The morning after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Paul Bogaards awoke with “a feeling of despair and dread or worse.” The director of public relations at Knopf Doubleday emailed that to his staff; he also told them that if they needed to they could take the day off, but that he was going to work that day.
“I believe all of us, in the work that we do, have a role to play in the continuation of our great democracy,” he wrote in that email. “It is good to both question and challenge who and what we are and what we stand for as a people and nation, and one of the best places to do that has always been within the pages of a book and free press.”
Bogaards’ message about the power of books was meant to fend off a sense of foreboding widely shared in New York literary and publishing circles. By and large, people in publishing had expected Hillary Clinton to win the presidency. Mainstream publishing “exists in a bubble, in the same way that the media exists in a bubble,” Bogaards told The Times.
“We are, for the most part, a bastion of the liberal elite,” he added ruefully. That Donald Trump will be president of the United States has shaken that community to the core.
The initial sense of despair was shared too by the many small magazines and publishers that consider themselves explicitly left wing and that might, in a Trump-centric America, find themselves politically and culturally marginalized.
Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, happened to spend Nov. 9 at a sales meeting for Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, a distributor whose clients include many leftist presses. “Awful, it was awful,” he said. He described a “surreal depression” among everyone in attendance.
Temple is still gritting his teeth and carrying on, he said, and not just with nonfiction that touches explicitly on politics. “I feel like our literature by Caribbean authors is maybe more important than it was a month ago,” Temple said, adding that he thought more diverse voices in books would be one way to heal the divide.
“Pretty grim,” is how Dayna Tortorici, co-editor of the small leftist intellectual magazine n+1, described the mood in its offices in Brooklyn. “We’re still reeling.” n+1 had been in the middle of closing an issue when the results came in late on Nov. 8 — and stopped. Several articles in the issue were predicated on the expectation of a Clinton presidency.
“It's impossible to say what the future holds, but we will continue to protect the intellectual and political tradition that we see ourselves as a part of,” Tortorici said. “But there's also a more urgent political imperative to resist this and take care of each other.”
Other magazines caught off guard by Clinton’s loss were luckier. “For better or for worse, we're lucky we're a quarterly,” said Michael Kazin, editor in chief of Dissent. The magazine’s editorial board is holding an emergency meeting to figure out how to approach the new state of America.
“As we know from election returns, our readership and our support is concentrated in metropolitan areas and university towns,” Kazin said. “I think we should be having more discussions about how to reach progressives who don't live in very progressive, very blue areas of the country.”
Verso Books, a small press that explicitly identifies as Marxist, said it certainly felt galvanized to an anti-Trump cause. “We went into mobilization mode,” said Anne Rumberger, the press’s marketing manager.
On Nov. 9, Verso Books held a flash panel in its office, “Trump’s America and Anti-Fascist Organizing.” The members of the panel were the sort of leftist activists and intellectuals who make up Verso’s core audience, writers for the Nation and Jacobin. About 80 people attended, Rumberger said, but its reach was wider: A livestream of the event was viewed some 20,000 times.
The publisher also plans to put out a responsive e-book as soon as possible. Rumberger repeatedly said the press was focused on making its work more “accessible.” Verso wants to publish “political analysis that’s accessible, that speaks to [Americans] in this moment.”
Print publishing moves at such a snail’s pace that none of the magazines or presses I spoke with has specific plans for new books or issues devoted to the Trump phenomenon. But there were, already, less than a week after the election, signs that certain titles in these publishers’ back catalogues were becoming more popular than in the past. John Oakes, co-founder of OR Books, said that already his company had seen a rise in sales for its book “Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution.” It is an anthology describing the techniques of well-regarded activists.
From Oakes’s perspective, the new energy in the streets is encouraging. He cites the large protests that have occurred in many major American cities since the election. “I’m not saying it was worth the cost [of a Trump presidency],” he said. Still, “there is that thrilling sense of mobilization.”
Oakes added that older liberals will remember a similar sense of doom after Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1980. But he said he also remembers feeling disconnected from other progressives then in a way he does not now. He believes that there will be threats to the 1st Amendment, that sometimes leftist publishing will be “a flea in the face of a monsoon.”
“And I really don’t want to sound heroic,” Oakes said, “[but] we’re absolutely ready for the fight.”
Mainstream publishing likely agrees with him on that point. “You move through the world with vigilant optimism, that is the nature of publishing,” Bogaards said. “It has always armed people with ideas, and ideas lead to options, and options lead to action.”
Dean is a writer in New York.