller list is that that list is not a strict accounting of what the bestselling books have been over the last week. The New York Times list has been assembled forever based on a secret formula in an attempt to show New York Times Book Review readers what kind of books New York Times Book Review readers are buying. The theory is that it is heavily weighted towards independent bookstores in college towns. What frequently happens is an author will be No. 10 on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, based on BookScan, and not make the New York Times list at all.
There is this idea out there that conservative titles are more prone to bulk sales—which means that some organization buys boxes of books to give away as premiums, thereby driving up the number of copies sold in a way that seems deceptive, such as GOP groups buying copies of Donald Trump Jr.’s book to give to donors. How would you respond to that?
In reality, it’s not a major issue for conservative titles. I mean, if there were a magical way to just move 10,000 extra units because the Koch brothers or somebody had a fund for making conservative bestsellers, my job would be so much easier.
I say this with real affection for all of the liberals in my life, but almost all liberals possess a delusion—not shared by conservatives—that the other side is faking it. Every liberal I know believes that every conservative is just pretending to be conservative. Tucker Carlson, who is a smart guy who went to school in Connecticut and lives in a city—he’s obviously not actually conservative, they think, he’s just inventing this to make money. And all the people watching Tucker Carlson are also just pretending to be conservative. So then, who would buy Tucker Carlson’s book? It’s treated as a weird mystery.
Nevertheless, Mike Pence got $4 million in a two-book deal, and I just can’t even believe that a single book by Mike Pence could make $2 million without some kind of bulk sales scheme. Is that my own delusion?
It really depends on what the content of the book is. Again, this is a hard thing for Democrats to wrap their mind around: It really does matter to conservatives what’s in the book.
What would be a scenario where the Pence book would earn out? And what would be a scenario in which it wouldn’t?
I suspect that the two scenarios in which it would would be if he said some really vicious things about Trump and the John Bolton audience came to the book, or if he gets the presidential memoirs audience. If people bought this book to have a day-by-day account of what was, for all intents and purposes, a real presidency. It could fail if it is a book that is not granular enough and is filled with platitudes and aimed at an uncertain audience. If it’s not quite for Trump fans, but it’s not quite for anti-Trump fans, and it’s not quite for historians, then it’d be hard to know who it was for.
So if it was your basic campaign book.
Yeah, if it was called something like The Charge I Bore, and it began with his first day in kindergarten. Then it would be hard, at least for me—but I’m wrong all the time. Maybe that’s the most valuable book. But it’s more likely one of the other ones that would be.
Broadside publishes Ben Shapiro’s book. What has the response to that been?
His new book is called The Authoritarian Moment, discussing deplatforming. And he is a very well-known guy who is not going to be invited on anything mainstream. We already know all the media that could possibly be willing to have him. It would be nice to think that you could get him on a morning show, even for an unfriendly interview, and they’re just not going to do it because there’s not enough upside.
Plenty of people think Ben Shapiro shouldn’t be invited on any kind of show.
Exactly. Shapiro is thought of by the right as moderate in many ways, basically the way that maybe Ezra Klein is thought of on the left. But the difference is, if Ben and Ezra each decided to have each other on as guests, Ben’s audience would say, “Oh, man, you really showed it to Ezra!” And Ezra would lose 100 percent of his audience if he didn’t then spend at least two weeks on a listening tour of the people he had hurt and expressing profuse apologies for allowing Ben the platform of speaking with Ezra.
The left is continually saying, all these people over here are too far to the right. They’ve been carving those people off for so long that now they’re carving off Matt Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald. And the right is embracing them. Ben Shapiro is such a frequent target because he’s the farthest person to the right that the left is willing to pay attention to. So while there are people on, you know, Newsmax and OAN with far more controversial opinions, liberals would much rather go after someone fairly mainstream and conservative than someone pretty far to the right.
So what you’re saying is that people who are seen as fairly centrist in the world of conservatives tend to become the bêtes noires of the left media?
The more things you have in common with the left, the easier it is for them to find you and be mad at you.
Correction, July 12, 2021: This article originally misstated that Threshold, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, canceled Josh Hawley’s book contract. The Simon & Schuster imprint was to have published Hawley’s book.