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Don't be shocked by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos' book deal. It's just business as usual for the publishing industry

Milo Yiannopoulos (David Ng / Los Angeles Times)
Milo Yiannopoulos (David Ng / Los Angeles Times)

LESS THAN 24 HOURS AFTER Milo Yiannopoulos’ upcoming book was announced, pre-orders for the controversial young conservative’s “Dangerous” propelled it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, knocking the recently deceased Carrie Fisher’s “Princess Diarist” down to No. 2.

“I think he has a much wider fan base than people realize,” said Tom Flannery, Yiannopoulos’ literary agent at AGI Vigliano. Reached by phone in Malibu, Flannery declined to confirm the deal’s dollar amount, but the Hollywood Reporter, which broke the news, reported that Yiannopoulos received $250,000 for the book.

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Yiannopoulos, who is tech editor at Brietbart, is a provocateur whose language dovetails with the “alt-right,” although he disputes that classification. He has said “America has a Muslim problem,” called Black Lives Matter activists “extremists,” and suggested that women should stop going online so “I, Donald Trump and the rest of the alpha males will continue to dominate the Internet without feminist whining .”

He found his greatest mainstream fame when he was banned from Twitter following the harassment of “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones , who was deluged with sexist and racist tweets sparked in part by Yiannopoulos. Twitter didn’t specify the reason for the ban but noted that it had previously warned Yiannopoulos for violating its terms of service.

The fact that someone with extreme views considered offensive by many people got such a significant book advance shows how the publishing world reflects, and plays to, many of the divides in our culture. Few left-leaning readers realize that within mainstream publishing, conservative books are a booming business.

Conservative books sell at least as well as quote unquote liberal books.

Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly

Threshold Editions, which will be publishing “Dangerous” in March, is a 10-year-old imprint dedicated to publishing conservative voices. Its peers include Sentinel, Crown Forum, and Broadside Books. Together, they publish a mix of polemics, memoir, reportage and even fiction.

Flannery approached these imprints specifically with Yiannopoulos’ book. “We didn’t go as wide as we normally would just because we understand the controversy Milo was going to bring to the table,” he says. “They all knew who Milo was — all the conservative imprints were interested in talking to him.”

Another thing they have in common is that they’re all imprints of one of the five major publishers: Threshold is part of Simon & Schuster; Sentinel and Crown Forum are part of Penguin Random House; Broadside is an imprint of HarperCollins. They typically do business in New York just like their fellows. Broadside founder Adam Bellow, a son of Nobel Prize -winning novelist Saul Bellow, described himself to the New York Times as “a conservative in a liberal industry.”

“Conservative books sell at least as well as quote unquote liberal books,” says Jim Milliot, editorial director of the trade journal Publishers Weekly. To make a space for conservative authors within the industry, major publishers created these imprints with targeted editorial direction. “It was a deliberate move by the publishers to say, ‘We’re going to sell these conservative books in this imprint,’” Milliot says.

But, he notes, “most people don’t buy a book by imprint.”

That proved to be the case when there was blowback over Yiannopoulos’ book deal. As quickly as his fans ordered his book from Amazon and showed their support for him on social media, his critics decried it. And in so doing, many overlooked Threshold Editions, his conservative imprint, and instead targeted parent company Simon & Schuster.

Comedian Sarah Silverman, who has 9.5 million Twitter followers, tweeted , “The guy has freedom of speech but to fund him & give him a platform tells me a LOT about @simonschuster YUCK AND BOO AND GROSS.” Mark Harris, author of the Hollywood history “Five Came Back,” an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, tweeted , “Someone was going to give this … a pile of money. But @simonschuster, it didn't have to be you.”

Members of the publishing industry, including writers and booksellers, circulated contact information for decisionmakers at Simon & Schuster privately and via Facebook for those wanting to speak out against the publication of “Dangerous.” The Chicago Review of Books , an independent online outlet, announced that it would not review any Simon & Schuster books in 2017. Instead, that space — about 15 reviews — “will be reserved for small and independent presses,” says editor Adam Morgan.

The right to free speech is different from the right to a $250,000 megaphone.

Adam Morgan, Chicago Review of Books

“From a purely financial standpoint, Simon & Schuster was smart to capitalize on an extremely popular figure,” Morgan told The Times by email. “But from an ethical standpoint, I don't know how Simon & Schuster editors will sleep at night knowing they normalized hate speech for profit.”

This is an essential tension with the outcry over Yiannopoulos’ deal. Publishing has long made it a practice to stand up for free speech, going to court to battle for books that were banned or deemed obscene, including James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Should Yiannopoulos’ right to free expression be defended equally? Or does what he write in “Dangerous” cross the line from controversial statements into hate speech?  Threshold Editions declined to provide a preview of the book, although this is a common practice, so it’s impossible to say.

Simon & Schuster is standing by the book and asked protesters to “withhold judgement.” In a statement to the Associated Press, the publisher noted, "We have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions."

That’s not entirely the case. In 1990, Simon & Schuster responded to media protests three months before the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” by dropping the book . (The novel was later published by Vintage.)

Those who have objected to Yiannopoulos deal pointed to the size of his advance. “The right to free speech is different from the right to a $250,000 megaphone,” notes Morgan of the Chicago Review.

It is a sizable amount for an unproven author. By contrast, writer Sloane Crosley got just $25,000 for her first book, the essay collection “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,” which became a bestseller.

For Threshold to make its money back — to turn a profit on the deal — the publisher would have to sell 50,000 to 100,000 books, insiders estimate. That’s a lot of books, about as many sales as have been clocked by the new oral history of “The Daily Show” and of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon’s 2016 novel “Moonglow.”

Flannery is confident the book will connect with readers. “I think that Milo really holds a mirror up to what’s happening in America,” he says.

On Twitter, Buzzfeed culture editor Saeed Jones speculated that the Yiannopoulos deal may actually be reflecting biases within publishing itself: “The publishing industry as of this year is 79% white. Being racist is quite profitable.”

It’s possible that both are true. And whether publishing is or isn’t in the business of defending free speech, it is in the business of selling books. As Milliot says of Yiannopoulos, “They wouldn’t have signed him if they didn’t want to sell him.”

Twitter: @paperhaus

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